Sunday, February 27, 2011

Snow in Tucson

This morning I awoke, opened the bedroom door, and glanced out back as I headed toward the kitchen to make coffee. I stopped dead in my tracks and said, "Oh . . . my . . . word!"

Lemon Tree in My Yard
I probably shouldn't have been so surprised. After all, the weather report last night had said there was a chance of snow in Vail and I live on the east side of town, not so far from Vail. But I'd brushed off the warning, thinking, no, it doesn't really snow in Tucson. Of course, it does, on occasion.

I've lived here four years and seen snow three times. Once was the first year. A light dusting covered the streets and I thought, "How pretty!" as I got ready for work. The phone rang and I wondered who would be calling at such an early hour as I picked it up. It was one of my coworkers (also a former New Yorker) telling me not to come into work until later. "You're kidding!" I said. After all it didn't look anything like snow we got in New York or Massachusetts.

Weymouth, MA 2005

She patiently explained that people here don't know how to drive in snow and the city isn't equipped to deal with it. There is ONE truck to spread salt on the bridges and it takes a while to get around to all of them. Of course, by the time that happens, the sun comes out and melts everything.

The second time was when I had invited my mother and sister to come to warm, sunny Arizona for Christmas to get away from winter in New York. Much to my chagrin, we had a cold, rainy spell that week and, as we drove back to my house, large, wet flakes mixed in with the rain.

And then there was this morning. An inch of fluffy, wet snow covered everything in the time before the sun rose, turning Tucson into a fairyland. I quickly got my camera to capture this unusual event. I'm not alone. My neighbors, gspecially those with kids, are out in the park, snapping pictures and making snowballs. The little ones have no idea what to do with this stuff.

Children in the Park

I think the parents are more excited than the little ones. After all, they have all kinds of good memories about snow: days off from school, sledding, snowball fights, and hot chocolate afterwards to warm up.

But these are Tucson children. They might have seen snow on a special trip to Mount Lemmon. While snow in the city is rare, snow in the mountains isn't unusual at all. Several times a year the peaks are covered in snow. We even have a ski area on Mount Lemmon.

It doesn't last long. Even now the sun has broken through the clouds and clumps of snow are melting off the trees. Swaths of green grass are opening up in the park. I'm sure it will all disappear by noon and all that will remain will be the stories people will tell when they meet up later today and tomorrow. "Did you get snow?" they'll ask. And those of us who were lucky enough to see it will nod our heads and smile and tell tales of the kids in the park.

Blue Skies

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Cowboys and Cowgirls

La Fiesta de los Vaqueros, otherwise known as the Tucson Rodeo, starts this weekend. It's one of those things that makes Tucson unique and so very different from the Northeast were I lived and worked for fifty years.

 For four days next weekend, Tucson celebrates the Old West in a big way. Schools close, businesses and organizations sponsor floats in the Rodeo Parade, and people are encouraged to break out their cowboy hats and western shirts and wear them to work. For five days spread over two weekends, you can watch bareback riding, steer wrestling, tie-roping, barrel racing, and the ever-popular bull riding, done by professional cowboys and cowgirls.

I've always liked cowboys and cowgirls. When I grew up, westerns were probably the most popular genre of television show. I watched Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Hopalong Casidy, The Cisco Kid, Annie Oakley, and Gene Autry on Saturday mornings.  Adult dramas included Gunsmoke, Wyatt Earp, Have Gun Will Travel, Wagon Train, Maverick and Bonanza. And I'm pretty sure Wild Wild West was the first steampunk television show. There were dozens more. America couldn't get enough cowboys.

What was the appeal of the cowboy and the American West? A lot of it had to do with men and women conquering the frontier. Life was hard, but the cowboy was tough and resilient. Women living this life weren't wimps either. Annie Oakley could outshoot any man who crossed her. Dale Evans was an equal partner with Roy Rogers.

  I think westerns were one of the influences in the fifties and early sixties that enabled us to go to the moon. It was all a matter of attitude. Surely a nation that had conquered the West could conquer the moon.

In the same way, the values of the cowboys reflected the values of our society. The cowboys in the white hats defeated the bad guys in the black hats. Good guys always triumphed in the end because their hearts were pure. Bonanza was as much a story about family as it was about ranching or black hats and white hats.

And religion wasn't forbidden in the lives of the cowboys; rather, it was encouraged. Roy Rogers and Dale Evans introduced Christian themes into their movies and television shows. In the tradition of the singing cowboy, in one episode of their television show they sang "The Bible Tells Me So". It became a popular hit.

In Gene Autry's version of "Here Comes Santa Claus", children are told to "hang your stockings and say your prayers." Today's versions usually change the last part to "go to bed", avoiding anything that might be considered a religious reference. Verse three says "We're all God's children" and the last verse says "So let's give thanks to the Lord above." I would bet that most children today have never heard those last two verses.

And what's our top-rated television show? American Idol. I never watched this show before this past week. I wouldn't have watched it this week, but, supposedly, there was a contestant from Tucson performing. (I never saw her.)

What is life like in 2011? Unemployment is still over nine percent. I know several twenty-somethings who think life should be sleeping till noon, playing video games all night, and looking for the latest feel-good drug. A job? Why should they even look? School? It's too much work.

The foreclosure rate is staggering. Good people are losing their homes. And I'm not so sure we can blame the banks for all of those. The concept of paying for what you borrow by hard work rather than an overheated economy increasing your wealth doesn't seem to exist.

We've practically shut down NASA. We're afraid to risk sending a manned mission to Mars. We're afraid of shattering fragile self-esteem, so kids play in non-competitive sports leagues. Everyone gets a trophy. In schools we mainstream both kids with below and above-average abilities, serving the needs of neither. With diminishing tax dollars due to the prolonged recession, governments are cutting funding for education and the arts, as well as essential services. The outlook for the twenty-first century is bleak indeed.

