Each Christmas a dear friend gives me an Amaryllis in bloom. The flower dies in six weeks or so, but the long green leaves decorate my windowsill until the fall. Then, in an act of great faith, I cut off all the leaves, shake the bulb out of its nest of dirt, and throw it into the fridge. It waits there for me, for at least a month, until I put it back where I found it. Then I wait for another eight weeks, hoping that the magic will still work. If I’m lucky, I get the photo above. If I’m very lucky, I get better: more flowers, more bulbs.
It’s a lot of waiting and lot of hoping. It’s taking drastic steps, damaging something that I know is working because I believe I can get better. I value the final flower enough to risk killing the plant. I don’t even pretend to know how bulbs form in the wild, how they work when there is no refrigerator. I take it on faith that the people who guide me know what they’re doing.
I’m editing now – somewhere between my second and fifth formal round of edits, depending on how you count. My time was not my own this fall, and so my Amaryllis bloomed late, in January instead of December. They sit on the window by my desk, and reassure me that my edits, which require just as much faith, will turn out. I hope they’re right.
I used to think I was a fast writer, now I know I’m a faster drafter. I can crank out a first draft in no time, but the editing process takes ages. Worse, the more editing I do the less I like my work. My vision for the characters gets muddy, the plot gets sloppy, and I find myself wondering why I ever wrote this nonsense. Obviously that’s not how editing is supposed to go, but despite an internet full of advice on how to write there’s precious little out there on how to edit. (Someone please prove me wrong.)
Experiencing a death in the family just before the holidays completely changes everything. At this time of year my life fills with joyful celebrations, wonderful holiday baking, and the magic of the season but this year long naps, quiet afternoons, and phone calls to friends have replaced all of that. Oddly, I don’t find myself missing the noise and the busyness. Perhaps I’m growing older, perhaps it’s the loss, but a quiet holiday feels just right.
Shopping for the Christmas Angel I took from the giving tree brought me more joy than anything I’ve done this holiday season. On Christmas morning my Angel will unwrap a new winter coat, soft fleecy pajamas, a huggable doll (with at least one hug from me stored inside), an art set with pastels and crayons, and six books (2 science, 2 fantasy, 2 biographies of strong women). I wish I could have included a letter telling her how much it meant for me to be able to help her, and reminding her that poor girls change the world just as often as rich girls.
I won a baking competition using this recipe. On the same day I received an award from my gym for being the ‘biggest participant’. I’m trying not to see the irony.
My rabbit editor removed his page from Facebook this week. The constant demand for more pictures, more status updates and more Facebook-ing in general got to be too much for him. Thankfully, he doesn’t mind the fame so I can leave you with this photo:
(The demonic glow in his eyes is not photoshopped.)
I tend to be a little paranoid about losing my ‘voice’ as an author, so I don’t read a lot of fiction when I’m in the thick of writing. I’m working on a new manuscript so my To Be Read (TBR) is about to take over the book shelf. The books and a bit of explanation:
The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler – Noir/Mystery
I can’t stop reading this book. No matter how many times I read it, it ends up back in the TBR pile every year.
The Wedding Quilt – Jennifer Chiaverini- Women’s fiction
I quilt. I read. This book combines the two hobbies. After 17 books in the series the characters are like old friends. The author has jumped the series ahead by about 20 years. I’m wicked curious to see what happens to everyone.
The Price of Freedom – Ann Crispin – Fantasy/Historic
I read this during the weeks before DragonCon but I didn’t really get a chance to enjoy it. It’s up for a re-read.
American Gods – Neil Gaiman – Fantasy
I enjoyed this book greatly on first read, and with rumors that it’ll be a miniseries on HBO soon, it’s due for a re-read.
Sup with the Devil – Barbara Hamilton – Historic Mystery.
The third in the Abigail Adams mysteries hasn’t grabbed me yet (118 pages in). I enjoy Barbara’s work enough that I’ll keep going back to it.
The illusion of Murder – Carol McCleary – Steampunk/Mystery/Historic
I devoured the first book in this series, and immediately went for the second. On reflection though, I realized the first book ran long. I’m now waiting for a good long flight to start the second.
