14

See you soon…

Writing this final post is conjuring all sorts of emotions in me. I’ve loved my year as a Debutante – loved connecting with my fellow Debs and the women who have gone before us, loved chatting with the readers and bloggers who have been kind enough to leave comments — and yet, it feels right to turn over the reins to a fresh new group of debut authors. (And, by the way, they’re a pretty fabulous group!)

A year ago, I was terrified I’d click the wrong button and crash this entire site – as well as the websites of everyone in the world named “Deb.” Now I upload pictures and link with aplomb (well, with as much aplomb as I can muster, given that I usually write at my kitchen counter, in a ratty t-shirt, while sipping cold coffee).

I’m happy to say I’ve gotten bit by the blogging bug – so starting next month, I’ll be blogging with a new group of fabulous women authors, including Beth Hoffman, Carleen Brice, Graduate Deb Jenny Gardiner, Alison Pace, and a few dozen others. You can check out our brand-spankin’-new website, Girlfriend Books, at http:/www.girlfriendbooks/blogspot.com  And please keep in touch by friending me on Facebook, following me on Twitter (@sarahpekkanen), or dropping me a line via my website!

In a nod to Bridget Jones, one of my favorite fictional characters, here’s my summary of the past year as a Deb:

New books written: 1 (Skipping a Beat, out on February 23!)

Pounds lost: 6 (v.g.)

Pounds gained: 6 (needs work)

Times I dreamed I’d forgotten to write my blog post: 1

Times I sat bolt upright at 5 a.m., having forgotten to write my Tuesday blog post: 1

Times I had my kid write my blog post for me: 1

Times I had to gently explain in response to emails that we were not the kind of Debutantes who wore white gloves: 5

Times I had to explain to a hot-shot TV producer who wanted to feature us in a reality show that we were not the kind of Debs who wore white gloves: 1

Times I received an email through the Deb Ball site asking if we sold trash cans: 1

Debs I’ve met in person: 2 (Alicia and Emily)

Graduate Debs who calmed me down when I was panicking about writing my second book: 1 (Thanks Kristina Riggle!)

Saturday guest authors who claimed they’d sent me their guest post but it must’ve gotten (repeatedly) lost: 1

Saturday guest authors who finally sent me the “lost” post, which started off by thanking another blog for hosting them: 1

Times I’ve read my fellow Debs’ posts and smiled, laughed or gotten teary: Countless

Many thanks to Alicia, Emily, Maria and Joelle for sharing this experience, and to all the Debs before us who have created and maintained this site! I look forward to toasting your successes in the years to come. And most of all, a heartfelt thanks to everyone who reads this blog.

xoxo – Sarah

8

If you like The Opposite of Me

If you like commercial women’s fiction with heart and humor, have I got some goodies for you to check out!

First, you must read anything and everything by Jennifer Weiner. My favorite book is In Her Shoes (which was made into a movie starring Cameron Diaz) but I also adore Little Earthquakes and Jen’s latest book, Fly Away Home.

Emily Giffin is another terrific, topical writer. My favorite of her five books? Something Blue.

Marian Keyes, an Irish writer, is just phenomenal. Start with her first book, Watermelon, and work your way through her hilarious, heartbreaking novels.

Need a laugh? Then don’t miss Jen Lancaster.

Some other books I adore: Pieces of Happily Ever After by Irene Zutell, Seven Year Switch by Claire Cook, The Last Will of Moira Leahy by Therese Walsh, Stay by Allie Larken, and Time of My Life by Allison Winn Scotch. And, of course, the books by current and Graduate Debs!

Happy reading!

15

Death to the goody bag

This week I couldn’t resist posting a column I wrote for Bethesda magazine on throwing birthday parties for my kids. Enjoy!

Death to the Goody Bag

Kids’ birthday parties have evolved in a Darwinian sense: Only the strong parents survive

By Sarah Pekkanen

I was wrestling an uncooperative bag of groceries out of my minivan when I spotted our 6-year-old neighbor, Ike, approaching me, his little brow thoughtfully wrinkled. “This ought to be good,” I thought.

