Sunday, December 30, 2012

Looking Back on 2012


 I have to say that this has been one of the better years in my life. On the whole, more good things than bad happened. I've been caught up in the holiday rush, stressed over getting things done, and came down with a cold, so, when I first started thinking about 2012, the bad things popped to the top of my mind. I'm a half-empty kind of person at heart, struggling to see that glass as half-full--kind of like that optical illusion where some people first see a goblet and others see a couple.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Merry Christmas!

I know I kind of just disappeared this month. I've noticed lots of bloggers posting hiatus notices for the month of December, but I didn't even get around to writing one of those. So, a little late, I'm posting a hiatus notice along with my holiday greetings. I'm going to take a couple of more weeks off from writing this blog while I celebrate the holidays and finish up my tasks for 2012.

One of those tasks is to publish the ebook editions of my edgy Christian mystery, Faith, Hope, and Murder. Since this is the first time I'm doing this, I've had to learn a lot of new skills. I'm in the home stretch now, but formatting is going to take a wee bit more time.

I'll be back in 2013 with an update.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

In Praise of Copy Editors

My self-imposed deadline for publishing my first novel came and went yesterday. I'm a little disappointed, but I'd rather publish a good book a little bit late than an okay book on time. One of the reasons it's going to be late is because of my copy editor, Christina Miller. Oh, not because of her computer problems, although that contributed a few days. It was what she did with my manuscript. I suppose it's really not her fault I'm late. But I'll get back to that later.

When I decided to self-publish my book, I realized that I could spend anywhere from zero to several thousand dollars. It all depends on how much money you have available and how much work you want to do yourself. You can whip up a cover in PowerPoint or you can pay a cover designer anywhere from fifty to a thousand dollars. You can learn how to format your book to upload or hire a book formatter to do it for you. And you can trust that what you remember from eighth grade English class will be sufficient to produce professional prose, or you can hire an editor to go over your work.

I'm old. Eighth grade was a long time ago. So, even though I thought I was fairly expert at grammar and usage, I decided to invest a not-insignificant amount of money to hire a professional editor.

It was with fear and trepidation that I opened the Word document Christy returned to me. I had no idea what kinds of things she would find. Oh, I had a few areas I was uncertain about, like when to italicize internal thoughts and how to format the combination of dialogue and action mixed in a paragraph, which is why I wanted an editor to begin with. Would she fix these things for me or would I still be confused when she was done? What other things would she change or question?

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Mortal Storm

I'm a day late with this post, but, as you can imagine, it was a busy week. Thanksgiving was at my house and I'm working on revising my novel one more time based on copyedits I received last week. I'll write more about that in the future.

I love old movies, especially black and white movies. Before 3D and IMax and CGI and an unlimited budget for special effects, movies were about the story. It doesn't take a whole lot of imagination to blow things up. It does, however, take something special to tell a good story.

The best thing to ever happen to television was Turner Classic Movies (TCM). When in doubt, I check out what's playing on TCM. (If it's not baseball season. If there's a Red Sox game, I'm probably not going to be watching a movie. But it's November and there are still a few weeks until pitchers and catchers.) This happened yesterday. Coming up was a movie named "The Mortal Storm." I almost went on to reruns of Pawn Stars or Storage Wars because it was a story based on Hitler's Germany. I avoid movies about Hitler and World War II and the Holocaust. The topic is just not my cup of tea. Well, except for Casablanca.

Then I saw that it starred James Stewart and Robert Young. I love Jimmy Stewart, especially this time of year. It's a Wonderful Life should be popping up on television any day now. Of course I knew Robert Young from Father Knows Best, but I haven't seen him in too many full-length feature films. It also starred Margaret Sullavan, probably best known for The Shop Around the Corner, also with James Stewart. So I decided to give it a chance.

What a wonderful movie!

This is an example of how a story can make a political point and still be a good story. The Mortal Storm was made to encourage the United States to get into the war. There were those in Hollywood who believed we should take a stand and used their art to show what life was like under the Third Reich. While most of the people were entranced by Hitler, the James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan characters were appalled by what was going on. Eventually they try to make their escape.

One of the things that impressed me was the frequency with which God was mentioned. In fact, a lot of the conflict in the movie was between those who believed in God and those in the not-God camp. It made me think about how society has changed. In 1940, the belief that those who believe in God are the good guys and those who don't are the bad guys was common. Today, belief in God is supposed to have nothing to do with good and evil. In fact, if you profess a belief in God, you're considered naive, uninformed, and, sometimes, the bad guy. We've become so enamored of freedom that we don't consider it a good thing to give up some of that freedom to a higher power.

Now, I believe in freedom of religion. I don't think we should force anyone to belong to a certain church or mosque. But I'm tired of feeling like I should be ashamed to be a Christian. It's not a bad thing. And, in 1940, people knew that.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Produce Theory of Life

Dean Wesley Smith often writes about what he calls the produce model of traditional publishing. He explains publishers work on the assumption that books, like produce, spoil after a certain period of time. This is due to the economics of print books. In traditional publishing, a "decision" (in quotes because it's mostly an educated guess) is made as to how many books the publisher expects a particular title to sell. It was cheaper to print them all at once than to go back multiple times for additional printings. However, it's also expensive to warehouse these books and, due to a legal decision, those books in the warehouse--the ones that aren't selling--are considered an asset and taxed accordingly. So it behooved a publisher to get those books out of the warehouse as quickly as possible. It was more economic to destroy unsold books than to leave them in the warehouse in case some reader wanted to buy one. Because of limited shelf space in book stores, a book has to prove itself in a matter of months or it will be replaced by a "fresher" book they hope will sell better.

The thing is, in the world of ebooks and Print On Demand (POD), the produce model is outdated. Ebooks take up very little space in a seller's inventory system and a POD book doesn't exist until a customer orders it. But traditional publishers still cling to the idea that a book only has three months to prove itself before it's tossed in the recycle bin.

As I eat my breakfast each morning, I read a devotional from The Word For You Today. This week was a series on setting boundaries. The devotionals in turn described rigid boundaries, permeable boundaries, and flexible boundaries. Knowing how to set boundaries is difficult for most people, some more than others. I've gone through periods in my life where my boundaries were much too permeable, where my desire to please others was so great that it left no room for me. I'm the kind of person who needs quiet time, personal space to offset the times when I have to be with people. Social occasions, even going to work every day where I need to interact with people, is exhausting to me. As a result, I learned to carve out time for me, to say no to those who would persist on not granting me that alone time. I set my boundaries and kept people out.

I've also been preoccupied with planning for retirement. An image that haunts me is me, pushing a shopping cart around the streets of Tucson, a bag lady, homeless, dirty, hungry, and alone. I've read financial pundits who seem to think you need a million dollars put aside to make sure you don't outlive your retirement money. Your house should be paid off, you should have no debt, but you should have lots of supplemental health insurance, long term care insurance, a burial plot or crypt for you ashes, and on and on and on. I don't have any of that and won't unless I buy a lottery ticket and win.

And then along came Hurricane Sandy and the devastation and misery left behind.

NJ after Hurricane Sandy
I thought of how I was worried about paying the mortgage on a house that's too big for me and then thought of the people whose homes had been destroyed in the storm. I thought of how I've been on a tight budget, procrastinating on buying a new pair of sneakers, not because I don't have the money now, but because I'm trying not to spend more than I earn. While people lived in the cold and dark without electricity for two weeks, ran out of food and gasoline, lost everything they owned.

I decided that I had to donate to the Red Cross to help. And I thought of how I'd been looking at life from the produce model. I keep thinking about the scarcity, rather than the abundance. Compared to so many who had lost so much, I am rich beyond measure. And I remembered how, when I made the big bucks back in Boston and New York, the more I gave away, the more I seemed to have.

I haven't felt that way recently. I also haven't been giving much away. It seems that, since I lost my job in Boston (and another one here in Arizona), I've been pulling back. Yes, my income has decreased each time and I'm worried about retirement, but, like I said, I have a lot more than many people in this country do. Have my boundaries become too rigid? Have I been living under the produce theory of life?

