The First Novel Mambo: Early Readers

Previously, I wrote about the prepping, planning, plotting, and writing of my novel.

After writing, rewriting, and reading through and rewriting again, my draft was ready to be read by someone other than me. I’ve been Scott’s first/alpha reader for all of his books so far, so of course he was mine.

For both of us, we like to read the book in Word. It isn’t as convenient or hand-held as a copy on Kindle, but we both like Word’s commenting and markup features. On Scott’s two most recent books, my number of comments passed the 100 mark.

We made minor changes to each other’s manuscripts: putting in a missing quotation mark here, fixing a misspelled word there. But most of the notes were calling out any one of a number of issues, from confusion (anytime you have to read back and ask yourself, what just happened here?) to echoes (words or phrases that repeat in a sentence, paragraph, or throughout the book) to pacing and plot holes.

(We are both also careful to make notes when things delight us, or make us laugh out loud. There’s nothing worse than a huge scoop of criticism with no praise sprinkled on top.)

The worst part, of course, is getting back a marked-up manuscript with someone’s notes all over it. And then reading through it and thinking Seriously? How can that NOT be clear enough? (Although Scott and I are usually on the same page about things. It also helps that since we’re in the same house, we can get more clarity about the comments.

After taking in Scott’s notes and thinking about them, I proceeded to revise the book again.

Then, it was time for some beta readers who didn’t live in my house. We actually didn’t have too much overlap between our groups of readers─I think only one person has given feedback on every book that the House of Meyer has produced. I opted to send my book out to a half-dozen friends in various fields, and hoped that at least half of them would read it and send feedback. (Which is almost exactly the response rate. I don’t harbor any ill will toward those who didn’t get back to me; life gets in the way, and I realize that it’s a big ask.)

The responses were interesting, to say the least. Things one person had a huge problem with, the others didn’t mention at all. There were actually very few things that all readers agreed on. And on receiving each response, there was always that feeling of Really? Seriously? No way I’m making that change!

And then a couple of days would pass, and I’d think about the changes and suggestions over that couple of days, and I’d end up either adding in some detail or adjusting things. Or, in one case, rewriting two chapters from scratch with a totally different angle. I also changed a couple of names and stripped out even more echoed words and phrases.

There were, of course, a few notes that didn’t inspire any changes. One reader wanted some steamy sex, which wasn’t what I was going for. (Scott and I both write for adults, but our stuff could absolutely be read by teens.) But others helped out enormously─one of my readers was a woman who worked in software, and she cleared up some glaring problems in my understanding of the industry.

Bottom line, every one of the early readers had something to contribute that made my novel better. I think it’s just as essential as having a professional editor.

Next up: the professional editing experience!

We Could Be VillainsCheck out my new novel, We Could Be Villains!

Kindle: (USA | UK | Canada)

Paper: (CreateSpace Store | Amazon – US | UK)

Also, if you’ve read and enjoyed my book, please consider leaving a review on Amazon! 🙂

The First Novel Mambo: Prepping and Writing

This is the first in what’s going to be a series of posts about how my first novel came into being. Like so many people, I’d always wanted to write a novel, but always had excuses why it wasn’t a good time. Well, I finally did it, and here’s how.

Setting a Timeline

I’d watched my husband Scott write a pair of novels the previous year, and he was just starting into a third. Granted, he’d been working part-time, while I was working full-time, but I still figured that if he could do it, I could do it. NO EXCUSES.

I chose my start date carefully─since I had a habit of coming home, eating dinner, then watching TV for a couple of hours, I decided to start writing on June 1st, when most TV programs went on hiatus for the summer. If there wasn’t good TV to distract me, I could probably avoid the siren’s song of bad summer-replacement TV.

Prepping / Outlining

For about a month leading up to my June 1st start date, I worked on an outline. They say there are two kinds of writers: plotters and pantsers (the latter fly by the seat of their pants). The plotters draw up an outline and all sorts of lists in advance, while pantsers go in with a bunch of ideas in their heads, a couple of character names, and maybe a few scattered notes. I’d pantsed in the past, and the problem was always that I’d get stuck and put things aside, and only come back to them much, much later. I figure that’s how some books take years to write.

This was the first time that I plotted, and I know now that it’s definitely the way for me. I wrote up a character cheat sheet─everyone has a last name, and an age, and hair color / eye color / build / nationality / etc. Even if those things don’t come up in the book.

I also wrote a rough outline of the whole book, with a paragraph for each chapter. In the beginning, I’d just ask questions of myself in the outline, and highlight them. If I saw any yellow on that thing, I knew that meant there were blanks I needed to fill in before I could start writing, so that I wouldn’t get stuck on a problem and then stop while I waited for inspiration to come.

That’s not to say that I followed the outline precisely. Looking at it now, there are parts of it crossed off, and things are moved around all over the place, and there’s a chapter 10.5 in between 10 and 11. And for a lot of things, I found better solutions for problems as I was writing. But I had the original solutions there, in case they were needed.