It’s always fun to hear the questions Ike, a budding philosopher, is grappling with. One day I overheard him chatting up a group of bewildered-looking construction workers. Turns out Ike was polling them on whether they believed in God—and writing down their answers in his little black notebook, like a Gallup researcher recording the pulse of America.

From the look on his face, it was clear Ike had something equally weighty on his mind today. “I got the invitation to Jack’s birthday party,” he announced. “But what’s the theme?”

The theme?

Now I knew how those construction workers felt. I groped through my foggy, sleep-deprived brain until a memory shook loose: Ike’s birthday party a few months earlier had featured a Scooby-Doo theme. An elaborate treasure hunt wound its way from a pirate ship made out of tablecloths to a “Mystery Machine” (the family car in disguise) and culminated in the thrilling discovery that a ghost had stolen the birthday presents and it was up to the kids to save the day!

And hadn’t my children gone to an animal-themed party a while back—one that offered real chinchillas and giant lizards for them to stroke? What about the magician who enthralled a room full of preschoolers by making scarves change colors and quarters vanish—after which the kids decorated magic wands and popped balloons to discover toys hidden inside?

Ike was still staring at me with his round blue eyes. So I told him what I always tell my own kids when they ask me something I don’t have an answer for: “It’s a surprise!”

But the truth is, I don’t do themes. I don’t make obstacle courses out of old tires and ropes, or hire clowns, or serve cakes so elaborate they could grace the cover of a Pottery Barn Kids catalog. I am, in short, a complete flop at throwing kids’ birthday parties.

Maybe it’s because when I was growing up in Bethesda, birthday parties were all about a few rounds of musical chairs in someone’s back yard. My most vivid memory involves my older brother’s party, in which the entertainment was unwittingly provided by a 10-year-old boy who’d worn a football jersey with the name of his sister printed across the back (apparently his parents had fallen behind on their laundry—I’ve never met them, but feel a deep kinship with them).

Back then, birthday parties were just a sugared-up version of our usual Saturday afternoons. A pack of us kids would gather to drink grape Kool-Aid and eat peanut butter sandwiches decorated with indentations from a mother’s thumb. For me, the highlight came when I got a piece from the concave side of the cake—the part loaded with extra icing to make the cake look even.

I’d like to pretend I don’t make a fuss about birthday parties because I’m trying to recreate the kind of carefree, unscheduled childhood I had for my own kids. But I secretly think it’s because there’s a birthday party hex on me.

How else to explain my dismal track record? When Jack turned 3, I invited over all his friends and many of my own, reasoning that they’d enjoy eating pizza in our back yard. It rained. Everyone showed up—and some people seemed to have rented extra children and spouses to bring along. As the walls of our house receded, I careened from one crisis to another (“No, no, little Winston, don’t rub ice cream into our walls—use crayons, like our kids do!”). At one point, as I sprinted past a group of preschoolers, I realized they were all staring at me in shock. I was holding a pair of kitchen shears I’d just pulled from the hands of a future juvenile delinquent—I’m pretty sure it was one of my own kids—and running with them, tips up.

A few months later came my son Will’s second birthday party. This time, the weather was great. Only my time-management skills were slightly off. With two minutes left until the doorbell started ringing, I raced around, my hair still wet, frantically kicking sippy cups and dirty socks into closets while simultaneously dialing Domino’s. (My husband, Glenn, was hiding to avoid the stress-induced fight I customarily pick at times like these.)

It isn’t only my own kids’ parties I manage to ruin. My family recently went to a party at Kenwood Country Club—bowling was the theme—for a neighborhood child. Will, then 2 years old, announced to the assembled guests that he needed a bathroom.

Unfortunately, he used language frowned upon at country clubs.

Glenn tried to lead him to the men’s room, but Will banished him with a stern look, shouting, “I go SELF!” After a minute, my husband tiptoed in to find Will prepared to go about his business. The only problem was, Will was sitting on a urinal. While we waited for the blue, circle-shaped imprint of the deodorizer to fade from his bottom, we crossed the country club off a dwindling list of establishments that still welcome us inside.

