Tucson Festival of Books 2018

I’m lucky to live a couple of hours’ drive from Tucson, home of the country’s second largest book festival. This year was the 10th annual event, which comes around on the second weekend in March while the University of Arizona students are away on spring break. Over a hundred thousand people show up to honor authors as rock stars – literally this year, when the Rock Bottom Remainders (Amy Tan, Dave Barry, R.L. Stine, and Scott Turow, among others) performed on Saturday night.


The festival takes over the U of A campus, with hundreds of tents on the grass, and a wonderful Science City at one end. (Check out this video to get a flavor of it.) For me, though, the juicy part is the array of panels and speakers in the classrooms. I try to get to as many writing craft sessions as I can.

Choice quotes

  • Write what you want to read but can’t find. (Fonda Lee, author of Jade City)
  • “Hard fantasy” in which magic follows rigid rules is just science under a different name. (Ken Liu, author of The Grace of Kings and translator of The Three Body Problem)
  • Every book is different. It’s like raising children: you only learn how to write that book. What keeps you going is knowing you did it before. (K Arsenault Rivera, author of The Tiger’s Daughter)
  • I’m a collector of life stories (Katayoun Medhat, author of The Quality of Mercy)
  • I channeled the simmering rage from my own life into my 20-year-old female character, so she’s closer to me than any of my other characters. (Riley Sager, 40-year-old male author of Final Girls)
  • People who make notes of their ideas as they come up have ideas they can work with when they’re ready to work. (Windy Harris, author of Writing & Selling Short Stories & Personal Essays)
  • Reading can be a way of avoiding writing, escaping the difficulty of finding and listening to your own voice. (Ron Hogan, founder of Beatrice.com)
  • We become authors by authorizing ourselves. (Stuart Horowitz, founder of Book Architecture)

World Building from Ken Liu

The hands-down best session I attended this year was Ken Liu’s presentation, in which he shared ten tips for compelling world building. Whether you write fantasy, science fiction, or historical novels, you need to construct a sense of place so the reader feels immersed in your story. Ken’s own website describes the talk, and incidentally serves as a great example of an effective author website.

Some favorite pieces of wisdom:

  • Read outside your comfort zone and pay attention to movies, tv, video games, and even cosplay and larping (it means live-action role playing – who knew?), and learn how others evoke a sense of place.
  • If you only read secondary sources, like a science journalist’s summary of a research paper or a historian’s account of events, you’re getting someone else’s narrative. Go to primary sources, and go in person to see physical artifacts. Tour a battleship, look at original art.
  • Use “incluing” – Jo Walton’s term – instead of explaining everything. Readers can figure out more than you might think, and figuring things out makes reading more fun.
  • Study nonfiction to see how to make infodumps compelling to read.
  • Make your prose more dense. Each sentence can do more than one thing – show character, advance the plot, describe the world.
  • Think through all the implications of your ideas. If your world has flying cars, it’s not going to be just like our world but with flying cars added.
  • Give your world a history and different cultures, with all the complexity and inconsistency that comes from the way things evolve. Who knew that samurai culture in Japan came after gunpowder and firearms were available? Technology doesn’t determine everything, and stories told in other cultures are very different from the ones you grew up reading.
  • Technology is invented by tinkerers trying to solve a problem. It doesn’t come from higher level scientific principles in an orderly manner. Read The Nature of Technology by W. Brian Arthur to understand how technology creates our world. And technology isn’t just mechanical things – bureaucracy, organizations, and laws are also technologies.
  • The one thing you care about, that excites you, will lead you to the rest of your world. It isn’t photorealism, but impressionist painting. What you’re doing is world conjuring in collaboration with the reader.
  • Think through your own assumptions. Someone asked whether you have to include realistic elements like violence in your imaginary world, and Ken Liu pointed out that the question implies assumptions about what reality is like.

