No trespassing…

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December 9, 2014 – If you’ve read my novel, City of Whores, you’ll know I’m a rabid fan of Hollywood’s golden age. I’ve also been a lifelong fan of Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli, and abandoned places. So imagine my surprise when I was recently scrolling through the posts on the Vintage Hollywood Homes Facebook page and came across an item about all of the above: famed director Vincent Minnelli’s abandoned mansion which stands empty and in ruins in the heart of Beverly Hills. My first thought was how could I not know about this? I had been to the Beverly Hills Hotel many times, never realizing that the derelict Minnelli estate sits directly catty-corner from its famous entrance. I immediately shared the article with my friends, and, long story short, found myself with a date to visit the place with my friend from The Wonder Years, Val Joseph. As I was walking toward the house earlier today, Val appeared from the driveway. Seems she’d beaten me to it, and had already been exploring a bit of the house’s exterior.

The minute I stepped into the driveway, a very strange feeling came over me. It was a mixture of vague uneasiness and the dawning of a profound sadness. This only intensified as we drew nearer. I joked about how we shouldn’t be trespassing (there are signs everywhere, after all), but Val rightly pointed out we wouldn’t be the first or the last, so I gamely followed her around to the front of the house. As I stood there in the circular driveway looking up at the forlorn facade, I couldn’t help but imagine it in its heyday. My mind unspooled a vivid Technicolor™ scene of a line of gleaming vintage cars easing through, stopping only long enough to deposit the cream of Tinseltown society at the front door where a tuxedoed Vincent Minnelli himself convivially shook their hands and welcomed them in through the front door and into his dazzlingly lit, capacious manse. From somewhere inside, a piano accompanied a young Liza as she belted out a song for her father’s elegant soiree, and the windows were alive with the silhouettes of the motion picture royalty inside. Perhaps Judy, in a show of magnanimity, had even agreed to put aside her differences with her ex-husband and attend this particular shindig, finally joining their daughter in wowing the partygoers with an impromptu duet of her greatest hits.

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As we moved around the side of the house, I peered through a huge picture window into what was left of the living room. Impossibly, a few pieces of furniture remained, but the space had been destroyed by vandals and squatters, someone having scrawled “LIZA WAS HERE” in spray paint on the wall, among other things. The sadness haunting me intensified, though I tried to conceal it from Val.

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In the backyard, the drained and ruined swimming pool came into view, its walls defaced by graffiti above the brackish puddle of water in the deep end. Again, I imagined a vignette from the distant past: a maid in a crisp uniform was bringing a telephone with an extraordinarily long cord from the house, informing Minnelli (who was sitting on a chaise lounge watching the shirtless pool boy fish leaves from the water’s surface) that Gene Kelly was on the line. Minnelli eagerly took the call, then had an amusing and animated conversation with the screen legend even while his eyes remained glued to the worker’s glistening torso. When the pool boy realized he was being watched and smiled, Minnelli quickly snatched his eyes away.

And then, from all of this enchantment, a thought intruded that utterly changed the experience for me: I was suddenly standing in my own backyard. The destroyed pool was now mine, and the house that I’ve loved since I walked through the front door in 1999 had been equally defaced and disrespected, my belongings rifled through, stolen, broken, and in tatters. How would I feel knowing that people were exploring there, writing on my walls, breaking my windows, and burning my furniture in the fireplace? The unease and sadness deepened.

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Val was determined to go inside despite the padlock on the front door, and she soon found easy entrance through an open kitchen window. As I watched her climb through, I blurted out that I had no intention of going inside. She jokingly cajoled me, but I was firm. I didn’t know how to explain, but I really didn’t want to walk around inside the tragic remains of these people’s lives. After Minnelli’s death in 1986, Liza inherited the place with the promise to her father that she’d take care of his widow, Lee (despite his homosexuality, or perhaps because of it, Minnelli was married four times during his life). Liza wanted to sell the house, which she finally did in 2000, having purchased a half-million dollar condominium for her elderly stepmother. Lee refused to move and the situation became contentious. Ultimately, the house was sold and Liza rented it month-to-month from the new owners so that Lee could live out her years there, finally passing away in 2009 in her nineties. For reasons unexplained, the house remained mostly furnished even as the new owners finally took possession, but never moved in. Never restored the place. Never tore it down to make room for a McMansion. Never did…anything. Inexplicably, they just let the house sit there in inexorable decay.