Border Between Nogales, AZ and Nogales, Mexico
Which started me thinking about illegal immigrants. It's a topic I've done a lot of thinking on since moving to Arizona. I've written before about the number of illegal border crossers who come through the Tucson Sector before. I've written about the drugs and the violence. It's all true. It is illegal for them to come here without the proper procedures. It's illegal for them to work on the farms and cleaning houses and all the other jobs they do. It isn't fair that they use our emergency rooms for medical care that we, the taxpayers, pay for.

But I don't think Jesus believed in the produce theory of life. After all, He fed 5,000 on a few loaves and fishes and there was plenty left over. So, as a Christian, shouldn't I try to do the same? What would happen if I started worrying less about obeying the letter of the law and more about welcoming those who have come here looking for a better life? What if I stopped being angry at the fact that they're sending money to relatives still in Mexico, taking it away from this country, and started rejoicing that they are helping other people, family, to feed and clothe themselves? Would a huge crime wave start if we stopped trying to keep people out and worked harder at letting them in?

I don't know. I'm still wrestling with this one. I just know that I've seen life in a different perspective this week and am trying it on for size.



Picture Credits: 
Vegetables: Image ID: 10042218 by  kratuanoiy via FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Hurricane Sandy: U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Mark C. Olsen
Mexican-American Border at Nogales: Sgt. 1st Class Gordon Hyde

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Death of a Holiday

Miriam-Webster defines "holiday" as:
a day on which one is exempt from work; specifically : a day marked by a general suspension of work in commemoration of an event
We seem to have forgotten the meaning of the word. We also seem to have forgotten its derivation (holy day).
 
The national news carried a story this past week telling us that Walmart will be opening at 8 PM on Thanksgiving to kick off the holiday shopping season. This is two hours earlier than last year. "Holiday" in this case referring to Christmas shopping, but that wouldn't be politically correct. And Thanksgiving is a day that was set aside to thank God for our blessings. In one announcement, Walmart disregarded two holidays and the fact that these two days have anything to do with God.

It wasn't that long ago that malls started opening on New Year's Day so that football widows could spend a day shopping while their spouses were huddled around the television watching the endless games.

I remember when stores were closed on holidays. And, believe it or not, stores used to be closed on Sunday. You had to plan ahead to do your shopping. There was no running out to the store if you forgot to buy cranberry sauce or potato chips or beer, no picking up a blouse on sale or a bargain on a Blueray player at Best Buy.

I think we've lost something. All days are becoming alike. There's no difference between Sunday and Friday, no difference between December 15 and December 25. As I pointed out in another blog post, traditions and rituals exist for a reason. The enable us to be closer to "the other." We've become so secular that we're missing opportunities to connect with something greater than ourselves.

And I feel bad for those who are forced to work on what used to be holidays. On days that were set aside for family and friends they have to go to work and ring up sales. Even if they would prefer to spend the day with their families, they often have no choice.

I will admit to stopping at the grocery store or Office Max on my way home from church on Sunday on occasion. Sometimes the convenience is too tempting. But I refuse to shop on a holiday. I keep hoping that if no one shows up at Walmart on Thanksgiving, they'll stop opening the stores. My effort is probably futile, but it's one statement I can make.


Sunday, October 28, 2012

Frankenstorm

I was tempted to title this post "Boring Weather in Tucson," but then who would read it? Like most people this weekend, I'm spending a lot of time tuned to The Weather Channel watching the updates on this major storm. Although it has absolutely no impact on Arizona, I still have family on Long Island and friends in Massachusetts and I'm concerned for them.

One of the advantages of living in southern Arizona is that you rarely pay attention to weather reports. You don't have to. Most days are warm and sunny. It gets hot in the summer. In the fall, nights are in the mid-fifties and days in the mid-eighties. You get to turn the air conditioning off. It gets colder in the "winter," but if there's anything of significance, like a hard freeze, the local news programs go berserk reminding you of The Three Ps (pipes, pets, and plants). Since homes don't have basements and water pipes are above ground coming into the house, you need to wrap them in insulation when it stays below freezing overnight. Pets need to be brought indoors. Sensitive plants need to be covered.

We don't have hurricanes, tornadoes, or blizzards. No earthquakes, either. Yes, we sometimes have severe monsoon thunderstorms with flooding in the summer, but most times you can pull into a Starbucks and order a latte and wait an hour until it passes and the roads have drained. (Unless you're unfortunate enough to need to use a road that has been constructed where a wash that drains the higher elevations passes over it. Some of those places take days before they're passable.) Sometimes there are haboobs, huge dust storms, but those tend to take place north of Tucson.

I kind of miss these major weather events. There are no "snow days" off from school or work. You don't get to anticipate how bad it will be this time for days on end. And you don't get to bring out all your old storm stories and relive your memories.

When I lived in Massachusetts, the storm that all other storms were measured against was The Blizzard of 78. Snow started falling on a Monday morning and didn't quit until Tuesday evening. Winds were hurricane-force. And, as the pictures in the link above show, one of the most devastating effects was the flooding from an angry ocean. Because snow hadn't started falling before dawn, people headed off to work as usual, expecting the storm to blow out to sea. This is common with storms along the east coast. You never know exactly what you're going to get until it happens. By the time people realized how bad it was, it was too late for many to get home safely. Roads were clogged with cars buried under the snow. People were stranded far from home.

On Long Island, it was always the Hurricane of 1938. They didn't name hurricanes back then the way we do now, but this one earned the nickname of The Long Island Express. This one changed the coastline of Long Island, cutting Shinnecock Inlet through the barrier beach on Long Island's south shore. Weather forecasting wasn't very sophisticated then and this storm took everyone by surprise.

I went to college at Michigan State. That's where I learned about tornadoes. Although one never came close to the campus, there were several times we ran down the stairs to the basement of our dorm to wait out a threat. I'll never forget the odd look to the sky on those days.

Now I live through storms vicariously, watching on television and congratulating myself on picking such a safe place to live. But I don't get to stock up on candles and batteries and junk food and watch the wind howling past my windows. I don't get to huddle under blankets with a book while a snowstorm rages outside. No going down to the seawall to watch the waves crash over it. And it's months before the next monsoon season. Weather really is boring in Tucson.

Meanwhile, for those of you in the path of Hurricane Sandy enveloped in a Nor'easter, stay safe, my friends. My prayers are with you.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Truth and Fiction


 I love mysteries, not that that's news to anyone who knows anything about me. I love reading them, watching television shows and movies about them, and writing them. I even like computer games that are really mysteries in disguise. I love the puzzles and the knowledge that justice will prevail at the end.

Massachusetts Police Officer

 As a member of Sisters in Crime, I've had the chance to listen to lots of members of law enforcement. I attended the Tucson Police Department's Citizens Police Academy and the Pima County Attorney's Office Prosecutor's Academy. One thing that always comes up during these talks is all the things writers and television get wrong.

We've all heard of "the CSI effect." In case you haven't, that's where juries have come to expect that a prosecutor will be able to get DNA evidence analyzed in 24 hours, have all this wizardly equipment that makes the verdict incontrovertible, and, when this doesn't happen, they determine that the prosecutor and/or the crime lab is incompetent.


Guess what? That's not reality. There's usually a waiting list to get DNA evidence processed. Most crime labs can't afford the equipment shown on television. It's not in the budget. And--gasp!--CSI makes some of that stuff up.

Lee Lofland does a weekly review of "Castle." This started because writers wanted to know what parts were done right and what was done wrong. There's lots that's not technically correct in this show, not the least of which is having a civilian trample all over crime scenes, interview suspects, and often be smarter than the police. Lee has a particular dislike for Lainie, the voodoo M.E. It's as if she's psychic because she knows all kinds of things about how a person was killed even before doing an autopsy. Or with no evidence whatsoever.

Crime Scene Tape
Recently a National Park Service Ranger spoke at my local chapter of Sisters in Crime. I was really enjoying his talk--until he started picking on one of my new favorite shows, "Longmire."