(I’m actually in the middle of plotting and prepping for my next book, which I plan on starting December 1st. Because TV gets pretty crappy around the holidays, too.)

There are a ton of tools out there that you can use to help with strucure, from Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet (aka “Save the Cat”) to the classic three-act structure. I started with Save the Cat as a general baseline and branched off from there on my own.

Writing

When June 1st rolled around, I had an outline, a list of characters, and a pretty good idea of how the book was going to go. There were still plenty of places to take side roads and detours, but I had my outline to always go back to.

After dinner every night that month, instead of sitting in front of the TV, I sat in front of the computer. And for about two hours a night, I pounded out as many words as I could. Some people edit as they go; I just wanted to get the words out, knowing that I could edit them later. I kept a spreadsheet and plugged in the total number of words each night (thanks, Word, for putting that in plain sight down in the corner) and used a formula to show the daily totals.

writing-spreadsheet

My goal was 2,000 words per night, though I ended up pretty much writing a chapter a night, whatever length it turned out to be. Although if a chapter was under 2,000 words, I kept going until I passed 2,000. (Looking at the spreadsheet, there’s one day that’s exactly 2,000. Which is eerie.) As you can see, some days I did a bit better. Scott writes on a timer, but I need to keep going until I get to a natural place to stop. The times I tried to stop writing in the middle of a scene, I couldn’t stop thinking about it until I went back and finished. But if I made it to the end of a scene or a chapter, I was able to relax afterward.

The first draft took exactly 30 days. On June 30, I hit 81,606 words and typed “THE END”. Which I then erased, because books don’t end with that anymore. Still, it felt good to write.

Editing the Draft

Some authors will tell you that for your second draft, you should cut 10% off of your first draft. That may be what works for them, but it wasn’t what worked for me. I ended up adding almost 10,000 words through a couple of passes through the manuscript─a new scene here, more detail there, swapping plot points around so that things made more sense. If I read through and asked myself if a reader would have a question about something, I rewrote for clarity or added more detail. My edits took over a month.

Finally, in mid-August, I was ready for someone other than me to read the book.

Next up: beta readers, and how totally amazeballs they are.

We Could Be Villains
Check out my new novel, We Could Be Villains!

Kindle: (USA | UK | Canada)

Paper: (CreateSpace Store | Amazon – US | UK)

Also, if you’ve read and enjoyed my book, please consider leaving a review on Amazon! 🙂

A Novel Idea: We Could Be Villains

So some of you may already know, and some may not, but I published a novel this week.

A lot of writing advice boils down to: write the book you want to read. So that’s what I did with We Could Be Villains. It’s primarily a lighthearted action/adventure story, with elements of superheroes, sci-fi, heists, and chick lit. (If you’ve read any of Scott’s books, you already know that ours is not a household dealing in super-serious dramatic works.)

At first I referred to it as “a geek girl beach read,” but half of the early readers were guys who enjoyed it. Plus, beach reads were more of a thing back in June, when I started writing. Anyhoo, if it sounds like something you might enjoy, the book is currently available on Kindle, with the paper version coming in the next week or two (it takes more time to get the print formatting just right). And it’s available through Kindle Unlimited as well.

We Could Be Villains

This was my first foray into the self-publishing world. I actually didn’t even consider going through the process of trying to get a literary agent, who would then try to get a book deal at a big publishing house. Self-pubbing means keeping all of my rights, and getting better royalties.

I’d watched Scott go through the entire self-publishing process a couple of years ago, when he first put out Off to Be the Wizard. But I didn’t really pay close attention to all of the necessary steps, from cover design to layout to formatting to uploading. So I got to learn most of the steps through my own trial and error, and by using tutorials and blog posts online.

I figured I’d add to that pile of blog posts, since they’re what I found the most helpful. I’m putting together a list of topics — things I had to learn in order to get this book out to the masses — and I’ll be doing some posts on those topics in the near future. If there’s any part of the process you’ve wondered about, let me know!

Photodump: 2014 So Far, and Introducing Cheddar

It’s only been, what, nine months since I’ve updated over here? It’s because Holiday Doodles has pretty much eaten up the time I used to be able to put into writing blog posts. Someday, when Scott’s books are making a bajillion dollars, I’ll be able to quit working full-time and do more creative works. Until that day, though, the hours outside of the day job are scant and precious.

I never did introduce Cheddar, aka Tillamook Medium Cheddar, our new cat. So I’ll combine that in a photodump that’ll catch up on the last nine months.

Cheddar and Scott at the shelter.

We got Cheddar the day after Thanksgiving. We were ready to go on Thanksgiving, but the shelters were closed.

Commie had passed just a week before, but Trouble was very mopey, and so were we. I looked at the pictures of cats on the shelter’s website, and really liked the looks of this little orange and white girl. But of course, we decided to let a cat pick us, as we always have.

