#10 – Millie licks my Clogs and we start talking tough

images“Somebody should call the city,” I said to my neighbor, Claudia, one morning as I encountered her out walking her dog and husband. I wasn’t too keen on making that call myself but my perception of Claudia was she had a lot of free time and was the perfect person to dig through all the bureaucracy involved in “calling the city.”

“Somebody should,” she said, putting the suggestion back on me. “And the most important thing, is to make clear that the occupants of that house are in violation of the zoning laws. Millie, no!”

Claudia pulled Millie her French Bulldog off my clogs, which the little beasty was licking  like they were covered with meat juice.

“She can lick,” I said. “It’s actually kind of nice. The attention, I mean. Who, other than a dog, will lick your shoe?”

Claudia pulled harder on the leash and resumed her legal argument. “So, the rule is, you can only run a business out of your house if you have one employee. That means one extra car—not thirty—and you can’t have deliveries all day long like they do. It’s one delivery.”

Not only did she have time to call, she knew the law.

“The occupants of the house would seem to be in violation on both of those counts,” offered Claudia’s husband, Bob unnecessarily. At least I think his name is Bob.

“You got that right,” I said, agreeably.

But there was one thing I hadn’t mentioned and now seemed like good a time as any. “I’m annoyed with all the cars, sure. But I have to say they’re quiet inside that house. That’s the one good thing. Whatever is going on in there, in a way, it’s better than the all-night porn-shooting parties that we thought were going to happen. At least I can sleep.”

They both stared at me like I was the rudest, most inconsiderate person they’d ever met. Millie went back to licking my clogs.

“Of course, that’s not the point,” I said. “They’re breaking the law.”

“Right,” said Claudia. “So the next thing is to contact the city and tell them we have some law breakers. They’ll shut ‘em down.”

Bob nodded his agreement.

“I’d like to think it could be that simple,” I said, looking at them both with a mix of admiration and skepticism. Their enthusiastic optimism and belief in the effectiveness of government officials doing what was right was endearing but I couldn’t help feeling they were delusional if they believed our elected officials would do anything at all.

The House Next Door #9

imagesSo much has happened with the house next door, I barely know where to pick up the story. Last time I told you what was happening, we the neighbors—well Buddy mostly had discovered that the occupants of the monster house next to me had installed super industrial high speed bandwidth cable with the capability of a Google server farm, which to Buddy meant there was no question that illegal business activity was being conducted inside that needed fast, reliable Internet. The house looks like an office building and has looked like one ever since it was built so giving the owners the benefit of the doubt, maybe they just wanted to complete the package; now it really was an office building. The only problem is, it’s an office building in a residential area that isn’t zoned for office buildings.

The number of cars arriving at the house every day at exactly at 11 a.m. was increasing. First it was ten, a few months later it was twenty and then thirty and still growing. Even people who lived a few streets over were starting to notice the number of cars. A retiree stopped me one day coming out of my house and asked why he never got invited to the party. I filled him in on what I knew, which wasn’t much and I realized we still had no clue about what, exactly, was going on inside the house.images-1

At one time, we thought they were streaming live porn over the Internet but the day when I would get to perform my rehearsed call to the cops never arrived because the signs that it was happening never occurred. Okay, thinking we’d hear fake orgasms coming from the back yard might have been optimistic but we also never saw anyone we’d call “porn material,” going into the house so had nothing to go on with respect to what was going on inside. One day at Lily’s library, our neighborhood plastic storage bin for borrowing and lending books, aka our conference room, we decided enough was enough.

Social Medea. Kill the Time Suck.

 imagesSPOILER ALERT: Depressing but curiously uplifting reality check.

You’ve written your book­—yippee, you! Congratulations, Mazel Tov. Now the tough part: you have to sell it. In 2014, even if you have a publisher, it falls to YOU to sell your book. To that end, you’re rackin’ up Facebook likes and you have your blog; you’re a posting presence on Pinterest, Google+, Tumblr, Goodreads and Instagram and getting followers on Twitter that you’re not even paying for (go you!) You’re guest blogging and cross-linking and the reviews coming in for your book (even from people you don’t know!) are stellar. You write sequels and prequels and go to writers’ conferences and attend classes about writing. You may even teach writing because—presuming you’ve done all the above—you know more than most. In short, you’re doing everything the social media experts have told you to do to get your book noticed and yet sales are still as though you’re selling sand in the Sahara, which is not far off considering 900 books get published in the U.S. every single day.