Mostly this had to do with jurisdictional issues on an Indian reservation. (And, for all you politically correct people out there, the term is Indian, not Native American. The official government term for places on reservations is "Indian Country." Those people who own the casinos call themselves Indians.) Who's in charge when a crime is committed on a reservation gets very complicated because in some ways the reservations are treated as independent nations. This came about because of the separate treaties that were negotiated with each tribe. Tribal authorities have jurisdiction over misdemeanors--if they have a tribal police department. Lots don't have their own law enforcement. If I remember correctly, major crimes like murder and rape are handled by federal authorities. Most of the time. If at all.

The Ranger's point was that Walt Longmire, a county sheriff, would never be caught on a reservation chasing suspects. He has no jurisdiction.

Now, writers usually do want to get details correct. They do an incredible amount of research checking out those details. This includes talking to law enforcement, doing ride-alongs with the police, reading books on forensics and poisons and criminal investigation.

But writers aren't in the business of creating criminal procedure manuals. They're in the business of telling stories. What kind of series would it be if Sheriff Longmire had to go back and sit in his office while the FBI or Federal Attorney did the criminal investigation on the reservation? Viewers would decide that the main character wasn't Longmire, but FBI Agent Smith because Smith was doing the good stuff.


Same thing with Castle. If Richard Castle is sitting in his townhouse typing his next novel on his computer (where he should be) instead of running all over New York with Kate Beckett, they'd have to retitle the show. And probably cut him out entirely. There's nothing more boring than watching a writer at work.


My point is that mystery fiction doesn't have to be totally true to life. It just has to be true enough. Most readers aren't going to notice the "mistakes" like the minutiae of jurisdiction. They're just looking for a good story.

Photo Credits:
Massachusetts Police Officer: qwrrty (Tim Pierce) photostream on Flickr.
Crime Scene Tape: Tex Texin via Flickr

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Book Review: Potshot by Robert B. Parker

Sometimes you just need comfort food. While a trip to Cafe Poca Cosa is a delightful culinary experience, there are days when you want meatloaf and mashed potatoes. Similarly, there are times you don't want a literary experience with lots of meaning; you want a comfort read. This was a meatloaf week for me.

Robert B. Parker's Spenser series is one of my comfort reads. They're admittedly not great literature, there's lots of white space on the page, but you know exactly what you're getting. You're going to get Spenser and Hawk and a little bit of Susan as justice prevails and another crime is solved.

In this book, Mary Lou Buckman comes to Boston to hire Spenser to solve the murder of her husband in Potshot, Arizona. She's been referred by a Los Angeles police officer she knew from before she moved to Potshot. You have to wonder why she'd travel all the way across the country to hire a private detective and why the LA officer didn't recommend someone local, but hey, this is a Spenser novel and he had to get there somehow. (I cut Parker a lot of slack because I like his books.)

Spenser arrives and finds out that more than one man has followed Lou to Arizona from Los Angeles, despite the fact that she was married. Apparently both Lou and her husband played around, both before they left Los Angeles and afterwards. So these two men are immediate suspects in the murder, although one is the chief of police and another has a good alibi.

The suspicion is that the murder was actually committed by someone from the Dell. Originally some kind of hippy-style community just outside the town of Potshot, it's recently become something more sinister since a character called The Preacher arrived. The Preacher and his minions have intimidated the town. They collect payments from the local businesses and promise something bad will happen to those who don't pay up. Lou's husband Steve openly opposed them.

Spenser, of course, is intimidated by no one. When he, too, stands up to The Preacher, a group of local citizens approach him about cleaning up the Dell for a fee. Spenser thinks this is a good idea and goes back to Boston to pick up Hawk and recruits several other thugs from around the country to help out.

Of course there is the typical Spenser wisecracking and macho posturing and Susan eating like a bird along with a couple of twists. It's standard Spenser fare, if you like that kind of thing. And I do. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book.

I bought this hardcover edition quite a while ago from the bargain table at Barnes and Noble because its reduced price was less than a paperback. I used to do that a lot, before I got concerned about the amount of shelf space I needed and before I got addicted to reading on my Nook. And it was kind of nice reading an actual book with pages and stuff. I'll have to try it more often.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Dreams

Friday morning, the Endeavor made its final flight perched aboard the back of of a 747. I don't watch the news much nowadays, although I'll probably start again once the agonizing 2012 Red Sox season is officially over, so I wasn't aware that Mark Kelly had requested the flyover for Tucson until most of my colleagues had gone outside or were huddled around the windows watching it fly by.

It was a bittersweet moment seeing the last manned spaceflight vehicle in the clear blue skies over the Catalina Mountains before it turned south for its passage over the University of Arizona campus. I've written before about how sad I am that the space program initiated by John F. Kennedy and its push to land the first man on the moon has devolved to a paper-thin shell of its former self. I grew up reading Heinlein and Asimov and Clark, fully expecting to see colonies on the moon, heck, maybe even on Mars, at some point in my lifetime. Now I'm not sure that will happen. Ever.

That particular dream seems to have died.


I was reminded this past week of other dreams that died. On Thursday, CNN shared a staggering statistic: 46.2 million people in America fell below the poverty line last year. One in five children are poor.

To illustrate what it feels like to be poor, CNN decided to feature a blog post by John Scalzi that he wrote shortly after Hurricane Katrina. It was his response to the question lots of people were asking after seeing the devastation and loss of life in the 9th Ward: Why didn't they leave?

I spent parts of two days reading through the more than 600 comments on this blog, unable to stop  as so many shared their experiences of what it means to be poor, experiences many in the middle class can't imagine happening to anyone. The wealthy probably even less so.

My family wasn't as poor as Scalzi's was, nor as poor as many of the commenters, but reading through their experiences brought back memories I'd conveniently forgotten. I remember my mother taping bread wrappers over my shoes so I could play in the snow because I had no boots. I remember putting my winter coat on top of my blanket at night and huddling around an electric heater in the morning because my parents couldn't afford oil for the furnace. I remember a friend's mother commenting on my rundown heels and asking me if my feet hurt from them. I remember telling her no because I knew my parents didn't have money to buy me a new pair of shoes. We always had a roof over our heads and I don't remember going hungry for more than a few hours, but there were times when life was tough.

One of the consequences of being poor is that you often have no idea what your options are. Fortunately, my parents gave me options. They made sure I went to college and let me live at home for minimal room and board after graduation until I was able to make my own life. I went back to school and earned a second degree, one that allowed me to make a good salary through my middle earning years. I got used to buying books, owning my home, and developed a taste for Starbucks.

The other consequence of being poor is the fear that's always in the back of your mind that you might be poor again. You're always trying to make sure you have a safety net, a reserve you can fall back on for when times get tough. You get uncomfortable when the gas gauge in your car goes below a quarter tank or your bank account balance drops below a certain amount or the shelves in the pantry start to empty out.

As I get closer to retirement, the words "fixed income" take on new meaning.  For the past couple of months, I've been trying to live on my expected retirement income. It's amazing how hard it is to readjust to thinking poor. I thought groceries would be one of the easiest expenditures to cut, since I have a tendency to buy a lot of convenience meals (too tired to cook after work) and look down my nose at store brands. That includes for my cats. The cat diet got changed first. No more Proplan dry food from Petco. Grocery store brands had to be good enough. They don't seem to mind.

But still groceries were costing more than I'd allowed myself in my head. Last week I passed on the trip to Starbucks for a bag of Pike Place roast. I stood in the coffee aisle at the supermarket and finally put a can of Maxwell House French Roast--on sale for $2.99--into my cart instead. It's been a long time since I've looked at a row of products and had to weigh what I wanted against what I could reasonably afford.

I know I have a warped sense of what's necessary from the fat years. Cable TV. A subscription to Netflix. My smartphone. Reading about people who are homeless or starving or have clothes too ragged to go on a job interview and no transportation to get to one makes that clear.