Idea to novel

Linnea Hartsuyker, author of The Half-Drowned King, led a workshop on turning your idea into a novel. She gave us lots of opportunities to practice developing our what-ifs, and shared a bit of her own wisdom along the way, like:

  • Plot doesn’t just happen to your characters, but because of them.
  • Different characters relate to the theme in different ways. If the theme of The Hunger Games is “how does a person navigate a world in which cruelty is necessary for survival,” the answers are different for Katniss, Haymitch, and President Snow.
  • Visualize the end. The end is where the reader sees that you’ve made your argument and something’s been settled, and it will help you along the way as you’re writing if you feel you’re writing towards something.
  • If you get stuck, think about the chapter questions to get back on track:
    • Summary
    • Central conflict
    • Decision
    • Plot purpose, character purpose, and theme purpose
  • Start on an unsteady equilibrium (the cliche is “start as late as you can get away with”).
  • Her own process is iterative. She writes the important events, a high level summary, and a few chapter questions, then writes as fast as she can till she hits a wall, then goes back and does more outlining and thinks about the three questions: what the character wants, what they need to do (what’s their primary malfunction), and what’s standing in their way.

Finding and pitching an agent

In an information-packed session, two agents (Claire Gerus and Katharine Sands) and a developmental editor (Ron Hogan) shared their sometimes-contradictory wisdom on getting an agent. Sands followed up with a whirlwind solo presentation on perfecting your pitch. In addition to common sense advice like “don’t be bridezilla, even though you’ve been dreaming of this since you were seven,” a few highlights were:

  • You’re looking for someone who believes in your work.
  • Seduce agents by showing them something that makes them want to see more, and that you can deliver.
  • Do your research, i.e. in Publishers Marketplace, look carefully at the contract, and talk to their other authors.
  • You have to kiss a lot of frogs. Don’t limit yourself too much. Bigger agencies hire new people all the time, so even if they don’t specialize in your genre, their new agent might love your work.
  • Publishers are looking to minimize financial risk; agents are looking out for your interests. In self-publishing you keep all your rights but you’re probably not putting the best version of your book out there.
  • Have a social media presence. Publishers want to know if you already have a following. Develop a relationship with your readers online. Don’t post too much in your blog – your contract will stipulate how much of your book has to be original.
  • Rehearse your pitch. Think of it like gossip, when you tell your best friend about the crazy thing that happened today: you’re animated, with drama, charm, and humor. Practice till you always have it ready to go.
  • Your pitch needs place, person, and pivot so the agent knows who the character is and what they’re dealing with. It doesn’t need backstory, theme, or how the story ends. You’re not telling the whole story, just enough to spark interest.

Tucson is for foodies

I stayed with my friend Kat, who lives walking distance from the university, and we had lunch on Saturday at the wonderful B Line on 4th Avenue. If you’re familiar with Tucson, you already know 4th Avenue is the hub of all kinds of independent shops and restaurants. I’m a vegetarian so I never get a chance to order tortilla soup, which is usually made with beef stock. The B Line had a delicious version that’s all vegetarian, and can even be made vegan if you ask them to. Yum!

If you don’t want to leave the festival, you don’t have to. You can get anything from tamales to gelato in the food tent area.

This was my fourth time at the Tucson book festival, and I’m grateful to young adult author Tom Leveen for mentioning it in a class. I’m slowly getting the hang of it – the festival is FREE and with so many book loving attendees, it can be a challenge to get into some of the sessions. If you have any tips on successfully navigating a big book festival, or if you went to this one and care to share some of the insights you gained, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!


Surviving summer in Phoenix

It’s the middle of June, it was 110 today, and it’s supposed to be 120 in a couple of days. I just got back from a few days in L.A., where it was a civilized 90 or so, and I needed my sweater when I was waiting for the shuttle bus at the Griffith Observatory. Driving home across the desert, especially in the stretch where they tell you to turn off your air conditioning to avoid overheating – a message reinforced by the U-Haul truck with its hood up at the side of the road – I thought about how many summers I’ve spent here. These are the lessons I’ve learned.