“But my book is good, people should notice me!” you say, meanwhile thinking, how can it be that E.L. James sells Fifty Shades of Gray (which the majority of reviewers called dreck) to Hollywood for $12 million when you can’t sell enough books to feed your goldfish? “It’s not fair,” you whine. “I’ve been doing this for so long—certainly longer than E.L. James! Somebody notice me, please, oh please!” Yeah well, get in line.

A psychotherapist I am not and in my pretty crappy acting career, I’ve never played one on T.V., but I can say with some authority (and more than a dash of common sense) that accepting certain realities in life will stand one in better stead than believing in snake oil and the folks that sell it. In the independent author world, snake oil is buying likes and followers on social media and believing that’s going to convert to sales. Sure, it might look impressive to have 10,000 followers, but when over half of them are posting in languages you and your prospective readers can’t read, they don’t count. They’re shills. In my case I have over 3000 Twitter followers but I bet only 100 of them have bought one of my books. Probably less.

Of course you have to do something to get noticed, and thereby sell books. But if everyone’s doing the same thing, hanging out on social media at what Mary Walters calls the equivalent of an online water cooler, then it’s going to be hard to stand out, right? Ever watch a Twitter stream go by? Who has time? Certainly not other writers; they’re either writing or sending out their own tweets that no one is reading. With all seriousness, there are very few writers on social media scouring other writers’ posts to find authors they don’t know about so they can buy their books. Like the majority of the reading public, swamped with too many choices, they’re looking to trusted sources to help narrow them down and those trusted sources are still in the pocket of the few major publishers who put out books written by the chosen ones—star writers like Franzen and Grisham and celebrities with ghost-written memoirs. Okay sure, a few new writers squeak into the big 6 every so often to give the rest of us hope, but chances are they knew somebody. What’s that old trope about success: 10% inspiration, 10% perspiration and 80% luck? Put that against the backdrop of declining book sales and what we’re looking at, people, is a rather bleak landscape for the rest of us. A tree may grow in Brooklyn but not without a lot of help.

“All right,” you say. “Enough cynicism and negativity.” You read blogs to be uplifted. “Can’t you give us some positive, concrete and constructive advice?” Well here it is… Get Over Yourself. Stop whining and kick on, as my old riding instructor used to say. Just get on with it. If you are writing books, you are very lucky. You could be destroying your kidneys as a long distance trucker. You might be working at a slaughterhouse or as an Andy Gump servicer.  Don’t misunderstand: we need these people. They are doing things that society needs. But us? We are writing books. What a luxury. How lucky we are! You can complain about lack of book sales; it may even be healthy to vent but be real—these are rich people problems.

You have to ask yourself why you write. Is it because you want to be famous and make a lot of money? Because—and it’s the same with acting—these are not, nor have they ever been, good reasons to write books, Doh! Accepting reality with respect to writing is figuring out why you write. If you have something to say, you love to write and feel great having written, then you’re following your calling and should keep doing it for no other end than these. If you enjoy social media, and think it’s helping, I’m not saying don’t do it, only that I wouldn’t believe what the snake oil folks are pitching: that being big on social media will get you book sales. There’s no syllogism there.

Getting book sales is not a science. It’s an art form and one that’s rarely displayed using social media where most of what gets posted is noise. We all know that in order to sell, wherever it is you’re selling, one needs to get attention. But how? Securing a photo of Oprah carrying your book on her vacation would jump start sales in the same way Michelle Obama has launched the career of many a young fashion designer by wearing their creations. Having that photo would work in a magazine, on TV and possibly on Twitter too if you could get it retweeted (good luck getting those fake Twitter followers to retweet you). But how do you get Oprah (or Matt Damon or Sophia Vergara) to carry your book? Well, you could stalk them (not recommended) or you could Photoshop a picture of them holding your book (also not recommended). Sigh of frustration. So what do you do to get attention?