We went into the large room where all of the well-socialized adult cats were (no kittens for me; way too much hassle) and I sat down, and what do you know, the very same orange and white girl jumped immediately into my lap, lay down, and started purring. SOLD! Her former name was “Blonde”, and I’m not sure if that’s pronounced like the hair color or like the cartoon character married to Dagwood. At any rate, it took about a week after bringing her home for her name to appear. (Of course, we have 100 nicknames for her at this point.)

She was 2-1/2 when we got her. She’d been in the shelter just a couple of days shy of SIX MONTHS. Which right there is why we’ll always get adult cats. The kittens fly out the doors, and this sweet and gentle cat had to wait a half year for us to come along.

Moving with Cheddar

The biggest thing of the year so far is that we moved house a couple of months ago. Our old apartment complex had upped the rent significantly for the previous couple of years, and they tore down the greenbelt between the apartment and the turnpike. Then they started construction on the turnpike, which included some awesome pile driving in the middle of the night.

We decided to move much closer to work, so I wouldn’t have to drive on the interstate anymore. That was, and continues to be, one of the big triggers for my anxiety.

Cheddar and toy stacking.

Both cats were incredibly patient throughout the move, and kept their mellow for the most part. Although only Cheddar is mellow enough to let me stack toys on her. (My record so far is seven.)

Cheddar helping Scott.

Scott’s been getting a lot of assistance when he works. His fourth novel is in the draft stage right now, and I think it’s his best so far. Since I last posted, two out of three of the Magic 2.0 trilogy have been published: Off to Be the Wizard came out with its second edition in March, and Spell or High Water came out in June. The third book of the trilogy, An Unwelcome Quest, is currently available for pre-order and comes out in February of 2015.

Trouble and Cheddar and a book!

The girls modeled OtBtW when it came out. As you can see, they’re pretty chill with each other. They don’t cuddle at all, but they spend quite a bit of time near each other. And there’s often some exciting play-chasing around the apartment. Trouble has lost some weight, since she now has a more active cat to frolic with.

The Cheddar is in.

In the new apartment, my inbox is apparently really comfortable. Though sometimes she’ll plop right down on my graphics tablet, or in front of the keyboard.

What have I been working on while Scott writes novels and Basic Instructions? Well, there’s the Holiday Doodles, which just turned two years old in concept (two years ago, I was doing them on a whiteboard at work) and just turned one year old online. There are also other various projects at home.

And as for work, I changed jobs there too! I’m with the same team, but doing different tasks. Now I get to listen to a lot of music and discover a lot of new bands, which is pretty cool. I’ve never been this up on the Billboard Hot 100 in my life, not even when I worked in radio. I’ll have to post some new and exciting music for you all.

Cheddar loves boxes.

Our new apartment has laminate floors, which is a first for us. And I LOVE IT. Carpets are gross. We do still have carpets in the bedrooms, but it’s tolerable. Especially since it’s a newly constructed apartment, so we’re the first people to walk on these particular carpets. This apartment has already taught me that I don’t necessarily want granite countertops when we finally buy a place (we got a whole page on the care and feeding of our granite counters), but I’ll definitely want one of these flat glass cooktops, and a side-by-side fridge with ice and water in the door. Heaven!

So, to sum up the last 9 months: things are busy, but good. And these cats are delightful.

Photodump: The Tail End of 2013

Well well well, if it isn’t 2014. I haven’t dumped photos for quite some time, so here are some things that I saw in the tail end of 2013.

turkey cake

My cube neighbor at work has a late November birthday, and 2013 was one of the years where that birthday fell on Thanksgiving day. So I tried my hand at making a cake with marshmallow fondant. I’d made it once before, but several years ago. (Overall, I judge it as pretty easy, but really time-consuming. And really delicious.) I was going to make the turkey golden-brown cooked color, but as I added the food coloring bit by bit, I came out with this flesh-tone before I got to brown, and figured I’d stick with it. Because it has more … character.

Scott's warty foot

Scott had some plantar warts. The podiatrist put acid on them, repeatedly. The entire affair was fascinating. The best part was when he’d go in two weeks after the acid treatment, and they’d carve away all of the dead skin, then sand him down with a Dremel tool. To celebrate the final acid treatment (which happened a few weeks ago), we’re going for pedicures. I will try to convince him to go for nail polish, but I will most likely fail.

Holiday Doodles art

My little Holiday Doodles continue to be a delightful project. My phone is chock full of pictures of the drawings, because it’s easier to take pictures than to try to use our printer/scanner. Half the time, it won’t connect wirelessly. Then half of the time it does connect, the scanner doesn’t want to work. I don’t know if we’ve EVER had a printer that’s worked seamlessly; for some reason, they’re always twitchy and buggy for us.

The Doodles also premiered on GoComics this last month, which is totally awesome. I’m tickled to be a part of the same family as Dilbert, Garfield, and Basic Instructions.

Queen of Cakes

I’ve also been dabbling into other artsy projects. I got a box of blank playing cards, and a package of fine-point Sharpies; here’s the “Queen of Cakes” card I made for my friend Jen.

