Entries in It has turned her brain (70)


Cozy with a Side of Creepy

Full disclosure: Josi Kilpack and I are good friends. She has been the chairperson of the Whitney Awards Committee for the past year and a half, and I have been one of her happy assistants during that time. She's a talented and generous friend.

But that's not why I like her latest book, Pumpkin Roll, and it doesn't color my assessment of her writing at all.  There are lots of people whom I like personally, but whose writing is not my cup of tea. Josi is not one of those people.

Last night, I finished Pumpkin Roll--the sixth and latest in Josi's best-selling Sadie Hoffmiller culinary mystery series--and it was a Thumping Good Read. There are a lot of reviews and cool interviews of Josi floating around the blogosphere, so I thought I'd take this post in a different direction and analyze the book using Larry Brooks's Six Core Competencies model. Can I dissect a book and find within it a formula for success? Let's see.

Larry's first Core Competency is Concept, which he defines as the asking of a compelling "what if" question. A story's concept is different from an idea or a premise. To clarify the concept of concept (meta!), Larry writes,

A non-story example: An idea is to travel to Florida. A concept is to travel by car and stop at all the national parks along the way. A premise is to take your estranged father with you and mend fences while on the road.

What's the concept of Pumpkin Roll? Let me take a crack at it, with advance apologies to Josi, in case I don't get it quite right: "What if an aging, just-turned-pro detective finds that the only solution to a mystery may be admitting the reality of ghosts and witches?" Intriguing, yes? I thought so. Concept? Check.

Character is the second Core Competency, one with which readers and writers are familiar. Josi's protagonist, Sadie Hoffmiller, is quirky, believable, and utterly sympathetic. When I first met her in the pages of Lemon Tart, I liked her immediately. She loves to cook, she knows her recipes are outstanding, and she firmly believes in the healing power of a plate of brownies. We have those things in common. :) Sadie's a little obsessive, a little stubborn, and doesn't mind rolling up her sleeves and doing a bit of research. She's sounding more familiar all the time, now that I think about it...except Sadie's 12 years older than I am....

Josi's villains are just as real and believable. I can't illustrate that without spoilers, however. You'll just have to trust me. And Josi's character arcs work both on the book level and over the whole of the series. She's got Character nailed.

Next in the Core Comp lineup is Theme. How does theme differ from concept? In the writing gospel according to Saint Larry, theme = meaning. It's how the story relates to the reader's life; it's how the writer touches her audience.

In Pumpkin Roll, Sadie involves herself in the life of a troubled neighbor--with life-or-death consequences for everyone involved. Is it good to risk your safety to help someone in need? Is it right to trust your instincts when authority figures are telling you that you're dead wrong? Is it necessary to follow through on promises, even when it's difficult? Since Josi's mysteries fall into the cozy category, you can probably guess the answers to these questions, but that doesn't mean it isn't important to ask and answer them. Josi does this with satisfying results.

Fourth comes Story Structure. I've written before about how important structure is to a novel, and it's clear that Josi agrees with me. Pumpkin Roll is tightly plotted, with twists, turns, and pinches in just the right places. 

Now, I knew going into the book that Sadie would prevail; a flip to the back, where a sample chapter of Banana Split awaits the reader, confirmed that. But Josi's genius is this: even though I knew Sadie would be all right, I got scared throughout her exploits. Nervous. A little jumpy. Heart pounding, quickly turning page after page, I was completely involved. The outcome was not in question; the how had me in its grip. Yep, Josi has structure down.

Numero cinco: Scene Execution. One of the tricksiest things for new writers is how to figure out what's most important in their narratives, and what can be cut out for maximum effectiveness and power. Each scene needs a purpose, with both resolution and new or escalating conflict embedded within. Scenes need to illustrate Concept, Character, and Theme and must keep Structure moving along at a precisely defined pace. Not easy.

