Sunday, July 24, 2011
Friday afternoon my company declared Employee Appreciation Day. In honor of the occasion, they bought us lunch at a restaurant and a private showing of Captain America. Now, if I were paying, I would have preferred to see the new Harry Potter movie that was showing in the adjoining theater. But I wasn't paying and it was certainly better than an afternoon at work. I figured if Captain America really wasn't my cup of tea I could always go to the ladies room and not come back

Well, it wasn't my cup of tea, but it did move and I only found myself glancing at my watch during the last half hour. (How many explosions does one movie need?) But I found myself watching the movie as a writer rather than a viewer.

One of the problems with writing fiction is that you learn what makes good fiction and what makes it bad. You analyze it, especially when it isn't working for you.

One rule is that your audience has to care about your main character. I kept asking myself, "Why do I care about this guy?" And the answer was, "I don't." The script writers had given a nod to the rule by showing us how persistent he was in trying to join the military during World War II, while getting rejected over and over because of his physical limitations. They also showed--and told--us how he was beaten up by bullies. It wasn't enough for me, even though I kept repeating, "It's a comic book."

When he got rejected again, I didn't feel sympathy for him. I kept wondering why he didn't find something he could do and pursue that instead of stupidly failing over and over again. When a bully was beating him up in an alley and he needed to be rescued by his best friend, I wondered why he let himself be the victim. It was another case of the hero not being able to learn a lesson.

The way he achieves his dream is by being chosen for some mystical treatment that turns him into Captain America, taller and with muscles and strength and coordination beyond other men. He's handed his abilities rather than needing to work for them.

This is one of my pet peeves. I've seen too many people trying to game the system lately. People who work only enough to go back on unemployment. Families with a tradition of being on welfare who don't have the concept of any other way of life. People who don't want to follow the rules and who feel an exception should be made for them.

In the real world, no one hands you superpowers. Or, as one Red Sox commercial says, when you're grown up not everyone gets a trophy.

Americans don't seem to want to grow up. They don't want to take responsibility for their lives. They want someone to hand them the answers.

Yeah, we've run into a pretty rough patch recently. But whose fault is that? It must be those big bad bankers. Now I'm not condoning the whole thing that happened with mortgages, but no one forced you to buy a house you couldn't afford. Surely all those people with interest only loans or really low initial adjustable rates knew that at some point they'd have to pay back the money?

If you bemoan the loss of your job because it went overseas, why do you keep buying things with Made in China stamped on them?

I guess I'm grumpy today. Employee Appreciation Day notwithstanding, I hate my job. I took it when I got laid off, hoping it would be temporary and something better would come along. Almost two years later I'm still working that job and there isn't anything better out there. But I suck it up every Monday morning and go back to work because that's what grownups do.


Saturday, July 16, 2011
I've pretty much been in a funk since April as far as writing goes. As I wrote in this post, the disappointment over my contest results hit me hard. I've been floundering since then, trying to work on the pieces of a fantasy novel that I plan to write for NaNoWriMo this November. but not feeling very enthusiastic about it.

Oh, I like the idea well enough. I think it will be a fun book to write. But I've always considered NaNo novels to be larks, not serious writing. They're total playtime for my muse. She can come up with all kinds of ridiculous ideas and my "me" doesn't get to censor any of them. NaNo novels get to have goddesses and spaceships and paranormal elements that my "me" doesn't like very well. Logic does not get to overrule any of these ideas.

But in my heart I want to be a mystery writer. I like mysteries with an element of romance. The marketing departments at publishing houses have taken to calling these romantic suspense or just plain suspense because those categories sell better, but I still like the term traditional mystery.

I see the murder in a mystery as a crucible in which the characters's beliefs and emotions are tried. This heinous act brings buried issues and secrets to the surface again as the sleuth--and the reader--try to figure out not only whodunnit, but why. Unless a character is a psychopath, most murderers don't kill lightly. There's jealousy, hate, or revenge behind the crime. I like exploring how those emotions came to be.

I've been doing a lot of blog reading this week. I discovered Dean Wesley Smith's blog, and Michael Stackpole, and Kristine Katherine Rusch. I discovered that C.J. Cherryh has decided to self-publish. And Holly Lisle announced that she, too, was abandoning traditional publishing.

