Sunday, July 7, 2013

Channeling my Inner Andy Rooney

Andy Rooney, best remembered as the cranky commentator at the close of the CBS tele-magazine Sixty Minutes for so many years, came to mind not long ago when I was pursuing the prosaic task of folding laundry towels. His half-whine, half bluster voice echoed in my head, and what follows is an homage, of sorts, to his memory.

There are too many towels in the world. Just the other day I happened to find myself in a department store and while looking for a pair of sensible shoes wandered through the linens department. Did you know there are finger tip towels? They're little scraps of cotton that are slightly larger than a wash cloth and not as big a hand towel. Do we really need finger tip towels. After all, aren't your fingers part of your hand? Mine are. Then there were bath towels and bath sheets. What are bath sheets? Who sleeps in the bathtub unless they are in trouble with their spouse and why do they need special sheets? They aren't even fitted.

And what about kitchen towels? They often come with chickens or ducks painted on them, or maybe oregano and turnips. These seem to be mostly for people to look at, hanging nicely from the oven handle because most of them don't do the one thing they should do, and that is dry things off well. They sort of move the water around without really absorbing anything. But they look nice hanging on the stove. If you like painted chickens. What we really use to clean up spills are paper towels, which may also have pastel chickens or turnips. The logic of this escapes me. How does it make sense to use paper made from trees that take fifty years or more to grow to a useful size to clean up a coffee spill when we could use cotton, which take one growing season on a farm to make kitchen towels that don't absorb much?

Maybe we could use the worn out towels from the bathroom in the kitchen. They still absorb moisture, and since they are around the house anyway, we could quit using paper towels. We could call them rags and wash them in hot soapy water with bleach to get them really clean and safe to use. Who knows, maybe a bleach stain will look like a chicken. Or a turnip.

Monday, July 1, 2013

1000 Words About Other Writers Words

Writers like to hang out with other writers. Rest assured, we watch people, study their mannerisms and speech patterns, the way they walk or how they hold their fork or cell phone. But that is research, mostly. When we gather to hang out, we commiserate with one another about the difficulty of the process, the frustrations of a constantly changing marketplace, and the shifting sands of creating a ‘platform’ from which we shill our work. But we also share the euphoria when someone just kills (in a good way) ten thousand words in a marathon session of writing where gold flows from the fingertips in such an intense fashion that nothing else exists except the story (Here’s a hint to aspiring writers: If you write every day, sessions like the one just described happen a lot more often.).
Besides your mom (who has to), or your spouse, if applicable, (who sacrificed a lot by leaving you alone-or kicking you in the butt-when you needed it), no one is more likely to stand on a chair and cheer for you when succeed than your friends in the writing community. It gives all of us hope. Hope for those who haven’t broken through that we can, and hope for those that have, that they can keep doing so with better results each time.
With all of the above in mind, here are three reviews of books written by writing colleagues ranging from a self-described ‘almost famous’ author to two who are getting legs in what promise to be nice careers.

William Dietrich, a NY Times bestselling and Pulitzer Prize winning author has written twelve novels and five book-length non-fiction titles in his career. The Barbed Crown is the sixth in the series starring the roguish American ex-pat Ethan Gage. A devotee of Benjamin Franklin, he is a scoundrel, a gambler, an adventurer and pseudo-savant who finds himself sometimes being the grease and sometimes the grit between England and France during the Napoleonic Wars. In this highly entertaining book Gage finds himself slipping past the English naval blockade of France in a tiny boat on storm tossed seas with bullets and cannon balls whizzing by his head. He is doing so to seek out and kill Napoleon himself, whom, in a roundabout way, he has blamed  for the death of his beloved wife, the exotic Astiza. Failing that, then surely he can abort the general's coronation!
Complications ensue, as they must, and poor Ethan, who never seems to catch a break, still manages to survive by his wits, luck, and marksmanship. This book (and all in the series) are like a scrumptious bowl of nourishing cereal, chock full of scrupulously researched and fascinating history baked into a story that snaps with humor and crisp dialogue, crackles with page turning actions and pops off the pages with unlikely but entirely plausible ways the fictional Ethan Gage might have ended up near the heart of the biggest players of the era while everyone seems to be playing one side against the other. This book is a great stand-alone read and I highly recommend it for your reading list. But for maximum fun invest in starting at the beginning (after all, with the age of the internet nothing is really ever out of print) and read them all. You can thank me later.