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I had seen enough to satisfy my curiosity. I didn’t need to experience firsthand the disrespect of vandalism. The stained carpets. The broken mirrors. The filthy toilets. The ransacked detritus of famous people’s lives. I preferred to imagine the house in its prime, when a doting father maintained a closet in Liza’s room filled with child-sized reproductions of costumes from Gone With The Wind and The King and I for his daughter to play dress up with her friend Candice Bergen. I preferred to try and imagine where the backyard playhouse had been. I preferred to picture the house when it was alive.

Over lunch at Chin Chin afterwards, Val and I managed to catch up on all the years since we’d last seen each other. I was still a bit overwhelmed by my strange experience, and didn’t know how to articulate what I was feeling. Instead, I told her I’d been concerned about snagging my black linen shirt on the window frame and joked that our official story would be that I’d stood guard while she went exploring. And I’m glad she did, as I could see the genuine delight in her eyes. Val is and always has been, after all, a force of nature.

But for me, considering the gloomy story of that decaying and forlorn palace, the word “trespass” had taken on an entirely new meaning. Perhaps some ghosts are best left undisturbed. Stay tuned…

City of Whores named Finalist in 2014 USA Best Book Awards

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November 12, 2014 – Today, I was honored to learn that my debut novel, City of Whores, was a finalist in the 2014 USA Best Book Awards. To celebrate, I’ll be donating 10% of all royalties earned between today and January 1st, 2015 to the SS United States Conservancy, on whose board I proudly serve. For more information, please visit www.CityOfWhores.com.

Paperback and Kindle editions are available from Amazon.com. Nook version is on the Barnes & Noble site.

I do hope you’ll check it out, and that you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it!

The proof is in the reading…

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October 23, 2014 – I despise tpyos–damn it, typos. Those persistent and pernicious finger gaffes that sneak full of mischief into my prose. Crafty little devils with the super power to render themselves invisible by hiding in plain sight, especially when they are being deliberately hunted. Sometimes, I’m typing so fast that I generate what I call “word-os.” These appear when motor memory takes over my fingers and I write “was” for “want” or “see” for “she” or, just now, in writing this very sentence, “thank” for “that.” I diligently and purposefully try to keep these foul beasts at bay, and yet the more time I spend at the keyboard—and I spend a lot of time at the keyboard—the more the little gremlins sneak into my prose, successfully avoiding detection until after I hit “send” or worse, publish and distribute.

When I was writing City of Whoresmy invaluable and eagle-eyed editor, Alice Peck, managed to catch and corral (which I just now typed as “coral”) probably 100% of them in the last draft she worked on for me. So of course I released them all right back into the wild while revising, allowing them to breed and multiply like coat hangers. When I sent the “final” manuscript off (which I just typed as “of”)  to the talented book designer Duane Stapp and copied the precise Ruth Mullen for conversion to eBook format, I confidently (read idiotically) told them both that it was “ready for publication.”

And that’s when the grim grinning goblins of transposed words, missing letters, extra letters, and incorrect homophones and heterographs (sexy words to be sure) started to reveal themselves in all of their mortifying glory, humiliating me just like Sissy Spacek in the “they’re all going to laugh at you” scene in Carrie. Panicked, I began to test the patience of poor Duane and Ruth with several rounds of corrections and revisions. Nevertheless, until recently, the paperbacks and eBooks in circulation still had “Hedy Lamarr” as “Heddy,” “made our way” as “made or way,” (thanks Martin Turnbull for catching those), “drove away” as “drove way,” and the most recent, “world-renowned” as “world-renown” (kudos to Carl Wesch for that one). I have corrected these in all editions as they emerge, but now live with a feverish paranoia that more are still hiding in that thick forest of characters, waiting to jump out and terrorize me just in time for Halloween.