Almost all of the writers write about the frustration of traditional publishing, even if they've been successful. Books that could be selling are out of print. Royalties are almost non-existent unless you're one of the top best-selling writers. Revisions are forced on you by those who want you to appeal to a wider market.

I still have doubts about whether self-publishing is viable for new writers. All of the writers I listed above have been published traditionally and have a fan base. It's a lot easier for them to announce they're going to self-publish to that base and sell books.

But then I read this. And this new imprint sounds exactly like the market for my Christian murder mystery. I didn't think there was a chance in hell (ahem) of selling that book.

Last, but certainly not least, I was contacted by two of my classmates doing the How To Think Sideways walkthrough about swapping reads and feedback sheets. I read their posts about who their core readers are and what type of novels they write and found that they are very much like me.

So, once again, I'm motivated to get back to revising my mystery. I believe in the possibility of having it published and read. Friday night I pulled the manuscript off the shelf and made a list of what I have to do before sending it to my classmates. Saturday morning I couldn't sleep. I was excited and eager to get going on that list.

It feels good to be able to write with joy again.

Book Review: Aunt Dimity's Death by Nancy Atherton

Tuesday, July 12, 2011
I think that this book is the perfect example of how expectations can color your impression of a book. Although the front cover boasts "One of the 100 best mysteries of all time," this book isn't really a mystery.

There's no murder. There's no hunt for whodunnit. There's no bad guy.

I was expecting a traditional murder mystery, something along the lines of Agatha Christie perhaps, because I knew the story was partially set in an English cottage. I was drawn into the opening. The main character, Lori Shepherd, is sympathetic and I found myself rooting for her to have a better life for herself than she's had so far. But once it became evident that there was no murder mystery in this story, I was disappointed.

It's hard for me to judge the book based on the reality versus my expectation. It's a sweet read and more of a romance than a mystery, but it doesn't even have passion in the romance. It's almost as if the author wasn't sure what she wanted to write.

The Aunt Dimity series is very popular, so it must be appealing to a number of readers. Personally, I would have liked to have something more happen, stronger emotions, and a nice, juicy killing with a puzzle to figure out. I doubt that I'll be reading any more books in this series.

Ha:san Bak

Saturday, July 09, 2011
The title of this entry is the O'odham language phrase for "the saguaro is ready". It's what the native peoples of Southwestern Arizona call the Saguaro Harvest Festival. Sometime in May, the saguaro cactus is crowned with beautiful white blooms. These give way to green fruits that ripen around the end of June or early July. This coincides with the start of our annual monsoon season and historically the harvesting of the fruit has been part of a ceremony to "bring down the rain".

There are several places that allow you to experience something of the saguaro harvest and I've wanted to try doing this ever since I moved to Tucson. This year I got my chance. I signed up to take part in Ha:san Bak at La Posta Quemada Ranch on the grounds of Colossal Cave Park. It started early. We were supposed to arrive between 5:30 and 6:00 A.M. to check in. Even in southern Arizona, it was still dark when I left the house, although the sun had risen by the time I got there.

The first part of the workshop was learning how to make a ku'ipad (which sounded like kweepah) from three generations of Tohono O'odham women. Grandma Ina is on the left, daughter Delphine is in the pink shirt, and the granddaughter is in the turquoise shirt sitting on the bench. On the right is Lauren, the park employee who directed the workshop. 

The ku'ipad is made from the ribs of a saguaro that has died. Several long pieces are lashed together so they are long enough to reach the top of the cactus where the fruit grows. Shorter horizontal pieces are added so you can hook them around the fruit and pull it loose.

Here Ina is explaining how to construct the ku'ipad in great detail. She spoke softly in the O'odham language and Delphine translated for us. It's important to choose straight pieces of roughly the same thickness. Grooves are cut in the sides to fit the pieces together snugly. Then they are lashed together. Today they use wire, but I believe the traditional lashing was a rope made out of yucca fiber. Ina was very particular about the care that had to be taken to construct this tool. We also learned that it was the men who made the ku'ipads while the women got the pots and baskets ready.

I forgot to mention that families would go out into the desert, usually to the same place each year and spend a week harvesting the fruit. They would build a ramada to shelter them from the sun. The native peoples had a close relationship with the saguaro, referring to them as people. Delphine said that very few follow the old traditions now. She and her daughter live in the city of Tucson in order to go to school and they are not unusual.