There are far too many people in that situation due to the prolonged recession we've been in. How many dreams have been shattered over the past five years? How many dreams haven't even been dreamt of? I don't know the solution to that problem, but we've got to come up with one soon. Surely the nation that put men on the moon can make sure people have homes and food and jobs.

Photo attributions:
By Arnold de Leon (Flickr: Space Shuttle Endeavour over Moffet Field) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Hurricane Katrina by http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Infrogmation

Sunday, September 09, 2012

The Power of Myth

It's pledge week on public television, which means, in between pitches for donations, they're showing some of the best programming ever created. This includes the Peter, Paul, and Mary concert, a Sinatra tribute, Yanni, Paul McCartney, some alternative health specials, and... Joseph Campbell and The Power of Myth.

I don't believe I've ever seen the entire series. Back in the late eighties, when the series first aired, I was the mother of a young child in a failing marriage working a full time job while going to school at night. I didn't have a lot of time for television. I have seen bits and pieces of this series during past pledge weeks, but I've never seen the entire work.  I happened to see more of it today and was once again impressed by the wisdom of this man. It's amazing how an interview recorded thirty years ago is as fresh and relevant today as it was then.

Maybe more so.

I hardly know where to begin with the ideas that resonated with me. There was that much good stuff.

One thing Campbell said was that ritual exists to take you out of the everyday. He used the changes in the Catholic church as an example. Celebrating mass in the ritual language of Latin was a significantly different experience than using the vernacular. The altar used to be at the back of the chancel and the priest faced it, which meant he faced away from the congregation. I'd add that the use of incense and candles and the way they engage the senses also served to put you in a spiritually different place than the everyday world. Today, with the use of the vernacular and moving the altar forward and having the priest face the congregation may make the mass more accessible. But you lose some of the otherness of the ritual.

I've had a similar experience at my own church. While I enjoy the joyfulness of the contemporary service, there are days when I long for the traditions I grew up with. The liturgy remains basically the same throughout the year in a traditional service while changing weekly in the contemporary service. Particularly on holidays I find myself going back to that tradition, to connect to that other place of worship and to get nearer to God.

The church service or mass itself isn't the only place where our society has lost shared rituals. In the name of religious freedom and political correctness, many of the rituals at schools and public functions have been eliminated. Or participation has been made optional. As the recent brouhaha over the Democrat platform this past week showed, we're not sure whether to include God or not in our public life. Whether on purpose or as an accidental omission, God was not mentioned in the 2012 Democratic platform. The media focus on this led to God being put back in mid-week. I'm not sure everyone was happy with that.

One significant life event is the move from being a child to being an adult. In the past, religion was responsible for the rites of passage from child to adult in our society. For Christians, that was confirmation. For Jews, Bar Mitzvah. Campbell stated that the results of the loss of these myths and rituals could be seen in the New York Times. He said that most crimes are committed by young people because they did not have the ritual of becoming an adult. He contrasted that with the ritual a boy goes through in the aborigine culture of Australia. The men take the boy into a deep, dark cave and change his body (including circumcision). It is a frightening experience and the man who leads him in is not gentle with him. However, when he emerges, he is no longer a boy. There is physical evidence of the change and he's now recognized as a man. I suppose an argument could be made for high school graduation being our new ritual, except that the high drop-out rate reenforces Campbell's beliefs.

Throughout the program there was the emphasis on there being more than the physical world we know. That there is the other, the spiritual world that exists in parallel and beyond the physical world. And, according to Campbell, it is the artist's function to mythologize the environment of the time. Through stories, paintings, music, and sculpture, the artist uses current symbols to reach across to that other world, to express it for all of us.

And maybe that's why I am a writer as well as a Christian. In both activities I catch glimpses of that other world, the world that is more magnificent and mysterious than anything we know on earth.


Sunday, September 02, 2012

Ugly Americans


I am a Red Sox fan.


It's been a tough year for Red Sox fans. An entire year, counting the September Collapse of 2011. Friday night's game, which the Sox lost by the score of 20 to 2, was particularly embarrassing. It's been more than depressing.

Being almost 3,000 miles from Boston, I don't have much contact with other Red Sox fans. I do know three here in Tucson (Red Sox Nation is everywhere!), but we don't watch games together. During the games, just to get the feeling of being with other fans, I follow #redsox on Twitter. And I read comments on the Boston Globe articles to stay in touch. Fans on both venues have been pretty rough.

Frustration has come out in anger. The owners are blamed, the manager is blamed, the players are blamed. This is all standard stuff for sports fans, but the vituperation of this year's comments has been more than I've ever seen. It's not a lot of fun.

Following one of the infrequent wins--by Daisuke Matsuzaka, of all people--I decided to revel in the win and go back to a happier time. I watched Faith Rewarded, the NESN video of the 2004 season, and Fever Pitch, a joyful romantic comedy that captures the insanity of Red Sox fans. Now, it's easy to be upbeat when you win a World Series, especially when it's been eighty-six years since the last one. But I don't remember anyone being angry in 2003 when they didn't win. Baseball was fun, a game, and the self-described "bunch of idiots" had fun playing it. And the fans had fun watching it.

This year isn't fun and the fans aren't making it any better. I've stopped following the nastiness on #redsox during games. And I'm almost grateful that the commenting function on the Globe has been broken a lot this week.

You know what else is going on this year? Think hard. I'll wait...

Elections.

We've already been through a hotly contested Republican primary for president, not to mention the local races, including filling Gabby Giffords' seat here in Tucson. I am more than tired of the accusations and the lies of the various candidates and their proponents.

I read the comments on news web sites like CNN.  Most are the same tone as the Red Sox comments. There are still people, the so-called "birthers", ranting about Obama's birth certificate and whether he's a citizen or not. On the other side are those ranting against the Tea Party people. Or what Mitt Romney is hiding by not releasing ten years of tax returns. Rather than discussing the content of the news article, the comments degenerate into name-calling.

When did America become so hateful and angry?

Every candidate says they want to talk about the issues. In the beginning. They criticize the other guy for running negative ads. Then, as the race gets tighter and election day gets closer, more and more negative ads start appearing on television. Because negative ads work. Sad, but true.

My phone rings several times a night. I used to answer my phone before every call was a political robocall.  Now I don't answer it unless the person calling starts to leave a message and I recognize them as someone I know. I don't want to listen to more lies and accusations and pleas for my vote.

And so it was a welcome relief to listen to Mitt Romney's acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention this past week. It didn't have the flourish or the polish of President Obama's orations. It also wasn't filled with anger and accusations. It was a reasoned presentation of who Mitt Romney is and what he intends to do. I hope Barack Obama takes his cue from Mitt Romney and gives a similar reasoned speech at the Democratic National Convention. Because I don't need any more anger.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Value of One Person

I usually read a meditation each morning before I eat my breakfast. If I don't purposefully build habits, I never get into them. Making time for God wasn't a priority in my life until the past few years. I decided that reading a short meditation each day, then saying grace, was a habit that wouldn't take a whole lot of time and was something worth doing.

This morning's meditation shared a quote from Mother Teresa:
I don't know what the success will be--but if the Missionaries of Charity have brought joy to one unhappy home--made one innocent child from the streets keep pure for Jesus--one dying person die in peace with God--don't you think, Your Grace, it would be worthwhile offering everything--for just that one--because that would bring great joy to the heart of Jesus.
 This is a sentiment that resonates strongly with me. It was almost the theme for my first Community of Faith mystery. (As I wrote the book, I discovered another theme that spoke louder to me for that book.)

As I'm writing, I often worry about finding an audience. Will anyone buy my book? Will anyone read it? Will anyone like it? Will it have meaning to anyone but myself? I knew when I started it that it would not have a large audience, but I hoped that out of the millions of readers in this world, some number would like it.

John Locke, in "How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months", says that all you need to be a success is 10,000 true fans. I don't think this idea is original with him, but he certainly has popularized it. You don't need to please millions of readers, you just need 10,000 loyal people who will buy everything you write. He comes out of marketing and most of his book is the way he found his 10,000 fans. If you do the math, you can also see that he had to write a lot of books to sell a million of them. He admittedly is not looking to write great literature, just books that are good enough.