Respect the heat

Every summer, people trying to hike, bike, or jog in our beautiful desert collapse from the extreme heat. Some are rescued; some die. This article says it’s nearly impossible to replace the water you lose while hiking in these temperatures, even if you’re carrying enough water (you lose a liter an hour while hiking, double that in extreme heat, and your body can only absorb half a liter an hour). Heat stroke and dehydration kill dogs, too.

 …but don’t let it ruin your life

You don’t have to hole up all summer long. We average 110 days per year over 100 degrees, and 19 days over 110; that means you’ll lose almost a third of your life if you don’t learn to live with the heat. If you plan ahead, you can actually enjoy Phoenix in the summertime. It’s not a ghost town, but it’s less crowded without the winter visitors and university students. There’s not as much to do, which is okay, because in this heat you probably won’t feel like doing much anyway.

Follow these tips:

  1. Take advantage of free air conditioning. Movie theaters, libraries, museums, the gym, indoor malls – if you can find one – and stores are air conditioned on someone else’s dime. So’s your office, probably. Summer might be a time to forego telecommuting. Keep a sweater in your car for those places that are kept too cold for comfort.
  2. Go out in the morning, by which I mean as soon as it starts to get light out. It’s the coolest part of the day, using the word “cool” loosely, This is especially important if your dog walks with you. The sidewalk is way too hot for their feet later on.
  3. Hydrate inside and out. Carry water with you everywhere and sip it constantly. Walk under the misters at outdoor malls. Jump in the pool – yours, a friend’s, or the public pool. Visit the splash pad with the kids.
  4. Park in the shade. Yes, you’ll have to walk farther in the sun to get to your car, but you’ll be able to touch the steering wheel when you get there. Better yet, run your errands after dark if you can.
  5. Get out of town. Flagstaff, the White Mountains, Prescott, and Payson are all within a three-hour drive of Phoenix. If you want to hike, those are the places to do it in the summer. You can even drive to the beach in less than eight hours, or catch a cheap flight and be there in a couple of hours. Even a short break away makes the summer more bearable.
  6. Keep your house cool. Plant a fast-growing shade tree or two, replace your old windows with the kind that keep heat out, and install ceiling fans and cool-burning light bulbs. Use your vent fans and don’t use the oven. Learn to love salads. Use your swamp cooler, if you have one, before monsoon season hits – it’ll keep your house more comfortable for less $ than a/c.
  7. Give yourself permission to veg out. Other people do jigsaw puzzles in the winter when it’s too cold to go outside; you can do them when it’s too hot. Same with adult coloring books. Read. Alphabetize your spice rack. Plan your next big vacation. Take it easy, it’s summer.

What did I miss? Add your tips in the comments below.

North Carolina in the Winter

For Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend of 2017, I visited my friends Bob and Lucy, who live in Raleigh now. Lucy and I worked together in Arizona years ago. Our friend Ned, who lives in Idaho now, was at a conference in Washington and took the train down for the weekend, so we had a little reunion.

Beach vacation at Cape Fear

We got up latish on Friday, had breakfast, then packed the van for a road trip to the beach. Bob drove all the way, both ways, intrepid soul that he is.

Our first stop was Bob and Lucy’s son Patrick’s suggestion, the USS North Carolina, which is just across the Fear River from Wilmington. The North Carolina is a World War Two battleship that was in the Pacific during the war – it was the first ship built after a 1923 peace agreement, and construction started in 1937. The battleship was ready in 1941, although it went back to the shipyard in New York for a bit of retrofitting after it first set sail. We think we saw some evidence of the retrofitting, way down in the engine rooms, where two levels are joined by a ladder and a stairway but the ladder is unusable because of the position of the stairs, which we thought must have been put in afterwards.


The ship held over 2,200 enlisted men, officers, and marines. You enter by way of an exhibit hall, which has an introductory film and a few artifacts, including part of the ship’s silver service. Back home in Arizona, the entire silver service from the USS Arizona is on display at the Arizona Capitol Museum. It’s a spectacular display, made possible by the Navy’s practice of taking such nonessentials off a ship that’s in a battle zone – otherwise, it would have sunk with the Arizona on Pearl Harbor Day.