Personalized plates

I’ve started playing a little game, in which I give backstories to people with personalized license plates. For example, here’s TOY LNDR. Lots of options when you throw in vowels, but I think he’s a Toy Lender. He owns a small company that will rent you whatever toy you desire, rare or common, from Tickle Me Elmo to Tomagotchi to the Barbie Dream House, so for an hour or two you can enjoy a return to your childhood.

Yesterday on my way to work, I was behind WAGG1R1 for a short while. It felt like she probably meant “Wag Girl”, and is probably just a huge fan of dogs. I, however, took the double use of the number 1s to both be analogues for the letter I. She is, then, The Great Waggiri, a world-famous magician with a dog-specific act.

naptime cats

Our new cat, Cheddar (ooh, I should do a post introducing her) is getting along quite well with Trouble. They’re not snuggle buddies, but they are usually within a few feet of each other when they’re lounging around. They definitely both like naps, and were patiently waiting for me to get my butt into bed on this particular lazy afternoon. (They also like to wake us up at 5 or 6 in the morning, so they’re totally to blame for the need for an afternoon nap.)

Scott would like me to point out here that HE’S THERE, NAPPING. One Scott, no waiting. Curl right up. And yet they’re both waiting for me. Poor guy.

Edward James Olmos

Last but not least, I love where I work. It’s not every workplace where Edward James Olmos (who I’m convinced is one of the nicest guys on the planet) stops by your office holiday potluck.

Comrade Meyer, 1998-2013

Comrade Meyer, 1998-2013

For those who haven’t heard yet, we had to put our wonderful cat Commie to sleep on November 22nd.

He’d been losing weight at an alarming rate, going from 16 pounds down to a little over 8; we did a bunch of tests at the vet, and he passed almost all of them with flying colors. It wasn’t one of the usual suspects: diabetes, thyroid issues, kidney, or liver. He did have a bit of protein in his urine, and evidence of a bacterial infection. We gave him kitty antibiotics, and planned on taking him back in for a new urine test when those were done, to figure out the cause of the protein.

Scott tried to take him in for the test a couple of times, but Commie got really good at having a pee at 5 or 6 in the morning before we got up, that sneaky little fellow. We figured we’d give it another chance on Friday.

For a few days, he’d been breathing a little heavier than usual. But on Friday (a day when he peed before we got up again, so devious), his breathing got heavier, and he started open-mouth panting. While dogs pant with their mouths open to cool down, when a cat pants it’s usually a pretty bad sign. Scott took him in to the vet that afternoon, and I met up with them there after work; they were just finishing up taking x-rays, so we could get a better idea of what was going on.

The x-rays showed that his chest was full of fluid. The vet talked us through the possibilities, but it was clear to all of us that he was in pain, and any type of diagnostic testing would cause him even more pain. And of the two big problems it could be (congestive heart failure or feline infectious peritonitis), neither could be cured. So we made the painful, difficult choice to have him put to sleep.

We had a great 15 years with Commie; it was sheer luck that the day we went to the Humane Society was the same day he’d just been released from quarantine, having been removed from a seized Russian fishing vessel off the Washington coast. The crew was deported, and a half-dozen animals went for adoption. We took little Commie, less than a year old, into the little visiting room, and he climbed straight onto Scott’s lap and curled up for a nap. From that very first day, he was a sweet, cuddly, wonderful lap cat with a great personality. My friend Allison referred to him as a gentleman, and that’s absolutely what he was.

We thought we were going to lose him three years ago, when he had a tumor in his eye socket; it didn’t react to steroids, antibiotics, or anti-inflammatory medication, but after we made the decision to not torment him with more hopeless treatment and just enjoy our last few weeks with him, the tumor spontaneously went away. The vet referred to him as a miracle cat. So we ended up getting three bonus years of him. Which, of course, wasn’t enough.

It’s interesting to note that he passed on Humane Society Day. It’s thanks to them that we had 15 amazing years with one of the sweetest cats I’ll ever know.

Commie on the Laundry

Weird Holidays = Holiday Doodles

A few months back, I posted about the daily doodles I was doing at work. And more than one person said that I should be putting them online somewhere, or make a daily calendar, or something.

The calendar thing would be a challenge, only because at this point, I’d have to start researching and drawing 2015. Because that’s how the calendar business rolls. But I did finally build a site where these will be online!

The daily doodles are now at holidaydoodles.com, and I’ve even bumped from 5 days a week up to 7. So now there’s a doodle for every darned day.

The archives are a work in progress, since I’m now colorizing everything in the computer, and a lot of the old ones were colored in with crayon or pencil. So let me show you how I’m building the archives (and the new holidays are done in a very similar way).

copying the archives

I figured that a light table to trace my old stuff on would be prohibitively expensive. But I was wrong! Yes, the big fancy light tables cost hundreds of dollars. But did you know that the magnificent folks at Crayola make a light-up tracing pad for a mere twenty bucks? It fits an 8.5×11 sheet of paper, runs on three AA batteries, and is plenty bright for my needs.

