09/15/15

Things We Keep — Under a Blood Moon First to Final

How important is preserving the past? And which version of the past do we keep?

When the paperback copies of Under a Blood Moon arrived I quickly snapped a photo of one on top of the original draft. Under a Blood moon first draft to final copyPrinted in March 2007 that draft only roughly matches the story in the finished novel. I intended to shred it the next day, not out of anger or malice, but because I didn’t need it any more. I mused about leaving the past to the past, and focusing on the future. But then I hesitated.

A story will change with the telling, altered as people apply their own point of view. It changes more when the author writes a sequel or explains things in other works. One of my favorite series began with the heroine being saved from a pair of attackers by the (eventual) hero. In the first book she was alone and desperate. Later in the series we learn another person was watching the shadows. By the end of the series some seven people were there and only the hero moved to help. Critics were quick to point out the inconsistency, but does it really matter?

I’m editing the second Mallory novel now. The third is ‘proofing’ and my mind is chewing on what will happen in the fourth. I’m tempted to re-read every word I’ve written, from beginning to end, before I start on that fourth story. It would give me a more consistent, more ‘correct’ version of the story but I want to write what’s in my mind now rather than trying to recapture what I felt then.

One of my first readers of Under a Blood Moon is a friend who I met at my day job. After reading the book she asked me an interesting question – would it bother me if Mallory was Black? There’s nothing in the text that specifically makes her White, and a reader might imagine her as a Black. I told her it wouldn’t almost instantly, but the more I thought about it the more I realized I want readers to imagine Mallory as Black, Latina, Asian, or whatever she looks like inside their mind. I want them to read my story and make my characters real.

Which is why I finally shredded those first manuscripts. A story isn’t just words on a page, but an evolving idea. I don’t want to look back at what I might have meant but instead move forward toward what my stories can become. I want that more than I want to remember what the story once was. Holding on to the past leaves your hands too full to reach for the good things to come.

12/1/14

Goodbye to my Fairy Wings

In my 20’s I wanted to be sexy. That’s probably not shocking to you, but to me it’s a revelation. Schoolyard bullies convinced me I would always be ugly. I carried that truth into college where I focused on my classes, taking as many as 28 credit hours a term, rather than risk the assured rejection of the dating scene. It was only in my 20s, after grad school, that I realized my body could be something more than a container for my mind.

I found cosplay right around that time. There’s something enormously powerful about a man stopping a long line of pedestrian just to take your picture. It’s hard to find a greater confidence boost than to have ten or fifteen camera flashes go off when you stop and pose. Immersing myself in a world of corsets, costumes, and conventions, I found my fairy wings.

fairy wings

Over four feet tall and made of shimmering purple fabric, my wings could not be ignored. Walking on a crowded convention floor required a ‘wing man’  to make sure that no eyes got poked. In my wings, I floated as a sexy, free spirit. I became fey, an attractive just out of reach, thing of beauty to be coveted.

Oddly, as I left my twenties, my wings hung on my wall more than my back. I found that I wanted to be more than sexy. My tastes in costumes began to veer more toward the Evil Queen than Tinerkbell. Sexy was fine, but I wanted to be strong and sexy. The light, flirtatious, giggles I never quite mastered began to grate on me. The goal ceased to be being desirable to someone else and became proving I was strong.

My fashion ideal: Once Up A Time's Evil Queen Regina (Lana Parrilla) (Photo : Reuters)

My fashion ideal: Once Up A Time’s Evil Queen Regina (Lana Parrilla) (Photo : Reuters)

I write about strong woman, and some of them happen to be sexy. I don’t see the two as mutually exclusive. Instead they strike me as phases of a woman’s life. Just like the maiden-mother-crone cycle, surely there must be a fairy-dragon-queen cosplay cycle. Or perhaps there’s something even greater, a systematic unboxing where as women grow older they broaden their definitions of what they want to be, and expand the list of things they can be at once.

My fairy wings will go up on the auction block soon, maybe at a local SciFi Con or maybe in a costuming group. I will miss them, especially the easy way they gave me to define myself. I won’t be the girl with 4 foot fairy wings any more but I will always be the woman who wore them.

03/15/14

On March 15…

Bah.

Knowing that I needed a short story or bit of witty/insightful/appropriate banter for the blog on the 15th, I began seriously worrying about it on the 9th. Then Daylight Savings Time (DST) happened.