There’s no magic path to success and if there were, it would soon no longer be magic as everyone would be doing it. While it’s true we’re all supposed to be hawking our books to get noticed, I submit that most writers don’t like selling; we particularly don’t like selling ourselves. Interestingly—or stupidly—I have chosen four different career paths: playwright, mediator, actor and novelist and each of these requires other people to “like” me in order for me to find success. And for each of these endeavors I have discovered a few truths about making a sale or getting a job, which usually work when I have the energy to follow my own advice. Nothing revolutionary; just a couple of things to keep in mind when you’re feeling frustrated at having to sell a book when what you want to be doing is writing your next one:

1)    Meeting people face to face is still the best way to build fans—particularly when no one knows that you or your book exists. Though writers are generally content keeping their own company, it’s good to get out in the world. Consider it “research” if you need a better reason than selling yourself. You can try giving your books to people who seem interested and ask if they’ll write a review. Volunteer to speak to groups that might find commonality with the characters in your stories.

2)    Be in the social media agora because these days not being there looks weird but don’t have unreasonable expectations about the benefits. Post on a regular basis, even if it’s only once a month, just to keep up the presence. Alternate between the “Hey you, buy my book” type of post and a more nuanced post about the world of your characters. If you can learn Hoot Suite or some other scheduled release software, you can set up a a lot of tweets ahead of time, so you don’t have to think about it. Use social media but don’t expect much because it is what everyone else is doing. If you don’t do something differently, you’ll just be part of the noise.

The main advice I have is to keep writing because the thing is selling books and writing books are different art forms and you can’t be angry with yourself if you’re good at one and not the other. We all need to be realistic about the chances of our books being discovered; especially if we’re not willing to do what it takes—coming up with something new—in order to be noticed. If you write because you love it and couldn’t care less if anyone bought your book, you’re probably the type to find solace in the stories of Vincent Van Gogh and countless other artists who found no purchase during their lifetimes. On the other hand, if selling means a lot to you, then you gotta get out there and meet people, pitch and talk and smile and hope that eventually you’ll get lucky. Do you know the Daft Punk lyric, “I’m up all night to get lucky?” Even those hot sexy guys at the top of the pop charts know if you’re not out there playing the game, no one knows you’re there. In large part, we make our own luck.

 

Ann Royal Nicholas is the author of The Muffia series of books, Homegrown: The Terror Within (under the name Cialan Haasnic) and Wine for Dummies (Royal Mack). www.annroyalnicholas.com

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RULES: In order to be entered, you must purchase at least one copy of THE MUFFIA during the contest period (FEB.1-28, 2014). Submitting the form below along with your proof of purchase invoice number will secure your entry. One entry (with unique invoice number) permitted with each MUFFIA purchase. All purchases count, whether you bought THE MUFFIA at Amazon, B&N, iTunes or Powell’s.
Winner will receive a $250 Gift Certificate to his/her choice for one of the following: Crate & Barrel, Sephora, Victoria’s Secret, The Cheesecake Factory, P.F. Chang’s, Williams-Sonoma, Nordstrom, Macy’s, Ann Taylor, Abercrombie & Fitch, The Apple Store, Best Buy, Bev Mo or Sports Authority. Winner’s name will be announced unless he or she wishes to remain anonymous. No information supplied by entrants will be shared. Invoice number for purchase verification purposes only.

 

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Build a Better Book Club: Suggestions From The Muffia

Forget what you may have heard about The Muffia—banish the thoughts of lesbian pornographers and the militant English mums who expose bad mothering. The Muffia is, in fact, my Los Angeles based, all women’s book club. That’s right; we read books—not even particularly sexy books. Our Muffia came into existence in 2001, years before either of the other claimants despite the fact that The Muffia has just been released. Oh my, that sounds provocative doesn’t it? What I meant was that my novel, The Muffia, which is based on the Muffia book club, was released; not the Muff members themselves. We find release quite regularly, thank you.