The highlight of the USS North Carolina monument is the self-guided tour of the ship itself. Arrows guide you deep down into the many levels of the ship and up into the bridge, with informative signs explaining what you’re looking at. A nice feature was the “in their own words” pieces on the signs, written by the men who served on the ship, telling their memories of life on the ship – the mess halls, store, laundry, sick bay, etc. – and of significant events like the time they were torpedoed by a Japanese sub and the day they were hit by friendly fire, killing three and wounding many more.

We drove on into Wilmington and had lunch at the Front Street Brewery, then took a horse-drawn trolley tour of a bit of old downtown and a residential neighborhood. The driver told stories, including the story of how cooks had to carry meals from the kitchens – in separate buildings to protect the main house from the risk of fire – to the dining room, and would toss bits of fried dough to fend off the wild dogs that lived in the town, saying “hush, puppies” and giving the snack its name. The horses that pull the trolleys are all rescues. Ours was a Percheron named Pete.

After the tour, we drove down to Carolina Beach and checked into our hotel, the Hampton Inn, where we had reservations for two adjoining ocean front rooms. We settled our things and then went downstairs to have a drink at the patio bar, where we sat around a lovely gas fire pit and watched the moon rise over the ocean. Later, we took a walk down the beach and then over to town and had dinner at Havana’s. Bob said his clam chowder was the best he’d ever had.

We awoke to the sunrise over the ocean,sunrise-caro-beach

and headed over to the Carolina Beach State Park for a walk on the Flytrap Trail to look for carnivorous plants. The Venus Flytrap is native to the area. It’s a tiny, inconspicuous plant, though, and tends to hide beneath other plants, so we didn’t find any. It was a nice walk through the woods, anyway. I was a little nervous about alligators (after seeing warning signs over by the battleship). My friends told me that alligators can move faster than a person can run over short distances, so your best bet is to climb a tree. The trees didn’t look very climbable to me. Luckily, it was a cold day, and there weren’t any alligators out.


Before we left the park, we went over to the marina – very quiet at this time of year – and wandered around a bit, taking pictures.

We had a couple of options for the rest of our time at the beach: a Civil War reenactment and a visit to the aquarium. Both were at Fort Fisher. We’d heard a blast from the reenactment while we were in the woods, and we could see it from the road as we drove by, so we decided that was enough battle for us. We went on in to the Aquarium and spent an enjoyable few hours exploring the exhibits. Albino alligators, jellyfish, seahorses, sharks, and an eagle – the aquarium has it all.

Our beach adventure was at Cape Fear, which I only knew about before from the terrifying movie starring Robert De Niro. An excellent movie, but definitely not one I’d recommend to Lucy. Ned and I’ve both had the experience of finding out movies we liked were too disturbing for our friend, and a running joke over the weekend was, “but would you recommend it to Lucy?”

Back home in Raleigh

Raleigh’s only two hours from the coast, so we got back in time for the Chinese Lantern festival on Saturday night. A big grassy area was transformed with what must have been hundreds of beautiful silk lanterns representing everything from bicycling pandas and roaring lions to an enormous Chinese dragon that seemed to be floating in a lake. It was the festival’s second annual holiday season visit to Cary, NC.


On Sunday, we visited the spectacular Hunt Library at North Carolina State University. The first thing you see when you enter is a huge glass wall, behind which are the stacks where the books are kept. A robot called the bookbot retrieves and shelves the books, and you can see a demo: the robot rushes down the aisle, raises or lowers an arm to the correct level, and pulls out a drawer full of books. It takes the whole drawer away – maybe to a human librarian who selects the correct volume and hands it over to the user.

The library has hundreds of seats of all different kinds, so you’re bound to find a comfortable place to read and study. Some are configured in conversational formations, and for more demanding study group needs, there are rooms where the walls are lined with whiteboards, complete with flat screens to hook your laptop up to. There are even music rooms on the top floor, with keyboards and headphones.