Those of you who know me can confirm that I’m about as O.C.D. about this stuff as a person can get. Being a southerner, I want everything in my world to at least present itself as neat, tidy, and nothing short of perfect. Still, as I prepared materials for my recent blog tour, I proofed and reproofed and proofed the reproof of the various excerpts, interviews, and bios I had been asked to provide. And still, when the first day of the tour arrived, there I was debuting on BooksDirectOnline with my main character listed not as “Dan Root,” but “Dan root,” instead. In the very first sentence no less. And here I am trying to be taken seriously as a writer, destroying my professional credibility from the start. Fortunately, I was able to email two of the blogs running that particular boo-boo, and they kindly corrected it for me. On a different site, two–count ’em two–rather obvious typos appeared, one fully my fault:

typo2And the other somehow managed to stowaway in my prose somewhere in transit to going public. I’m telling you, these things are devilish little living creatures who have it out for me:

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Fortunately, none of these have even come close to matching my first most spectacular and memorable typographical error. This one was of the “missing letter” variety. It just happened to be a letter that radically changed the meaning of the intended word. In 1980, I was working for a small company in Atlanta called TCG (The Communications Group), writing and producing industrials (training videos and corporate annual meeting presentations and such). We had one of the very first dedicated word processors I’d ever seen, manufactured by a company called Lanier. As a writer, I marveled at the amazing technology of being able to make corrections without the use of tape or White-out, and to compose one draft of a letter, then have the machine replace the address and salutation over two hundred times so that we could send out that many personalized general query letters, hoping to solicit new business. I composed and typed that letter, and even though all two hundred or so hand signed copies were mailed with the proud proclamation that  “our firm excels at pubic relations,” we still didn’t get a single response. Stay tuned…

All the world’s a stage…

Hollywood Sign from South Windsor Boulevard October 15, 2014 – Finding the perfect locations is a crucial component of film and television production, as the settings contribute to the overall look and mood and provide a key ingredient in the alchemy of verisimilitude. The same proved true in the writing of my novel, City of Whores. While working on the book, I made a point to visit the real places where the story unfolds (except, of course, for the ones that are sadly no longer with us). I drove up Stone Canyon Road in Bel Air to see the home of infamous agent Henry Willson (which I only recently learned would have been brand new in 1952), to get a sense of how long it would take Dan/Dexter to make the drive.

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Hollywood Forever Cemetery, where some of the biggest names in show business rest in the shadow of Paramount Studios, has long been a favorite spot of mine, so spending hours walking its grounds and taking photos was a pleasure. I took long, leisurely strolls in beautiful Hancock Park (another favorite) looking for just the right house for my characters (and never finding its real life counterpart). In the earliest drafts, Milford and Lillian’s streamline modern mansion was situated on South Plymouth Boulevard, until one day while exploring the area on nearby South Windsor, I looked up and saw what I consider to be the quintessential view of the famed HOLLYWOOD sign, perfectly framed by twin rows of towering palms. That image was indelible, and I made a point of working it into the story and relocating the fictional showplace. I smiled one afternoon when I saw a gorgeous photo of that signature view in full HD color as the scenic backdrop on Ellen (inexplicably, the TV is often on mute in my kitchen while I’m writing, though usually tuned to Turner Classic Movies).

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A few of the locations in City of Whores have played a significant role in my personal life. The El Palazar apartment building on Sycamore (where Dan/Dexter resides for part of his time in Hollywood), holds many fond memories for me as the place my former wife and I lived when we first moved to Los Angeles—until, that is, the Whittier Earthquake hit in 1987 and we watched our foyer wall crack as we cowered in a doorway. After that, we moved to a spacious duplex on North Gower, a block from one of the city’s most charming districts, Larchmont Village, which is adjacent to Hancock Park and also figures into the storyline. During those early years, I was working in the legal department at 20th Century Fox, first in an office on the lot, then later in the Fox Plaza building (the iconic location from Die Hard) which stands on a site that once marked the entrance to the sprawling Fox back lot (long gone, I’m afraid). I spent every lunch and coffee break exploring, and still wish I’d had the gumption to try and convince someone to show me Darryl F. Zanuck’s notorious underground tunnels. Fox remains my favorite studio lot, so having my characters work there was never in question.