The only thing I do right at my kids’ birthday parties—and this I report with mixed emotions—is I never forget to hand out goody bags. But I’d like to have a little chat with the person who came up with that concept— “Hey, let’s reward kids for going to birthday parties!”—because every parent I’ve ever met secretly loathes goody bags. We may admonish our kids to stand firm in the face of peer pressure, but no mom or dad seems strong enough to be the first to just say no to handing out goody bags.

Who could bear to have the final moments of their child’s birthday party be filled with the wails of ripped-off-feeling kids? Imagine the playground taunts: “Hugo’s mom didn’t even give out goody bags after the moon bounce and fire-breathing juggler and dinosaur excavation! What a rotten party!”

So for now, I’ll keep filling those overpriced little bags with stickers and tiny plastic toys—and you parents can keep throwing them in the trash the second you leave the party. But as for themes, well, I’m sticking to my routine of defective piñatas and inadequate supplies of juice boxes.

Isn’t that a great surprise, Ike? (Yeah, my own kids never fall for it either.)

18

Congrats, Deb Alicia!

I absolutely loved Simply From Scratch.

It’s the sort of book I’d naturally be drawn to in a store, because of the warm, engaging cover, the fun title, and the glowing cover quotes from authors like Marisa de los Santos.  So I’m very lucky I got to read an early copy – and the book was, without a doubt, everything I hoped it would be. As I’ve gotten to know Alicia this year, I’ve realized how sweet, compassionate, and good-hearted she is – and yet, there’s a secret side of her that loves rock ‘em-sock ‘em kung-fu movies. It all makes sense, because her book – so warm-hearted and hopeful! – also packs a powerful emotional punch.

Here are just a few things I adore in Alicia’s book:

* The narrator’s name, Zell – what a cool, creative nickname for Rose-Ellen!

* The pirate-speak. Cracks me up every time Zell assumes the voice of her dog, Captain Ahab, and mimics him calling her a “saucy wench” or “yellow-bellied milksop.”

* The big twist involving a character.

* The present inside Nick’s box. I get teary just thinking about this one.

You’ll love Simply From Scratch, too. I’m not at all surprised that it’s already a bestseller in Germany. Treat yourself and buy a copy by clicking here! And don’t forget to test out Alicia’s own recipe in the back.

Please leave a comment below to be entered for a chance to win a copy of Simply From Scratch!

Congrats, Alicia! Here’s to a fabulous debut. I’m proud to be in the 2010 class with you!

9

Don’t trash it… yet

On the top of my computer armoire is a stack of writing books. One of my favorites is Stephen King’s On Writing. It’s part memoir, part “toolkit,” as King calls it. The horror master reveals his tricks of the trade, and talks about how the love of writing gripped him as a child.

But my favorite anecdote in this beautifully-written book?

It’s the story of how King began the book Carrie.   He was dead broke, married with a few kids, and working as a schoolteacher. He wrote in every spare second, like a lot of us do. The idea for his novel about a teenager girl who had the power of telekinesis came to him, and he typed up a few pages – before realizing they were awful. In frustration, he crumpled them up and threw them in his overflowing trash can.

Later his wife, Tabitha, spotted the pages. She brushed off the cigarette ash, smoothed them out, and began to read. Then she handed them back to King. “You’ve got something here,” she told him. “I really think you do.”

Carrie launched King’s career and proved that wives really do know best. Er, I mean that before trashing a work in progress, it’s always a good idea for a writer to get a second set of eyeballs on the page.

In my second novel, Skipping a Beat, my main character, Julia Dunhill, sees bits of her life in scenes from the world’s great operas. One is Cavalleria Rusticana. The backstory to the tale of tenor Turiddu and his love Lola is just as fascinating for me as the actual opera. Composer Pietro Mascagni was a dirt-poor piano teacher when he wrote it for an opera competition, hoping a win would reverse his fortunes. Like so many artists, he was incredibly self-critical, and he ended up despairing of his work. But his wife believed in him, and she secretly mailed it to the judges (again the wife!) He won, and just like that, in the snap of a finger, his life turned around.