We then constructed our ku'ipads, which was really repairing poles that had been used in prior years. This was not really cheating, because the Native Americans would leave their ku'ipads out in the desert to be used the following year as well. When we were done, we went looking for saguaros that had ripe fruit. This was quite a challenge. In addition to the harsh winter, which affected most plant life in Southern Arizona, we had some severe monsoon storms earlier this week. There was wind blowing at close to eighty miles an hour with driving rain, so a lot of the fruit had been knocked to the ground. The fruit we did find was frequently not ripe enough.

This shows Delphine reaching up with a ku'ipad to knock the fruit down. We insisted that she do the first one because the harvesting of the first fruit requires that you say a blessing. The fruit is broken open and you draw a cross on your heart while saying thanks for the harvest. I'm not sure if the cross was always used or came about as a result of the Spanish missionaries who converted most of the Tohono O'odham to Christianity. The fruit is then opened up and the halves laid on the ground facing the sky so the clouds will see it and bring the rain.

We then headed off into the desert to find more fruit to harvest. This turned out to be more difficult than we expected. The terrain was hilly and, as you can see, the Sonoran Desert is not like the Sahara. There are lots of plants and undergrowth, most of which can attack you as you walk by. Well, it doesn't actually attack you, but it has spines to prevent being eaten by wildlife. I ran into a couple of prickly pear cacti whose spines pierced the fabric of my jeans and drew blood. I wasn't the only one. Between the climbing and the washed out sections and the high humidity, it was very hot work. It's one thing to see pictures of the saguaro harvest. Doing it myself gave me a much greater appreciation for the work that goes into it.

After about an hour and a half, we returned to the ranch area with the fruit we did find. This picture shows some members of the group removing the pulp from the interior. The bottom of the fruit still has cactus spines on it, so you have to be careful how you hold it.

This is the syrup being boiled. It has to be boiled for a couple of hours to remove enough water to give it the consistency of syrup. The syrup is also made into a wine that is drunk as part of the celebrations. It takes a lot of fruit to get this much syrup, which isn't very much.

While the syrup boiled, we had breakfast. This was also traditional foods, mesquite flour muffins and tepary bean soup. The muffins were dense and dark with a slightly nutty flavor. I didn't notice anything unique about the beans. I often have bean-based soups in the winter and this one was very similar. There is a movement to get the Tohono O'odham people to return to eating more of the traditional foods. Native Americans have a very high rate of diabetes because they've switched over to a more American diet. Well, processed foods diet. Mesquite flour has been proven to combat diabetes. Unfortunately, it's very expensive, unless you gather the pods from the trees and grind them yourself. But that's another blog.

Monday Evening Update

Monday, July 04, 2011
And the answer is...

Use my domain and use Blogger as my web site! I was able to find clear instructions on the GoDaddy site that mirrored Holly's instructions for setting up Wordpress as your web site. This is so much easier than using new software to design a site.

Of course, I now have a lot more tweaking of my blog to do to make it function as a web site, but I've got the basic format down and the rest is, well, tweaking.


Saturday, July 02, 2011
On Fourth of July weekend, you might think this blog was going to be about the many wars we're involved with. Or possibly Minnesota as they were unable to resolve their budget issues. Maybe you're a sports fan and immediately thought of the NFL or the NBA.

This is about none of the above. This is about my personal conflict over priorities. I'm not talking about overall priorities in my life, but those in a very small, albeit important, part of my life: writing.

There just aren't enough hours in the day to do everything. And I'm having a lot of trouble deciding what "everything" should encompass.

As I wrote earlier this year, I put aside my latest mystery novel after receiving disappointing contest scores. I decided that the rest of the year would be a craft year, working through Holly Lisle's How to Think Sideways class with a totally new book outside my usual genre. After NaNoWriMo I would decide whether to continue working on this new fantasy novel or go back to my traditional mystery.

But I keep being pulled back to that mystery. Just this morning I reread the first chapter, tweaking it some more, trying to figure out if my "brilliant" idea of a week or so ago really worked. I want to finish that book, polish it, and give it a chance to find an audience. But I've lost perspective. I'm not sure whether I should go one way or another with it.