It was after the twin towers fell. A group of us—friends for the most part—found ourselves talking about how life was suddenly more precious, our hold on it more tenuous. Tragedy has a way of bringing people closer so we weren’t unique in this. All of us, it seemed, sought greater connection. So we decided to start a book club. It was a way for us to come together and share our lives over a book we’d read, or, I should saywere supposed to have read. Somewhere along the way we started calling ourselves The Muffia.

There are 10 of us Muffs (in the book there are 7, which is hard enough to keep track of). And when we get together, we share so much more than books: Marriage, divorce, relationship drama; bar mitzvahs, births, deaths… menopause. When we meet, we always share a good meal and wine—often copious amounts of wine, which probably explains how we thought it was a good idea to call ourselves The Muffia.

The Muffia book club works and because I’m so grateful to be part of it, I will endeavor to provide some tips for making your existing book club more successful; or, if you’re thinking about starting a club, a few ideas you might want to consider before you do.

1)    “Who” is your book club?                                                                                                    

What brings you or holds you together? The key is finding what it is you share. Are you alumnae from college? Residents of a cul de sac? Certainly you share the love of reading but there has to be more to fall back on when the book conversation dies, which it will. The Muffs talk about everything, often very personal things. On those rare occasions when we’ve felt a book was not worth belaboring, we have been known to spend evenings talking about our kids or parents; or a Muff’s recent sexy escapade. This gets down to choosing the members of your book club. For me, this is the single biggest reason for The Muffia’s success: We like and respect each other. Though we’re certainly different and disagree about the books a lot, no Muff gets bent outa shape when another Muff tells her she’s full o’ fluff (expletive replaced). So build your book club to last.

2)    Anticipate and head off conflict.

Even when you share an identity or focus with others in your club, if a certain member is disrespectful of others’ opinions or book choices then feelings get hurt. The Muffs have simply decided that a big reason we’re in a book club is to be introduced to books and opinions we might not have thought of ourselves. Therefore we are not to complain when a Muff picks a book that sounds unappealing. We have a South African Muff and without her, I never would have read Please Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller. Yes, it’s an odd title but we all loved it. Sure, Muffs have picked a few duds as well but even then, we still get something out of them.

If you do have a “problem” member, one way to handle him or her is to hire a sort-of “moderator” who conducts the club like a class. Two of my friends are in this type of club and wouldn’t have it any other way. The leader ensures that those who are less forceful get a chance to speak and also acts as a buffer. Leaders often help choose a book and provide critique from outside sources. This wouldn’t work for The Muffia because the Muffs are all terribly opinionated and don’t really care about outside sources.

3)    Share the duties.

A Muff doesn’t have duties other than her annual turn at hostess, which is hardly a chore. To be a hostess in The Muffia means you get to choose the book, organize the food and have book club come to your house. Good food and drink are great for putting people at ease and for getting the conversation going. The Muffia is no different. And we all make an effort to have delicious dishes and yummy desserts whenever we meet. There is the duty of scheduling, but the way we handle it is to know from the get-go that there will be multiple group emails with everyone weighing in. We thought about using an online scheduler but nixed the idea as too impersonal. Ultimately, we like the silly emails.

In a book club where there’s a leader, there are likely responsibilities such as dues collection or ordering food and these should probably be rotated so no one feels put upon. Again, it gets back to choosing your group wisely, genuinely liking the people in your book club and having some flexibility because being in a book club is supposed to be fun. (See #1 above)

4)    Limit the guests.                                                                                                               

When new people enter any established group it by necessity changes. The Muffia is made up entirely of women and we do not permit men. That said, we did have a male author once.  We read J.R Moehringer’s memoir, The Tender Bar, because one of the Muffs knew him. It was a fun night despite the fact we had to curtail our ordinarily randy conversation (He probably would have been fascinated). Occasionally we have a female guest but ONLY if every Muff says yes and ONLY if she has read the book!

5)    Watch out for “Big” books.