Tracing pad in hand, I started putting five or six drawings on a sheet of paper. I’d copy them over in pencil, then re-draw with my pen of choice: the classic (and cheap) Paper Mate Flair. (I use these at work, too, in a variety of colors.) Bolder than ball-point, not as fat and runny as Sharpie, the Flair rocks my little socks.

photographing the archives

Next, getting the new drawings into the computer. Yes, we have a scanner. It’s part of the printer/scanner/copier device we have. And like all printers, it chooses not to work correctly approximately 42% of the time. Instead, what I’m doing is taking pictures of the drawings with my phone. As long as I’m connected to wi-fi, they upload immediately to my DropBox space, and they’re automatically available on my computer. Much faster than scanning.

computer tracing the archives

In Adobe Illustrator, I run a process called “Live Trace” over the drawings. It takes them from plain old JPGs and turns them into vector art, which can be sized as small or large as you want without a change in quality. Sometimes it takes some tickling in the Live Trace settings, to get things just how I want them, but it’s pretty quick. By the way, this is the same process that Scott uses on his characters, as I showed in my Basic Instructions: Behind the Scenes exposé.

Finally, I color in the drawings using the plain old paint bucket tool. I only learned this week that Illustrator has a huge bunch of patterns that you can paint bucket with, as well as solid colors. You can probably see some of the patterns I’ve added to my bucket fill library there on the right. Haven’t found a reason to use any of them yet, but now I have them at the ready.

before and after

I save the colorized versions, upload them to the Holiday Doodles site, add in a brief commentary, and set them free.

For upcoming days, I’m doing them seven at a time on the weekend, then scheduling them so they post at 12:01 AM Eastern time every day. And I’m learning my lessons about researching before drawing — I had Tom Cruise Day ready to go for October 5, drawn up and everything, then learned that it’s actually October 6. Or maybe October 10, but I’m rolling with the 6th. I try for a minimum of two holidays per day, but I’m happy when it’s three or more. I have a five-holiday day coming up this week, which delights me.

Experiments in Wine: A Bunch of Red Bottles

A variety of red wine options

Slowly but surely, I’m trying this and that, these and those, and figuring out what I really like.

Rex-Goliath Free Range Red ($8) – They have this at BOTH local grocery chains, so it must be really popular. But as far as red blends go, I found it to be a little bit too bitter for my tastes. Which is a shame, because the bottle has an awesome crazy story about a 47-pound rooster. (Though it wasn’t as awesome crazy as the label on anything made by Dr. Bronner.)

The Little Penguin Pinot Noir ($7) – Another sad disappointment. Not very fruity or juicy, just kind of bitter and harsh.

Yellow Tail Sweet Red Roo ($7) – This wasn’t a bad cheap sweet red, but for the same price I can get the Barefoot Sweet Red, which remains one of my top cheap sweet reds. This wine was like Disney’s California Adventure theme park — anywhere else, it’d be really awesome. But next to Disneyland, it just can’t compare.

Yosemite Road Red Blend ($4.99) – This is the house wine of 7-Eleven, people. They made it to compete with Trader Joe’s Three-Buck Chuck. I guess this stuff is $3.99 in every state except Florida, where we pay an extra dollar. Because reasons. Anyhoo, it was shockingly decent for being a five dollar bottle of wine. Not too sharp, plenty tasty with the fruit notes. I’ll be getting another bottle of this stuff (and I’ll be paying peanuts).

La Di Da Sweet Red Wine ($9) – I got both of the bottles on the right side at the same time, and I felt like a real froo-froo girl, what with all of the flowers and pretty colors on the labels. This was a pretty good red blend, and I just might get it again. After I get more of that 7-Eleven wine.

Petals Sweet Red Dornfelder ($10) – I was given the recommendation of German wines made from Dornfelder grapes, because I clearly lean toward the sweet and fruity wines. And holy balls, y’all, this stuff is good. It probably helps that it only has 9.5% alcohol (as opposed to the 11%-14% of a lot of table wines out there. There’s practically no bitterness, no dryness from tannins — it’s smooth as a baby’s bottom and soft as velvet. Really mild, really fruity, and really tasty. I’ll definitely be checking out more Dornfelders.

Experiments in Wine: Joining Club W

Onward I go, in my new red wine adventures. I was pointed toward a mail-order service called Club W, wherein you get three bottles of wine a month. You can either select your own, or they’ll pick three for you based on a palate profile. The normal cost is $13 per bottle, plus $6 shipping for the 3-bottle case, but if you click that link you’ll get one bottle free in your first order. Which is what I got, so with tax and all, it came out to just over $30 for my first shipment. (Sorry, international readers; at this time, Club W is USA-only.)

The first part of signing up is profiling your palate. The site gives you six questions, such as:

Club W - Palate Profile

You can see my selected answer. Coffee? Heck naw. The profiler also asks how you feel about salt, citrus, berries, earthy flavors (like mushrooms or truffles), and how adventurous you are in general. Then it offers you a selection of wines they feel will suit your palate.

