Looking Back on 2013

Saturday, December 28, 2013
2013 was a year of change and transition for me. Of course, all years bring some kind of change, but this past year brought more than usual.

First of all, I accomplished my goal of publishing my first novel, Faith, Hope, and Murder, in January of this year. I have been looking forward to publishing a book since I was twelve. Maybe even before then. Between the end of 2012 and early 2013 I put in an incredible number of hours in conversations with my cover designer and editor, editing the book, and learning the skills I needed to upload it to all the online sites so people could buy it.

I also put lots of hours into learning the business side of publishing: registering a business name, opening a business bank account, tracking sales and expenses, and filling out a Schedule C with my 2012 tax return. I ran a Goodreads giveaway, guest posted on several blogs, tweeted, and set up a Facebook author page. The last required two attempts before I got it right. Having avoided FB for years and purposely ignoring most of what I read about using it, I made a big mistake to start. But I think I have all of that straightened out now.

Having proved to myself that I could finish a book and make it available for sale, I allowed myself to think about early retirement. I already knew I hated my day job. Despite the fact that I was only working three days a week, it still took time away from my writing career. I had to protest the poor review I got because my accomplishments working three days a week were compared to those working five days a week. My boss's boss agreed with me and my rating was supposed to be changed, but this was the last straw as far as I was concerned. I retired at the end of June to devote more time to writing. (The official rating never did get changed and I did not get a raise because of it.)

What I didn't realize was that I would need a period of adjustment between leaving the day job and becoming a full time writer. Apparently this isn't too unusual, but I'd thought since I was using a good part of my two off days to work on my new career, it wouldn't be hard to work on the other three. But without the structure of a job to go to, it takes time to figure out a schedule of sorts and stick to it. I'm still not done with that.

Although I didn't publish any more books in 2013, I did manage to complete the first draft of Deliver Us From Evil, the sequel to Faith, Hope, and Murder, and draft another mystery, working title Blue Murder, during NaNoWriMo this year. Because Deliver Us From Evil was largely written in fits and starts while I still had the day job, there were lots of things I didn't keep in my head while writing it. That resulted in leaving out some scenes and ideas and putting others in twice.

After reading through Deliver Us From Evil, it seemed to me that this book was a worse mess than FH&M had ever been. I wasn't sure how I was going to fix it. I thought a long time before finally deciding to pay for and use Holly Lisle's How to Revise Your Novel class. Holly's classes are expensive, but they are chock full of information. Another bonus is that she continually offers more "stuff"--updated lessons, additional material, access to areas of her site that are not visible to the general public--long after you've finished the class. I've spent weeks working through my novel using her worksheets and techniques and to finish the class will take more weeks. That means that I will not achieve my goal of publishing the second book by the end of the year.

Another goal for 2013 was to write 100,000 words of new fiction. I fell short of that goal, but did probably write between 65,000 and 75,000 words, mostly because of the 51,000 I wrote for NaNoWriMo. I also wrote a few short stories, something I'd been reluctant to try because I didn't think I could write short. Not too shabby.

There were other, smaller goals that I set at the beginning of 2013 and revised once I retired that I did not achieve. I'd like to have done better, but there was that period of adjustment. And something totally unforeseen.

Part of my heart will forever be in Boston, so when the Marathon Bombings occurred, I was unable to do anything except watch the news. Just when I decided it was time to stop and get back to a more normal routine, there was the chase and hunt for Dzhokar Tsarnaev and I was back to voraciously devouring every piece of information I could find.

But that, although not foreseen, was not what took up hours of my time. Enjoyable hours, to be sure, but hours that I had not planned on. What I spent most of the summer and fall doing was watching the Boston Red Sox.

Yes, I am and have been a Red Sox fan, but 2012 was such a disaster, I seriously considered not renewing my subscription to the MLB baseball package on cable. Except I'd tried that one year and couldn't stand not being able to watch the games.

The season started out amazingly. The worst team in baseball in 2012 was winning games! These were largely new players, ones I hadn't watched before, some veterans, some rookies, and a very few remaining veterans. But the Red Sox had started other seasons like race horses out of the gate and not fulfilled the early promise later in the season. Can you say September Collapse (2011)?

There were times they faltered, slipping out of first place and sinking in the standings as other teams in the AL East found their rhythm, but the one thing that made this Red Sox team different was that they didn't give up. Even when trailing by a large number of runs, they kept trying. It reminded me of the 2004 team, the self-proclaimed bunch of idiots who finally brought the World Series trophy back to Boston after over 80 years. Only the 2013 team was The Beards instead of the idiots. They were fun to watch. And, in the end, they did it. They won their third World Series in a decade.

There were other big news stories during 2013, but those are the two I'll remember.

All in all, 2013 was not a bad year for me. And what will 2014 be like? Come back next week to find out!

I Don't Understand

Saturday, December 14, 2013
There was another school shooting this week. A student in Colorado, apparently searching for a teacher, opened fire with a shotgun, wounding one girl. Then he killed himself.

It seems as if there's one of these incidents every month. What used to be a rare occurrence has become commonplace. And most of the time the shooter turns the weapon on himself at the end, leaving behind tremendous grief and too many questions. What overwhelming pain in his life caused him to believe that killing someone and then taking his own life was the solution to his problem?

There are all kinds of pop psychology reasons given in an attempt to explain the violence in our society. Video games. Television. Drugs. But I don't think those things explain the cause. They're just more symptoms. Why are we as a society drawn to violence as entertainment?

As a reader and writer of mysteries--most of which involve a murder, I find my tastes are changing. First I stopped reading humorous mysteries. Murder isn't funny. This past year I've stopped reading cozies for the most part, because I just can't enjoy all the bodies dropping while the owner of the quilt shop runs around town solving the crime. I've stopped reading Nevada Barr, who used to be one of my favorite authors, because her recent novels are so dark and brutal I can't enjoy them any more.

As a matter of fact, I'm not sure I want to read any mysteries. Currently I'm reading A Breath of Snow and Ashes, a time travel-historical-romance by Diana Gabaldon. While Diana doesn't shy away from violence, you never feel as if you're on a romp to discover the killer. The bad guy is always known and it's clear he's the bad guy. Her characters feel strongly about the wrongs done to themselves and others.

I find myself missing science fiction and fantasy. Speculative fiction is usually an idea or milieu story. Yes, there's military sf, but the stories I most enjoy are those about exploring new worlds and new civilizations (queue the Star Trek theme) and overcoming a problem caused by being in space or a bit of technology gone wrong. People aren't always shooting at one another.

I'm also more interested in romance, a genre I previously avoided, even looked down on until recently. At least in romance you can pretty much be guaranteed a Happily Ever After. And it's rare that someone gets killed.

Usually I try to end a blog entry on some kind of conclusion, some point I'm trying to make. But today I'm just very sad. I don't have any conclusions. I can't make any sense of why so many teenaged males are killing others and themselves. I just don't understand.

The Newsroom

Saturday, December 07, 2013
Several months ago HBO had one of their free weekends, you know, the kind that are supposed to entice you to sign up for their service. I don't have any of the premium services because the cost of cable television alone is ridiculous. The only extra I get is the MLB package because I tried to do without the Red Sox games one year and found out it's impossible. There's little enough to watch on television. Take away Red Sox games and there's pretty much nothing to watch over the summer. Besides, without the MLB package, I would have missed one of the greatest turnarounds in baseball history.

But I digress.

One of the series that was featured during that free weekend was The Newsroom. The premise is a cable network news station that goes on a mission to be a real news station, to inform the public and make them better citizens. I was hooked from the first episode.

The cast includes Jeff Daniels, whom I've always liked, and Sam Waterston, who spent most of his career on Law and Order, another series I really liked. I still watch reruns of the original Law and Order most weeks. The other actors are not ones I've ever been a fan of, although I certainly recognize Jane Fonda and Dev Patel. As far as I'm concerned, everyone has brought their A game to this series.

But what really makes The Newsroom stand out is the writing. Most of the first season was written by Aaron Sorkin, whose list of movie and television credits is impressive. He's worked on A Few Good Men, The American President, The West Wing, The Social Network, and Moneyball, among others, before this latest effort. He's one of the few television writers whose name most people would recognize. Okay, maybe not most people, but those who pay attention to who writes a show.