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My first episode of television, the third season premiere of The Wonder Years entitled “Summer Song,” used the fascinating (and now deliciously creepy) Hollywood Center Motel on Sunset Boulevard as the late 1960s era setting of the Arnold family’s vacation to “Ocean City,” so naturally it was my first choice for Dan and Tally’s lodgings their first night in Los Angeles. When our beloved dog Max died, my then wife and I took him to be cremated at the pet cemetery in Calabasas—a trip that would later provide rich details for the book. People who work in real estate say you cannot overstress the importance of location, and that applies to all forms of fiction, as well. The settings aren’t just the stages upon which the action takes place; they also help bring the story to vibrant life, with the power to fully immerse the viewer or reader into the world being created. I guess it took writing a novel to realize that I’ve been subconsciously hoarding these special places, making Whores a personal tribute to this fascinating city, and an homage to the time I’ve been privileged to spend here. Stay tuned…

Always, always inquire further…

EvePosterOctober 3, 2014 – Recently, a very gracious and charming neighbor invited me to a cocktail party in her spectacular 1920s era English cottage (just down the street). I had heard through the grapevine that the house had been built by Suzanne’s grandfather who had some connection to Hollywood’s golden age, but had never bothered to inquire further. (Note to self: Always, always, inquire further.) “Some connection” would turn out to be a woefully inadequate description. As we toured the gorgeously appointed interior, libations and canapés in hand, I spotted a framed photograph of a man posing with Cecil B. DeMille and inquired if that was the grandfather in question. I was subsequently flabbergasted and delighted to discover that I was in the home of Victor Milner, Academy Award-winning cinematographer of the 1934 Claudette Colbert version of Cleopatra, and the man who shot one of my favorite films of all time, The Lady Eve, starring Henry Fonda, Barbara Stanwyck, and written and directed by the incomparable Preston Sturges. Well, we had a thing or two to discuss once that cat was out of the bag, including how my adoration of all things Stanwyck had led to my specifically working her into my novel, City of Whores, along with a reference to The Lady Eve. After Suzanne had read the book, she dropped off a lovely handwritten card (recall I used the words “gracious and charming” to describe her). With her permission, I’m sharing an excerpt. For those of you who’ve read the book, you’ll know the Dexter she refers to is the stage name of my protagonist. For those of you who haven’t, what is wrong with you?

The only thing better than a good book is one you can’t put down. Thanks for the many enjoyable nights I spent reading City of Whores. I particularly liked your style and the cadence of your phrasing, which when combined with the storyline was so riveting I felt as if I wasn’t just reading, but was really there.

Your characterization of Barbara Stanwyck was particularly apt. The kindness with which she treated Dexter was well known in my family. One day during a break in Lady Eve, my grandfather was talking to Ms. Stanwyck (who he affectionately referred to as “Missy”) when he received a telegram on the set. In it, he learned that his son, my dad, who was a pilot, had been in a terrible plane crash, and was in an ICU in Texas with burns throughout his body. At the time, the movie was already over budget, and the production was under a great deal of pressure to finish the film. It was pretty close to wrapping with only scenes of the principal characters remaining.

Barbara Stanwyck did everything possible to encourage my grandfather to leave the set and go to his son, but my grandfather was resolute about finishing filming. He knew if he left he’d be instantly fired, and might not get work on another film in the future if this happened. The next morning, however, when he came on the set, it was announced that Ms. Stanwyck was horribly ill. She stayed “sick” for 10 (ten!) days until my dad was out of ICU—making it possible for my grandpa to see him. What a lady. And that was only one story, albeit my favorite.”

I just adore everything about this story, and am both thrilled and a bit awed to receive such nice words from a lovely neighbor with Hollywood in her DNA. When I called to ask if I could share this on my blog, she immediately said yes, and told me she’d dig around for more stories and material related to her grandfather.