Here, Josi's experience serves her well (Pumpkin Roll is her fourteenth novel, if my calculations are correct). There is no excess, not a single extra word. If anything, the reader is left wanting more--which is exactly the effect a writer (especially of a series) works hard to achieve. A+

Last, but not least, is Writing Voice. I believe voice is impossible to teach. You either have one, or you don't. Can you improve your voice through diligent practice and show off its strengths to their very best advantage? Absolutely.

As with singing voices, writing voices can be gravelly or silky-smooth; bluesy, twangy, or operatic. Every successful writer's voice is unique.

Josi's honed, polished voice is up-front, personable, and humorous--a lot like the in-person Josi, actually. Have you ever met someone with whom you clicked right away, and you felt like you had been friends for a very long time? That's how I have felt when reading Josi's books--and I read one of her non-Sadie books and felt that way long before I ever met her in the flesh. That's the power of writing voice. Well done, friend.

Ah, but Josi has a BONUS COMPETENCY, one that Larry Brooks does not address: Culinary Expertise. Each of the Sadie Hoffmiller books includes several delicious recipes. Josi takes these as seriously as she does the stories themselves. I know this because when she was writing Blackberry Crumble, she asked me to create a recipe for her--something that would suit the book's setting in the American Northwest.

I came up with a Salmon and Wild Mushroom Casserole.  Josi and I both made it several times, with our families as (mostly) willing guinea pigs, until it was just right--rich, savory and satisfying. Now my mouth is watering. I know that her testing has been just as rigorous with all of "Sadie's" other recipes.

If you're new to Sadie's stories, start with Lemon Tart and work your way through the series--though I think Pumpkin Roll could definitely be read as a stand-alone, it's more fun to go through all of Sadie's adventures sequentially. If you're a Hoffmiller veteran, know that Josi gets better with each book, and Pumpkin Roll is the best one yet. Can't wait for Banana Split!

And now for some exciting words from Josi and her publisher:

In conjunction with the release of Pumpkin Roll, the author, Josi S. Kilpack, and the publisher, Shadow Mountain, are sponsoring a contest for a new iPad2. To enter, leave a comment in the comment section of this blog before November 1, 2011. Winners will be announced and notified November 3, 2011.

For additional ways to enter, go to www.josiskilpack.com.


I'm Still Standing: The Best of 2010

Our amazing kids, December 2010, from left to right: Hope, Tess, Anne, Christian, Daniel, and James

2010 was the toughest year of my life.  It was a great one, too; highlights include our trip to London in August and the realization of my birthday goal in November.*  But a lot of last year was a struggle. 

I can’t complain; I have my health, my family, my faith, excellent friends, and so many comforts and privileges.  And I made it through!  The year didn’t kill me, so it must have made me stronger, right?

I didn’t experience as much media last year as I usually do, but here’s what I enjoyed the most.

Best Movies I Saw

1. True Grit

2. Inception

3. Robin Hood

4. Toy Story 3

5. Harry Potter 7.1

Best Songs I Downloaded

1. “Closer to the Sun,” by Slightly Stoopid

2. “Harlem River Blues,” by Justin Townes Earle

3. “Rise Like Smoke,” by Cypress Hill

4. “Tennessee Me,” by The Secret Sisters

5. “You! Me! Dancing!” by Los Campesinos!

Best Books I Read (or Re-read)

1. Hold On To Your Kids, by Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Maté

2. The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield

3. A Course in Weight Loss, by Marianne Williamson

4. The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls

5. Misery, by Stephen King

6. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by Anne Brontë

7. The Cabinet of Wonders, by Marie Rutkowski

8. Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall

9. In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, by Gabor Maté

10. Mr. Monster, by Dan Wells

It was the year of non-fiction!  I've never had more than half of my top ten list be non-fiction before.  The top three rank right under the level of scripture for me, though, and I refer back to them often.  Highly recommended.