Even 10,000 readers sounds like a lot to me. Like most writers, I tend to be more shy than gregarious. The idea of standing on a street corner--even if it's the virtual street corner of the Internet--makes me queasy. There are all kinds of theories about how you find your readers in this new age of publishing, but the truth is that no one really knows. The only thing we know for sure is that the way readers discover new books is by word of mouth. If your best friend tells you they liked a book, there's a good chance you'll read it. If you like it, you'll tell someone else. Hopefully two someone elses. Obviously, it takes a long time for this geometric progression to get to large numbers.

Then, in that serendipitous way that life has of putting two related things together for you, I moved on to reading "On Writing" by Stephen King. Actually, I'm re-reading this one. I'm pretty much always reading a writing craft book in addition to a work of fiction. Reading about craft keeps my head in the game. The section I read this morning included this:
Call that one person you write for Ideal Reader. He or she is going to be in your writing room all the time: in the flesh once you open the door and let the world back in to shine on the bubble of your dream, in spirit during the sometimes troubling and often exhilarating days of the first draft, when the door is closed. And you know what? You'll find yourself bending the story even before Ideal Reader glimpses so much as the first sentence."
This caused one of those mental "Huh" moments. Didn't I just read something very like that in a totally different context? Two people I highly respect seemed to be sending the same message. You don't need to worry about millions--or even 10,000. Your goal should be to focus on one person at a time. I think I can do that, both in my writing and in my Christian life.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Another Writing Milestone

Yesterday morning I did the Snoopy dance. Before work, I finished revising my Work In Progress. I only had five pages to go, but it took a long time. In the rush of exhilaration that accompanies getting to "The End," those last pages were filled with swaths of dialogue. A sentence or two of description. Another one of character emotion. A little action. But, as Margie Lawson's EDITS system showed me, most of those pages were blue (blue equaling dialogue).

So I needed to add green and pink and red to balance the scene, flesh it out so it wasn't just talking heads, make it come to life. This isn't easy, particularly at five A.M. when the coffee hasn't kicked in yet. Adding body language tends to lead to repeated "He nodded" or "She sighed" types of actions. Hearts are always pounding or pulses racing.

I have to sit there, really thinking about what happiness feels like or despair feels like or anxiety feels like and write it fresh. This is not an easy task for someone who, for many years, only felt "uncomfortable." It took a long time and some serious help for me to be able to put words like sad or anxious or even happy to that uncomfortable feeling. Fortunately, I've found an excellent book, "The Emotion Thesaurus," which helps me with that part. I also use an old Writer's Digest Book, "Building Believable Characters," for figuring out body language and emotions.

Despite Stephen King's admonition to go with your first word, I find that my first word choice is often not the best choice. Sometimes I'll do things like write "tumble" when I really meant "stumble." Or I'll repeat a word (She opened the door. He came through the door. Closing the door...) This kind of repetition really annoys me. So I'm off to "Roget's Super Thesaurus" to find the word I really meant or a different word for door (He came through the entry might work.) or a word that works better. Words have nuances of meaning. A small change in a word can lead to a big change in how a character or a scene is perceived.

It's been rewarding this month to watch the pile of pages with completed revisions grow while the yet-to-be-revised pile shrank. When I started this pass through, I knew it was going to be difficult. I had shuffled scenes around, making events happen in a different order, so there were definitely continuity problems that had to be fixed. (Like talking about a barbecue before the characters actually went to it.) I knew I had to add more emotion and description so my reader will feel and see what I do when I read a scene. Sometimes it felt like I was never going to finish as my self-imposed deadline approached and then whooshed by. Some days I felt as if a scene was never going to be right. And some days I felt a rush of pleasure when a mediocre scene came to life after working on it.

So it was with great joy that I added that last page to the completed stack yesterday morning. I've taken one more step on the road to publishing my book.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

U.S. Border Patrol

Not too long after I moved to Arizona six years ago, the apartment complex I lived in invited a member of the U.S. Border Patrol to speak to us. Since I'm a law enforcement junkie and had noted how often I passed Border Patrol vehicles on the highway (something that was very unusual to someone from the Northeast), I was all over this. It made such an impression that I wrote a scene based on this talk in my current novel.

I'd been wondering how current the information I had was, since a lot has changed over the past six years. I did a lot of web searches to update the numbers I used (number of illegal aliens that cross over in the Tucson sector, pounds of drugs seized, etc.),  but I wasn't sure how to update the "flavor" of what the agent had said. People don't read novels to get educated, even though that's sometimes a side effect. People read novels for the emotional experience. Writers need to know their subject intimately enough to create that emotional experience for readers. Fortunately, the Tucson Sisters in Crime chapter invited Agent Simon Keller to give a similar talk to our chapter last week.

The original focus of the agency was on immigration. Even with this focus, ten years ago there were no real penalties for entering the country illegally. It was only after crossing the border 29 times illegally that a person was given a penalty equivalent to a speeding ticket. Today, the first time an illegal alien is caught, (s)he is subject to administrative removal. This means that they are brought before a judge within one to two days, officially sentenced that they are forbidden from entering the United States for five years, and transported to Nogales, Mexico.

 After 9/11, the focus shifted to terrorism. It's not just Mexicans who come over the border illegally. If you're looking for terrorists, you're probably looking for OTMs (Other Than Mexican) from what Agent Keller referred to as "special interest countries." Interestingly enough, a lot of Chinese cross over at Nogales. (China is not a special interest country. I guess life in the United States is more attractive than life in China.)

During the years following 9/11, there was a lot of money available to the Border Patrol. Now, several years into the Great Recession (I refuse to agree that it's over), there's significantly less money to protect our borders. Because of this, the focus has switched from resource-based activities to risk-based activities. The strongest deterrents are placed where there is the highest risk of an illegal alien (the official term) escaping detection.



Nogales is a town that straddles the border between Mexico and the United States. In this urban area, it takes only seconds to possibly minutes for an illegal border crosser to disappear into a neighborhood. In urban areas like Nogales, a fence has been built to keep people from crossing.




 Surrounding the cities, it takes longer for an illegal border crosser to disappear into the desert. In this case, the time factor is minutes to hours. The solid fence isn't necessary. Permanent vehicle barriers are erected as a deterrent.

Further out in the desert, where it can take hours to days for an illegal crosser to evade detection, temporary vehicle barriers can be erected. These have the advantage that they can be moved to wherever the current hot spots are.

Due to these vehicle barriers, Arizona's vehicle theft rate has dropped dramatically. It's not quite as easy for a thief to grab a vehicle from a shopping center parking lot and make a dash over the Mexican border. What are the stolen vehicles used for? To smuggle drugs and people into the United States. Anything that can be done to slow the illegal traffic over the border is a good thing.

In FY 2011, the Tucson Sector accounted for half of all marijuana seizures and half of all arrests of illegal aliens nationwide. While arrests have dropped from 616,000 annually in 2000 to 123,000 in 2011, the amount of drugs continues to increase. There were 240,000 pounds of marijuana seized in the Tucson Sector in 2000. Last year, 1,039,000 pounds were seized. Yes, you read that right. Over one million pounds of marijuana were seized in the Tucson Sector alone in one year. It's unknown how many pounds of marijuana came over undetected.

To end this on a positive note, here is a video from the Yuma Sector of the Border Patrol which shows how much things have improved:


Images:
US Customs and Border Protection Patch: Official logo of a U.S. government agency whose usage is believed to qualify under Fair Use.
Vehicle: By Bill Morrow (Flickr: Border Patrol checkpoint) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Border Fence: By Sgt. 1st Class Gordon Hyde (US-Mexico barrier at Nogales) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Permanent Vehicle Barrier: Posted to flickr by On the White Line at http://www.flickr.com/photos/42406847@N07/6796328472/


Sunday, July 22, 2012

In Praise of Parentheses

I'm currently reading "Wickedly Charming" by Kristine Grayson, a pen name of Kristine Kathryn Rusch. One of the things I noticed is that there are lots of parentheses in this novel. Now, this might not seem of sufficient import to base a whole blog entry on, but think about it. When was the last time you saw parentheses appearing once in a novel, much less multiple times?