A few notes for people who don’t know me: I’m brain damaged. I don’t talk about it a lot and you wouldn’t know from looking at me, but among the many consequences I sleep badly. (I’m also supposed to be psychic, but the sleep part is eminently more important.) So when an hour of sleep was stolen from me on Sunday, my whole life fell apart. Most nights I wake up around three in the morning, and haunt my own house for an hour or two. I tend to write or edit, and then finally around five I return to bed for the last, desperately important three or so hours of sleep. So in bed from ten until three, then back to sleep from five until seven-thirty, that’s me. Unless it’s DST, in which case three am becomes four am, and there really isn’t much point in going back to bed at six when the alarm goes off at seven-thirty.

So this week, when I knew I needed a story for the blog or something, really anything, by Friday night, I wasn’t sleeping. At. All. I’m rubbish at creative things when I’m sleep deprived. Line editing, making sure continuity errors are repaired, sure I can do those things but coming up with a story from the air? No.
Ideas I began and discarded:

  • A bridge where a car accident killed the parents of a small child becomes a local ghost story and urban legend. A teen is bullied into spending the night there only to discover the long ago dead parents are his own, and they’re rather proud of him.
  • A space comedy inspired by Douglas Adams about aliens who collect things, including people, from planets just before their destroyed. (I actually have 2,349 words on this one, but the story doesn’t seem to make sense if you don’t know the rest of it… which only exists in my head.)
  • A short story told in the third person, worked out perfectly in my head, which came to me just as I finally got to sleep. Unfortunately the only words written down are ‘you are’ followed by several looping swirls.

Desperate, I turned to the idea of a photo safari. I spent some time talking to locals in my town and checking the various abandoned and urban legend websites. There are three or four likely spots within an hour’s drive but my schedule makes a hash of it. The only time to go photo hunting is in between appointments and before a long planned dinner.

And thus, because I don’t want the 15th to go by without fresh content for you, today’s blog post is a picture of my rabbit editor, long may he reign.

sleeping bunny

(Actual short story or interesting/insightful blog passages will return by the 30th of March, if not sooner. I appreciate your patience in this the oh-so-trying first week of DST.)

10/3/13

Write for yourself – Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party Popcorn Bucket Story

As a Dis Geek, very few things in life make me as happy as dissecting the minutia of a trip to Disney World. Need to argue over the best touring strategy or the best snacks near Pirates of the Caribbean? I’m your girl. And since most people don’t need that kind of detail in their life, I’m a member of a Disney discussion board.

Not too long ago a mother posted a plea. Her family wouldn’t make it to Disney World this fall. Meaning her daughter’s souvenir popcorn bucket collection would be incomplete. Not important to you and me, but to a seven year old with six popcorn buckets, well, she’s been collecting them her whole life! The buckets were going for $35 on eBay, more than the Mom could afford. As it happened, I knew someone who was going to Disney World. I fronted the $12 and received the popcorn bucket.

But, of course, I’m an author. I couldn’t just send the bucket. It needed a story, a backstory, internal motivation, the whole thing. This particular popcorn bucket is in the shape of Mickey dressed as a Hitchhiking ghost from the Haunt

The popcorn bucket visits the St. George Tucker House, site of the first Christmas tree in America.

ed Mansion, so I made him a hitchhiker (duh) and gave him a love of history (because I live in a pretty historic place). I set up some internal conflict – popcorn buckets are assembled to go home with families, but this one also wanted to see historic sites.

The story was for a seven-year-old, not my usual demographic, and one that I figured would be more impressed with pictures. Tiger indulged me in an afternoon photo session, toting Mickey around to various historic sites. My first draft involved pirates, but while the pirate re-enactors were willing the final photos came out too scary. A golden retriever stepped in to be the villain who gave the popcorn bucket the push he needed to realize his days as hitchhiker were over.

I was excited about the story. I wanted to see it come together. I imagined that little girl reading it, following the links to the buildings.  My story could provide the spark that started a life long love of history or the kindness that made a tough time better.

I mailed the popcorn bucket on Tuesday. I received back a very grateful thank you note from the mother. I posted the story on Wednesday and heard back…. Nothing yet. I expected to wake up to comments on my story, corrections, criticism, but it was viewed 105 without a peep.

I realized my mistake this morning. To me the most important part of the whole experience was the story. What could I write with a popcorn bucket as a prompt and the nearby region as a setting. How could I make something assembled in a factory and devoid of life into a character? Because I’m who I am, I wanted to teach as well, reading is more fun when you learn something new. But my audience wouldn’t want to read something dry so I’d need to-

Yeah. The story is the most important thing for me and yet, not for the other people involved. I realized this morning that it sums up the beginning of every writer’s career. You have fun writing something, creating it from nothing. That has to be enough, because in the beginning no one else cares. Maybe someday you’ll find people who agree with you, people who think the story is the best part, but you can’t count on that. If you do, you’ll be sunk before you start. You can’t write for the market or write to the trend. You have to write for yourself.