The Tiger’s Wife – Tea Obreht – literary fiction?
On loan from a friend, it’s set in a part of the world where I spent some time. Despite that I can’t seem to get through it. 129 pages in and I’m still waiting for the story to start.
Candlenight – Phil Rickman – Mystery-Horror from the UK.
I’m a fan of this author, but 35 pages in the novel didn’t grab me, so it went back on the shelf. I’ll pick it back up again soon-ish.
The Doctor’s Family – Lenora Worth & The Cowboy’s Lady – Carolyn Aarsen – Inspirational Romances in the Rocky Mountain Heirs series
I read the first 2 books in the series. The bad guy getting away with crimes (kidnapping, harassment, theft, vandalism, arson) is getting really old. That said, the only way to see him get caught is to read the next 4 books in the series.
Huntress – Malinda Lo- Fantasy; Fuzzy Nation – John Scalzi – SciFi; After the Golden Age – Carrie Vaughn – Urban Fantasy (but not the kind with vampires)
All got great writes up on Tor.com.
All the others were recommended by friends or have a style I want to emulate in my writing. Some of the historic ones were published in a time frame I’m writing in now. I love to ‘research’ the values of a time by reading what was written then. Of course the funniest part of having a TBR pile of epic proportions is that there are still books on my ‘to be bought’ list.
We are natural story tellers. We tell our tales around the kitchen table, with grand gestures that make people laugh or in halting, toneless stammers. Every person recounts something, little or big, how the grocery shopping went, how they lived their life. It’s all a story to be told. Children’s tales of adventure, adult tales of woe, young dreams of success, weave themselves into a tapestry of stories that create our life.
Everyone has a story. You may not agree with it, or appreciate it, but it’s there. Some where under the heavy weight of day to day life there’s a dream that makes a tale. Sitting on worn couches, in rooms with the hiss and beep of medical equipment, resting on trees older than you are, it doesn’t matter where you are, you recognize the story – the life song of a person.
But all stories must end. Songs may linger, but melodies always fade. Immortality comes in the telling of the tale. The smell of coffee, the laughter of people who never knew you, the worn hands recreating your gestures, they all keep you alive. It’s the stories that keep the people we love alive, and I’m glad to have the tales to tell.
I am the youngest in all the family circles I inhabit. Modern culture puts me a hair behind middle aged, but the elders in my life, the ones who stopped counting after 85 years because it just didn’t matter any more how old they were, say I’m still young. I like to sit and listen to their stories, to imagine a place where women wore gloves to grocery shop, a time when a man could walk away from home and never be found again, and a life without credit reports that track us all. Their stories feed my fascination with Noir novels, with worlds where the lines between good and bad are crisply drawn.
I found out today that I’ll be losing one of the elders in my life, one of my favorite people. Cancer always seems to win in the end, no matter how hard we hate it. I think about him, how he fought in a world war and lived through three others. How he worked one job for longer than I’ve been alive, then retired to take another. There’s a chance (though slim) that I’ll be asked to give a eulogy. I already know what I would say: he took care of his family.
I think of all the men from his era as the same, people who put family first, took faith seriously, and stood up for what mattered. In my imagination they all worked hard without complaining. They took pride in the place they lived and maintained it with their own hands. I know I’m generalizing, life was never as easy or wonderful as we remember it. Memory has a way of painting over the pot holes and smoothing out the rough spots. But that doesn’t mean I don’t wish I could listen to more stories, and visit that time just a little bit longer.
The girl could have been pretty. Her long hair swept back around high cheek bones, complimenting her thin angled face, along her jaw line creamy skin framed perfect strawberry lips. But there the pretty ended. Just over left lip a red-pink mark started, it bloomed over her cheek and stretched out to her ear. Her eyes looked normal, clear and blue, but her eye lid split down the middle, half creamy flesh, half angry red.