Yarn of the Year: Sunflower Yarns Franconia in the May Flowers colorway

I knit more than ever last year (knitting is an excellent stress-reliever for me), and I hope to build on that momentum.  Sunflower Yarns beat out other excellent contenders for YotY, including The Sanguine Gryphon and Fiber Optic.  Yarns I look foward to using this year include those by madelinetosh, Three Irish Girls, and Wollmeise

Best Meals I Ate

1.     Winvian, Morris, Connecticut

2.     Charingworth Manor, Chipping Campden, England

3.     db Bistro Moderne, New York, New York

4.     Byron Burger, London, England

5.     Robert, New York, New York

6.     Picnic lunch, Hampton Court Palace, England

7.     Livebait, London, England

8.     Blue, Liverpool, England

9.     Picnic lunch, Arundel Castle, England

10.   Memphis Mae’s, Croton-on-Hudson, New York

Yes, Virginia, there is great food to be had in England.  It's one reason I'd go back in a heartbeat.

* My birthday goal: I decided back in May that I wanted to run 4.4 miles in 44 minutes on my 44th birthday, which was November 4th.  I was copying my dear friend Shauna, who had done the same on her birthday. 

There was only one obstacle in my path: I wasn’t a runner.  I hated to run.  I had never run even a mile without stopping.  Not.  Ever.  Why I would choose such a goal boggles my mind even now.

My homegal Anne (remember Brillig?) told me about the Couch-to-5K program, and she and our bosom buddy Jana and I signed up and got going.  It’s a great program; you start very small and build on tiny, incremental successes over the course of nine weeks.  On July 19th, I ran 5K without stopping to walk once.

After that, my awesome sister Angie, who is a veteran marathoner and the fittest person I know, made me a training schedule.  I stuck to it religiously; I believe that from May to November (not counting our time in England in August), I only missed one running session.

To do so, I had to make room in my life.  I got up at 5:15 a.m.  I made the kids’ lunches the night before each school day.  I made sure I was in bed by 10:00 every night.   I faithfully took my vitamins and supplements.  And I made new running music mixes often—the music got me through some very tough moments, I can tell you.

Right up until my birthday, I didn’t know whether I’d be able to attain my goal.  I prayed; I visualized; I told all of my friends what I was doing so that I could marshal sheer pride if all else failed. 

And I made it.  Afterward, I laughed and cried and felt a little like throwing up; I still can’t believe I did it.  Even more incredibly, over the course of my training, I learned to hate running less (and now that I’ve switched to running in these, I actually like running).  The side benefit?  I lost 20 pounds.  Apparently, burning 500-800 calories several times a week for six months will do that to you.

I’m still running, alternating it with rowing on my Concept 2 rower, which I've loved for years.  I don’t know whether I’ll ever take running to “the next level”; at this point in my life, I just don’t have the time. 

This last part may sound like a cliché, but clichés exist for a reason.  I learned that, with planning, consistency, the support of good friends, and a fair amount of grit, I can do things that I would have thought were impossible.  And gaining the gift of that knowledge during the hardest year of my life came in very, very handy.

2011? Bring it on!


Read this book.

Woman with Infant Flying, Brian Kershisnik

I have just finished reading an excellent book.  It's so good that it will surely rank very high on my Top Ten Books list of 2010, even though it's only March.  It's called Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers, by Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Maté, M.D.  (I get nothing for linking to the Amazon page.)  I read a lot about attachment theory when my big boys were small, but this book was a revelation for me.

Read it if you have a terrorizing toddler or a spirited preschooler.  Read it if you have an eye-rolling tween or a distant teen.  Read it if you have struggles with any of your kids, or no struggles at all, in which case I'm sure you'll feel very validated.  Read it if you are a school teacher or work with children in your church.  It's amazingly helpful.  I borrowed it from my wise friend Melissa, but yesterday I bought my own copy, which I plan to mark up and dogear heavily.

Read it, then email me so that we can discuss!  You will not be sorry, I promise.


This Blessed Plot


It's official: we are vacationing in England this August. Oh, the rapture!  If it were possible, I am an even bigger Anglophile than I am a Francophile, and I will be in heaven for the two and a half weeks we are in that green and pleasant land.