I do. Because it makes a difference. I can pretty much always tell when Andrew Marlowe, the creator, has written a Castle script. Hint: they're not the lame ones.

It's probably time for a caveat: I have only watched the first five episodes on Netflix, so everything I'm saying here is based on that. I'm waiting for the next DVD to arrive. I'm consuming The Newsroom at about the same rate as I consumed Downton Abbey. But, if the show tanked or took a ninety-degree (or more) turn later in the season, I don't know that yet.

I like the message the show presents. I'm old. At the beginning of the show, there's a montage of journalists from the early days of television: Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley. I recognize those faces because I watched them in glorious black and white growing up. I use the term journalist on purpose. News then was different than it is now. It wasn't glitzy, stories weren't told in thirty-second teasers. You actually learned something when Walter Cronkite reported the news. He was one of the most trusted men in America.

Now, the "news" you get in prime time is who got kicked off the island or the latest bachelorette to be eliminated or who won The Biggest Loser. Really? That's news? No. Sorry. That's a commercial. Or an entertainment magazine.

I go insane when the real news, an actual story, is given in a thirty-second sound bite with the standard, "If you want to see the whole interview, log onto our website." I'm sorry, I wanted to watch the news on television. I don't want to have to get up, go to my computer, waste time searching around your website for the details on a story, and then have to watch commercials before you'll give them to me.

The Newsroom aims to bring back television journalism. The show is not about whoring after ratings (although upper management isn't on board with this concept). They stop picking their top story by what the other networks are using for their top story. They refuse to report an item without confirmation from two actual sources while everyone else is vying to be the first with the latest detail. Often wrongly, as they illustrate with the reports of Gabby Gifford's death after the shooting here in Tucson.

Which brings up the whole topic of news "sources." Since when did Twitter become an official news source? Every time a television anchor reports something that was tweeted, even if it was supposedly by the person (celebrity) themselves or not, I cringe.

I'm on Twitter. Lots of people are. They make stuff up. They create "handles" that resemble official people and organizations. Now, it's true that Twitter is often the first source for local events. But it isn't necessarily accurate. It's people talking to one another, like one big coffee klatch. And, just like a bunch of people gathered around a kitchen table or at a bar, a lot that is said is rumor or supposition.

What happened to fact-checking, to journalists who verified information with their sources, to news people who had sources to get information from? If I wanted information from the Twitterverse, I'd go on Twitter.

Same for Facebook.

I get the feeling Aaron Sorkin also would like to go back to the kind of television news we used to see. The Newsroom is his personal fantasy of what that would be like. But it probably is a fantasy. The American public doesn't want to see real news. They want to be entertained. Without the ratings, which translate to advertising dollars, no show survives.

But I wish this particular fantasy would come true. I, for one, would gladly pay for this kind of news show.


Sunday, December 01, 2013
Yes, I won NaNoWriMo this year! Of course "winning" means writing 50,000 words in one month. That's it. The only person you're in competition with is yourself.

There really are no losers. The whole point of NaNoWriMo is to write, to dedicate yourself to writing every day. Or almost every day. Even if you don't "win" by the rules, you're a winner merely by participating. Only you don't get to post the cool graphic on your blog or get the discount coupons for the goodies.

Everyone procrastinates when it comes to writing. Okay, not everyone. There are a few insane people who are eager to get to the keyboard every morning and continue working on their latest story. There are thousands more who write professionally and have formed a habit of doing the work so they can eat.

But you'd be surprised at how often writers go into long, whinging screeds about how they'd rather clean the toilet than start writing. Or sort that stamp collection they inherited from their great grandfather. Or do anything other than writing. You get the picture.

Being a writer who completes something takes perseverance. It takes playing tricks on yourself, like promising you'll let yourself eat ONE square of a Hershey bar if you write 500 words. Or you'll check your email when you're done with your daily word quota, but not before.

NaNoWriMo helps you with those tricks. For one thing, you're not alone in doing this. Or, at least, you're not alone with just those voices in your head. They offer you little tchotchkes, like that badge up there and a PDF of a winner's certificate, little stuff like pencils and stickers at write-ins. There are word sprints, where one of the NaNo staff sets timed writing periods on Twitter, often with a prompt or an object you need to include in your writing (or not), when you're dragging your feet on writing more words.

My big incentive this year was the forty-percent discount on Aeon Timeline for winners. The last NaNo I finished, I did it with the discount for Scrivener as an incentive. While neither of these programs is terribly expensive, I find it hard to justify spending more money on "toys." I mean, to write a novel all you really need is a pad of paper and a pen, and I've already got lots of those. Of course, writing on a computer is easier, especially if you want something legible that you can read when you're finished. (My handwriting is getting really awful as I get older and my fingers get stiffer.)

Did I really need Scrivener? Well, now that I've been using it for several years, the answer is Absolutely! But lots of people don't use it. They use Word or Open Office or other tools, some of which are free. I have no idea whether or not I'll find Aeon Timeline useful. It looks way cool! And I'm hoping to replace that board covered in pink and blue stickies on my office wall. Deliver Us From Evil, the next in my Community of Faith Mystery Series, has some serious timeline issues that I need to resolve before it's published. That's why I put up the stickies. But software is generally more flexible and the glue doesn't dry out leaving a pile of colored paper on the floor.

Amazingly enough, I like the story I wrote for NaNoWriMo. That doesn't always happen. With little planning, I wasn't sure what I would get. There have been times when I've finished--or more likely, quit--and wound up with total rubbish for my efforts. But sometimes, when I'm just letting the words flow and not worrying about where I'm going, when my mantra is Write the next sentence even when I have no idea of what comes in the sentence after that, much less in the next chapter, magic happens. That's what happened this year. And it was fun!

Happy Thanksgiving

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. I think it's because of the traditions that surround it. In a world where things change constantly, it's comforting to know that on this day there are things that will not change from year to year.

First, of course, is the menu. I remember my mother getting up early to make the stuffing, whose principle ingredients were loaves of white bread and cream of mushroom soup, and put it in the turkey. The turkey always seemed tremendous, certainly much larger than any roast we had during the rest of the year. She'd have it in the oven by mid-morning and proceed to work on the other elements of the meal. In our house, that included mashed potatoes and turnips (also known as rutabagas), creamed onions, candied sweet potatoes, and a green vegetable. She'd make up a relish tray containing celery stuffed with cream cheese and pimento, olives, and pickles to sit at the center of the table. I loved olives, but we didn't have them very often, so I would scoop a bunch onto my plate.

The appetizer would vary from year to year. I suppose this depended on the state of my parents's finances. It might be a salad or fruit cocktail or, in a prosperous year, shrimp.

After dinner, there was pie. The pies would have been baked ahead: apple and mince, usually two of each. I only discovered pumpkin pie when we spent one Thanksgiving at my grandparents's house. I had never tasted anything so wonderful! And there would always be a big bowl of nuts in the shell. My brother and sister and I loved the walnuts because, if we were careful when we opened them, we could turn the shells into boats which we colored with crayons and floated in the bathroom sink.

While dinner was cooking, we watched the Macy's parade on television and savored the delicious smells coming from the kitchen. Back then it was more of a parade and less of an extravaganza. I always liked the marching bands. You don't see much of those now. There are too many Broadway shows and big name entertainers who have to stop in Herald Square and perform.

In the afternoon there was football. I wasn't a big football fan, but my father was. I suppose I read a book. I was always reading back then.

And, of course, there is the whole idea of taking one special day to thank God for all the blessings He has bestowed on us during the year. My life has not always been easy. Like most people, I've gone through hard times both emotionally and financially. But, with God's help, I have always found a way to get through them. This year has been a year of transition for me. It's had highs and lows. But I thank God that I have a roof over my head, eat regularly, the freedom to create stories, my church family, and relatives who may live far away from one another, but are still my family.

So, in celebration of all that I have been given, I'm running a sale this weekend on the ebook version of Faith, Hope, and Murder. For this weekend only, you can buy it for 99 cents at all the major ebook sellers: Amazon, Apple, Barnes and Noble, Kobo,  and Smashwords.