:::Queue Jeopardy theme:::

That's what I thought. It seems that punctuation marks, along with everything else, fall out of fashion. Somewhere in the last few decades, parentheses have become unfashionable. They've been replaced by the em-dash in most cases. An em-dash ( --> ) is a slightly wider version of the regular dash (-). You won't find one on your computer keyboard, but they're often used in printed matter. If you type two dashes next to one another in Word, it will convert them to an em-dash.

But I digress. In "Wickedly Charming," Kris writes:
Still, she hoped she had on enough sunscreen (even if it did make her smell like a weird, chemical coconut).
instead of:
 Still, she hoped she had on enough sunscreeneven if it did make her smell like a weird, chemical coconut.
The second form is what I've grown used to seeing in current fiction, which is why the parentheses stood out on the page for me. And I realized that I liked the parentheses better. Maybe I'm old-fashioned, but the first form is what I remember being taught in elementary school. The second form seems lazy to me. Like the writer couldn't be bothered to use the proper punctuation.

I do have to point out that putting the asides inside parentheses is sometimes carried away in this book. There are remarks inside remarks, which are shown by square brackets ([]) inside the parentheses.
 She had her hands on her hips (which hadn't expanded [much] since she was a beautiful young girl, who caught the eye of every man) as she surveyed...
 There are even a few cases of parentheses inside brackets inside parentheses. This began to remind me of A Garland of Ibids for Van Wyck Brooks, a very funny essay by Frank Sullivan in The New Yorker published in 1941, in which footnotes gradually took over the piece. Since "Wickedly Charming" is a lighthearted romance, the touch of humor wasn't too out of place.

The use of parentheses struck a chord with me. Although I tend to use em-dashes rather than parentheses, my out-of-favor punctuation mark is the semicolon (;). It's used to separate two independent clauses in one sentence. You could put in a period instead and start a new sentence with the second clause and be grammatically correct. But the semicolon ties the two thoughts closer together. It's a subtle difference, but an important one when you're trying to communicate with a reader.

Members of critique groups I've belonged to usually cross out my semicolons and replace them with periods. Or, worse, commas. I've been told more than once that an editor had told the person who had done this that you don't use semicolons in fiction.

Why not? It's a valid punctuation mark. It's even on my computer keyboard. Who made up this rule about no semicolons?

There are other rules that have become "common knowledge" in publishing today. Show don't tell. Eliminate all adverbs and adjectives. Active, not passive. Now, while I understand (I think) the point of most of these general rules, which was to use more of the former and less of the latter, I don't think they were originally meant to be absolutes. Unfortunately, too often they've become absolute.

I have this picture in my head of all these young English majors working at their first job at a New York publisher, shaking their heads as they cross out every word that ends in "ly." They've learned "the rules" and, because they don't have the maturity to realize that it's the excess of telling and adverbs and passive voice that was intended in them, they apply them too rigidly.

It's certainly not the readers. I remember reading a blog not too long ago where the writer was commenting on the growth of indie fiction and how, as a reader, she was thrilled with this. Specifically, she wrote something like: "Yay! The adjectives and adverbs are back!"

So, while "Wickedly Charming" was published by Sourcebooks, a traditional publisher, I'm still happy indie publishing has allowed more flexibility in "the rules." And I was very happy to see the parentheses in it.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Book Review: Catching Fire and Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

A two-in-one this time. I was going to post just a review for Catching Fire this week, but I didn't stop reading at the end. I just flipped the page (this was the entire trilogy in one ebook) and kept going into Mockingjay.

I don't think anyone needs me to tell them about these books. All three were bestsellers and continue to sell well. I read The Hunger Games quite a while ago and thoroughly enjoyed it, but held off on reading the other two until now. It wasn't because I didn't want to read them. Quite the opposite. But my chronic cry is "So many books, so little time." It seems like I've always got a book I've reserved at the library coming in or I hear about something that I have to read now. Anyway, I recently came to a pause and had a friend Lend Me his nook copy of the trilogy.

These are the kind of books that make you remember why you love to read. I've been disappointed in a lot of what I've read recently. The books are formulaic or something unbelievable happens or the characters are poorly drawn or it just gets boring somewhere in the middle. There was only one short section in Catching Fire where I felt like the story was dragging. This was when Katniss et al were participating in the Hunger Games for the second time. Since the first book had covered the challenges of this environment, some of the novelty of the idea had worn off. But I understand that the author had to have a set of similar challenges in the second book to make the story work. And it didn't last all that long.

Katniss and Peeta have returned to District 12 and now live in the Victors Village, a dramatic change from the poverty they knew before they participated in the Hunger Games. But despite not having to worry any longer about feeding her family, Katniss is restless. Gale, her best friend and hunting companion, is now working in the mines. His family is still poor. So Katniss starts hunting alone, bringing her game to Gale's mother.

Then she gets a visit from President Snow. It's hard to say a whole lot about this without giving away plot elements from The Hunger Games. I suppose I can say that Katniss needs to prepare for a wedding. Her decisions in the prior book have forced her down a path she's not sure she wants to take.

And the second twist is that she must take part in a second Hunger Games. Every twenty-five years, there's something known as the Quarter Quell. This involves doing something different, something more intense, than a normal game. This time, it's decided that the participants will be chosen from the victors of previous games. Now, the rules have been that once you participate in the games, you can never be called on to play again. But the Capitol has changed the rules.

And so begins a story not only of surviving the games, but revolution and the survival of mankind. An awesome tale, full of action and emotion. Memorable characters. I doubt I'll ever smell roses again without thinking of President Snow. And, despite being YA novels, I never felt like I was being talked down to. The writing was more mature than some of the "adult" books that I've read.

Highly recommended.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Journeyman Writer

In the Middle Ages, the way a young man or, less frequently, a young woman, learned a trade was through the apprenticeship system. For seven years, they would live with a master craftsman, being trained in exchange for receiving room and board. They usually started out doing menial tasks like sweeping up. The master would give them lessons and eventually they started to produce work of their own.

Once they had completed their training, they would then become a journeyman. A journeyman had learned his trade or craft and was paid for his labor, but was not yet considered a master craftsman. They might stay working under a master or travel about the country plying their trade.

Under the Guild system, a journeyman only became a master after producing a masterpiece that was submitted to the guild for judging. If the work was not judged worthy, the applicant would remain a journeyman.

I've been thinking a lot about this system lately and was reminded of these thoughts by a blog recently written by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Her point in that blog was that creative writing was the only field in which your education included nothing about how to become a working writer who earns a living from their craft.

This attitude persists in the traditional publishing world. Everything about the process screams that you have to produce your masterpiece in order to get published at all. Even once you are accepted for publication, the advance money is minimal, somewhere around $5,000, doled out in three pieces over a year's time. And you're expected to spend that money on promoting your book. In other words, like an apprentice, you're expected to work for free. Without the room and board.


 Kris Rusch uses music as an example. Performance was required of music majors. I remember when my brother, a professional musician who earned a living at it for many years, was in high school. He, like most high school musicians, formed a band and picked up "gigs" on weekends. For pay.

They were still students. They were learning how to play in a band, how to relate to an audience, what tunes people liked and didn't like. And they got paid for it.

It was similar when I took my first job as a programmer. I had an associates degree in data processing. I'd taken classes in Cobol and PL/1 and RPG and assembler. I'd done assignments. But when I got my first job as a junior programmer, I still had an awful lot to learn. Senior programmers mentored me. I wrote simple programs. And I got paid.

Somehow writers have been sold on the idea that being published and read is reward enough for their labors. I've read blogs written by more than one agent saying you shouldn't expect to earn a living as a writer. Somehow, the honor of getting past all those gatekeepers and getting your book into print should be reward enough.