Building on the success of last summer's trip to France, we are again exchanging houses through the HomeLink service.  I highly recommend the house exchange experience, even though finding an English family was much harder than finding a French family.  Perhaps it's the economy, but we sent out a whopping 35 offers this year before getting an acceptance as opposed to last year's 10 or so. 

We'll be staying in a lovely house in Twickenham, which is right near Windsor and about a half hour from central London.  We'll visit the city often, I'm sure, but we'll also venture to places like Oxford, Cambridge, Stratford, Canterbury, and Down Ampney.  If the kids get their way, we'll also make an overnight pilgrimage to Liverpool, but that is still in negotiation.  And I have a special, secret destination planned for Patrick's birthday, though I can't reveal the details of that yet.  But it's going to be amazing, honey.

As of today, our trip is exactly six months away, which means it's time to prepare.  I love to know as much as possible about a place before I visit it, even if I've been there before (and this will be my fifth trip to England, lucky girl that I am).  As I did last year, in the next 26 weeks I'll be providing as much context as possible for myself and the kids.  Let me count the ways.... 

I am agog at how many fabulous Masterpiece Theater miniseries are available through Netflix, including:

  • The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
    Wives and Daughters
    The Secret Life of Mrs. Beeton
    Bleak House
    The Buccaneers
    Daniel Deronda
    and so many, many others....

At minimum, I want to read or re-read:

  • The Pilgrim's Progress, by John Bunyan (yes, again)
    Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination, by Peter Ackroyd
    London: The Biography, by Peter Ackroyd
    The Life of Thomas More, by Peter Ackroyd
    English Music (a novel), by Peter Ackroyd
    (Can you tell I adore Peter Ackroyd?)
    Eden Renewed (a biography of Milton), by Peter Levi
    Middlemarch, by George Eliot
    The Dead Secret, by Wilkie Collins
    The Faerie Queen, by Edmund Spenser
    The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer
    Pamela, by Samuel Richardson
    The Weight of Glory, by C.S. Lewis
    Martin Chuzzlewit, by Charles Dickens
    The Tempest, by William Shakespeare
    Henry V, by William Shakespeare
    and we'll see what else I can get through.

I hope we can see some Shakespeare on our trip, but we'll also see Troilus and Cressida and The Taming of the Shrew beforehand, both performed by the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival.

Ah, the glory that is English music.  From Tallis and Gibbons to Britten and most especially my beloved Vaughan Williams, English classical music speaks to my soul in a way that is unparalleled.  And then there's all the pop magic, from The Beatles to Led Zeppelin, and from The Kinks to The Arctic Monkeys.  It will pretty much be playing constantly (not that that's anything different from the norm around here).

And the art!  The Pre-RaphaelitesNashGainsboroughConstable!  Need I say more?

Books for the kids?  Right now, I'm reading the first Harry Potter book to Daniel and Tess, and I'm reading The Hobbit to James and Hope; I expect we'll continue with both series for the foreseeable future.  I hope the bigger kids will re-read The Chronicles of Narnia and The Dark is Rising series on their own.  Anne will get plenty of the Alfie series by Shirley Hughes and repeated readings of all of John Burningham's books.  I'm pretty sure I can convince Christian to read at least C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters and Dickens's Oliver Twist, and I know he wants to re-read all of the Sherlock Holmes stories, but he has so much reading to do for his AP English and History classes that I can't be too pushy.

Soon I'll post a list of the places we'll go, but as for preparatory education, there you have it.  I'm sure I haven't listed some of your favorites; there's only so much time, after all.  But if there is something I must include, be it several James Mason films or a detailed review of the Romantic poets (you know who you are, people), then let me know.


Heart and Mind

Kuniyoshi Utagawa, Woman Reading

I subscribe to David Farland’s Daily Kick in the Pants, which means that I get regular, pants-kicking advice from Dave via email on all things writerly. Lately, Dave’s been talking a lot about why people read and why writers need to know why people read. His analyses have gotten me thinking about both why I read and why I write. Muse with me, won’t you?