And for serendipity of discovery, there are a few places with shelves of actual books. Patrick found a Mishio Kaku book on the physics of the future that Lucy checked out for him with her faculty card. Pat’s twelve and in 7th grade, but he was fascinated by the book and had read a quarter of it by the end of the day. I’m looking forward to seeing what he does in the future himself.

Bob and Patrick are train enthusiasts, and are active in the Neuse River Valley Model Railroad Club. We stopped in to tour their terrific new clubhouse and chat with the other members who were there.

Finally, we visited the natural science museum in downtown Raleigh. We had lunch at the museum cafe and then looked around at a few exhibits while waiting for the monarch migration movie to start. We would certainly have stayed longer and seen more, and gone for a hike in the afternoon, but I’d managed to pick up a cold somewhere along the way and I was fading fast. My friends graciously cut their own adventures short to take me back to Bob and Lucy’s cozy house.

I spent the last day and a half of my visit sleeping or bundled up in front of the fire, reading, working on a jigsaw puzzle with Lucy, and watching movies on tv.


January might not seem like the best time to visit North Carolina, but except for getting sick, it was a wonderful time with lots of interesting sights and good conversations with old friends.







The 3,600 mile road trip

My husband and I just got back from the longest road trip ever!

We started by heading west to Carpinteria, California, a tiny old timey beach town a few miles south of Santa Barbara. My nephew discovered Carpinteria when he started working for Lynda.com, which is headquartered there. We hung out on the beach, ate lunch at The Spot, had dinner at Padaro Beach Grill, chatted with the locals, and seriously considered moving into one of the 55+ communities there. The only drawback to Carpinteria is the Southern California freeway system that we’d have to navigate every time we wanted to see our granddaughters! Stay tuned, we may end up there yet.

Carpinteria State Beach

After Carpinteria, we drove north to Monterey, where we visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium. http://www.montereybayaquarium.org What an amazing place! We saw jellyfish, sea otters, thousands or maybe millions of anchovies and other tiny silver fish swimming in circles above our heads, a couple of great documentaries, and throngs of school children. School in California wasn’t out yet, although in Arizona, kids had been on summer break for a couple of weeks already.

On the way to Monterey, we were surprised by the beauty of the mountains we drove through between Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo. Vineyards as far as the eye can see. In San Luis Obispo, we had beignets that somehow, magically, had enormous fresh blueberries right in the middle of the triangular pastries.

We spent the night in Santa Cruz, at a Comfort Inn about a block away from the Boardwalk. Now, the Boardwalk is a special place in my memory. I grew up in Palo Alto, and begged all summer long, every summer, to go to the Boardwalk in Santa Cruz. I think I actually got to go there three or four times as a kid. I’m sure it’s been modernized and it’s probably a far safer place than it was when I was young, but it still has that crazy beach holiday feeling. We walked out onto the wharf for dinner.

Santa Cruz Boardwalk

From Santa Cruz, we drove to Redding, bypassing the craziness of the Bay Area although we definitely encountered plenty of traffic along the way. We stayed at the Oxford Suites in Redding and visited a place called the Sundial Bridge. It crosses the Sacramento River and on the other side is a big park with walking trails through woods and meadows. It was unexpected! I had picked Redding just for its geographical convenience along the road, but it was a very nice spot.

Sundial Bridge, Redding
Sundial Bridge, Redding

Redding to Portland was the next leg of the journey. We actually stayed in Beaverton, because we could get a better rate on a Courtyard Marriott – my husband loves the Marriott beds and we figured we would need a good rest after the long drive from Redding. We tried to go to the Rose Garden in Portland but ended up in parking gridlock – who knew it was the rose festival that day? Note to self, next time check the events calendar! We did make it in to Powell’s City of Books, my favorite place in Portland. I picked up a couple of used books and my husband got his first glimpse of the glory that is Powell’s.

Wetlands, Beaverton, OR

From Portland, we headed north to Canada. The Seattle traffic was as intense as everyone told us it would be, and we were impressed with the flexible speed limit signs on the freeway. We considered a side trip to the Space Needle but…next time.