I hope you'll try it!

Photo Credit:
Happy Thanksgiving courtesy of nongpimmy via www.freedigitalphotos.net

Riding in the Rain

Saturday, November 23, 2013
As I write this, a steady rain is falling outside my office window. I can hear the water running down the downspout. Now, in other parts of the country, this might not be deemed significant enough for a blog post. But, in Tucson, it's a very big deal.

It never rains in Tucson in November. Okay, not exactly never, but close enough so that it might as well be never. The average rainfall for November is .67 inches. That's for the whole month. (Yes, for those people who live in wet places, we do measure our rainfall in hundredths of an inch. We only get twelve inches of rain for the whole year.)

You should have heard the local news anchors and weathermen (weatherpeople?) gushing about this approaching winter storm all week. Not only is it raining today (Friday), but it's supposed to rain all through the weekend. Unheard of! The excitement Tucsonans have about rain almost matches that of New Englanders looking forward to an approaching blizzard.

As we got closer to Saturday, however, that excitement has turned to mild concern. You see, Saturday, November 23, is El Tour de Tucson, a nationally--if not internationally--known bicycle race. It's not quite as well-known as the Tour de France, but it's big. It attracts between 7,000 and 10,000 cyclists each year.

Residents who are not participating in the race or supporting someone who is, generally know to stay home that day, since many of the major roads are used, narrowing traffic to one fewer lane. There are frequent stops to allow cyclists to cross traffic. It takes twice as long to go anywhere on El Tour Saturday as on any other day.

As rare as rain in Tucson is in November, it has never rained on the date of El Tour. Ever. It did snow in 1994, but since the high that day was 54 degrees, it couldn't have stuck to the ground. The web site has been proclaiming "Rain or Shine!" for several days, but there is still an element of denial.

The El Tour route uses two washes and, as of this writing, has not been changed to avoid them during the race. A wash is a path that is taken by our heavy monsoon rains during the summer. Most of the year, they're dry ditches. Some are incredibly wide. Most are narrow. When they're draining the Catalina Mountains, they can fill to river depth. Unwary motorists can be swept away in their cars if they dare to cross a wash when it's running. Just being muddy can be treacherous for cyclists.

I'm fairly certain the evening news will have repeated announcements of a change in the route. By then, even race officials will have to admit there's a problem.

Unfortunately, the turnout will probably be low this year because of the weather. An amazingly large number of cyclists wait until the day of the race to register. I say unfortunately because El Tour de Tucson is a charity event. The primary beneficiary is Tu Nidito Child and Family Services. There are many others, including Habitat for Humanity and the Susan G. Komen foundation. The fewer riders, the lower the donations.

So, much as we need the rain--we always need the rain!--I'm almost hoping the weather forecasters are wrong and the sun shines tomorrow morning. Just a few hours break would probably make a difference.

Update Saturday morning from the El Tour Facebook page:
The 111 route has been diverted away from the Santa Cruz River crossing. The cyclists will follow Mission Rd to Irvington, to Calle Santa Cruz, to Drexel where it rejoins the route.

The "River" is one of those washes I wrote about. Most of our "rivers" are dry most of the year in Tucson. The Santa Cruz is probably very wet this morning since the rain's still pouring down.

Photo Credits:
Photo of a criterium road bicycle race. Boston Beanpot collegiate cycling weekend, Tufts University criterium race Image taken 8 MAY 2006 in Sommerville, MA by Joshua Furman

Funny Once, Funny Always, and Casablanca

Saturday, November 16, 2013
In The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein, a book about a self-aware computer who thinks he's Mycroft, the brother of Sherlock Holmes, there's a scene where two of the main characters try to explain the nature of humor to him. Mycroft, or Mike as he is most often referred to, has just pulled a stunt that could threaten lives because he thought it was funny, so Manny, our narrator, decides Mike needs a lesson.

It quickly becomes apparent that humor is a difficult thing to define. Deciding that an existential definition will work better than the dictionary, Manny prints out a list of jokes and he and Wyoming, the female lead, go through the list separately, each checking off which ones are not funny, funny once, or funny always.

This past week, with baseball season over for another year, I've been looking for movies and programs to watch on television. I rediscovered that there is not a whole lot of new material on the tube. Looking for something different, I pulled out the boxed set of Season One of 24 DVDs I'd bought years ago when I heard this was a good show, but never watched.

24 gives thriller a whole new definition. At first, I was impressed with the non-stop action, the deft way the writers upped the level of intensity in each scene as the characters were put into more and more jeopardy. After watching three episodes back-to-back, I noticed the tightness in my chest, my rapid pulse, and the need to calm down with something just a bit less intense before going to bed.

The second night, I was more aware of my physical response to the drama on the screen. I couldn't watch more than two or three episodes without feeling physically uncomfortable. And, while I could see where this high-anxiety method of scripting would draw people back on a weekly basis, I kept looking for the downtime, you know, the campfire or bar scene where people stop running and the audience gets a breather. So far, there isn't one.

I also became aware that the characters were making some choices just so the tension would increase, rather than as a realistic choice a person would make in the same situation. And I decided that 24 fell into my category of "watch once."

That's okay. Most television programs are watch once. They don't have enough depth, the surprise is gone, and there's not much to make you want to spend another hour with the story. I mean, if you already know the surprisingly valuable item found in the storage locker, why would you want to watch an episode of Storage Wars a second time?

Last Sunday night I discovered that even Downton Abbey is a "watch once." While I devoured all available seasons of this program on DVD this summer,  watching an episode I'd already seen wasn't terribly interesting to me. That surprised me.

There are, of course, some television programs I consider "watch always."

Firefly. No matter how many times I watch the fourteen episodes that were made before the show was canceled, I still laugh and cry and marvel at the incredible writing in this show.

The original Law and Order. Twenty seasons (and, if Jerry Orbach hadn't died, it would probably still be going strong). I'm not sure what it is about this series that doesn't bore me even though I've seen almost every episode multiple times. Good writing, yes, but, after you've seen an episode, you already know the twist that's coming. Sometimes I take a break and will not watch an episode, saying, Oh, this is the one where... and I'll flip the channel, but I can still watch most of these over and over.

And my latest favorite, Sherlock. A novel twist on Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, great writing, incredible stories that hark back to the original canon without being a mere retelling. And Benedict Cumberbatch, with his glorious baritone and prominent cheekbones. It's no wonder he won the BAFTA award for British Artist of the Year. With only three episodes per season (because they're 90 minute movies), it's a long wait until the next season begins. But I've found that my investment in the DVDs of this series was well worth it. I've watched them at least twice (after seeing the shows in their original airing) and will watch them all again before Season Three begins in January.

Now, I had to stop a minute and think of those shows above, because I have been writing about television. But what really inspired this blog was stumbling upon TCM showing Casablanca again. I've seen Casablanca. A gazillion times. I own it on DVD because I never know when the urge to watch it again will come on me. Many people consider it the greatest movie of all time. I'm one of them. The characters, the intrigue, the love story, the plot twists, the chemistry between Bogey and Ingrid Bergman--it's all there. I still cry at the end. There is no doubt that Casablanca is my all-time watch always film.

Oh, and before I forget, and to tie this back to the opening of this blog, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is one of my read always books. If you haven't read it, give it a try, too.

Windy and Warm

Saturday, November 09, 2013
I can't help thinking of Doc Watson after writing that title:

I was introduced to Doc Watson way back in college. He was a fixture in the folk music community for decades. As a matter of fact, if you read my post on The Joys of Live Music, you might be interested to know that the Kruger Brothers moved to North Carolina to be near Doc and learn from him.

But that wasn't what I wanted to write about today. Windy and warm also describes the weather we've been having in Tucson lately. While the northern parts of the United States are looking out for their first snowfall, here in Arizona we're enjoying the best part of the year. Clear skies (it's been two months since we had rain), temperatures in the seventies and eighties, low humidity, and, often, winds of twenty miles an hour or more as storms pass to our north on the way to create that snow in the Midwest.

No longer do I have to get up around five and force myself to go for an early walk to avoid the heat. I can have my more leisurely wake-up time, write for a few hours, then head outside to walk before breaking for lunch.

