Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Snowy owl spotting

HALLIE EPHRON: Last week the Washington Post reported a snowy owl had been spotted, hanging about in DC's Union Station. Think: Harry Potter's Hedgewick.

The one in DC is finding plenty to eat--rats and pigeons--and is reported to be "doing marvelously." It's also been spotted at the National Mall and at Reagan National Airport, as well as on the roof of a house in the area and atop a church.

Snowy owls like to congregate on the tarmac here in Boston at Logan Airport, not a safe place for them to hang out. My husband once went on a local Audubon Society birding trip to the marsh surrounding Logan's runways to spot them. They're gorgeous creatures, and I look forward to one day seeing one myself some day.

Owls aren't rare but they're hard to spot because they're nocturnal. And spend a lot of of their time standing absolutely still and blending in with their surroundings. They can turn their heads nearly all the way around with nary a ruffled feather. Your best chance of spotting one is at dusk when they start to hunt for food.

I vividly remember the first owl I ever saw. We were traveling with a guide in Trinidad (I think) and our driver stopped and pointed out a good sized owl sitting absolutely still on the post of a fence bordering a field. I never would have spotted it myself. We stopped and got out. Trained our binoculars on it. It took off. Majestic. Flapping its broad wings more like a moth than a bird. What a sight.

Elf owls are at the other end of the spectrum.

They're tiny, sparrow-sized with enormous amber eyes. One roosted in a telephone pole across the road from our motel room in Madera Canyon, south of Tucson, and at dusk every night we'd stand out on the road with all the other birders at the motel, waiting for that bird to pop up in its hole. Some people brought powerful flashlights. Dirty pool, in my opinion. But the owl didn't seem to mind.

This is the tree across the street from our house which had been home to screech owls until this last fall's storm took down the tree branch above their nesting hole. But I have this picture to remember them by.

And here's' the fantastic Halloween mask my daughter made this year -- a tribute to  owls. So wonderfully creepy, like a real owl, the head rotates 180 degrees.

Wishing all of you at least one owl spotting in your life. Maybe it will be a ghostly barn owl or a grand snowy or a truly comical burrowing owl (they pop up up on long legs from their roadside burroughs to inspect passers-by).  Or make your way down to Madera Canyon and you'll surely see that elf owl... along with a scores of humming birds and woodpeckers and, if you're lucky, a magnificent trogon or two.

I'd love to hear if there's a bird that's found a home in your memory.

Tuesday, January 18, 2022


HALLIE EPHRON: A Few weeks back, we were talking about words for the year. Mine was STICKY, and I promised to say more about it...

Merriam Webster defines sticky:

That’s a lot of definitions for a little word, and yet STICKY seems to keep popping up in even more contexts. A newspaper article recently used it to refer to certain decisions:
Retirements tend to be "stickier" than other labor force exits, the researchers wrote. Even so, they expect that an improving virus situation and increased vaccination will allow older workers to return to the labor force.
I’m not even sure what they mean. That the decision to retire isn’t often reversed? Or that it’s difficult (and problematic?) to make in the first place. I like it either way.

Then sticky turns up in an upcoming meeting’s call for presentations: “experiential sessions that help writers generate ideas, get motivated, and work through sticky spots in their writing.”

I use it as a noun to refer to Post-It Notes. I call them “yellow stickies,” even when they’re pink.

Then there’s the person who has "sticky fingers" (a thief), but a sticky person needs to take a bath. Or is overly clingy. A sticky website header is one that stays anchored on the screen when a user scrolls

Finally, combined with icky, it’s become a pseudonym for marijuana. There’s a company, Sticky Icky, that touts itself as the premier weed delivery service serving San Francisco, in case anyone needs to know.

But my favorite meaning is the way that professional organizer Kathy Vines (Clever Girl Organizing) uses the term when she talks about those ostensibly useless possessions that her downsizing clients are so emotionally attached to that they can’t throw them away.

My grandmother’s rubber band ball comes to mind. Or my mother’s reading glasses.

And as I go through my husband’s piles of papers and clippings, whenever I encounter a doodle of his, a little ping goes off in my brain – STICKY – and I set it aside with the hundreds of thousands of other bits of marginalia he left me.

I know my children won’t be able to throw them away, either. Super-sticky across generations.

Look around. What’s a “sticky” object in your life that you don’t need but need to keep?

Monday, January 17, 2022

Fueled by failure

 HALLIE EPHRON: Recently I was talking to my sister Delia, a fantastic writer, about how much easier it is to start a novel than it is to finish it. You start off with a great situation, a compelling character, and get the storytelling ball rolling. Then somewhere in ACT II, you come to a dead stop, suddenly unsure what should happen next. Whatever I had planned starts to feel anemic. The story has no oomph.

I recognize that moment. It's why I abandoned my first novel. It's only in retrospect that I realize what was going on: I knew what I wanted to happen, but not why it mattered. How was it part of my main character's arc? How was her past driving the story? And how was what happens in the novel going to transform her?

I didn’t even know to ask those questions, but I could feel the story lying limp on the page.

It didn’t come to me like a blast from the blue. I stopped halfway through and started something new. I finished it, only to realize it had the same problem when editors rejected that second novel.

But this time, one of them actually told me what was lacking. (She said: “I need to care about what happened to your protagonist before the novel opens and what’s going to happen to him after the story ends.” And I hadn’t made her care.)
I was able to make changes to that novel and sold it, my first two-book deal with a major publisher. That success felt sweeter coming after failure, and it’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten.