It’s probably smart not to choose books that are too long. Then again, some hefty volumes read fast and some short ones read slowly.  A few Muffs are big readers and have chosen weighty tomes with no harmful effects. And guess what? It’s not the end of the world if people don’t finish a book. There’s no guarantee people will finish the book when it’s only 250 pages! There’s still a lot to talk about. That said, if a Muff shows up without having read the whole book, she has to expect spoilers—that’s her penance for not finishing. The thing is, she knows this going in and is sensible enough not to get annoyed.

Being part of a book club is not to be missed and the best book clubs are populated by people who bring out the best in you—like The Muffia does for me. Nurture those relationships, the stories you read and the stories you’re a part of. You’ll reap the rewards.

Do you belong to a book club? How do you make yours work? What was your book club’s favorite read?

Ann Royal Nicholas is a writer, actor and director whose career spans 30 years and is comprised of work for stage, film, television and individual consumption. She has contributed columns forVine Times and Touring & Tasting, as well as articles for Los Angeles Times and The Chronicle of the Horse. Her novel, Homegrown: The Terror Within (written under the pseudonym, Cialan Haasnic), is joined on shelves by The Muffia, the first of a “chick lit” series published by Water Street Press. Originally from the East Coast, Ann currently lives in Los Angeles with her son.

This piece first appeared as a guest post on the Shelf Pleasure blog. Shelf Pleasure: a destination spot for women who love reading (www.shelfpleasure.com)

The Muffia

The Muffia is available everywhere. 10% of all profits from book sales will be given to girls and women’s causes in the U.S. “Buy ‘The Muffia,’ help women.” If you know of any worthy groups, let us know who they are.

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What Moved Her — Three Minute Fiction

She closed the book, placed it on the table, and finally, decided to walk through the door. Because, “Base jumping has a death rate of one per every 2000; a venomous snake—Black Mamba, for example—one in 2 million bites; and each of us has a one in 3 million chance of being crushed by a piece of falling space debris while doing absolutely nothing.”
Or so said Claire’s counselor one Thursday afternoon, during her weekly online Agoraphobe Support group meeting, while leading a discussion of risk-averseness, which also included references to Bernie Madoff and unpasteurized dairy products. As Claire assessed events she deemed unrelated to her reality, open beside her was the referenced text: “Fears: Real and Imagined,” a book she approached with trepidation due to its confusing subtitle.”
As she was considering the imminence of death and the many forms in which it might come to her, a splash, followed by gasps entered Claire’s subconscious. It was the part of her that was least afraid according to Sigmund F. Johnson, the author of the aforementioned book of Fears, even though Claire sensed her subconscious was as frightened as the rest of her, probably more so for all the terrifying synaptical activity which never surfaced to her full awareness, but which she nevertheless knew was happening every time her chest ached.
The splashes had to be those of Dierdra, a self-described shut-in of vertical, rather than horizontal dimension, who brought her iPad into the bathroom—camera function disabled, thankfully—and took baths while in session, her fears, she claimed, reduced by the proximity of warm water.
Then, from somewhere through the closed window—nowhere near her aging laptop, which surely must be killing her with radioactive isotopes—came more splashes and a cry that sounded like, “Help.” Well, of course we all need help, Claire thought, for she was not one to muse. But then it sounded again and up from the fascia and nerves and sacs and spaces inside her, came a reaction even she could not have expected: What is the death rate for saving a life? Shocking to her, yes, that she was even contemplating a move so bold her group leader might try to stop her had her computer not needed a restart. But how to talk herself out of it—this idea; the Book of Fears had no answer and yet her heart was still, not clutching at the rest of her, nor demanding that she remain inside looking out.
Then, with the certainty of those who know death is coming—possibly from salmonella, possibly from something bigger than us all—Claire’s was a conviction she hadn’t felt since before she’d closed her door all those years ago when love went bad and bad got worse. Now, there was no reason to stay when the rewards of going were so great, so immediate.
It was the kid. He’d frightened her once, maybe more. His wildness, so disturbing as she watched him circle the pool on his scooter—terrifying object—yet now the vortex had pulled him in, alone and in need; his caregiver—what a silly term, like unreasonable fears—nowhere in sight. Her fear of watching his death was greater than her own to prevent it and with that, she not only closed the book, but tossed it aside, flung open the door and went through it.