The desert doesn't change a whole lot in the fall. Oh, the mountains turn brown again because the vegetation dies back with no monsoon rains to nurture it. But we don't have deciduous trees to turn colors. We do, however, have grasses:

Most of the year, this particular grass is green, but I love in the fall when it turns red and waves in the wind.

There are disadvantages to this wind. After having a pre-cancerous growth removed from my scalp last year, I try to remember to wear a hat when I go for a walk. You learn to pay attention to signs of skin cancer in Arizona. But my hat wouldn't stay on in the wind this week. I wound up holding it in my hand instead.

The change in the weather reminded me it was time to schedule the annual maintenance on my furnace. They send out a reminder in October, but you often still need the air conditioning in early October so there's no sense of urgency. I guess a lot of people had the same thought with the change in the weather. The earliest appointment I could get was the first week in December. That's okay. I probably won't need to turn on the heat before December and then only at night.

Meanwhile I watch the kids play on the grass in the park across the street and the hummingbirds come to the feeder outside my office window. Along with the woodpeckers, who seem to enjoy the sugar syrup as much as the hummers. I love being in Tucson in November.

NaNoWriMo and Looking at Story Types

Saturday, November 02, 2013
It seems as if every time I start a new novel, I also need to take a writing class or read a writing craft book. It's like reviewing for a final exam; I know what goes into a novel, but I need a refresher before plunging in. This past spring I took a class when I was trying to finish the draft of the second in my Community of Faith mystery series. I blogged a little about my frustration with that class here.

As I got serious about planning for this year's NaNoWriMo novel, for which I had a premise and an ending, but not much else, I decided to pull a book off my writing bookshelf to reread. Because I was woefully short on characters, especially suspects, in this murder mystery, I chose Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card. This is an old book, published in 1988 as one of Writers Digest Elements of Fiction Writing Series. But I remembered being impressed with it the first time I read it and that it covered a lot more than character.

Three days before the start of NaNo, I got to Chapter 5, which is titled "What Kind of Story Are You Telling?" (I told you this book covers a lot more than character.) It was here that I found the vindication--and much better explanation than I was able to come up with--for what I tried to tell the instructor of last spring's story class:

There are different types of stories.

Non-writers reading this are probably scratching their heads and thinking, Well, duh, of course there are! so let me explain. Over the past thirty years or so, there has arisen a conventional wisdom kind of thing about the structure of a story. In fact, there have been multiple books written as to what that structure is, including The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler, which says that the only story structure is based on Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey, The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker, 20 Master Plots by Ronald B. Tobias, the three act structure, the four act structure, Robert McKee's Story,  and on and on and on.

What all of these books and classes assume is that a story is about character change. The character has to go through a number of trials to learn a lesson and become a better person as a result. They have to go through what romance writers call The Black Moment where all is lost before learning that lesson and becoming victorious. This has become so ingrained that anyone who dares to posit a different kind of story is seen as someone who hasn't quite understood what it is to be a writer and is doomed to failure.

Fortunately, Characters & Viewpoint was written twenty-five years ago and Orson Scott Card has written enough novels not to have this ridiculous bias as to what a story is. He describes four different  kinds of stories, one of which is the Character story that everyone seems to think is the only kind now.

The first is what he calls the Milieu story. This is because it focuses primarily on exploring a world and revealing all its wonders. According to Card, Lord of the Rings is a Milieu story. Yes, there is a plot and it does have characters, but the characters are not developed deeply. As Card points out, we only have one member of most races in the story because what distinguishes them is not their personality or inner flaws, but their type. If there were three elves as part of the Fellowship of the Ring, we probably wouldn't be able to tell them apart. Readers of Milieu stories don't care whether Frodo learns that Love Conquers All or anything like that. They love all the descriptions of the lands and cultures the characters encounter on their journey.

The second is the Idea story. A problem is posed at the beginning and the story ends when the problem is solved. Simple. Series murder mysteries fall into this category. The characters are relatively static and readers like them that way. As I tried to point out to that instructor, Jack Reacher and Spenser don't change. Stephanie Plum doesn't change. What changes is the mystery they have to solve. Science fiction also has its share of Idea stories.

The third type is the Character story. Since this is what every book and class is teaching writers how to write, I won't devote space to this one.

The fourth type Card calls the Event story. In this kind of story, something happens to put the world out of joint and the story ends either when things are put right again or it's clear that there will be no putting right in the end. I have a hard time differentiating this from an Idea story, since I think of mysteries as having this kind of structure.

The point is that, of the four types of stories, only one requires in-depth character development. Now, even in 1988, Card had to admit that because of the expectations of readers due to the shift to more Character stories, it had become necessary to do more character work in the other types than it had been in the past. Not always. Dan Brown has been taken to task for his cardboard characters, but they don't seem to bother most readers. That's because Dan Brown writes Event stories.

Reading this chapter lifted a weight off my shoulders. I have struggled mightily in crafting mysteries because I've always been stuck on the question of What does my character have to learn? That gets harder the more books in a series you write. If in every book your main character becomes more and more perfect, you run out of stuff they need to learn. If they conquer their major flaw, that changes who they are. Do you have to come up with a new flaw in each book? And will that flaw be something fans of the books can't identify with or hate so much they'll stop reading? Realizing that there are other types of stories to tell than Character stories lets writers write the story they have in them--not the one the books and classes tell you you should be writing.

New Look

Wednesday, October 30, 2013
Yes, the blog looks different today. While I liked the look of my site when I first started blogging, it was starting to look tired to me recently. The image of cactus in the background didn't really show up and the colors were muted. Now, muted is okay, but I'm in a different mood right now. So, since I use Blogger and it's easy to change the look of a blog through a template, I picked another template. I'm not a fan of light text on a dark background, but I do like the red.

What do you think?

Countdown to NaNoWriMo

Saturday, October 26, 2013
In less than a week the annual insanity that is NaNoWriMo begins. I've looked forward to this for months, a chance to start writing something new, something different, along with thousands of other people, young and old, around the globe.

I've been thinking about my NaNo novel throughout the month of October, even as I revise the second in my Community of Faith mystery series. Last Monday, after arriving home from my nephew's wedding in Virginia, I realized it was time to start planning in earnest. What I had so far was:
  • It is a mystery
  • It takes place at a retirement community
  • The amateur sleuth raises African violets
  • The victim claims my sleuth's new hybrid as her own (which provides a motive for my sleuth to be the killer)
  • The actual killer has a secret he wants to preserve
And that was pretty much it. When I came up with this series idea (each book based on a different color/hybrid of African violet) several years ago, I was excited because no one had ever done this. I had a hook that was perfect for a cozy mystery series, something Berkeley might grab up in a minute. The African Violet Society of America is the largest society devoted to a single indoor plant in the world. It seemed to me that this gave me a built-in audience of people who would want to buy my books.

But, as I started trying to come up with other suspects and motives this week, it felt like this was going to be just another formulaic cozy mystery. What had seemed like a novel (pun unintended) idea several years ago was now looking like the exact kind of book I've grown tired of reading. But I had looked forward to writing this book for so long, I couldn't abandon it now. Or could I?

Then an announcement arrived in my mailbox this week telling me the webinar about NaNo planning and pantsing was available, finally, after technical glitches messed up the original recording. I watched it this morning.

And you know what happened? This video reminded me that NaNoWriMo is supposed to be fun.

For the past year, I've been obsessed with building a writing career. I've read a gazillion posts on how to be a successful self-published author, what kinds of promotion work, how you should be on Facebook and Twitter and Google+. How you should write short stories to publish in between novels so you don't lose your audience. How you need to be running a writing business. Set goals. Set deadlines.

Since my realistic Christian fiction mystery series is very much a niche market, I'd been thinking of the African violet series as more commercial, a chance to grow a larger audience. All I had to do was write a typical cozy mystery for NaNo. I'd been so obsessed with that idea, it's no wonder my muse has been balking at giving me anything to write about.

While listening to the video and making notes, I suddenly got a totally off-the-wall idea as to what would make this mystery different from every other cozy mystery on the virtual bookshelves at Amazon. And I liked it. I liked it so much that this may become not the African violet mystery series, but the magical realism mystery series.