 

09/16/13

Life lessons from Gardening

Earlier this year I made my first foray into gardening. I built an 10 by 10 box of wood and bought several cubic yards of good soil. It wasn’t much at first, just a dozen lettuce heads (my rabbit editor’s choice), six carrot plants (ditto), a half dozen broccoli, and four tomatoes.

The broccoli grew but never flowered. The carrots grew but when we dug them only one tiny orange root appeared. A certain rabbit turned up his nose at it. He’s a carrot snob, I guess. The lettuce decided it didn’t want to form heads, and instead grew in long snake like ropes. Gardening friends tell me this means it ‘bolted’ most likely due to the heat. I managed to get one salad out of it, along with the excuse to buy this:

My sickle, maybe an antique? Definitely nifty.

And do this:

Nothing like a good reaping.

 

But the real mystery is the four tomato plants. They grew. And grew. And grew some more. Eventually they took over the entire 10ft by 10ft garden box. They’re taller than I am and as lush as a tropical jungle.

 

And yet, we don’t have a single tomato. Some combination of overly rich soil, lots of rain, and plenty of sunshine means they thrived, looked amazing, and didn’t do the one thing they were meant to do. There’s a metaphor in that, about writing and how it doesn’t matter what it looks like in the end if you don’t tell a good story, but I’m trying to ignore it just now.

My garden is moving this weekend. I’ve got four young, strong friends to help me dig up all that dirt and put it in a better spot. I can’t help but wonder if this is folly. If the problem wasn’t the sunlight or the water, but something about how I tended the garden. My favorite college professor used to ask me where I was headed. No matter what my answer he would reply ‘just remember, wherever you go, you’ll still be there.’

09/2/13

No cats here….

I’m a member of two writing organizations, Romance Writers of America (RWA), and Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). I’ve never questioned the value of SFWA. I do wonder about RWA though, mostly because I’m not sure my books are romances. Do people fall in love and have great sex? Sure. But that’s not the point of the story. The point is solving a mystery or catching a killer, and in general I spend more time on the supernatural than the sweet and sappy. Still, every once in a while RWA provides me with a gem like this one about social media for writers:

“Post pictures of your cats. Readers love cats. If you don’t have one, borrow one and take its picture.” (Teresa Medeiros quoted in ‘The Virtual Living Room’ by Shana Galen, Romance Writers Report, Sept. 2013)

I don’t have a cat. I have a house rabbit. House rabbits are a much different pet from cats. Cats may be funny, silly, or cute. Rabbits disapprove. A cat might cuddle at your feet while you write, purring his encouragement. My Rabbit Editor sits beside me and glares his disapproval. The list of things he dislikes is long: ‘be’ verbs, telling not showing, saying ‘I’ too much. Don’t worry, he doesn’t confine himself to disapproving about writing topics.

I have long hair, careful-you-don’t-shut-it-in-the-car-door, pull-it-out-of-the-way-so-you-don’t-sit-on-it long. Thus my house is littered with hair ties. Before I go running I put my hair into a braid, which requires two hair ties. If I’m about to cook it goes into a pony-tail, one hair tie. The Rabbit Editor prefers it when I cook. Something about the produce scraps he enjoys, I suppose. Thus you get a scene like this one:

death to hair ties cropped

I am prone to anthropomorphizing him. I admit this. It’s entirely possible he just happened to nibble one of the ties into uselessness. But with that expression I could just hear him saying,  “How sad that you can’t run today. Why don’t you go make me a nice apple pie instead?” Tragically for my angriest editor, I didn’t drop all my hair ties on the floor that morning. Rest assured, he got his nibble of apple pie and apple peels not too long after I got back.

10/31/12

October 31st

Happy Halloween! Joyous Samhain! A Blessed Día de Los Muerto!

My house has been decorated for almost a month the a six ft spider’s web hung by the door, a window dressed with glowing flames, a pair of ghosts on the garage, and a trio of jack’0’laterns on the porch. In the highest window my favorite part of the decorations: a single skull and a bouquet of dried roses.

The falling leaves always remind me of the people I’ve lost. Tomorrow is the day set aside for them and all the others who have passed.  I’ll make their favorite dishes, this year it’s Hungarian chicken paprikash, mashed potatoes, and a homemade apple pie. I set a place at the table for them, a symbol of how I wish I could have one more meal with those people.