I picked three of the recommended wines — a Pinot Noir, a red blend, and a Malbec. Club W does a pretty tight job of curating their wines, so you’re likely to only find one bottle in any given style. But that’s OK — there were two styles I knew I’d probably like, and I’ve heard good things about Malbecs. And since I got a bottle for free, I figured if I didn’t like the Malbec, that could be the free one. 🙂

The Club W site is very simple; perhaps a bit too simple for some. It took some figuring out (and a chat with support) to really understand how they do things; if you get promotional items for free (such as the free bottle when signing up with an affiliate link, like my one above) you get a number of credits in your account equal to the dollar value — so if you get a free bottle, you’ll get 13 credits in your account. Nowhere on the site does it state that a credit equals a dollar, and in this world of things like Xbox Points and such (What kind of exchange rate is 80 Xbox points to the dollar, anyway?) you never really know what a credit means.

Anyhoo, I got my 13 credits, placed my order, the credits were applied, and a week later my order shipped. All told, it took about two weeks to get the wine — I ordered on the 14th, my order shipped on the 20th, and it arrived on the 27th. It appears that they process orders twice a month, on the 1st and the 15th, so I just got in under the wire for the processing on the 15th. It takes a little longer because they ship climate-controlled, which is nice. I’ll take the longer ship time to avoid boiling my wine here in Florida.

If you need to skip a month, they make that easy. There’s a big “Skip a Month” button on your account page.

Onward, to the shipment and the wines!

Club W Wine Suitcase

My order arrived in a really nice box with a handle — easy-peasy to carry. There’s a huge sticker on the side that you need someone 21 or over to sign for the package; since we weren’t home, it was delivered to the office at our complex, so all was good. They’re all 21 there.

Club W Packaging

Everything was packed tightly and securely, in custom-molded cardboard. No bottles touched each other, and they were all a goodly distance from the outside of the box. You can see my three wines here — Score Red Blend, Loca Linda x Bluebird Malbec, and One Hope Pinot Noir. The One Hope also came with one of those rubbery support bracelets, for the ASPCA. (Half of the proceeds of One Hope go toward animal charities, which delights me.)

So, how were the wines? Well, let me tell you:

One Hope Pinot Noir (2011, California) – This was a really good Pinot Noir. Not quite as good as the MacMurray, but good enough to rate a close second. I’d definitely buy another bottle.

Had a little trouble getting the cork out of the One Hope, sadly. But I didn’t have to fish too many crumbs out of the bottle:

One Hope Cork

Loca Linda x Bluebird Malbec (2012, Argentina) – My first Malbec, and I really, really liked it. It was soft and fruity enough that I’d compare it more to the red blends. There’s only one glass left in the bottle right now as I write, and that makes me really sad. But now I know that there’s a whole new world of Malbec out there to try.

Score Red Blend (2011, California) – The Club W site advertises this one as “a jelly doughnut in a glass”. It isn’t the smoothest of all of the red blends I’ve tried, but it’s still pretty tasty. Maybe just a splash too heavy on the tannins, but totally drinkable — I’ll give it 4 stars on the Club W site.

Overall, I’m glad I joined, and I’ll be getting more wine from Club W. Although I may only go every other month, and then supplement with cheaper stuff from the grocery store or Total Wine in between. They have a lot of good things going for them — quality wines, the palate profiler, an easy ordering system, and really nice support people.

The cons? Well, the big rub is that you likely won’t be able to find the wines you like anywhere else. Now that I’m almost done with this bottle of Malbec, I’ve looked online to see where I can find it … and it’s just not available anywhere near me. It was a limited run. So you do run the chance of falling in love with a wine, then never being able to get it again. Although the other two wines from my box, One Hope and Score, are still available through Club W, so I could stock up on extra bottles of those.

Still, it’s free to sign up and poke around and take the palate profile, so why not head over and see what they’re all about?

In Search of the Perfect Hatchback

We’ve been car shopping this last month, Scott and I. Our cars were both the same make and model — Ford Focus 2-door hatchback. Mine was from 2007, and Scott’s was from 2001. The 12-year-old Focus just wasn’t driving that great anymore; it was grumbly and growly and needed some work done again, so we decided to go ahead and trade it in for something new.

Scott thought we should get something new for me, and he’d take over the 2007 Focus, since I drive a lot more than he does. I wasn’t about to complain.

So, we checked out all of the little hatchbacks currently available. We opted for a hatch for a couple of reasons — since we have no kids, and rarely chauffeur anyone else around, we only need two seats. We’re big fans of good gas mileage. And hatches are, for the most part, really cute.