In the third grade she decided the stain was shaped like the continent of Australia. As if someone had applied a decal of it, snagging the west coast on the side of her nose, wrapping the northern shores above her eye. The splotch ranged from deep purple, almost blue, to a bright red, as if she had been permanently slapped by life.
She hated the spot.
She loved it too.
Her twin sister, Nona, had no stains. The little girl’s perfection became clear to their mother when the twins were only three. Immediately their mother thrust Nona into the world of beauty pageants. The marked twin could run and play, read books and imagine, the perfect one practiced walking and smiling, was tormented by beauticians. Nona endured constituent judgment. Her twin lived as a ghost, completely free.
Nona won twenty thousand dollars by the fourth grade, and had a pageant coach by sixth. He took her sister’s virginity in a small hotel room while Nona won the Sweet 16 Crown in the ballroom six floors below. The sex made the marked twin into a woman. For three months it consumed her. The man taught her ever position, every technique. Her skill exceeded his teaching, but she fancied herself in love. Then as he pushed into her the pageant coach called her sister’s name. Suddenly his habit of turning her face to the right during love making did not seem so romantic.
She told the worst gossip of a pageant mother, swearing the woman to a secrecy that would never last and protect only herself, the poor victim. Nona continued with pageants, a case of crowns and trophies overflowed in the living room. Her sister continued with older men, men with means. Nona pushed her body, demanding strict perfection, gaining an eating disorder, losing her friends. Her sister’s body stayed a temple, and the men who worshiped at it paid dearly for the privilege. A young lawyer saw Nona on stage, decided she was the beautiful articulate woman he needed by his side. She left pageants to become a wife.
Her sister became much more important. She became a whore.
I intended to fill this space with a lengthy discussion on irresponsibility and if a writer needs to be irresponsible from time-to-time so they can have the adventures that make for good fiction. I would evoke Hemingway and the Fitzgeralds, talk about dangerous hobbies and drug use, finally bringing it all around to a very irresponsible proposition I’ve recently received.
If that proved too difficult, my backup topic was the way October always leaves me feeling as scattered as the golden and red foliage on the sidewalk, with my energy going to a dozen different places and making almost no difference in any of them. A few paragraphs devoted to how October always feels like New Year’s Eve to me, a time to make resolutions, to assess the damage of the year before and to promise never to do any of it again. October is my time for cutting back and saying no.
Those were my plans. They were good ones even, and maybe some week I’ll get back to them, but something arrived in my inbox that pushed everything else out of my mind: the Art department at Tor books requested cover concepts for my first novel.
Like most would-be authors, I’ve imagined my name on the cover of a book, specifically a paperback book, at least a million times. I’ve picked fonts, auditioned characters for the front space, and decided on colors. It would be a lie to say I’ve stuck with any of those for very long. I posses only a tiny bit of artistic talent, and I doubt myself often. Deep inside I can’t wait to see what a real artist will do.
I collect vintage noir mysteries. The easiest ones to find come from famous authors, Rex Stout, Erle Stanley Gardner, and Raymond Chandler. I love the evolution of the images, in the 1930s a woman has long flowing hair, in the 1970s the same character wears her tresses shellacked into submission. Up until now my characters lived solely in my imagination. I’m excited to see how they look in someone else’s.
Fall is my favorite season for a lot of reasons: the weather, the leaves, and the excuse to decorate with skulls (current skull count: 9, current pumpkin count: 14, both seem to grow every day) and, of course, new fall tv shows. Hollywood embraced fantasy and horror this year, bringing shows that appeal to people like me – geeks.
While I’m waiting patiently for the fantasy based “Once Upon a Time” and “Grimm”, both about fairy tale characters living a normal life, the horror shows are already captured on my TIVO. I’m not an author snob who argues that the only way to tell a story is the written word. I see the promise that comes when a brilliant director uses images and visual metaphor to tell a story. I coo over artistic interpretation. I love a good symbolic opening shot.
None of which I found in American Horror Story. I gave it thirty minutes. Thirty minutes I’ll never get back. In that time the show offered one ghost, two deaths, one politically incorrect lush, a broken marriage, and a very creepy disabled girl. I prefer my haunted house shows have more haunting, more scares. Either way, the most intriguing story element in a haunted house story should not be the S&M suit in the attic.