I fully intend to inquire further this time. Stay tuned…

Almost like being in the Cities of Whores…

September 12, 2014 – Probably chief among my peculiar hobbies: I collect other people’s vintage 8mm, super 8mm, and 16mm home movies. I’m primarily drawn to footage of the classic passenger ships of the 20th century, but every now and then something different will strike my fancy. What I adore about these films is how they perfectly capture a fleeting time and place from the point of view of those who experienced them first hand, thereby bringing the past to glorious life. For me, it’s even closer to time travel than watching the films of classic Hollywood where everything has been stylized and art directed to within an inch of its life. After my debut novel City of Whores was finished and off to the presses, I was trolling around eBay trying to get a home movie fix when I found an entire reel of 8mm color film shot in 1953 (a big part of the setting of my book). A week or two later, I was uploading the now digitized footage into my computer, and loving what I saw. The photographer wasn’t the greatest, tending to shoot very short clips while moving the camera around too much, but what s/he captured is absolutely golden—and more than a little coincidental. Having spent so much time immersed in that era while researching and writing, I was both surprised and pleased to see just how many locations from my book are featured. The movie starts in Vegas, and the camera captures a garish pastiche of pulsing, throbbing neon. And right there, on the Sands marquee, is none other than TALLULAH BANKHEAD. While researching her life, I read in Joel Lobenthal’s excellent biography, Tallulah! The Life and Times of a Leading Lady, that she had headlined in Vegas in 1953—at exactly the point in my story when I needed my protagonist to have a private, candid moment with “the glamorous and unpredictable” star and personality. If you’ve read my book, you’ll know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, well, what’s wrong with you? Our intrepid travelers then arrive in Hollywood where they capture in quick succession the Farmer’s Market, the Hollywood Bowl, Ciro’s, the Mocambo, the Palladium, and Grauman’s Chinese (featuring a huge poster for the Barbara Stanwyck/Clifton Webb starrer, Titanic, which also plays a key role in Whores), to name just a few. And what really knocked me over: there’s even a quick glimpse of the sign for the Hollywood Center Motel! This one was so fleeting, in fact, that I slowed the footage down. The HCM is a crumbling relic that miraculously still stands on Sunset Boulevard, just east of Highland Avenue. I’ve been fascinated by the place since the first time I saw it way back in the ’80s. Coincidentally, and without my knowledge until after the fact, it was used as a location in my very first episode of The Wonder Years, “Summer Song.” It was also featured prominently (and beautifully cleaned up for the shoot) in the film L.A. Confidential, which also takes place in 1953. If you’ve read City of Whores, you’ll know the motel plays a small role. If you haven’t, well, you know…

Be sure to set the quality to 480p, the highest resolution available for the film. I really hope you enjoy this little trip back to the cities of whores in 1953. Stay tuned…

Let’s go to the hop!

TurnbullPostCoWSeptember 6, 2014 – Martin Turnbull is the author of the enormously successful Garden of Allah novels, which were recently optioned for film and television. If you love Hollywood and/or Southern California history, you’ll surely savor his books. Each in the series is set in a different era in the Golden Age of Hollywood, and his attention to detail coupled with his charming style seduce the reader into a wonderful world of movie make believe. I first encountered Martin’s enchanting website, MartinTurnbull.com, while Googling for images of the interior of the Mocambo nightclub which is featured in my book. Then I started following and “liking” his terrific Hollywood-centric posts on Facebook, and before I knew it, he posted the above on my City of Whores page. Shortly thereafter, we struck up a very entertaining correspondence, and he’s been enormously generous with his knowledge of the world of indie publishing. To that end, he invited me to participate in a Blog Hop, which sounded more like a very awkward dance than an opportunity to promote my work, until he explained. To participate, I’m to answer four questions here on my own blog, then link to any other writer friends who’d like to join in. Martin graciously offered to link to my blog from his, MartinTurnbull.wordpress, so let’s get to it:

1. What are you working on/writing? I’m currently dividing my creative focus between two projects. One is my bread and butter day job: ongoing revisions to my Southern Gothic ghost story TV pilot which was optioned by TriStar Television. The other is my as yet untitled second novel, which is very different from City of Whores. Yes, the protagonist works in Hollywood, but as a television writer this time, and he’s dealing with some life-altering issues rooted in having grown up in the South of the 1960s—a time when bigotry and prejudice were more or less accepted as the norm. It’s a more reflective piece than Whores, and only autobiographical in a few of the specific details.