So first off, let’s talk about the models we didn’t bother to test drive:

Mini Cooper

Mini Cooper: I have friends who own Mini Coopers, and seem to like them just fine. But the price point is kind of a shock — they’re a good 5 to 10 thousand dollars more than most of the other hatchbacks out there. And I suspect you’re not getting all that much more car for the money. Also, for me personally, Mini is kind of in the same category as Apple products or Harley-Davidson motorcycles or Vespa scooters — they cost more than other brands, because you’re getting a certain feel of status that you like. But the product itself might not be as great, and may in fact require a lot more repair. (I’m not saying that’s the case with Mini, but it certainly is with Apple and Harley and Vespa, in my experience.)

Ford Fiesta

Ford Fiesta: We would have loved to test-drive a 2-door Ford. We’ve been very happy with our two Focuses, as well as the old Ford Escort I used to own. But sadly, the Fiesta is Ford’s smallest car in the USA right now. We might have considered it, except for two reasons: one, it looks like the modern-day equivalent of a station wagon (I’m also looking at you, Honda Fit), which is the last thing a non-mom wants; and two, my parents rented a Fiesta when they visited us in Florida, and it felt really cheap. Sad trombone, Ford. Sad trombone.

Smart ForTwo

Smart ForTwo: We didn’t test-drive the Smart this time around because we’d test-driven one a couple of years ago. It was plenty cute, don’t get me wrong, but I couldn’t stand the transmission. It was a sort of automatic/manual hybrid; you could let the car itself do all of the shifting, but there were also paddles behind the steering wheel with which you could manually shift. But no matter which mode you chose, the car was sluggish to respond. It was as if the gear changed, and the car had to think about things for a second, then it finally realized, “Oh, the gear changed,” then it would accelerate again.

So those are cars we considered, then didn’t consider. Now, onward to the cars I actually drove:

200-yaris

Toyota Yaris: For the last couple of years, we figured that this would be the car we’d get. It’s small, it’s cute, no unnecessary back doors, comes in a huge rainbow of colors. But when I went to the dealership, I found out that most of the unique colors aren’t carried anymore. It was pretty much the standard black, white, silver, and red (none of which I wanted), and a blue that was tolerable.

I test-drove an automatic, because that was all the dealership had on hand. It was decent, but nothing phenomenal. The automatic felt a little sluggish, but I figured a manual might have a little more pep. I asked if they were expecting any to arrive with a manual transmission, and after some searching, the dealer told me that not only were no manual transmission Yarises on the way, but out of the 180 dealerships across the southeast that they could get cars from, there wasn’t a single manual Yaris to be had. Because very few cars are made in manual transmission anymore, they said. For safety, they said. I would have to special-order one from the factory. And, despite me repeating that there was no way I was buying that day, they tried to get me to order a car that day.

Scion IQ

Scion IQ: Also at the Toyota dealership, I drove the Scion IQ. Also an automatic transmission, although when we drove it, I was assured that it could be had in a manual. Turned out that the guy who took me for the test drive was wrong — the Scion IQ only comes with “continuous variable transmission”, some sort of proprietary automatic transmission that makes the car feel slow and sluggish and way heavier than it really is. When the dealer was showing off the features of the car, he proudly showed me that it doesn’t have a glove compartment — instead, there’s a sort of plastic bin/drawer under the passenger seat. Also, it feels as small on the inside as it looks on the outside. Not an impressive car.

The Toyota dealership guys tried to get me to check out several other models, to try and be “flexible” (one of the most grating words a car dealer can ever use with me). They wanted to get me into a Prius (looks like a doorstop, plus it’s really long, I said), a Scion XD (the back makes it look like a hearse, I said), and a Corolla (after I specifically told them I would never consider a 4-door sedan). If I’m ever in the market for a Toyota in the future, I’ll try a different dealership.

Fiat 500

Fiat 500: We had a challenging time finding the dealership in downtown Orlando, because downtown Orlando can be a little confusing, and the main drag was closed for several blocks due to some sort of festival. But we eventually found the showroom, which was more like a motorcycle/scooter dealership than a car dealership, because all of the cars were inside the building. I guess that’s what you can do when all you sell is tiny 2-door hatchbacks.

We were able to test-drive a manual transmission, because a good half of their cars were manual. We drove the base model, called the Pop, which had all of the features we needed and then some (base model Pop comes standard with A/C, power windows, power doors, cruise control, bluetooth, and a bunch of other little bells and whistles). It was a great test drive — the car was peppy and responsive, we actually got to go on the freeway instead of a plodding trip around the neighborhood, and the salesman was really knowledgeable about the cars. I guess that’s what happens when you specialize in one model.

We didn’t get a hard push to buy that day, which was refreshing after the Toyota guys. At that point, the Fiat 500 was the car to beat.

Mazda 2

Mazda 2: It looks like Mazda used to make the 2 in a 2-door version, but it’s all 4 doors now. Still, it was a fairly small car, not much different in size from the Ford Focus, so we gave it a ride. We actually managed to test-drive one with a manual transmission, in this very same cool green color. Sadly, the color was the best part about it. Even with a stick shift, the car was really sluggish.