And you know what? My muse likes it, too. She's tossing me all kinds of weird ideas to put into this novel, characters I hadn't thought of, possibilities for other stories to tell in this universe.

I've totally changed my mind about how I'm going to write this story. Instead of filling up Scrivener index cards with carefully plotted scenes, I'm going to be drawing maps and diagrams and doing character collages. I'm going to try to have my four major plot points before I start, but I may not. This is scary for a plotter. I'm severely left-brained, so taking that blind leap of faith that I can write a novel without all the detailed planning I so like to do is like walking a high wire without a net. But hopefully, if I fall off the wire, I'll find out I have wings.

Book Review: Sand City Murders by M.K. Alexander

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

I was intrigued by the idea of a time-traveling detective, something new for me, so was eager to read this book. I mostly read mysteries, but have read my share of science fiction and am a big fan of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, so I’m not new to time travel stories.

The book opens with rich descriptions of the characters and locations. This does, as one reviewer noted, make the opening slow, but the author does it so deftly, for the most part I didn’t find it a problem. The narrator is Patrick Jardel, senior reporter for the Chronicle, a local weekly newspaper, who is called to use his photographic skills to take pictures of a crime scene while the police photographer is on vacation. It is in this way that he gets involved with murders committed by what he initially calls the Barefoot Killer, since all the victims are without shoes. That is not the only thing they have in common; all the victims are young women, attractive, and, initially, unidentified.

Patrick’s unusual memory is what brings him into contact with Tractus Fynn. What makes it unusual is that he remembers when things were different from his current reality. Little things, things that you might attribute to a mistake in your recollection if they happened to you, but which Patrick knows are no mistake, but a change in the world. Fynn, the time-traveling detective, needs Patrick’s assistance because of his memory so he can know when time has changed in the one reality. It is Fynn who leads Patrick to discover that the murdered girls all disappeared in the mid-nineteen-seventies, only to mysteriously appear, dead, in the present.

At several points in the novel, Fynn attempts to explain to Patrick how time travel works. I found these difficult to follow. Fynn keeps repeating “It’s complicated” and, when Patrick tries to pin him down on some points, Fynn is evasive. That would be all right, if not for the fact that it happens too often and goes on for too long. I don’t think it’s totally necessary for the reader to understand all the details of how time travel works in order to enjoy the story.

***Spoiler Alert***
I usually don’t include spoilers in my reviews because I don’t like taking the chance that someone will read them and have the mystery spoiled for them. However, in this case I feel the need to divulge some things in order to explain why I gave this book three stars.

For a good part of the novel, Fynn and Patrick, along with Durban, a police officer, are trying to determine who the killer is. Then, unexpectedly, Fynn reveals that he knows the killer is one Mortimer, his arch-nemesis, who is another time traveler. It might be my aging memory, but I don’t remember any hints earlier in the book that this would be the case.

(As an aside, when Mortimer showed up, I immediately realized that the author had structured this story similar to Sherlock Holmes, with Mortimer being his Moriarity, and Patrick his Watson.)

Early on, in one of Fynn’s explanations of time travel, he describes what he calls “hard” and “soft” jumps. When you jump to the past, it’s a “soft” jump, because you’re reinhabiting a version of you that already exists. When you jump to the future, it’s a “hard” jump because you have to create a new instance of yourself since you don’t exist there yet. Then, when the identity of Mortimer is revealed, he explains that the way he’s been able to carry out these killings so successfully is that he can hard jump to the past, that there are multiple versions of himself throughout time.

[Rant] You can make up any set of rules you want for your world and I’ll most likely go along with them, but you may not change the rules in order to make your plot come out right. Story world must be consistent within the story. [End Rant]

There are ramifications to switching timelines, as Patrick refers to it. (Fynn insists there is only one timeline. It’s complicated.) Events change. People change. A person who was sullen in one timeline is cheerful in another. Minor characters change roles. Fynn undoes a murder. Mortimer redoes the murder. As the author himself states at the beginning of Chapter 33, “In Fynn’s world, any series of events was perfectly plausible.”

And that’s a big problem in a mystery. One of the pleasures of reading mysteries is trying to figure out whodunnit before the author reveals him or her. When people and events can change to this extent, that’s not playing fair with the reader. I gave up trying to figure it out about three-quarters of the way through the book.

Add to that the fact that Mortimer turns out to be a character we’ve never met in person in the rest of the book, and I couldn’t possibly give this book more than three stars.
***End Spoiler***

The book could have used one more pass through a copyeditor or proofreader. There weren’t horrendous errors and there weren’t a lot of them, but there were enough so that they were noticeable. These consisted of missing or extra words and misused words (clamor for clamber, gauss for gauze, ). And the ever-popular, but dead wrong use of “I” after “and” when it should be “me.”

The author is a competent writer. His descriptions of what happens at the newspaper are realistic, a reflection of his career as a reporter. One thing he nails is the distinctive dialogue for his characters, particularly Patrick and Fynn. You don’t need tags because the way they speak identifies them. Few authors do this so well. Both Patrick and Fynn are well-developed characters and I very much liked the town of Sand City. I would consider returning to it to see what happens in the next of this series.

Note: I received this book through the Goodreads Making Connections group in exchange for an unbiased review.

Questioning Believers

Saturday, October 12, 2013

At the beginning of the service at my church, a member of the congregation reads a Welcome statement. Part of it says "Welcome to questioners, believers, and questioning believers." I'm in that third category.

Part of my return to faith journey has been trying to learn more about Christianity and Jesus's teachings. It's always been frustrating to me that there is so little written about this outside of the Bible. I know, there are those who are asking what more do we need, but let me explain.

We're used to having multiple sources for news in our everyday life. There's television and newspapers and the Internet and radio and Twitter and... well, you get the picture. No one source is totally unbiased or totally accurate. It's one of the reasons I listen to both a talk radio station that carries Fox News and the local public radio station. Surprisingly enough, I've often found Twitter to be the most timely, accurate source for breaking news. It can also be very wrong.

With Jesus, there is almost nothing outside the Gospels and some apocryphal writings. All of these were written years after he lived and all have a bias in that they were written as witness to Jesus as the Son of God and the Messiah.

The one authoritative source outside the religious writings comes from Josephus, a Jewish historian, but these are so brief all they do is confirm that Jesus lived. The third citation, which provides evidence for the crucifixion, has been questioned because it is possible that it was later altered by those who believed in Jesus as Messiah.

My minister, during his weekly Bible study, emphasizes that we have to understand the books of the Bible in their historical and sociological context. If you understand the audience, it's easier to understand the stories. Matthew and Mark were written for Jews and so they use references that were familiar to Jews. Luke, however, was writing for Gentiles, people who had no knowledge of the Torah or Jewish history and tradition. Because his audience was different, his stories are different. Similarly, the Old Testament prophets lived at different times in history and the issues they faced were different depending on their circumstances.

In an attempt to gain more knowledge, I recently borrowed Part 1 of Bart Ehrman's The Historical Jesus lecture series from the library. (It's much too expensive to buy.) This didn't help much. (And a warning: these are college class lectures with Ehrman standing at a podium, not a History Channel dramatization.) Ehrman basically analyzes what we can deduce as being historically true from the Gospels. This is limited information. But one lecture did tell me that there were many wandering acetic philosopher miracle workers in the Middle East at the time of Jesus. One, Appollonius of Tyana, also claimed resurrection.

Now, this isn't the only story of resurrection. In Egyptian myth, the god Osiris also dies and is resurrected. Put that together with the story in Matthew of Jesus's family fleeing to Egypt to escape Herod, and isn't it possible Jesus developed his mythology from hearing about Osiris?

Now, I'm not saying that these other stories are true or that the story of Jesus is not. What I am saying is that they are things to think about, facts that lead to questions. It doesn't help that the Bible is not entirely consistent. As many have said, you can prove just about anything with a quote from the Bible.