Write What You Know…Not

Quill & Ink

Writing teachers are fond of telling their initiates to “write what you know.” From the tenured lit profs at the top universities, to the wannabe novelists toiling away in our cities and towns who supplement their paltry writing income by teaching, “Write what you know” is part of their mantra, a golden nugget of wisdom any newbie writer dare not question.

If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it 300 times over my career as a professional writing student. I’ve heard it in playwriting and screenwriting classes and in multiple creative writing courses taken over several years in the UCLA Writers’ program. I heard it in Novel I, Novel II, all the way through Novel V: The Advanced course, admission to which requires a completed manuscript exceeding 50K words. And almost to a teacher, those who lead the classes urge students to “write what you know.” This much I know.

What I don’t know—the vastness of which has becomes more apparent as I’ve gotten older—is just how much I don’t know. Certainly that which I know is dwarfed by that which I don’t, which makes writing about what I know extremely difficult—as if we needed to make it any harder. And yet it is now, as it has always been, what I don’t know that makes me want to write.

Whatever one thinks about Donald Rumsfeld’s evasive use of “unknown unknowns,” this is where I live. That is to say, the amount of information of which I have no knowledge increases exponentially, beyond what I will ever know, making it not only unknown, but unknowable. These days, the only things I know for sure are bits of trivia no creative writer worth anything would spend time writing about.

I think most people think they know a whole lot more than they actually do. Daniel Boorstin, the historian, professor, attorney and writer once said that, “the greatest obstacle to discovering the shape of the earth, the continents, and the oceans was not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge.” And so it is with the stuff of literature. Everything that is the subject of good writing, which has endured—love, war, death, religion, why we’re here—are subjects about which nobody knows anything. Nobody. Sorry, but it’s true. At best we have ideas about these things and most of the time we fumble about pretending we know. But because these subjects are among the most disputed over our collective history, it’s reasonable to say, nobody knows the truth. They are the “known unknowns” and they are the topics that continue to move us in literature, theatre and film.

So are the writers writing the books on the big topics just smarter and more experienced? Do they know something the rest of us don’t? Unlikely. But their points of view are more informed, their opinions and those of their characters more refined, and their ability to distill and express their “feelings” about these subjects more artful. It is their—and our—unique expression that makes the rest of us (i.e., readers) say, “I understand.” It isn’t writing what we know, as much as it is expressing how we feel, which is a completely different thing. How we feel about our humanness in certain situations, which we don’t have personal knowledge and experience of can transcend genre, can transcend all.

Novelist, essayist and playwright, Nathan Englander (Ministry of Special Cases) has been quoted as saying, “Write what you know is one of the most misunderstood pieces of advice… ever.” Englander grew up in an Orthodox Jewish community on Long Island and spent a lot of his childhood watching TV and playing videogames—not exactly the stuff of novels unless one frames a story that begins and ends with a kid on a couch holding a remote.

George R.R. Martin spent his childhood in a housing project in New Jersey, the son of a longshoreman but grew up to pen the Song of Ice and Fire Fantasy series, which includes Game of Thrones. He never was, nor will he ever be, the Mother of Dragons but he understands her and can make us feel what being her might be like.

Suzanne Collins did not grow up playing and winning The Hunger Games. If she had, she’d be in jail. Nor was housewife, E.L.James, author of Fifty Shades of Gray, hung from the ceiling and beaten. Most successful erotica writers can only dream of having the high quality sex their characters have.

So where does all this leave the aspiring writer who only thinks he knows what he knows? Or worse—the aspiring writer who doesn’t realize he knows so little? Writing bad novels probably. But there’s still hope for the aspiring writer who remains open to not knowing.

Now that I’ve finally had a novel published that I didn’t have to publish myself and I commence becoming one of those many teachers of writing, I realize that what I want to tell my students is to “write what interests you enough to find out.” To get into the heads of our characters and write the hell out of them, we usually have to become someone we’re not and hey, isn’t that also a great lesson for life?