Our dealership experience was a weird one. The salesman seemed sleepy or something. He strolled us out to the far corner of the lot to look at his Mazda 2 selection, then when we expressed an interest in giving one a test-drive, he sauntered back all the way across the lot to get the keys, then meandered back in a leisurely fashion. Am I expressing well enough how slowly he moved? Let me add that there was very little shade, and it was June in Florida. We were quite sweaty when we finally got a chance to get in the car. So I guess the car suited the salesman, and vice versa.

He sent a follow-up email the next day (I learned after the Toyota guys, only give an email address, not a phone number, because those dudes called the next day and wanted to give another try to getting me one of their special deals on Corollas). The email asked for more detail about what we were looking for, so he could tailor an offer to us. I wrote back that we were really detailed already: small hatchback, manual transmission, and the Mazda 2 was the only model of theirs we’d consider. Yeesh.

Chevrolet Spark

Chevy Spark: Chevy has two smallish cars right now, the Spark and the Sonic, with the Spark being the smallest. And yet, despite its size, it’s still a 4-door. We went to the second-closest Chevy dealership, because according to their website, they had the Spark with a manual transmission. When we got there, however, we found out that they only had automatics on hand. Still, we test-drove the Spark. The car itself was adequate — about on par with the Yaris. Not as peppy as the Fiat, and the color choices were really weird — a pink that was more of a silvery-pink, and a yellow that was more like cream. I don’t even know what you would call this green color. (Chevy calls it “jalapeno”, which is totally wrong; jalapenos are much darker. This is more of a metallic guacamole.)

The worst part of the Chevy Spark was the dealership. From the beginning, we told our salesman that (1) the car was for me, and (2) we weren’t buying that day — we’d be ready to buy in a month. For the rest of the time there, most questions and answers were aimed at Scott, and I felt a bit invisible. Despite the fact that I was the only one driving the car. When I did get a direct answer, such as the one to the question, “You WILL take this giant sticker with the dealership name off of the back, right?” it felt kind of eye-rolly and oh-ladies-want-the-cutest-thingsy. Gross.

Then we asked for a brochure and his business card to take away, because again, we weren’t buying that day. We went into the showroom and the guy immediately snagged a manager, told the manager that “she’s settled on the Spark,” and the manager started into asking what he could do to get us in a car today. We told him we weren’t buying today, we just wanted a brochure and business card. “Hear me out, we have some great deals today,” he said. Scott was awesome, and told the manager, “Look, one of two things can happen here. Either you can get us a brochure and business card, or we’ll just leave.” The manager gave a nice condescending smile and started in with, “Just let me finish, because we have some great deals,” to which Scott and I turned on our heels and left. Behind us, I heard the salesman call out, “See you in a month!”

The best part was his follow-up email the next day. Despite the fact that my first name is in the email address, he addressed it “Dear Scott.” Then it was a form letter about how they hoped we had a great experience, and to let them know if we had any questions. I had a great time responding to that email! Addressing it to someone who isn’t the buyer, treating a woman like she’s invisible, refusing to give us a brochure … it felt quite refreshing.

Fiat 500

Fiat 500 (again): By that point, we were settled on the Fiat. We decided to visit the other dealership in town, to see what their inventory looked like. Unfortunately, they were much more like a standard car dealership than the one downtown. We got a salesperson who was borrowed from the GMC/Dodge dealership across the street, so it was her first time in a Fiat and she couldn’t really answer any questions we had. They didn’t have a color combo I liked (I don’t need white upholstery [seriously, who does] but probably 80% of their cars had it), but we test-drove one anyway, just as a reminder of how peppy and fun it was. The one we drove was this same minty green color in the picture, which I could have settled for, I guess, but it wasn’t my favorite color by far.

After driving, they wanted to (of course) get me to take that minty green one home today. Even after I told them it wasn’t my favorite color, and we weren’t buying that day. And the price they offered us was almost $2000 higher than the prices listed on their website. Sad.

My Fiat 500

So we visited our bank and applied for a car loan, getting a letter from them with a great rate we could take to any dealership, and thus avoid the hassle of dealer financing, and back we went to the downtown Fiat dealership (Fields Fiat in downtown Orlando, for the record).

They took our 2001 Focus in trade, gave us a great deal on the new car, had the exact color combination I wanted in stock, and we even got to have some free gelato while they processed paperwork, filled up the tank, and gave it a quick wash. The license plates from the Focus got moved over to the Fiat, which made licensing fees way cheaper than expected. No hard selling, no pushy attitudes. Our sales guy was delighted that we came back; apparently most people who say they’ll be back never return, because they get so frustrated with the car-buying experience, after 4 or 5 dealerships, they just buy the last thing they look at because they just don’t want to go through the hassle anymore.

The color is “rame”, which I guess is Italian for “copper”. This picture makes it look more on the red side, but it’s actually a pretty solid coppery orange. My first week of commuting in it to work was great — I feel really visible, it’s terribly comfortable, and I’m pretty sure I have the cutest car on the road.