The moral is clear: Don’t trash your work. Set is aside. Re-read it another day, or better yet, ask Stephen King’s wife to read it for you.  Sure, the work might belong in the trash can. But you also might be sitting on something pretty spectacular.

10

Pugs galore

I’m a dog person. Don’t get me wrong – I love cats, too. And monkeys and hamsters, birds and even lizards.

But maybe because I grew up in a house full of pugs, dogs have a special place in my heart. We had four of them, and they pretty much regarded themselves – and were treated – like our less articulate siblings. They slept in our beds, cuddled on our laps while we watched TV, and even stole food off our plates (yes, we violated every single dog-rearing principle the experts warn us not to).

Recently, the hysterically funny author Wade Rouse asked me to contribute an essay to his upcoming anthology, I’m Not The Biggest Bitch In This Relationship. It is, as you’ve hopefully guessed, a collection of essays by writers who adore dogs (My husband just tried to make a joke, but I elbowed him in the solar plexis).

At first I thought I’d write about my black lab, Bella, who shares my author photo. But Bella is too mellow to create good material: she likes every dog she meets, she befriends cats, she loves to ride in cars, and she happily sleeps on a big cushion on the floor right next to my bed. Bella, though one of the sweetest creatures on the planet, isn’t quirky enough to sustain a 2,500 word essay.

But the pugs. Ah, the pugs could fill the whole freaking book. Though some proceeds of Wade’s anthology will go to the Humane Society, writing my part was actually a gift to myself.  I was flooded with memories of my childhood, and grew alternately giddy and weepy as I recalled the pugs’ antics. Like the time Delilah stole the giant Hershey bar my brother won at a Halloween party and buried it under my father’s pillow (sometime around midnight, he went to plump up his pillow and discovered his body heat had melted the chocolate, all over his sheets). Or the time my polite, refined future sister-in-law visited our house for the first time and watched, stunned into silence, as a pug walked under a coffee table and our iguana strolled out the other side (“What kind of coffee table was that?” she asked years later).  Or the day my mother phoned me at college to tell me she had to call the vet to come to our house to put McDuff – our final, ailing pug – to sleep.

It’s impossible for me to imagine what my childhood would have been like without pets. And just today, my son asked if we could get a cat, or possibly a hamster. I’m pretty sure he’s going to have an easy time wearing me down on this issue. I know pets are messy, a big responsibility, and expensive. Yet none of that comes close to the importance of the love I’ve gotten from them through the years.

Please keep an eye out for Wade’s anthology, to be published in 2011!

9

The Debs come thisclose to getting a reality show

The 2010 Debs were almost contenders. Household names. We came so close to hitting the cover of People magazine, sitting down for an intimate chat with Oprah, and being forced to open extra bank accounts to cash all of our checks.

Except for a wee misunderstanding.

Here’s how it played out: Last November, I received an email that sent me into a tizzy involving medicinal gulps of wine, frantic phone calls, and fleeting thoughts about the possibility of minor plastic surgery. Below is the email I sent to my fellow Debs describing the incident.

Okay, I’ve been screaming with laughter all night. I got an unsolicited email a few hours ago from someone who said she was a TV producer and wanted to do a reality show on us Debs. I freaked out, called Alicia, we both Googled the woman and I learn she has won 2 emmys and worked with Ellen DeGeneres and Simon Cowell. Holy crap! She’s big-time!

My husband comes home and I shout, “Do you want to be on a reality show with me?”

He responds calmly, “Why not?” (I was hoping for a more impressed reaction).

I throw the baby at my husband, pour a glass of wine, perfect my pitch and call the producer back.

I’m 2 minutes into my spiel of why we would make a killer reality show — “There’s Maria – she’s sexy and fun and a big radio personality! And Alicia is an incredible self-taught musician and is married to another author! Emily lives in England and has a big two-book deal and homeschools her kids! Joelle has this incredible life – she’s married to a photographer and she’s so into sustainable living! And I write my books at Chuck E. Cheese while my kids whine for tokens!”

Producer woman cuts in – “Whoa. Wait a minute. I think my wires got crossed here. I’m trying to do a show on debutantes.”

Me: “Like with the gloves?’