2. How does your work/writing differ from others in its genre? For a time, I was “type cast” as a “family dramedy” and “youth oriented” writer. I used to joke that I’d spent most of my adult life firmly stuck in high school while toiling away on shows like The Wonder Years, Party of Five, and One Tree Hill. Fortunately, as I matured, new opportunities presented themselves and I had such fun on the series Ghost Whisperer and Revenge. But I can’t really say my work differed “from others in its genre” because a television writer by nature has to be adaptable to the voices of their showrunner. My ghost story pilot opens up some new terrain for me, and will allow me to finally work in the horror genre which I’ve adored ever since racing home after school to watch the original Dark Shadows (and no, Johnny Depp and Tim Burton, I will never forgive you). In terms of my fiction, City of Whores is my debut novel, and while I say it’s about Hollywood in the 1950s, that’s just the high stakes and glamorous setting for an unconventional love story about one man’s journey toward redemption.

3. Why do you write what you do? Honestly, I write television because it’s usually gratifying, fun, and rewarding. I’ve always said that if you hate change, don’t go into TV because it’s a very nomadic lifestyle. I also crave instant gratification, and in television, sometimes what you’re writing today will be in front of the cameras as early as tomorrow, then all-prettied up and playing on your TV a very short while later. It’s also been an amazing training ground for developing characters, plot, and long story arcs. In fact, a season of a television show is rather like a novel in a series, each episode representing one chapter. With City of Whores, I mostly wanted to tell a dysfunctional love story. The fun part was setting it during the twilight of Tinseltown’s Golden Age, which allowed me to immerse myself in the Old Hollywood I’ve loved since falling under its spell as a child thanks to NBC Saturday Night at the Movies. For me, fiction writing is a form of time travel: things I never had a chance to experience—like the Mocambo or the 20th Century Fox back lot or the maiden voyage of the SS United States—could be brought to life through research and imagination. By putting my fictional characters in these extraordinary settings, I could live vicariously through them. As for why I’m writing my next novel, I can only quote the woman who penned my favorite book of all time: “Any writer worth his salt writes to please himself…It’s a self-exploratory operation that is endless. An exorcism of not necessarily his demon, but of his divine discontent.” – Harper Lee

4. How does your writing process work? Network television, where you’re usually writing and producing twenty-two episodes per season (which is really twenty-two forty-five minute films in ten months!) is exactly like Lucy and Ethel in the chocolate factory. Once the show starts production, that conveyor belt is rolling, and you only have a certain amount of time to make sure all those little gems are perfectly packaged. Some will be great, some you’ll stuff in your apron, and some you’ll eat. The process is fast and only seems to speed up as the season unfolds. There’s no time for writer’s block when you’re constantly running around with your hair on fire while feeding the ravenous beast. As for my fiction, I usually start by cleaning out a closet or some other task. Seriously. It isn’t about avoiding the work, it’s a chance to think about the story, the characters, and their world, without having to face that panic-enducing blinking cursor. I started Whores in 1994 as part of a writers’ group, and then put it away for many years while I was constantly working crazy hours on the various TV shows that have made up my career. But when I discovered those chapters and notes again—while cleaning out my file drawers, by the way—I realized that my characters and that world had been subconsciously percolating during all the ensuing years, so I eagerly dove back in. It was the most fun I’ve ever had writing anything, in no small part because it was so liberating. Gone were the voices in my head: no line producer screaming at me that there’s no way we could recreate the filming of a scene from the 1953 Barbara Stanwyck film Titanic; no actors arguing heatedly with me while refusing to say a crucial line of dialog; no director freaking out about the sheer number of scenes; no studio telling me my characters would have to travel on the Queen Mary because it’s right here in Long Beach. Fiction set my imagination free, and it was so exhilarating, I’m now an addict for life.

And that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. Which brings us to…

One of the best things about working in television is the writers’ room. It’s my favorite part of the process—the camaraderie of other writers. Along the way, if you’re lucky, you even meet some keepers: fellow scribes who quickly become friends outside of the room and beyond the life of the show. For me, one of those keepers is the incredibly talented Ann Lewis Hamilton. Her delightful debut novel, Expecting, was just published in July. It’s simultaneously laugh-out-loud funny and incredibly poignant and moving. I devoured it. So now, as part of this here Blog Hop thingy, hoppity hop on over to the her very entertaining blog for bibliophiles, MyBookClubForOne. Stay tuned…