My Great Gray Reading Chair – Don Draper replaces Mr. Carson

I’m pleased to report that I’ve finally replaced my beloved old reading chair, which my then-boyfriend and I purchased on sale from Macy’s for our first San Francisco apartment back in 1999. It is a well-used chair that served us lovingly, kind of like Mr. Carson, but, like Mr. Carson,  it long ago began showing its age. It’s cozy but rumpled, quite a bit shabbier than it ever thought it would be. The new one, pictured below, is from the Chairs Event at One Kings Lane. I think it’s pretty subtle. I love the clean lines, the smart gray fabric;  it’s more Mad Men than Downtown Abby.


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On titles

The real Ocean Beach in the middle of summer

As some of you may already know, the working title for The Year of Fog was Ocean Beach. My publisher made it clear that there was no way the novel was going to come out with the title “Ocean Beach.” For one thing, my editor and the marketing folks found it redundant–as in, well, okay, yes, of course the beach is at the ocean. My editor and I went through dozens of titles before we finally settled on The Year of Fog. I resisted at first, but eventually, I came to like it.

The working title for my third novel was A Beginner’s Book of Numbers, which I quite like, but it ended up being published as No One You Know. My publisher said that putting anything mathy on the cover of a novel is akin to scrawling, “Please do not buy this book” with a sharpie. Well, naturally, I do not want to scrawl “Please do not buy this book” across any book, with the possible exception of that Jane Austen zombie book, so I capitulated.

So when the inevitable conversation came up with my new book–the publisher felt that the working title, California Street, was too location-specific and just not very catchy–I steeled myself for a battle. Fortunately, this time around, the process of choosing a title that the publisher and I could both be happy with turned out to be painless. I told my editor there were three things I wanted in the title.

  1. It should reference California in some way.
  2. It should be easy to remember, so instead of saying, “You know that book about that doctor at the VA, the one where she’s going across the city, and her sister just came back from Iraq” etc., someone who was trying to bring up the book during a swanky dinner soiree could just say, “You must read TITLE-OF-BOOK!”
  3. It couldn’t sound girly. There could be no reference to sisters or begonias (there are sisters in the book, but no begonias), and it could in no way lend itself to a pastel cover with lipstick on it, as this is really a political novel, and people would be unhappy if they thought they were buying a book about a florist but instead ended up with a book about post traumatic stress disorder. My editor gamely promised to think it over.

A couple of days later, she emailed, “What do you think of GOLDEN STATE?”

“Oh,” I said. “Why didn’t I think of that?” Why indeed. So I can happily report that we have finalized a title about which we are both equally enthusiastic. For me, it has a lot to do with the play on the word “state.” You know that ubiquitous and sort of annoying Billy Joel song, in which he talks about the New York state of mind? Well, for many of us who have found our way to the West coast from hither and yon, California is really a state of being as much as it is a political construct. And I will admit that I was also kind of thinking about what the cover would look like. Not too long ago, I read that, among the runaway bestsellers, books with yellow covers are well-represented, while books with blue covers tend to wilt on the shelves. Someone should have told me that back in 2002, when I was so excited to finalize the title for my first novel, Dream of the Blue Room. The cover is very blue, and, it’s true, no one bought it.

Please visit me on Facebook for more news on Golden State and what I hope will be a very yellow cover.

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Virginia Woolf

I am the Common Reader: Virginia Woolf on pleasure, reading, & the survival of literature

Despite her knowledge of Greek and her voracious reading of the classics, Virginia Woolf considered herself a self-taught reader. As a woman, she had been denied the illustrious Oxford education that the men in her family enjoyed. As it turns out, her lack of affectation, her insistence on taking pleasure in reading, is what makes her essays on literature so lucid, smart, and delicious to read.

Reviewing The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Volume 6: 1933-1941, for the December issue of The Atlantic Monthly, Benjamin Schwarz notes that, despite Woolf’s place in “the highest stratum of the English intellectual aristocracy,” her essays were written not for the academic but for the common reader, the category in which she rather modestly placed herself. The common reader, she posited, “reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others.”

Here, Schwarz excerpts Woolf’s essay “Hours in a Library”:

A reader must check the desire for learning at the outset; if knowledge sticks to him well and good, but to go in pursuit of it, to read on a system, to become a specialist or an authority, is very apt to kill…the more humane passion for pure and disinterested reading. The true reader is a man of intense curiosity; of ideas; open-minded and communicative, to whom eating is more the nature of brisk exercise in the open wire than of a sheltered study.

For all of her wealth and status–the very condition that allowed her the coveted room of one’s own–Woolf also believed passionatelym Schwarz notes, in the democracy of reading, as evidenced in her essay “The Leaning Tower.”

Literature is no one’s private ground; literature is common ground.

Woolf’s prescription for the survival of literature, which might have ruffled feathers in her time, is no less meaningful today. Literature will survive, she wrote,

if commoners and outsiders like ourselves make that country our own country…teach ourselves how to read and how to write, how to preserve and how to create. (more…)

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Best website plugins for authors & writers

Perhaps the number one way to engage with visitors to your website is to include a highly visible opt-in form that allows readers to sign up for updates or a newsletter. Blogging experts say that email lists beat out every form of social networking. Why? When someone follows you on twitter, they make no commitment. They may or may not be on Twitter when you make a post, and Twitter users often scroll very quickly through updates. Likewise with Facebook. Someone who likes your facebook fan page may visit it only once. The beauty of an email list is that readers have chosen to opt in. They have provided their email address to you, which means they are interested in what you have to say.

I’ve tested a number of plugins for opt in forms, and the one I’m happiest with by far is OptinSkin. Not only is it easy and pretty, it also has proven to be very successful at generating signups. On my first day using it, I had 33 signups. Prior to installing it, I’d had a signup form on my site for years and had never gotten more than a hundred subscribers, total.

I think the success has to do with the fact that OptinSkin just looks prettier and is far more visible. It’s very easy to set up, and can be used in sidebar widgets, in posts, in pages, or as a popup. The big rectangular box at the bottom of this post is an optin skin. So is the small signup box to the right of the first paragraph in this post. I also use optin skin on my author website to do a monthly book giveaway. See it in action at

Get OptinSkin here.

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Better in French

Why does everything sound better in French? I came across this charming youtube video of a French reader reviewing Le R’eve D’Amanda Ruth, the French translation of Dream of the Blue Room. (I love the French title, which translates as The Dream of Amanda Ruth.) My high school and college English isn’t intact enough for me to know if she actually enjoyed the book, but it’s so much fun to watch her holding my book up, I’m posting it anyway! The youtube user is Frenchorchidea, and she has more than a hundred video reviews of books.

And here is one of L’annee brouillard, the French translation of The Year of Fog, by the same reviewer a few years ago.

All three of my novels were published in France by Buchet Chastel and translated by the wonderful Sophie Aslanides.

And here’s an adorable review by a young American reader reviewing some of her favorite books. Thanks, youtuber thisbeangelikaa!

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