Producer woman: “Yes.”

Me: “Oh.”

Producer woman:

Me:

Sounds of producer woman trying to get off the phone as fast as possible.

Man, we were so close to stardom!!!! It gets funnier and funnier the more I think about it.  As Alicia says, who in their right minds would think a TV show about writers would be riveting?

8

Fireworks are like books…

Fireworks are kind of like books.

You want to grab attention from the very first moment, with an explosive sound and dazzle of color, or a gripping opening line. You’re telling your audience that the show is on – and it’s going to be a doozy. But you can’t shoot off all your fireworks at once, leaving people feeling shortchanged. You need to establish a rhythm – a burst of excitement followed by a quick pause so folks can catch their breath. But even during the quiet moments, the audience knows not to avert its eyes, because they might miss something.

And the most important part? The finale. Viewers (or readers) should be rapt and sighing, fully satisfied and entertained.

I’m gearing up to start writing my third book, now that my second one, SKIPPING A BEAT, is into copy-editing. I’m going to tape a little note to my computer that says, “Fireworks” to remind myself to bring them to as many pages as possible…

9

Signing a book

About a month before The Opposite of Me came out, I booked a signing at the big Barnes & Noble in my hometown of Bethesda, Maryland. The lovely folks at the bookstore followed up with a long email to my publicist, asking all sorts of questions. Did I prefer to sign with a pen or a sharpie? Which page of my book would I be signing? Would I like to have a bookstore representative write down the the names of the folks waiting in line so I wouldn’t misspell someone’s name?

I’d long dreamed of autographing my book, but I’d never thought about the mechanics of the process. Since then, I’ve collected stories of what other authors do. One signs on the last page of his books, just to be different. Most scrawl their signatures on the crowded page that lists the book’s title and the name of the author and the publisher’s information. For me, it felt right to sign on the page that just lists my title – because I like to have the extra space to include a little note along with my signature.

If I know the person receiving my novel, I’ll write something personal – an expression of gratitude for their friendship and support, or maybe a few words that will conjure a happy memory. If I’m signing stock, or inscribing a book as a gift, I’ll usually write “Happy reading!” along with a few x’s and o’s and my name. It turns out I do prefer sharpies, but I’m just as happy signing with any other kind of pen.

And you know what? Each and every time I sign a book, I’m just as excited as I was the first time.

11

My Dad, by Deb Sarah

My father is one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. He loves to laugh at himself, which is a rare and admirable trait. He’s quick with a quip, he spontaneously comes up with silly poems that rhyme with my sons’ names, and he’s a terrific writer (seven non-fiction books – one of which was made into a CBS Sunday Night movie and got him an appearance on Oprah, and countless magazine articles, including two that won him National Magazine Awards). He’s an incredibly kind, sentimental man who loves his family and adores my Mom (he still calls her “my bride” after 47 years of marriage). One of the things I’ll always be grateful to him for is that he taught me so much about writing – and he’s still my first and best editor.

Here is a story Dad loves to tell about raising us kids:

Once, in the grocery store, my father was struggling to put my younger brother Ben into the seat in the front of the cart. Ben kept stiffening his legs, causing my Dad to practically do contortions to try to wedge Ben’s chubby little legs into the right holes. Suddenly, my older brother shouted, “Lock your legs, Ben!” Ben obeyed, at which point my older brother and I – knowing my father was immobilized – promptly pulled down my father’s pants. He laughed about it then, and gets absolutely hysterical recalling the story today.

But Dad can get mad, too. Once my older brother and some of his teen-aged friends hopped the fence at our neighborhood swimming pool for a midnight dip. One of the pool board members lived nearby and saw them – and called the police. Dad was so furious that this guy – who’d been a referee at many of our swim meets and shared pot-luck with us – had tried to get the kids in serious trouble for a teen-aged prank that he refused to speak to him for twenty years. Twenty! The moral is, don’t mess with Dad’s kids. Even though Dad is now friendlier to that guy, I’m pretty sure he’d still put a “kick me” sign on his back, given the chance.

Happy belated Father’s Day, Dad! I love you very much.