It doesn't need to be. I think everything is still possible. We just need to believe it. That kind of belief isn't going to come from American Idol or Dancing with the Stars. What America needs is more cowboys.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Free Books

No, I'm not giving anything away so anyone who got here by Googling the title will be disappointed. You might as well click on the next link in your search list.

One of the marketing tools that publishers have used over the past year is to give away ebooks, hoping readers will want more from an author or a series. It doesn't cost them very much, if anything, and they must think that it's worthwhile. Barnes and Noble has free book Fridays for nook owners and Amazon offers promotional ebooks as well.

Toward the end of last year, Richard Mabry wrote a blog post about the negative reviews he'd received for "Code Blue" when it was offered as a free ebook. The reason for the negative reviews? "Code Blue" is Christian fiction. Reviewers (and I use the term very loosely) gave the book one star because they didn't like Christian fiction.

Now, I'd seen this phenomenon before. Before purchasing a book, I do look at the ratings given by people who've purchased and read the book. It's a good way--within limits--of deciding whether a particular book is for me. Being the perverse person I am, I usually make a point of reading the one star and two star reviews. All too often, these "reviews" are not about the merits of the book, but about something else entirely. The reviewer complains about delivery time or that the cover was wrinkled or that they got the wrong book. These things have nothing to do with the merit of the book and make the overall rating totally misleading.

As a reality test, I decided to check the reviews for some Harlequin novels. Harlequin makes a number of books available for free, including several from its Blaze line. Harlequin says: "The series features sensuous, highly romantic, innovative stories that are sexy in premise and execution." I figured that, if there was one group of readers who found Christian fiction distasteful and rated it poorly on that basis, at the other end of the spectrum had to be those who found sexually explicit stories distasteful.

I was correct. In the same way that free Christian ebooks were blasted for their content, sexy romances were also taken to task.

My first reaction was, "What do you want, people? These are FREE books. It's not like you lost any money obtaining them." But reason doesn't seem to play a part in this.

I've downloaded several free ebooks that I didn't care for. Did I run to the Barnes and Noble web site and immediately give them a bad review? Of course not. I just archived them off my nook and, if I thought about it the next time I was on the BN site, deleted them from my library. I also learned to check out the book summary before downloading a book just because it was free.

But it made me wonder if readers--and book buyers--were influenced by those negative reviews. How many people purposely read the one and two star reviews before deciding on a purchase? Or do they just see that a book only has an average three star rating and think it can't be very good? I fear that it may be the latter.

And, so, it may be detrimental for publishers to give away free ebooks. Yes, they may gain some readers, but I think they also lose some. I'm no marketing expert and the publishers have probably figured out that they gain more readers than they lose this way, but it's sad that they have to lose any.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

On Deadline

Every once in a while, a published writer will apologize for not blogging or posting to one of the writers' loops because she's been "on deadline." In other words, she has a deadline to turn in a novel or revisions or a proposal for a new book to her editor or agent. You can hear the "phew!" in their post and see an arm and a head bobbing up to the top of the waves in your mind.

As an unpublished writer who is only responsible for herself for her writing, I've never had the experience of being "on deadline". . . until now.

At the end of last year, when I didn't make my goal of starting to query agents about my WIP and, moreover, wasn't even close when I was honest with myself, I decided that I needed to do something to validate my desire to become a published writer. Since my experience with setting a deadline for querying hadn't worked out very well, I decided on a smaller goal. I would enter the first chapter of my WIP into both the Daphne and Genesis contests.

With that in mind, I joined the American Christian Fiction Writers to get my writing read by someone other than myself. I got lots of critiques, mostly positive, and that encouraged me to go ahead with my plan.

Both contests have similar criteria and similar due dates for submission. The Daphne, given by Kiss of Death Chapter of RWA, requests no more than 5,000 words and a short synopsis of approximately 600 words. The Genesis, given by ACFW, has a limit of fifteen pages plus a one page, single spaced synopsis. The Daphne has a deadline of March 15th; the Genesis has a deadline of March 1st. ACFW recommends you make your submission by February 15th just in case something goes astray in email land. KOD has a limit of how many entries they'll accept.

Last month I set this weekend as my personal deadline for submission. Although February 15th is two days away, I know that I don't do my best work on weeknights after eight hours at the day job. I also had a feeling that the ACFW web site would be jammed with writers trying to submit on that day and I didn't want to be the victim of a web jam.

It was interesting to see the transformation in myself from amateur to serious writer. It's not that I haven't been serious about my writing before, but it hasn't always been my first priority. With a deadline, my office has accumulated a layer of clutter. There are papers strewn on my desk, a stack of new printouts with pen marks, slashes, and "stet" scribbled on them stacked on top of the thesaurus on the tray table next to me. There's another stack of reference books on a cardboard box by my side.

The yard looks awful, with dead plants from lack of watering and the hard freeze we had last week. The kitchen counters need a good going over with Chlorox to remove the paw prints from the cats. I finally pulled out the vacuum a half hour ago and did a half-hearted job of removing some of the accumulated dirt.

And I'm tired. I feel like collapsing in my recliner with my nook and a glass of sherry. But I still have to put the kitchen back together after washing the floor and move the laundry from the washer to the dryer.

And the thing is, I'm not really done with the contests yet. If I should get a good score or, miraculously, final in either one of them, I need to finish up my editing on the rest of the book. There's always the chance an agent or editor will want to see the rest of the manuscript. I wouldn't want to miss that chance by not having it ready to send out.

So what is it like to be "on deadline"? Glorious! It's what I was born to do.