Parables are particularly difficult to interpret, at least for me. Part of this has to be that context. I'm not a First Century resident of the Holy Land, so I'm not coming to them from the same place as Jesus's original audience. Did he really mean for all his followers to give up all their possessions to follow him? If so, why do so many Christians live in houses and drive cars? A recent lesson had Jesus talking about how slaves were to be treated. Does that mean slavery is okay? Around the time of the Civil War, some slave owners said just that. See, lots of questions.

In my Community of Faith mysteries, my somewhat ironically named main character struggles with some of the same issues I do. In each book, she not only unravels a mystery, she also attempts to unravel an aspect of being a Christian that puzzles her. That's one of the reasons I call my genre realistic Christian fiction. The characters are not perfect. They sin, repent, and sin again. They not only question God, they get angry at him. They are searching. They are questioning believers.

Photo credits:
Open Bible: http://www.flickr.com/photos/rykneethling/5811680700/

"Reality Shows" or Why I'm a Fan of Ice Road Truckers

Sunday, September 29, 2013
Yes, I have watched a few reality shows in my life. I didn't used to. There was a time when I was above all of that. Oh, I did check in on Survivor once when everyone was talking about it just so I could understand the conversations. I watched a few episodes and then I stopped. It was so obvious to me that the shows were engineered and not reality at all it didn't hold my interest for more than a few weeks. And that's all I had to do with reality shows for a long time.

Then a coworker mentioned she was a fan of Pawn Stars. Obviously this was another show I hadn't seen, although I had noticed the name while scrolling through the TV listings with my remote. One night, with nothing I wanted to watch on television, I clicked it on. And promptly became hooked. Soon after that, I added Storage Wars. The attraction of both these shows is the same as that of Antiques Roadshow, a program I had been watching because, you know, it's on Public Television, so it must be quality. You watch all of them for the vicarious thrill of seeing someone find something they own is worth a lot of money. We all dream that that ugly painting Aunt Martha left us will be worth a million dollars so we can quit the day job and have someone else clean the bathrooms and take out the garbage. American Pickers is similar, although the stories of the people Mike and Frank meet are as fascinating as the objects they find.

After a while, these shows get to be all too similar. The pawn shop guys continue to bid low on items so they can sell high. Storage lockers contain something amazing--or they don't. The pickers stumble upon a treasure trove of items they can sell or run into a "collector" (many of whom would also fit on Hoarders) who refuses to part with any of his beloved goods. The shows then try to add tension by scripting in conflict. On Pawn Stars this included sending Chumley off in search of Bob Dylan's autograph, a weight loss segment, and other things. Since these guys are not actors, it was obvious we had crossed the line from reality, such as it was, to scripted.

Worse, they spawn clone shows with a different set of characters: Storage Wars Texas, Storage Wars New York, for example. I'm not sure how that's supposed to make any of them more interesting.

So what reality show am I still watching, indeed, am sorry the season is over and that it will be months before new episodes are shown?

Ice Road Truckers

When you stop laughing, I'll tell you why.

Ready yet? No. Okay, I'll wait.

That's long enough! People have better things to do than listen to you laughing your head off.

I think the key to the success of this show is the variety of characters. Hugh and Todd are what I think of as stereotypical truckers. They're tough, it's all about the money for them, and half of what they say has to be bleeped. Darrell is the seasoned pro, the one you hand the toughest jobs over to, confident that he'll deliver the goods.

Lisa is one of my favorites. A rookie just a few years ago, she's applied herself to learning everything, taking every challenge, and succeeding in a rough world. She's an attractive blonde whose appearance at first misleads you. But if there's anyone who deserves the title of kickass heroine, Lisa is it.

And then there's Alex. He's older, more experienced, and never seems to be other than calm. He doesn't swear. He prays. A devout Catholic, he prays when starting out, when he thinks someone could use some help that he can't give, when approaching a dangerous situation, and, after the crisis has passed, he gives thanks. Definitely a role model and a man I respect.

I've come to respect him even more after following him on Twitter at @IceRoadAlex. That's where he promotes the message #DontTextAndDrive. Having been t-boned by a teenager whom I'm sure was on her cell phone at the time of the accident, this is a cause near and dear to my heart. He isn't a celebrity showing off on Twitter. He's a real person you can connect to.

Then there's the premise of the show. It's not just the competition among the drivers. It's the drivers against nature. Driving the ice roads in northern Canada and Alaska isn't for sissies. It's cold. Really cold. There are snowstorms and the potential for breakdowns (worse because of the cold) and driving across a lake on a layer of ice that might give way, especially in the spring, is often a case of--literally--you bet your life. And because the roads are... uh... ice, sliding into the ditch is not out of the question. And this is not a case of whipping out your cell phone and calling Triple A. Triple A doesn't drive those roads. Some of them are so remote, there is no cell service.

Sometimes a trucker in trouble will get help from another driver who's passing by. But sometimes he--or she--just has to improvise and figure out a way to get going again. Overcoming obstacles is a lesson in cooperation and resourcefulness.

It's possible I'll get bored with this reality show just like I have the others. But, for now, I'm looking forward to Season 8.

Photo Credits:
Ice Road: cityofstrangers via photopin cc
Alex: Lester Public Library via photopin cc



Sunday, September 22, 2013
I finished Lesson 4 in Holly Lisle's How to Revise Your Novel class this week. I have never looked at my writing in such detail, and I alternate between feeling as if I'll never be able to fix this book and getting excited about how awesome it's going to be once I finish the revisions. Totally typical for a writer.

I have to admit that I never did get all the way through Holly's How To Think Sideways class. There were some concepts of Holly's that I never did get. The dot and the line was the big one. How to Think Sideways is her course on how to write a novel, as opposed to how to fix one. I've pulled out the looseleaf (Volume 1 of 3) in which I stored the lectures from that class because I really have to get started on planning for my NaNoWriMo novel if I stand any chance of actually writing a new book in November. I also pulled out James Scott Bell's Plot and Structure this morning for the same reason. And I'm looking at 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them on my bookshelf right now. Yes, I'm hoping that there's lightning stored somewhere in one of these three places.

So far, How to Revise Your Novel is awesome. It fits right in with my left side of the brain tendencies to overanalyze everything. I'm getting to look at what I wrote from several different perspectives. I'm really looking forward to pulling all the pieces together and getting the rewrite done.

Because I've taken a course with Holly, I'm on her mailing list. You don't have to take any courses, though. Anyone can sign up for her mailing list. Authors love it when people ask to be put on their mailing lists. (Hint: You can sign up for mine over to the right of this post.)

This morning, she sent out an email with the heartbreaking story of the event that caused her to quit her day job to write full time. I won't retell that story because it's hers, and what I really want to focus on is what she said after that:
At some point in your life, you face a watershed moment---everyone does---a realization that you are no longer the person you once were, and that if you continue on the path you're on, you will lose the part of you that you that matters most to you.

At this point, people make one of two choices. Either they say, "I can't do anything about this," and then start numbing themselves with alcohol or drugs or food or falling asleep in front of the always-on television or any of a hundred other ways that turn their minds off...

Or they say, "I am going to fix this now." And they act.

I don't know what your dream is---that promise you keep tucked inside of you that is going to be the magnificent thing you do "someday."

But I know THIS.


NOW is all you have.
Which is why I didn't wait until my full retirement age to give up the day job. My only regret is that I didn't do it sooner.

It was about ten years ago when I figured out that I no longer wanted to be a programmer. I wanted to be a novelist. But I was afraid to take that leap of faith and go for it. As a matter of fact, I was so afraid to take the risk of following my dream that, in addition to some of the self-medicating behaviors Holly describes, I sabotaged any hope of trying by putting myself in a financial position where I had to continue to work in IT. Looking back, there were other choices I could have made.

But that was then and this is now.

It's still all too easy for me to come up with excuses to not write. Or not do the other things that a self-published writer must do to be successful. I'm still adapting to being "retired" and trying to figure out how much of my time I want to spend on my new career versus exploring other interests. There's always something else I could be doing.

It's a daily struggle to remember that writing is my dream. Henry Ford said:
Whether you think you can, or you think you can't--you're right.
I really want to think I can.