 

The House Next Door #8

Unknown“Did you see what’s going on at the monstrosity this morning?” Buddy asked me one overcast day, stick in hand, as we converged upon Lily’s library.

“Why—what’s going on?” I asked, completely unaware of what he was talking about.

Buddy always seems to think “something” is going on at the monstrosity, something that shouldn’t be. The thing is, Buddy knows everything that’s happening in the neighborhood and most of it, in his opinion, is not good so when he says something’s up, I hesitate to believe him. And since he started saying there was an illegal business operating from the giant monster house, the entire ‘burb of Woodland Hills had become a Hellhole as far as he’s concerned.

From my perspective, right next to the eyesore, the house and its occupants had been quiet, even if it had remained atrocious to look at. And that’s despite all the cars arriving every morning, at 11 a.m. for “work.” Then again, maybe the reason they’re so quiet is precisely because they were doing something illegal. Ugh, now I was thinking like Buddy.

“Go look,” he told me. “Anyway, you’ll pass it on your way home. There’s one of those huge Time-Warner trucks parked half on the driveway and half in the street in front of the place.”

“Really?”

“Yup. Really,” he said, nodding.

“Is that odd?” I asked. There was some hidden meaning in his demeanor but I couldn’t discern what.

“Yes, it’s odd.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s so big!” said Buddy, like Clifford the Big Red Dog might upon waking, realizing he no longer had a backache and discovering the reason: his doghouse was finally the right size .

I paused to consider what this meant. I hadn’t seen any truck—big or small—when I’d left for my walk but certainly one could have arrived while I was out. But even if a big truck had shown up, I couldn’t have figured out what that meant.

“I meant why is it there, Buddy? What’s odd about it?”

“Well,” he started, “when has a residential servicing required ‘the big truck’?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t think I ever noticed the size of truck they send out.”

“Never, that’s when,” he said with authority. “That’s your answer. There’s no need for it. They send vans to residences.”

“What if all the vans are being serviced?”

“Would never happen,” he said like I was a six-year-old. “And if it did, the overseas operators from Time-Warner would call and reschedule your appointment giving you another giant, inconvenient window of time when their technician is supposed to show up at your house.”

That much was true. Those companies loved giving giant windows during which they kept customers housebound with threats that the “next available appointment” was over three weeks away. The last time they came to my house, they were late after failing to make the five-hour window they’d given me and had left a DVR for me to try as recompense. I still hadn’t set it up a year later. Maybe I needed to watch more TV.

“So what does that mean?” I asked. I wondered why Buddy needed to be so—so—Buddy.

“It means”, he said, smug-faced, “that they’re putting in industrial cable, able to handle huge streams of data at one time.”

“Really?”

“I’ve seen it before,” said Buddy. “The good news is, a big industrial cable means they’re definitely running a business.”

“Isn’t that the bad news?” I asked. “I mean we don’t want the business, right? It destroys property values and is in violation of zoning laws—that’s what you said.”

It was then that the first of the cars, driven by one of the “employees” drove by en route to the monstrosity. Buddy stood up straighter, ready to reveal how I’d so perfectly let myself be drawn into his web when he could have just told me what the big truck meant from the get-go.

“Yup. And this will prove there’s a business going on there, get it? Now we can get the city to shut ‘em down.”

Note: This is the true story of the house next door in my corner of the city of L.A. Some names have been changed to protect the innocent.

 

Muff penetrates another Book Club and gets “Sex in a Pan”

Book clubs can be cliquey. I know, I’m in one—even though I wouldn’t call “The Muffia” an uber cliquey group by a long stretch. Still, anything with the word “club” in it suggests the reason it’s a club (and not a class or block association) is there’s some exclusivity. In other words, not just anyone can join. So last week as I was heading to a book club gathering in a pocket of LA a few over from mine, I had some trepidation. There was only one woman in the club whom I knew and, that said, I didn’t know her all that well. However, I’d always found her to be a lovely woman—kind and generous and not the type of person to point me into an ambush. Karen is a mom and yoga teacher with a great sense of humor—Muff material for sure. So I hoped her club would be as welcoming as she was. This was to be my first appearance at a book club for my new, eponymously named book, The Muffia, about my own book club, whose members get themselves into more than a few compromising positions so I was extremely curious about how a different, non-Muff club, would relate to the story.