We took the smaller, less busy border crossing at Aldergrove because it had a shorter wait time. Small definitely didn’t mean easy, though. The Canadian officer quizzed us at length about why we were visiting Maple Ridge and seemed particularly interested in our Arizona license plate, asking several questions about weapons and concealed carry permits and the like. Seriously. Me. Nope, no guns, no how, no way, no thank you.

The Golden Ears Bridge (so much easier to get to the other side of the Fraser River now!) took us to Maple Ridge. It was lovely to see Aunt Edith and Uncle Max, always my favorites and now the last of their generation in my family. They’re in their nineties and are frustrated that they can’t be as active as they always have been, but neither of them is sitting still. We had a nice long chat, then my husband and I took a walk on the nearby dikes to shake the cobwebs out after the long drive.

Maple Ridge dikes
View from the dikes

On our second day in Maple Ridge, we drove up to Alouette Lake. We managed to confuse Siri, who wanted to send us on a 4-hour journey where we’d drive to halfway between Stave Lake and Alouette Lake and then hike the rest of the way. Alouette Lake is less than a half hour up the mountains from Maple Ridge, in Golden Ears Provincial Park. Luckily we knew that, and double checked the route on Google Maps, which sent us in the right direction. Don’t get me wrong, I love Siri, and she guided us faultlessly on the entire journey, with just that one exception.

We took a little walk on the Spirea Nature Trail after spending a little time tossing stones into the lake. The kids in BC were still in school, and it wasn’t full-fledged summer yet, so it was pretty quiet, but we still saw a few people catching some rays on the beach.

Spirea Natural Trail in Golden Ears Provincial Park

My cousin Elaine recently moved out to Tsawwassen, a tiny town in between Boundary Bay and the Pacific Ocean, famous for its ferry terminal. We had a nice lunch at the White Spot there, and then walked out on the trail by the bay, admiring the gorgeous golf course we walked past on the way from Elaine’s place. We saw our first inukshuk – it’s a kind of cairn built in a dolmen-like shape, used by Inuit and other northern peoples – on the side of the trail there.

We stayed with my cousin Debbie and her husband Pete, who live in the basement suite of my aunt and uncle’s house. It’s a great arrangement. Debbie keeps the whole place shipshape and keeps an eye on her parents’ health, and in partnership with her dad produces beautiful painted birdhouses (Max builds them, Debbie paints them).  They came home from their visit to his family in the Kootenays after we’d been there a few days, and we had fun visiting a crazy place called Granny and Grumpa’s (featured on Canadian Pickers) out in Chilliwack one day.

Canadian pickers

The rest of our stay was a whirlwind of fine food and relaxation. We had lunch at a pub on the Fraser River and another pub in town, and dinner with Debbie and Pete and my other cousin Brenda at a Japanese place. We grilled out on the patio one night, and got a chance to visit with Mel and the kids Scout and Sawyer (Elaine’s daughter-in-law and grandkids). We ate loads of Pete’s delicious salsa. One night Jim and I drove across the bridge to meet my cousins from the other side – my dad’s brother’s sons Mark, Garry, and Donny, and Garry’s wife Rhonda – over dinner at the Spaghetti Factory in Langley.

Veggie Box at Sushi Umibe 

Debbie agreed to paint a birdhouse for us to take to our friends in Boise. We looked at hundreds of pictures on Pinterest for inspiration, and decided to do a barn theme. Watching Debbie make the barn come to life was an education in how much care and creativity and how many steps go into her creations. The end result was beautiful, and our friends loved it. It’s a great fit in their gorgeous back yard.

Debbie & Max’s birdhouse at home in Boise

One day in Maple Ridge, we were surprised to see a pair of deer scampering up the driveway. By the time we came upstairs, they had turned around and were headed off down the street. We also saw a couple of coyotes while we were there. Lots of wildlife on this visit!

Maple Ridge deer
Deer on Thornton Ave.!

We went with Debbie on her morning walk through the neighborhood one day. I took a ton of pictures but the one with the fire hydrant is my granddaughter’s favorite.

Morning walk in the neighborhood

To be continued…