Worse than that, writers have been suckered into paying to try to achieve this goal. There are still vanity presses out there who will gladly take your money, promising to publish your book for you. Or, in the age of epublishing, houses that will format your work, slap on a cover, and upload it to Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Smashwords, something most people can do for themselves for free.

One way of impressing the gatekeepers is by winning writing contests. Which have entry fees. In other words, you pay a group to judge your writing. The judges are most often other writers, some of whom who haven't been published themselves yet. That doesn't stop them from grading your work and doling out criticism in ample spoonfuls.

The competition to be traditionally published is so intense, it isn't enough anymore to submit a query letter. Now you're encouraged to go to conferences, often held at luxury hotels in large cities, so you can get an appointment for a five minute pitch to an agent or editor. So, for a few thousand dollars more, you get the right to send in your query with the treasured "Requested Material" written in the heading.

As I've written before, I've decided not to play this game. I've done my apprenticeship over the past seven years. I've written several "practice" novels. I've taken classes on plotting and characterization and grammar. I've put my work through critique groups and entered contests and gone to conferences.

Another recent post by Kris Rusch reaffirmed my decision. In it she talks about the difference between writers who critique a story and readers who read it. Writers are always looking for the perfect story, the masterpiece. They've learned all the rules and look for violations. Readers read for enjoyment.

And getting hung up on perfection (which is very easy for me) is fruitless. As Kris writes:
Is the story perfect? Of course not. No story is. Not a one. No matter how many times it’s “polished” and “fixed” and “improved.” No one can write a perfect story.
So I know I'm not writing my masterpiece. It won't win a Pulitzer Prize or even an Edgar. But I'm no longer an apprentice. I'm at the journeyman level. And journeymen get paid for their work. Which is what I intend to do by self-publishing my book. Hopefully, some readers will agree.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

What Is To Come

Frankie Robertson, a member of my local RWA chapter, gave a talk on paranormal investigation at our last meeting. For a period of time, Frankie and her husband belonged to a group that investigated reports of hauntings and apparitions (there's a difference). She described how they would go into a location and separate, each person going into rooms individually so that they could experience whatever might be occurring uninfluenced by other members of the team.

A self-avowed skeptic, she didn't experience a lot of the things some of the other sensitives did. She was also very aware of how experiences could be "contaminated" by events surrounding the investigation. For example, if you're reading a book about a ghost right before you go to sleep and, in the middle of the night a ghost wakes you up and speaks to you, there's a good chance the experience was a dream caused by your pre-bedtime reading material.

That's not to say she never experienced anything. However, she was aware that certain phenomena could be induced by stimulating specific areas of the brain with an electrical current. So she questioned whether what she experienced was real or just a momentary lightning storm in her brain. When she mentioned this to one of the others, that investigator said, "Just because you smell bacon when a scientist sends electricity through your brain doesn't mean there is no such thing as bacon."

Parapsychology was included as a subset of paranormal in Frankie's talk. I hadn't thought of Extra Sensory Perception (ESP), which includes telekinesis, precognition, telepathy, and clairvoyance as paranormal, but I suppose they are. As a teenager, I was fascinated by these abilities. I had experienced bits of precognition in my own life, like knowing the telephone was going to ring seconds before it actually did, and felt that there had to be something factual to it. I suppose I also wanted to be able to see the future more clearly or move objects across a table with my mind. Definitely the fantasy of a girl without athletic abilities, but with a higher than normal IQ.

I did my senior term paper on J.B. Rhine and his studies into parapsychology at Duke University. Most of these centered around telepathy, which he tested using a deck of Zener cards.

The researcher would stare at the image on the card and the subject would attempt to "see" what the researcher was looking at. Statistically, there's a one in five chance of the subject guessing the correct symbol. Anything more than twenty percent accuracy was taken as evidence of the subject "reading the mind" of the researcher.


Near death experiences (NDE) are another form of paranormal phenomena. Coincidentally, just the previous weekend, my church had Heavenly Harp perform at a service. Karin Gunderson works at a hospice facility, playing music and providing comfort to those who are close to death. With her daughter, she played and sang some beautiful hymns. She also told some amazing stories that touched all of us.

We've all heard stories of what people who have been died, then come back to life, have experienced. A bright light. Loved ones who have gone on before us. A sense of peace and joy. Karin told stories about this, too, from the people she has worked with. Even an atheist saw Jesus beckoning to him from the other side of a stream.

Okay, but the brain undergoes a lot of changes when a person is dying. It's possible that the phenomena people report from NDE are triggered by random electrical impulses, drugs given to ease the pain of terminal cancer, natural chemicals released by the body.

Possible, yes. But maybe it's like the smell of bacon. I prefer to believe that the visions people see, while they might be explained by other things, really do exist.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Book Review: The Lost Years by Mary Higgins Clark

Life is too short to read a bad book.

I generally like to finish what I start. I tend to fall asleep on movies, but I'll rewind them (do you rewind a DVD?) when I wake up or start them again the next night--or nights--until I see the whole thing. I read most books all the way to the end, even if I find parts of them dragging.

I had to stop reading this book. It was that bad. If it had been submitted to an agent or editor by a new writer rather than Mary Higgins Clark, it would have gotten a form rejection.

The title of the book refers to the years between the flight of Christ and his parents to Egypt to avoid Herod's slaughter of all young Jewish males and the time he began his ministry. Supposedly, according to this novel, Joseph of Arimathea was the one who took Jesus to Egypt. The premise of the story is that before the crucifixion and burial in the tomb of this same Joseph of Arimathea, Jesus wrote a letter thanking him for his kindness. It was stolen from the Vatican in the fifteenth century, but recently found in an ancient church.

Only, it really doesn't matter to the story at all that the maguffin is a letter supposedly written by Christ. It could have been a valuable necklace. Heck, it could have been the Maltese Falcon. Except Dashiell Hammet made a better case for the Templar origins of the Maltese Falcon than Clark makes for the authenticity of this letter.

So, right from the start, I felt like I had been cheated. Instead of being similar to The DaVinci Code with lots of references to the history of the manuscript and the times during which it was written, it's just an excuse for a poorly plotted murder mystery.

Examples of things Mary Higgins Clark did that would get a form rejection:
  • She has the main character describe herself by looking into a mirror. This is so cliche, it's mentioned as a no-no in almost every writing book I've ever read.
  • She uses a classic "As you know, Bob" at least twice in the book. This is another one of the classic beginning writer mistakes. (A list can be found here.) This is a scene where two characters who already know a piece of information talk about it just to inform the reader of a fact. They'd never have this conversation in real life because there'd be no need to talk about it.
"As we both know, most cases of this kind turn out to be family affairs."
  • She "walks the dog." This is when a writer gives a detailed description of a character's actions that is totally unnecessary and slows the story to a crawl.
"She changed from her skirt and jacket into a cotton sweater, slacks, and sandals, and went back downstairs. She went into the kitchen, made a cup of tea, and carried it into the breakfast room. There she settled into one of the comfortable padded chairs and leaned back with a sigh."
  • She switches point of view, usually at the end of a chapter to provide the "hook" for the next chapter. Chapter 12 is entirely from Mariah's point of view... until the last two paragraphs where she suddenly switches to Kathleen's (Mariah's mother) to have her give a clue to the murder.
  • She uses lazy writing to tells the reader extraneous things about minor characters.
"Father Kelly, eight-two years old but remarkably fit..."
  • And she repeats information about her totally bland characters as if the reader was too dimwitted to remember it from the last time she encountered the character. Maybe Ms. Clark was the one having a problem remembering who was who.
 When I got to this sentence today:
"When she finally made it to street level, Alvirah frantically spun her head in all directions."
I knew it was time to quit and move on. The Exorcist image was just too funny. And this was supposed to be a tense scene.

I'm happy I got this book from the library rather than paying for it. It was a major disappointment.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Chills of Change

A few weeks ago I wrote about the new opportunity I was being given to work part-time as part of a Transition to Retirement program offered by my employer. I called it Answered Prayers. This morning I got the official approval. I'll be starting my part-time schedule the first week in July.