Shortly after arriving, a glass of wine thrust into my hand and already feeling comfortable with this group of attractive, well-dressed women, I decided to address the circling elephant and announced that I wanted total honesty about how the members felt about The Muffia. The real life Muffs disagree on books quite regularly. In fact, there’s never a meeting where one of us doesn’t like something about our latest read. So that’s what I expected from Karen’s club. Actually I can’t really call it Karen’s club because the members defer to a smoldering dark redhead named Dana (who reminded me of Blaze Star) as the “Boss.” Why she was the boss was unclear but I didn’t ask; internal book club machinations being beyond my purview. The point is, I expected a few of the women to have some “constructive criticism” and I wanted them to speak freely—just as they would if I hadn’t been there. This seemed to put them at ease and set off an immediate rant about a prior book club selection, Patty Smith’s Just Friends, which as it happens the Muffs read too. But whereas we (in general) loved it, Karen/Dana’s club pretty much reviled it except for Karen who had selected it and who had constructed a small shrine for Patty in her living room. The fact that Karen had picked the hated Just Friends as well as The Muffia suffused me with dread. Was Karen the book club member who chose the books nobody liked?

I smiled, come what may, reasoning that as an author—hell, as a person—I will never please everybody, so I shouldn’t bother trying. But knowing that The Muffia is a planned series of books, and that I’ve only completed Book I, I was in the singular position of having this (and other book clubs I speak to) help me as I write books II-VII. There’s a saying I generally detest, “It’s All Good,” but in this situation, it was true. Anything they told me would be grist for the mill of my mind. Not only did I want to know what they really thought, I also wanted to mine them for material.

This group didn’t disappoint on any level. As Karen served a delicious meal, the group told me they wanted more of Vicki, less of Lila with Madeline’s vibrator and details about Nate’s affair. Most enjoyed the read and found more similarities with their counterparts in the book, than differences. Somewhere between dinner and Karen’s decadent dessert dubbed “Sex in a Pan” (destined to be a Muff favorite), we left The Muffia behind and segued into the stories women who are comfortable with each other share. There was a member’s recent trip to Hawaii and an incident in which she was encouraged to behave like a big cat, brought on by her husband’s positive response to one little blue pill. All appeared shocked that one hit of Viagra was $50 but it seemed too many of them knew where to get it at a discount not to have had personal experience. I’ll stop there to spare the group any possible repercussions but suffice it to say, these ladies talk about all the stuff the Muffs talk about and they made me feel included and comfortable. The evening was over way too quickly—each of the women needing to get home to take care of children, husbands, pets and hearths. Each of the women had come, given, and received the jolt of energy, support, and encouragement that we get from each other and, just as in The Muffia, whatever book they read is beside the point. We come together to share life.  Affirmed. Thank you, Karen, and thank you to her club, for having me.

Karen has graciously provided the recipe for “Sex in a Pan” and I print it here.

Sex in a Pan

Combine: 1 cup flour, ½ cup chopped pecans, 1 stick softened butter.

Pack this into a 9 x 13 inch pan and bake 15-25 minutes at 350 degrees until light brown. Cool. Then:

Combine: 8 oz. cream cheese, 1 cup powdered sugar, 1 cup Cool Whip and spread onto the cooled crust. Then:

Combine: 2 boxes of instant chocolate pudding* with 3 cups of milk. Beat for 2 minutes and spread on top of the cream cheese mixture, then spread 1 cup Cool Whip on top and if desired, decorate the top. (Karen said she ran out of time but she was going to put a big pink M on it.)

* If desired, you can use butterscotch or lemon or some other concoction of your choice in place of the chocolate pudding

 

"Naked" Sex in a Pan
“Naked” Sex in a Pan