The Joy of Live Music

Sunday, September 15, 2013
When I lived in the Boston area, where folk music is very much alive (as you can see from the listings at the Boston Area Coffeehouse Association), I frequently went to live music performances. Most of these coffeehouses are run by volunteers and held at local churches. They are done for the love of the music and not for the profit from selling tickets. It was one of the things I hated to leave behind when I moved to Tucson.

Here in Arizona, there are fewer opportunities to hear live acoustic music at a reasonable price. Yes, there is the annual Tucson Folk Festival in May, but that's only once a year, quite a change from multiple shows every single weekend.

Sometimes you have to drop the "reasonable price" requirement. Last Thursday night was one of those nights. Bonnie Vining, who used to own the wonderful Javalina's Coffee Shop, is now the Director of the Vail Theater of the Arts. I'm still on her mailing list and I trust her judgment in music, so when she sent out a notice of a don't-miss-it performance, I bit the bullet and ordered a ticket.

She was right.

The opening act was The DreadNutts, a local bluegrass band that I had not previously had the pleasure of hearing.

You never know what you're going to get when you go to a live performance, so I was pleasantly surprised at the professional  quality of this band. They won the Telluride Bluegrass Band contest in 1991, so I shouldn't have been.

But the Kruger Brothers, the featured performers, blew me away.

The brothers, Jens and Uwe, play banjo and guitar. A non-brother is on base. The accuracy and speed of their picking was amazing. The three of them played as if they were one person.

I used to own a large collection of vinyl. Unfortunately, I gave it away when I moved to Massachusetts, along with the stereo with the huge floor-standing speakers. When you're doing an interstate move, poundage is important, and I hadn't been listening to my records often enough to justify moving them. Now I mostly listen to music on my iPod played through a Bose docking station. The quality of the sound is important to me.

Thursday night I was reminded of the vast difference between live and recorded music. This morning, previewing Kruger Brothers albums on iTunes, I was reminded again. It's not the same.

Inside the theater, with the musicians on a stage no more than fifteen feet away, playing through a great sound system, you are immersed in the experience. The music is not only coming through your ears; you can feel it in your body, a visceral experience, and see the facial expressions and body language of the performers. You can watch their fingers fly over the frets and the non-verbal communication among the musicians. There are no distractions,

Life today is full of distractions. People are texting everywhere. They do their grocery shopping while talking on the phone. I've gone to dinner and had one of the people at the table prop up his smartphone so he wouldn't miss whatever he had going on on it. I do it myself. While watching television, I'll grab my tablet and check Twitter every time there's a commercial break. Sometimes when there's not a commercial because my Twitter feed is more interesting than whatever's on the television. It makes me wonder if anyone has an attention span of longer than five minutes.

I think we need more live music. For the better part of three hours, my smartphone silenced and safely in my purse, I remembered what it was like to experience life first hand and not on a two by four inch screen. The music part of my brain lit up with pleasure. And I'm looking forward to having that happen again.

Open Windows

Monday, September 09, 2013
I can't remember the last time I opened my windows to let cool air in, but, thanks to the remnants of tropical storm Lorena, the Weather Channel tells me it's 68 degrees outside, so the first thing I did when I got up was exactly that. It's the second day in a row that I've woken up to showers. As I've written before, monsoon thunderstorms, which give us most of our rain, are short, violent, and spotty.

It's wondrously refreshing to have a gentle rain fall for an extended period time and feel cool air coming in windows and doors. This is the time of year when Tucsonans start to get cabin fever from staying inside. We're basically outdoors people, walking and hiking and riding bicycles as often as possible. But, when it's over 100 degrees for weeks on end, outdoor activities are out of the question. We look out the window, seeing bright, sparkly days and want to be out there, knowing the heat will hit us like a blast furnace if we give in to our urge.

It's marvelous to sit in the quiet of a morning and not hear the air conditioner compressor kicking in every hour or so. I'm listening to the raindrops splashing in puddles and water coursing through the downspout. Every time a car goes by, there's the snick of tires on wet pavement, a sound I remember from other places but rarely hear in Tucson.

I could sit hear and watch the rain all day.

African Violets

Sunday, September 01, 2013
I have a black thumb.

I admire those who effortlessly grow houseplants and vegetable gardens. I have a friend whose yard, even here in Tucson, explodes with roses every spring. I struggle to keep anything alive. Whether it's over or under-watering, lack of sun or too much sun, too much attention or too little, plants and I do not always get along.

So it was with great joy that several years ago I discovered that African violets are relatively easy to grow. They bloom most of the year, cheerily flowering in bright colors. The watering problem was solved by using self-watering pots. These are actually two pots. The outer one is where you put the water. The inner one nests inside it and holds the plant. The porous clay lets the water pass from the bottom pot to the soil as needed. I found that the plants like to go a bit dry between waterings, so it was no tragedy if I forgot to check the water level for a few days.

My plants survived several moves, and in each place I lived I found a suitable window where they could get enough sun. Sometimes that required keeping the blinds closed so they wouldn't burn. I was happy and so were my plants.

Until I decided to become the owner of two kittens. Curious kittens. The female in particular is a problem.

This is Agatha. I named her after Agatha Christie. After all, I'm a mystery writer. Cats and mystery writers go together, and Agatha seemed a most appropriate name.

I should have named her Shiva Destroyer of Worlds.

Agatha gets into everything. She's not only curious, she's smart. She can open closed doors. And does.

She got into my African violets. I would come home from work and find several plants knocked off the table near the window, water and dirt scattered all over the carpet. I'd pick them up, repot them as best I could on a temporary basis, and vacuum the carpet. But there are only so many times a plant can survive this kind of abuse. Eventually all the plants died and I gave up on having houseplants.

As I approached retirement, I started thinking about African violets again. If I were home, I rationalized, I could watch Agatha. Maybe I could even train her to stay away from my plants. So I couldn't wait to order a few from Rob's Violet Barn. I spent several evenings browsing the web site, trying to decide which plants to order. I eventually settled on two dark blues, a red, a yellow, and a pink miniature. Yes, I chose on the basis of color for a reason that will become clearer later in the year. Two were standard African violets (the red and the yellow). The two blues were streptocarpus. I had no idea what that meant, but they appeared to be a truer blue than the standard African violets and I was shopping by color.

After the plants arrived, I realized I had a light problem. I tried the table near the window thing, but Agatha (remember Agatha?) was sneaky. Just when I let down my guard, there she was trying to get up on the table and knocking it--and my baby plants--over onto the rug again. I decided I had to put them out of her reach on a standalone cabinet in the kitchen. The dimly lit kitchen. After several weeks of debate over whether to spend the money or not, I finally invested in a small plant light.

Being retired, I thought it might be fun to check out the Tucson African Violet Society. One of the potential problems of being retired, not to mention being a writer, is the tendency to become isolated. For a lot of people, me included, going to work represents not only a paycheck, but a primary means of social contact. Knowing this, I spent a lot of last year getting involved in activities outside of my job. Getting together once a month with other women who enjoyed African violets might be fun. I might even learn a thing or two to help me grow better plants.

I didn't realize these people, men and women, took growing houseplants so seriously. At my first meeting, they started talking about when I'd begin to show my African violets.


Look at that table of beautiful plants. Now look back at my puny specimens. They blithely reassured me that I'd be showing within a year. Several people wanted to give me leaves from their plants so I could increase my collection. This was at the same meeting where the topic was "Pests" and how you were going to get some no matter how careful you were. Just what I needed was leaves from other people that would almost certainly contain some kind of insect, if the presenter for that day was right. My black thumb doesn't need any help.

I also got a notebook filled with useful information. At least I think it's useful. There's a page illustrating the 11 types of leaves and another with the 12 kinds of flowers. Instructions on light, watering, fertilizer, soil type, temperature, humidity. The second meeting was filled with "advice for beginners," about repotting and separating plants and suggestions to save plastic butter tubs for wicking and how you can buy plastic grid thingies at Home Depot and have them cut to the size of your trays (trays?).

Then there were cautions about how your electric bill would go up because of all the plant lights. And stories of African violets taking over people's homes. The bathtub seems to be a particularly popular place to nurture plants. One rather daunting piece of advice was that "There are plants to be watered and repotted at all times when the number reaches 30."