First I did the Snoopy dance.

Then I got a knot in my stomach. Already?

Human beings don't like change. Change brings stress. My feeling was that this was going to be as difficult as moving or changing jobs. I've done both multiple times and I know all about that stress. Those two items show up on every Top Ten list of stressful events. Loss of a job shows up on many lists. Retiring is pretty much the same as losing a job. And my gut reaction was the same. This list even shows retirement as a separate item on the list.

For the first time I understood why a coworker at my former job, even though he was 68, wasn't looking forward to our impending layoff.

I've held at least part-time jobs since I was eighteen, except for a three year hiatus when my son was born. And a couple of shorter periods of unemployment; but those were always temporary, not a lifestyle change. It's ingrained in me to have a job, to go to work Monday through Friday (and sometimes Saturday and Sunday, too), to organize my life around my work schedule.

And I realized that I'm making a commitment to a totally different lifestyle. For the first time in decades, I'll have more days away from my job than at my job. I'm going way out on a limb here. I want to use that extra time for writing. I'm transitioning from IT geek to writer. Even though I started this change in January by changing my schedule and focusing on writing fiction instead of computer code, it's different now.

It's a commitment.

It didn't make sense to me to request the part-time schedule unless I was going to use those two days for more than watching movies and reading books. I've set up a schedule of goals for the rest of the year. Writing has been a hobby so far. I've only put myself out there a very few times by submitting to a contest or pitching to an agent. Over the ten years I've been writing, I've sold ONE short story for the whopping sum of $10. I kept holding back until I had the perfect book.

But there is no perfect book. At some point, you have to take the risk, take that novel that's had your heart and soul invested in it and see if it has wings.

So I've made a plan, a business plan, to have a book available for sale by the end of the year. Yeah, I can still not do anything with that, but that's not my nature. I'm big on commitments, even if they're just to myself.

I've gotten through lots of items on that Top Ten list before: a divorce, moving--including out of state twice, many job changes, two cancer scares. I know I can get through this one if I set my mind to it.

But it's still scary.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

What's In a Name

I've been thinking about names a lot lately. Dean Wesley Smith, in his book "Think Like a Publisher", recommends that if you're going to self-publish, you should have a publishing company name. I don't remember him actually giving a reason why, but I can think of a couple of reasons to do that.

One is it sends the message that this is a business, not only to the IRS, but to yourself. You're not just playing around here. You're serious. Once you have a business name, you start thinking that you really need a business plan. And a budget.

That budget thing is important. If this is a business, there's going to be a profit... or a loss. Probably more of the latter to begin with than the former. You need to decide up front how much money you're going to commit to this new business. It's much too easy to spend more than you can afford unless you separate your personal funds from your business funds. So you need a separate bank account. In the name of your publishing company.

There are a few restrictions on the name for your business. You'll have to register it as a DBA (Doing Business As) with the state where you live. It can't be a duplicate of an existing business in your state. You'll also want a domain name, a.k.a. a web site address, that's your business name. This one has to be unique in the world in one format or another.

Do you have any idea how hard it is to come up with an original name that hasn't been duplicated in one of those two areas? With the explosion in self-publishing and small presses, lots of names that you'd normally think of have been taken. Naturally the first things that came to my mind are things uniquely Arizona. Old Pueblo, Saguaro, Prickly Pear. All taken. I thought for a brief period of time that Prickly Pear Publishing would work, but there's one of those in Texas. Petroglyph Press has a certain ring to it. Nope. They're in California.

Another type of name I've been thinking about is a pen name or two. Now, with traditional publishing, it's usually your agent or publishing house who tells you you can't write under your own name. Sometimes this is because the book series is a work-for-hire. The publisher comes up with the idea for the series and hires an author to write it. Since it's their idea, they want to own the author name it's published under. It isn't yours. Other times it's because you're writing for two different publishers or in two different genres.

That last part about different genres has some merit. Readers tend to identify an author with one type of book. If they like an author, they want to buy everything they've written. This is a really good thing. Except when author Jane Doe writes inspirational women's fiction and erotic romance. The inspirational readers will be shocked at having bought an erotic romance. The romance readers will probably hate the inspirational fiction. Both sets of readers will vow to never buy another book by Jane Doe again. So, to make it easier on the reader who's shopping for another book like she read the last time, Jane Doe would be wise to write one genre under a different name.

The same kinds of restrictions on publishing company names also apply to author pen names. You don't want to have the same name as another author. And you want to be able to register your alternate author's domain name.

Names are important to me. Holly Lisle believes that you shouldn't think about naming a character until after you've fleshed her out and know enough about her to choose a name that fits. That doesn't work for me. While I'm deciding on hair and eye colors, body type, occupation, personality traits, etc., I can't get a good idea of what those are until I figure out what her name is.

I think one of the reasons I'm so hung up on names is that, as a child, my name was misread so frequently. Elise was quite unusual years ago. Elsie was a much more common name. To me, Elsie was a name for a spinsterly great aunt. Worse than that, it was the name of the Borden cow. I had enough self-image problems without being compared to a cow.

So I spend hours thinking about who am I and what business I'll be working for. I know that, like the names of my characters, the right names for my publishing company and pen names will eventually come to me. I just wish it weren't such hard work.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Book Review: County Line by Bill Cameron

My initial reaction when I saw that this book was available for free some time ago was excitement. As another reviewer has said, while not familiar with Bill Cameron's work, he is represented by Janet Reid, a respected agent whose blog I read almost every day. I remember when she had featured "County Line" on her blog and being entranced with the storyline. It had to be a quality book, right?

But, skeptic that I am, I wondered what the catch was that this book was being offered for free. It's not the first in a series, which is often given away free for a period of time to entice readers to buy the rest of the series. It's the fourth book. There wasn't a special marketing campaign that I was aware of. It just showed up one day, as a Free Friday selection on Barnes and Noble if my memory is correct.

It turns out I still feel two ways about this book after reading it.

This novel and I got off to a bad start. Skin Kadish, a retired police officer, comes back from a month away and heads to his girlfriend's apartment. He hasn't been able to get in touch with Ruby Jane and is concerned. Deservedly so, it turns out, since there's this old homeless guy lying dead in her bathtub. So what does Kadish do? He stomps all over the house and pokes around, contaminating the crime scene, before dialing 911.

Maybe it's because I recently finished taking a class on police procedure with Lee Lofland, but this just rubbed me the wrong way. I would think a retired police officer would know better. I might even have bought it if Kadish had acknowledged he was doing the wrong thing, but felt driven to know what happened before calling in the authorities. No. He doesn't even think about what he's doing wrong.

The style when we're in Kadish's point of view is choppy. He thinks in phrases, sometimes just words. It takes a while to get used to the clipped cadence. I got used to it.

The middle section of the book is backstory. It's as if Cameron had developed all this interesting background information on Ruby Jane, why she was living in Oregon, what had happened with her family, why the rift between her and her brother Jimmy, and really wanted to use it. He'd resisted in the first three books, probably following the rules (more on that in a bit), but now just had to get all that good stuff out. It probably was more interesting if you'd read the previous books in the series, had more curiosity about Ruby Jane based on what you'd read in the past.

But I found most of this middle section interesting. I like reading about people and how they got the way they are. A lot of readers had trouble with the middle of this book. I had trouble with the beginning and the end.

I've already written about the beginning. My problem with the end was the resolution of whodunnit and why. There was at least one too many twists and I didn't believe it for a minute. It's so difficult to write a satisfactory ending to a mystery. This book didn't have one for me.

I mentioned following the rules up above. One of the "rules" of writing is to use all five senses in your descriptions. The natural tendency is to describe what a character sees. But, in the real world, there are also sounds and smells and touch and taste. A setting seems more alive if the writer includes descriptions of what a character hears and smells than if it's just what he sees. Unfortunately, there were sections of description where it seemed like Cameron was following a checklist as he wrote his sentences. It sounded forced to me.

Mostly what I felt after reading this book was disappointment. I was hoping for a great read and it didn't live up to my expectations.