For me, a book needs to engage both heart and mind. All fiction ranges on a continuum between these two oppositional yet complementary parts of the soul, and I don’t embrace either extreme to the exclusion of the other. If I want purely intellectual exercise, I won’t read a book; I’ll do some sudoku or contemplate the periodic table of elements. If I want purely emotional exercise, I’ll snuggle my baby or ride a rollercoaster. When I read, I want both intellect and emotion engaged to one degree or another. I want to be somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.

I love gorgeous, powerful language. But as a reader and as a writer, I am acquainted with the dangers of self-indulgent, distracting verbiage as well. I want to fall through the words into the story, but sometimes the words get in my way.

One of the things I dislike about a lot of what makes up the genre called “literary fiction” is this lack of transparency. Many otherwise skillful writers get caught up chasing the mirage of pretty language at the expense of the narrative. The result for the reader is like listening to The Allman Brothers play a live gig: you know the band is having a grand time showing off during the twenty-minute solo, but the (non-stoned part of the) audience starts yawning and looking around after awhile.

Another thing I don’t like about literary fiction is the snob factor. Lit fic usually takes more patience to read; that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is better, or that its readers are smarter. My opinion is not widely shared, I fear. Put any David Foster Wallace fan next to any Diana Gabaldon fan on a subway train and see which one gets a smug look on her face first. (Hint: it won’t be the Gabaldon fan; she is too busy cavorting with Jamie Fraser in eighteenth-century Scotland to notice anything that is going on around her.)

On the other hand, emotional, purely plot-driven novels (I call them “airport books”) tend not only to leave me cold, they tend to leave me entirely once I’ve finished them. I’m a Bear of Very Little Brain, and what little I have is sieve-like: only the rich stuff stays with me.

I remember going on a Robert Ludlum kick the summer I lived in BYU’s French House; I read about seventeen of his novels back-to-back. Even a month later, I doubt that I could have distinguished the plot of The Parsifal Mosaic from that of The Matarese Circle. Ludlum’s stories gave my adrenals a stiff kick, but left my brain right out of the narrative equation.

I am not disrespecting the plot-driven novel. It is an art form that serves a valuable purpose. I admire the craft that goes into them on every level and I think their creators are very good at what they do. I treasure many of them (see Gabaldon, above). They are a form of transport that is cheaper than a jaunt to Bermuda and (usually) less dangerous than recreational drug use.

And I love evoking emotion when I write. I like it when people praise my form and style, but I love it when readers tell me that I made them cry or laugh or shudder. If I've touched their hearts, I know I've done something right.

One of the reasons I love speculative fiction is that I find within the genre a higher-than-average ratio of successful marriages between story and idea. And it’s no secret that I give science fiction and fantasy preferential treatment; often a really cool premise can help me overlook underdeveloped characters or middling style.

But the best books have it all, don’t they? Round, ripe characters, suspenseful conflicts, and fascinating premises or thoughtful explorations of humanity’s great questions, all portrayed through graceful and clear prose—they coexist frequently enough to keep even the most voracious reader busy. Classic literature abounds with such blissful combinations of heart- and mind-appeal; you don’t need a list of those from me. The last century has produced many more, however. My tip-top favorites are among those listed here; other strong contenders for my hypothetical desert island library are:

Sharon Kay Penman’s Here Be Dragons
Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon
Stephen King and Peter Straub’s The Talisman
Frank Herbert’s Dune
Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter
Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics
Charles Palliser’s The Quincunx
China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station
John Crowley’s Little, Big
Toni Morrison’s Beloved

(Just for fun, here are my ten least favorite books.)

What about you? What is your personal recipe for a great read? What books have stayed with you or have demanded re-reading from time to time? Where are you on the heart-mind continuum?  If you are a writer, what is your goal in this regard?

Caveat: some of the books listed here are not for those of delicate sensibility.  Please do not assume that just because I'm the bishop's wife, I read only rated 'G' material. 

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