And I’ll give out candy, too, taking part in the fun side of Halloween, that dancing delight in the fleeting moments of life. My costume is a fairy princess, I’ll take any excuse to wear my wings and a sparkly tiara. Hurricane Sandy rained on my parade, canceling the haunted hayride but it’s still my favorite holiday, the best time of year.

However you celebrate I hope your night is exactly how you want it to be.

09/18/12

Storms and Tree Limbs

It’s raining out now, and cold for a girl raised in the tropics. I’ve started the first fire in my new home, the first fire of the season. I know I’ve been neglectful, not quite making the every two weeks rule I set for myself when this blog started out. I owe at least a short story, if not a short story and a recipe, or some blurb. But the fire is crackling, the rain keeps coming down, and the night is dark. So maybe I can make it all up in the next hour, or maybe, even if I don’t, it won’t matter.

The rain started yesterday, the downpour so unexpected I thought for a moment there was leak in the house, some high pressured pipe flooding me out just as I settled in to write. But a moment later I recognized it, a driving rain on the roof. Fall for Florida, summer for where I live now, but the same rain, unannounced, loud, and insistent that you stop to admire it. It took me back to this summer, when I was still in boxes in my new house, driving everywhere looking for furniture.

I took a trip back to DC, to the big city stores. The rain had come the night before, but after I cleaned up the limbs from the yard and shook my head over the lake forming in my basement I was off to the highway. The drive took me twice the time I expected, and once I got there I found no power and lots of hot frustrated people. The storm was called a derecho, ring of fire, and it was only half over. I had lunch at place packed with sweaty people, the air conditioner working overtime while everyone without power packed into plastic booths. I drove home in the second downpour.

Small rocks of hail pelted my window. Lighting forked across the sky every few seconds, offering brief glimpse of fallen trees resting on power lines. Rain poured down, sometimes coming sideways, sometimes looking like it was raining up from the ground. The radio warned of tornados in the area and I strained to hear if that freight train noise was coming toward me. Stuck on a highway for four hours, at paces alternating between the speed limit and a crawl, it felt like the hurricane evacuations of my youth.

Cresting a hill in one rural stretch the flickering lightening revealed a strange sight: not too far in the distance cars began to swear wildly, then slow to a snail’s pace. I could see a tree down over half of the two lane road, but why swerve so far for a tree? The fallen branches weren’t blocking the whole road, and unlike a lot of downed trees no dancing electrical wires played in front of it. The cars on the highway had virtually ignored the downed power lines and tree limbs across the road so far, what made this any different?

I sped along until I could see the tree, and then I broke hard. The problem wasn’t power lines or the tree, not an animal caught in the storm or something natural, but something very human. A group of cars were pulled to the side of the dark highway. With no lights or flares, the drivers were trying to move the behemoth of a tree from the lane it blocked. Men gathered on one side of the tree, pulling it with a concentrated “one-two-three-now” effort. I gawked as one man climbed up on a limb the size of my waist and began to bounce up and down in the flashes of lighting. He jumped with concentrated effort, never realizing that if he succeeded he’d fall nine feet to the pavement below while cars crawled by in the darkness.

With no light but lightening I watched the scene: someone doing his best to solve a problem, but doing it all wrong.  It left me wondering, when am I the one bouncing up and down on that limb in the dark, so determined to make it break, so unaware of how much I need it to hold me up?

I’ve changed a lot in the last five months: new job, new city, bought my first house. I’m just now realizing how all that is affecting my writing. I don’t know yet if it’s the storm or the tree limb. I owe this blog a short story, but I don’t plan those out. They come to me, usually in dreams or from some scene on the sidewalk, a photograph or a phrase. I can feel half a dozen of them in the back of my mind, churning, proofing like bread. I promise you’ll know when they’re ready. And hope you’ll tell me if you find me jumping on the thing that’s holding me up.

 

08/12/12

Upon considering a kitten….

The world was most decidedly not black and white. It wasn’t even black, white, and a handful of gray. It was a myriad rainbows of granularities, shades, and contrasts all in gray. She was aware of this, and yet, somehow, she assumed she could put the grays into boxes, label each one black or white and move contentedly through her life. That was, of course, not so.

Each time a challenge presented itself, a shade of gray that crept out of one box and inched its way toward another she would sit and reevaluate all of them. It seemed the only thing to do. If one shade of gray had been judged unfairly might not all of them be wrong? The process was time consuming but worthwhile. A periodic evaluation of one’s priorities always leaves a satisfied feeling. Except when it does not, as would happen when just a day later, or perhaps even hours later, the feeling of not-quite-rightness would creep around the edges and she’d begin to wonder if another reshuffling of grays was in order.