Which brings me to today’s question. Was there some aspect of being a novelist that at first you failed at, and did you take away any realization that made you succeed later on?

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Such a great question! I wonder what failure means. Making a wrong decision, getting rejected, missing the point, writing a not-the-best chapter, having a not-the-best idea? I think the only thing about “failure” is to see it as a step along the way. I hate feeling disappointed and unhappy and rejected as much as anyone–and sometimes it feels like I hate it MORE than anyone–but my logical brain thinks it has got to be a part of the learning process.

It’s true, sometimes I think–okay, universe, I KNOW this already, so can we just get to the good part? But for instance–my first manuscript got turned down by a lot of agents. Then–I changed the query letter, and the SAME manuscript was flooded with yeses. Failure or success?

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I’ve been embarrassingly fortunate as far as selling my books goes, so I don’t have traditional tales of failure. What I do have is a track record, beginning with my sixth book, of being unable to finish a manuscript anywhere near the deadline, and that definitely feels like failure.

I thought most of the reasons I wasn’t hitting the mark were environmental, but I live alone (with an adult daughter who makes no demands on me) and I can’t say one hour-long dog walk a day is taking up all my work time.

So I’ve had to dig down and address my various issues, which is scary, and I’ve come to the possibility that I need to re-train my brain to do sustained, deeply creative work over a period of hours. I used to do it daily, and it’s felt like a failure to not have that kind of focus on command.

I’m trying to think about it like exercise. I used to swim regularly, and haven’t since early 2020, and I know if I ever get back to the Y, I’ll be starting all over again ab initio.

So I’m hoping the cure for failure is like adding one lap a day to my workout. Everybody into the pool!

LUCY BURDETTE: Honestly, there’s always something to fail at in this business. Succeeding (at whatever level) takes a ton of perseverance, and also the willingness to step back and learn.

I had a year’s worth of no thank you’s on my first novel, FINAL ROUND, and then the publisher who bought the series based on Cassie the golfer didn’t want that first book. I did try arguing my point, explaining why that first book was so important, but you can imagine how that went!

It’s been twenty years now, which amazes me, and I’ve learned so much about writing and characters and publishing. One idea that keeps me wanting to write even though it’s hard, is that I can always get better. I desperately want to be the best I can be. I’ve also learned that sometimes a rejection has nothing to do with your work–it has to do with what the publisher *thinks* they can sell.

RHYS BOWEN: In many ways I’ve had a charmed life as far as writing is concerned. At the beginning there were definitely a lot of rejection letters when I was in my twenties and writing for children and YA. A steep learning curve about why the books of my English childhood did not fit with current American childhood. Then a big piece of luck, being asked to write for a bestselling series.

When I moved on to adult mysteries it really was starting at the bottom again. My first print run for Evans Above was 2500. Hardcover. Not too many people are going to know about this book. So I worked really hard at the promotion side, visiting every bookstore, speaking to every book group that invited me, going to every convention. And then making sure every subsequent book was better. The second book in the series got nominated for a Barry Award beside Ian Rankin and Michael Connelly.

My one satisfying story of failure into success was In Farleigh Field. I came up with the story for this book about twenty years ago. I showed it to my then-agent who said nobody was interested in WWII and it was insulting to write about people living comfortably in Britain when those in Europe were suffering so much.

So I put the idea aside, but it continued to haunt me. I got a new agent, by the way. And when I felt that I was secure enough in my writing career I showed her the partial manuscript. She loved it. My publishers not so much. Too far from my brand.

So a new publisher, a big risk, and 400,000 copies later it’s still going strong.
The one fear after winning awards and writing books that sell well is that the next book won’t live up to what readers expect, that I’ll get a review saying “not up to her usual standard”.

JENN McKINLAY: Epic failure on every level. If failure were offered as a major at university, I’d likely have my doctorate by now. In what ways did I fail? I failed at character, plot, story arcs, point of view, you name it, I mucked it up.

I wrote six full length novels before I finally sold one at the age of 31. I thought I was on my way. Nope. After three romantic comedies, the market dried up. Romcom was dead and I thought that was it, that was my shot, the ride was over.

But, I’m a contrary person with a raging case of Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Want me to do something? Tell me I can’t. I’ll show you. I rolled into mysteries and my career took flight.
Looking back, I realize the best thing that ever happened to me was to fail repeatedly. It made me work harder, smarter, and most importantly to write for myself and no one else. Once I wrote what I wanted to read, the game changed completely.

DEBORAH CROMBIE: I took a creative writing course after I graduated from college, when I was first thinking I might just might maybe maybe attempt to write something. Not mysteries, mind you, those were nowhere on my horizon yet, but I was working on poems and literary-ish short stories.

The instructor (continuing education class) said I had no talent and should not waste my time. Or his. Who even was this person???? What a horrible thing to do!!

And I was so discouraged that I didn't write, seriously, for at least another ten years. Now I think about my time in Edinburgh, when I could have been scribbling away at a J.K. Rowling-esque blockbuster! Wasted!

But eventually I reached a point where I was determined to write even if people laughed at me, which they did. Then I sold my first novel six months after I finished it, but the fact that I never had to deal with the stacks of rejection letters doesn't mean that I don't live in constant fear that I can't really write or that the next book won't be any good. I think self-doubt and fear of failure is just a given in the writing life and the only cure is to keep working.

HALLIE: I agree wholeheartedly -- keep working, proving to yourself to yourself, over and over again.

Was there some important goal in your life that you failed to reach, only to come back to and succeed, and what made the difference?