I've been thinking about joining a critique group to work with, getting other opinions as to which direction I could go. But critique groups are a huge investment of time. Not only do you have to submit on a regular schedule, you also have to make the time to read and comment on other people's writing. When I was part of the ACFW critique loop, I found myself spending weekday evenings critiquing rather than writing. I couldn't keep up with the rate people posted and didn't have enough time for my own writing.

On the other hand, my fantasy novel intrigues me. I can easily see its parts falling neatly into the Hero's Journey model. But I'm at the beginning stages of plotting that novel and beginnings always go slowly for me. It takes my muse time to come up with characters and scenes and plot points.

The fantasy novel also requires research reading. Since it's historical, I need to research the time period. I need to know the culture and beliefs and clothing and geography and all kinds of things to write about the time convincingly. I've been through one book and am reading another, but I have to force myself to read non-fiction. It feels too much like homework.

Since I don't usually write fantasy, I'm also trying to read books in that genre to understand the expectations of those readers. As I've discovered, they're a lot different than mystery readers. Most recently I've begun reading "A Clash of Kings", the second in the series "A Song of Ice and Fire." As I said when I was reading "A Game of Thrones", these books are not lightweight. They go for over 800 pages and take me about a month to read.

Then there's reading I just want to do. I put four books on reserve at the library. Three of them came in within the past ten days. Because they have due dates, they move to the top of my To Be Read pile. One I'll probably return unread, the second I'm enjoying immensely, and I'm trying to figure out when to squeeze in the third before its due date.

Meanwhile, the debate over traditional versus self publishing rages on. John Locke released his first non-fiction book, "How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months", recently. Since week six of How to Think Sideways focuses on finding your market niche and writing to it, this dovetails perfectly with the current lesson. Holly recommended purchasing it as part of her current Walkthrough lesson. It's not an expensive book and it certainly has a catchy title if you're an author.

On the other side of the argument, several agents have been blogging about the advantages of being traditionally published. Of course they have a vested interest in the status quo, but they also make some valid points. And wouldn't you, as an author, really like to see your paper book on the shelves of an actual bookstore?

Regardless of whether you choose to ePub or try for a traditional publisher, a lot of the marketing is left up to the author. That's one of the reasons I started this blog. Blogging, despite being old school to some, is still one of the ways of contacting your reading audience. But you have to do it consistently. A post every month or so just doesn't cut it. My goal for this year was for at least one post per week, published on Sunday, with an additional mid-week book review twice a month. I had to prove to myself that I could do this. And I've been fairly successful at keeping to that schedule.

Another part of an author's publicity is a web site. At the advice of my Guppy sisters, I purchased my own domain name several years ago. But I still don't have a web site. Oh, the URL will take you to my site, but all that's there is some funky test sentence I put up a few months ago to make sure I could upload a page. On my to-do list since then has been to develop an actual web page.

Now, this shouldn't be too hard for me. After all, I was a programmer for over thirty years. But I'm not a graphic designer and it takes time to put together a web site that looks professional. I did it for my local Sisters in Crime chapter a few years back. I hand-coded that site and it took several weeks to get something I was happy with.

The Mac comes with iWeb, a program that supposedly makes creating web sites simpler. I still haven't tried it yet. When an issue of Mac Format had a tutorial on using iWeb, I bought it. It's still sitting on my desk. One of the things on my agenda for this three-day weekend was to go through that tutorial.

Then I listened to the HTTS Walkthrough for Lesson 6, in which Holly goes through using Wordpress as the basis for your web site. I've got a Wordpress blog for that class (only readable by other students), but I prefer Blogger. Maybe it's just because I learned to use Blogger first. Or maybe Blogger really is easier to use. I don't know. All I know is that I now don't know which way to go with that web site. Use my existing site or start over again with a new domain name (for reasons I won't go into here) and new software?

Instead of making progress with the extra day off, I find myself vacillating between my options:
  • Should I work on the mystery or the fantasy?
  • Should I read the research for the fantasy or John Locke's book on marketing?
  • Do I develop a web site using iWeb on my old domain or get a new one and use WordPress?
  • Do I join a critique group or try to figure out the revisions myself?
Whoever said it was easy to write a book?
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Elise's bookshelf: currently-reading

A Clash of Kings
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tagged: currently-reading