At the opposite side of the spectrum is BBC’s Bedlam. It just plain does everything right. The scares are subtle enough to work on your imagination. In the first episode the dripping of water when all of the taps are dry made me play the ‘is he or isn’t he insane’ game. That’s my favorite part of horror, the psychological scare, the ‘did I see that’ debate. Horror shouldn’t be about buckets of blood and loud violins, but about doubt and disbelief. Introduce a main character who has just gotten out of the nut house, put him in a highly suggestible state, and then amp up the tension with things that could be explained away and I’m hooked.
Most ghost stories aren’t new. I first read the story that introduces Bedlam in the third grade. A driver picks up a passenger by the side of the road, spooky events result. That first time I heard it the passenger was the ghost of teenage girl on her way to prom. In the first episode of Supernatural the passenger was a hitchhiking La Lorna. I’ve found historic accounts of the same story, with the ghost-passenger as a man killed by highway men or a woman on her way to be married. Anna Dressed in Blood (the best ghost story I’ve read this year) twisted the tale to include a James Dean look-alike. Bedlam twists it again, making the passenger the ghost hunter, the driver the ghost.
That level of sophistication permeates the show. When a couple kisses passionately we know a ghost is behind them. Does the director pan out to show us the dripping, bloody mess? Nope. In one of the huge mirrors in the room? No again. Instead the shadow of the ghost appears in a smaller side mirror, just enough that it registers, not enough that you can see it clearly. Brilliant. Restrained. I can’t wait to see more.
I tend to move often, which is to say more than most military families but less than your average hobo. (Probably, trustworthy hobo movement statistics are hard to find these days.) For a while, every July found me knee deep in packing paper and boxes. One of the benefits of all that moving is a total lack of clutter. It’s hard to be sentimental about something when you’re unwrapping it for the fourth or fifth time in as many years. All the adorable knickknacks and cute curios become so much sentimental junk. Eventually, it all ends up in the Good Will box, usually just after a move is completed. I find myself unpacking, tired and hot, wondering why I hauled a ceramic chef statue across five states when I don’t even remember who gave it to me.
There’s something wonderfully cathartic about that Good Will box, the way it holds things I no longer have to carry, worries that will cease, and burdens I’ve put down. My unconventional upbringing taught me that you don’t own things, things own you. Being freed from that responsibility always feels so liberating I wish I could do the same thing for my writing.
I’ve always struggled with a metaphor to describe how my writing mind works. While it’s not pretty the closest I can come is a sponge, a white sponge, the kind you might use to clean up the kitchen sink. You’d wipe up some spilled orange juice and the sponge would be tinted orange on one side. Then there would be jelly, adding a red line down the center. By the end of breakfast there’s a smear of black too. (I always burn the toast.) What’s left on that sponge could be transferred to paper, and if you spent enough money on the frame would be art. My writing is the sponge, the events I encounter are the jelly, juice, and charcoal. That frame? It’s editing, polishing, and more than a little hard work.
The problem is the clutter, the things in my non-writing life that get in the way. They’re like a giant pitcher of red kool-aid that gets dumped on the counter. Sure the sponge can take it, but now it’s completely red. Two or three washings later, and it’s still red. Everything is tainted with it. It takes ages to fade.
If I could create a mental Good Will box I’d stuff it with doctor appointments, medical worries, the current financial crisis (the country’s not mine), all my worries about the people I love, and all my fears for the future. I know those events shape me, and I want the power of the emotions they create in my work, but I don’t want my work to sound like a journal of my own issues. I hate thinking someone could pick up my book 15 years from now and say ‘that’s when she had to take the rabbit editor to the vet’ or ‘that’s when she was dieting’.
I don’t mind knowing that it happens. My delightful agent once realized that my character woke up at the beginning of each chapter, just like I sat down to write first thing each morning. I edited the copious mornings out with a smile, glad to know that my life hadn’t overshadowed my writing in the end. And that’s just the way I like it.