My idea was to have a few little plants to cheer up my home. Because they're easy to grow, you know. I went to the meeting and joined the Tucson AVS on a lark. It wasn't supposed to become an obsession!

But there is that lighted plant stand that would go nicely on one wall of my living room, particularly if I get rid of one of the chairs Agatha has torn apart with her claws. And I don't have to have thirty plants, now, do I? Maybe fifteen. Or twenty. And maybe I could show just one next year. Not that I would win a prize or anything. But it would be an interesting experience. Wouldn't it?

Photo Credits:
African Violet Capturing Wonder: Mary J.I. via photopin cc
Violet Show:  khufram via photopin cc

African Violets

I have a black thumb.

I admire those who effortlessly grow houseplants and vegetable gardens. I have a friend whose yard, even here in Tucson, explodes with roses every spring. I struggle to keep anything alive. Whether it's over or under-watering, lack of sun or too much sun, too much attention or too little, plants and I do not always get along.

So it was with great joy that several years ago I discovered that African violets are relatively easy to grow. They bloom most of the year, cheerily flowering in bright colors. The watering problem was solved by using self-watering pots. These are actually two pots. The outer one is where you put the water. The inner one nests inside it and holds the plant. The porous clay lets the water pass from the bottom pot to the soil as needed. I found that the plants like to go a bit dry between waterings, so it was no tragedy if I forgot to check the water level for a few days.

My plants survived several moves, and in each place I lived I found a suitable window where they could get enough sun. Sometimes that required keeping the blinds closed so they wouldn't burn. I was happy and so were my plants.

Until I decided to become the owner of two kittens. Curious kittens. The female in particular is a problem.

Lightning and the Lightning Bug

Sunday, August 25, 2013
We've had a lot of lightning in Tucson lately, especially last Thursday afternoon. After taking a break, the monsoon returned in earnest. I was hurrying back from the grocery store when I saw no less than five bolts of lightning stroke from cloud to ground at the same time in the Rincon Mountains. This weekend, moisture from Tropical Depression Nine-E is supposed to flow up from Baja California and give us the biggest chance of rain all season.

Monsoon season is one of the unique things I love about Tucson. In other places I've lived, a day was either rainy or sunny, and it was rainy or sunny for the whole region. Monsoons are totally different. The thunderstorms that pop up every July and leave in September are spotty. I've had rain in my front yard and sunlight in the back. I'll watch a storm darkening the sky to the south, the black clouds moving closer and closer, and then it will skirt my neighborhood and pass by with a few rumbles of distant thunder and splats of raindrops on the windows. When one does pass over, it is intense. The rain sheets down, there's often hail, and near hurricane force winds bend trees and bushes. Roads turn into rivers and, almost as quickly, dry again once the rain passes.

It's hard to believe that monsoon season is coming to an end. By this time, according to my very ambitious planning at the beginning of the year, Deliver Us From Evil (yes, I've decided on the title for Community of Faith Book 2) was supposed to be published. I was supposed to be well into writing Screaming Blue Murder (the working title for the first book my second cozy mystery series) and looking at revisions for that one in October or November. Things don't always work out the way you planned.

When I last left you, I had made the decision to use Holly Lisle's How To Revise Your Novel class to work through the revisions for Deliver Us From Evil (DUFE). This week I finished the worksheets for the first lesson or, as Holly optimistically calls it, Week 1. It took me two and a half weeks to do those 1B worksheets because the first week is re-reading your entire novel and noting in detail what went wrong and what went right with your world, your plot, and your characters. This is a good thing because it makes you really pay attention. It's a bad thing because it takes so long to do. Now, in case you think I'm working extraordinarily slowly, let me reassure you that I'm not. Many people take a lot longer than I did to get through the 1Bs.

Naturally, this week Dean Wesley Smith had to post his updated version of Killing the Top Ten Sacred Cows of Publishing--#3 Rewriting. As I've posted before, DWS is a firm believer in Heinlein's rules. He contends that rewriting kills your originality and your voice.

There are other writers who believe differently. For example, Mark Twain said The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. James Michener said I'm not a very good writer, but I'm an excellent rewriter. In a longer quote, James North Patterson said:
"Writing is rewriting. A writer must learn to deepen characters, trim writing, intensify scenes. To fall in love with the first draft to the point where one cannot change it is to greatly enhance the prospects of never publishing." 
If you read Dean's posts carefully, you'll see that there are processes he goes through that very much resemble rewriting. One of these is what he calls redrafting. If his first reader (usually his wife, Kris Rusch) tells him the story sucks, he'll rewrite the story without referring to the first draft. He'll start fresh and write a second first draft of the story he has in his head. That keeps it coming from the creative side of the brain rather than the critical side.

The second process is something he and Kris call "cycling." As I understand it, this means going back into earlier parts of your draft as you write it to add in things that aren't there. (I don't know if it also means removing things that are there and shouldn't be or not.) This prevents such errors as having "Mary grabbed the carving knife from the kitchen counter" in a climactic scene and not having had a knife on the kitchen counter earlier. Otherwise, it sounds as if the knife magically appeared just when Mary needed it.

Now, both DWS and Kris Rusch have been professional writers for decades. Dean admits to buying into what he calls "the myths" for something like the first seven years of his career. Interestingly enough, Holly Lisle says it took her seven years to learn how to write a novel, which is where her How To Think Sideways and How To Revise Your Novel classes came from. She wanted to help new writers from having to spend seven years learning the lessons she did, just like Dean does. Now I'm wondering if there isn't something about that seven years which is just the time you need to learn how to do what you want to do. It sure explains why there are so few novelists earning a living at writing.

I'm figuring out my process. There are so many things they don't teach you in academic writing classes.  I was looking at MFA programs recently (no, I'm never going to get an MFA, but I'm curious as to what value they add) and determined that most of them spend a lot more time reading than writing. The fiction writing classes usually say that you are going to write one or two short stories or the beginning of a novel.

The beginning of a novel is easy. Ask any number of wannabe writers who have started one. It's getting all the way to the end that's the challenge. Even when you've got a beginning, middle, and end, it's probably not going to climb to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. Those of us who are perfectionists have a particularly difficult time getting through the first draft because the more you write, the worse what you're writing seems to be. There's a temptation to go back and fix stuff before moving ahead. But you probably don't know what you should fix until you get to the end and know everything that happens in the story. Everything that you want to keep, that is. That's why NaNoWriMo is so great. It teaches writers to get to the end and not worry about it being perfect.

I've spent a lot of time studying plot structure. I've taken classes and have several books on it and read blog posts about it. I've probably done enough of that now. I know the basic plot formats, what a plot point is, and how a story (unless it's a thriller) should ebb and flow through scene and sequel. Or not. There's a faction that holds that sequels aren't interesting any more. But my point is that, without thinking about it, I'll probably have a twist/plot point at the end of act one, another one in the middle of act two (or the end of act two if you're thinking a four act structure instead of a three), one at the end of act two, and one at the climax, without even consciously thinking that's what they are as I'm writing a draft.

On the other hand, I still need to work on what Mark Twain called the lightning or the lightning bug. I sent the first three chapters of Faith, Hope, and Murder to three different contests because, although I thought I had a solidly constructed plot, I knew there was something missing. One contest judge nailed it. She (or he--they don't give you the names of the judges) said it read like it had been workshopped to death, like all the emotional charge had been taken out of it. Which was amusing, because I hadn't workshopped it at all. I'd barely had critiques done.

But that told me that Margie Lawson's Empowering Characters' Emotions was just the class I needed to make that novel what it needed to be. Since I've only used her techniques once, I mostly have no idea whether the first draft of DUFE has anadiplosis or anaphora or asyndeton. Probably not, although there were some instances of these things I didn't know the name of in my first draft of FH&M. I'm pretty sure it doesn't have backloading of power words. But I know how to go back and rewrite sentences so they do have those qualities. With any luck, when I draft my next novel, I'll be able to use those techniques without thinking about them. More likely, I'll use some instinctively but still have to consciously add in others.

It was a year and a half ago that I decided to indie publish Faith, Hope, and Murder. While I'd written several novels before, this was the first one I knew was worth publishing. I guess that means I've only got five and a half years to go until I really know how I write a novel.

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