And so it was on that cold December last day of the year that she took out all of the boxes and sat down to decide if it was worth the trouble to keep things in boxes. She watched the sunrise sitting at her kitchen table, a cup of very  properly steeped tea next to her and thought about the shades of gray.

There was no one thing that she could commit to that would always be wonderful. Every action had risks, every decision had a downside. That much at least was clear. But which downsides should one avoid? Which should one embrace? Did the joy of having a baby outweigh the sleepless nights? Did the pleasure of eating an entire bag of candy make up for the stomachache afterwards? How sweet did the wine have to be to negate the headache that came the next morning?

All these and more she pondered while the tea grew cold and the sky changed cold. It was red now, with orange on the edges, a red sky when she was trying to decide black from white. Her house was quiet, the only noise came from the stack of undecided things in her mind. A tidy little stack, decisions organized from shortest lasting to longest. At the top there was what to wear today, at the bottom there was how to live her life. Smack in the middle was the kitten.

She had not decided yet about the kitten, but burying that choice in the large stack of things to be decided somehow did not hide it. While she could ponder what to make for supper that night or even how to brush her hair that morning the kitten question loomed. It peaked out around corners, not unlike an actual kitten, tiptoeing in on quiet cat feet then presenting itself  – poof – as if it were magic. The kitten, it seemed, was both ready to join her and ready to forgotten at the same time.

There were many things, she thought, that she had put away for later. Later never came though and while she still thought herself young the undeniable truth was that she had never seen the great pyramids or sailed the seven seas. These were things that she could easily put aside, after all both the pyramids and the seas would be there. But would there always be another chance to take in a kitten just before winter got bad? She assured herself that there would and went back to the decisions on the top of the stack.

Except that a noise came to her, not quite a mew but something close, reminding her of the kitten decision and with it the idea that life was not black and white. The kitten, the seven seas, the pyramids, they were all actually shades of gray. Good and bad mixed in until you came to moments that were both good and bad at once, and how was one meant to rule on them? It was incredibly disquieting. To soothe herself she went about moving things into categories again, sure that this time they would stay there.

07/21/12

Beneath the Surface

When I was thirteen my parents bought a table at a garage sale.  At home we discovered there were four leaves and a fabulous corkscrew mechanism with a leg that dropped down from the center to support them. To us the table was enormous, too big for any of Mom’s tablecloths but we quickly accepted the table into our routine. Years passed. My parents divorced. Dad got the table. He kept it folded up to its smallest size, and used it as a hall table. The last I saw it was covered with car keys, spare change, and the kind of debris that collects in the men’s pockets when there are no women to herd them.

When I came into my own house, I felt a longing for the table. I come from a family that loathes possessions. There will be nearly nothing for me when my parents die; as there was almost nothing for me when my grandparents trickled out of existence. I have a rosary from one great-grandmother, nothing from the other grandparents. My family would tell you that’s how it should be.

But for me, now that I have a nest of my own, I want things – wonderful, unique, quirky things, things with a history, things that tell a story. Moving most Julys for the last 10 years (7 times) means I carried very little with me. While I could buy things to fill my new house, they would all be new, and lack the connection I crave. So, after no small amount of dickering, I convinced my father to sell me the table.

Of course, that left the table in Florida, and my new house in Virginia. A generous family member took it from Dad’s house to the shipping center, only to be told that they couldn’t find a box to fit it. The table made its way to my mother’s house, where it sat for a month while I struggled to find someone to take on the job. Move a whole a house? Sure, you can find people for that. Move a household out of state? No problem. Move a single piece out of state? No.

But finally, the owner of an antique furniture shop agreed to take a look. A few days passed before I got an excited phone call. The table it seems is not just some odd cast off, but a mid- to late- 19th century antique. Fully restored it would be worth a great deal.

I authorized the restoration, but my initial excitement gave way to wariness. Promises of “You won’t even recognize it!” meant the best part of the table might be gone by the time I received it. I was peppered with questions. A dealer in Miami has replacement hardware, should we put it on? What color for a stain?

Each decision seemed to get farther and farther away from what the table was: a place for my family to take meals, play cards, celebrate, laugh, and cry. It was the table featured in Thanksgiving dinners, financial discussions, and the everyday life of a home. I opened my college acceptances letters at that table. I wrote a thousand words on its surface, spreading out my pages to fact check as I went. I feared all that history would be lost.

The table arrived today, and despite the changes I still see all those memories. It seems that our history is carried not in our surface, but in a place that can’t be sanded away, and no matter how we change the people who know us always see it.