By William Dietrich ©2013
HarperCollins       ISBN 978-0-06-219407-7

Now let’s leap forward a century and half a world away from Napoleon to the Age of Electricity, shall we?

Capacity for Murder is the third installment of the Professor Bradshaw Mysteries by Bernadette Pajer. An electrical engineering professor at the University of Washington in frontier Seattle, Bradshaw is introduced in The Spark of Death enmeshed in defending himself against a charge of murder in the electrocution death of a flamboyant colleague. In an era of titanic egos and society-changing advances in technology, his effort to prove his innocence eventually lead to a consulting detective role in Fatal Induction. This hobby of a sort expands in Capacity for Murder, and the sometimes absent-minded, occasionally OCD and always proper professor is summoned to the distant ocean beaches of western Washington. Beyond the reach of railroads or even much in the way of roads, his task is to unravel the cause of the accidental frying of a patient at a health spa sanatorium. Or is it an accident?
Trying to balance a romance not acted upon, his engineering students along for the journey and a cast of characters as rich as they are quirky, Bradshaw goes from being the central investigator to a dismissed "we'll call if we need you" persona non grata. But when big city law enforcement arrives he perseveres when he sees the investigation headed in the wrong direction and nearly gets himself killed in the process.
This is an homage to the ‘closed room’ style mystery-as much a how dunnit as a who dunnit-in the grand tradition of Agatha Christie. Having been reviewed and receiving the Washington Academy of Sciences seal for scientific accuracy, this book and the series are just plain great fun to read, without a single static moment. Chock full of early Seattle, science and sparks in the age of Tesla. Read the series if you can, or Capacity for Murder if you can’t. You’ll get a charge out of them! (Ohm dear, I have punned. Resistance is futile.)

By Bernadette Pajer    ©2013
Poison PenPress    ISBN  9781464201288

Occasionally I have the excellent good fortune to review a writer early in what promises to be a gifted career. Such a writer is Laurie Frankel. Goodbye for Now is a wholly original and yet somehow inevitable novel that charts the intersection of life, love, death and technology. If you could talk to your DOL (departed loved one) one more time, would you? How about ten times? Perhaps you could with a genius programmer, his beloved girlfriend (found with just the right programming algorithm in a dating service), and her unexpectedly and suddenly deceased grandmother at the center of this wondrous book.
At times funny and heartwarming, at times heart wrenching and through some mystical alchemy sometimes both at the same time, Goodbye for Now is a polished gem of prose really deserving a wide audience. Sometime in the future, maybe, just maybe, a long-departed great-great-grandpa will be giving fly fishing tips to generations he never lived to see because Laurie Frankel wrote this novel. For me this was one of those standing on my chair cheering reads that instantly made my must-read list for this year.

By LaurieFrankel  ©2012
Anchor Books   ISBN 978-0-307-95127-4

Disclaimer notice. Each of these books was purchased at full retail price before review and while the authors are known to me, if the work wasn't good, it wouldn't be on my blog.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Forget me not. Excuse me, who are you?

Every reader has a special author whose work they admire, cherish even. Someone that reaches into their soul, throwing open the doors and windows to allow the light and fresh air to fill up the dark spaces. For me, one of those authors is Jennie Shortridge. Her latest novel, Love Water Memory is about a journey. A trek of reawakening for Lucie Walker who doesn't know how she got knee deep in the cold, swirling waters of San Francisco Bay, where she is from, or who she might be. Or who anyone else might be, including a purported fiance' coming to get her from Seattle. Dissociative fugue; amnesia. Perhaps an emotional trauma. Perhaps she might get better-eventually. Perhaps she'll remember. A world suddenly full of blanks spaces and faces with whom she shares a past she can't recall. This book is a rich, haunting story examining the very essence of what it is to be when you don't know who you are. How do you find your way home when every path leads to a blank wall? This novel illuminates how we rediscover love in the heart when the mind has lost its way. Finely crafted, emotionally charged yet patient and redemptive, this is another gem. Thanks, Jennie, you are a joy to read. To read my review of her previous book When She Flew, click on the title.

Love Water Memory by Jennie Shortridge
Gallery Books
ISBN 978-1-4516-8483-4
ISBN 978-1-4516-8483-8 (ebook)

Friday, April 5, 2013

Searching for Headroom

" '...You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato. There's more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!'

A Christmas Carol
Charles Dickens 

When writing went from a pastime to a serious endeavor as a novelist, so too went the fantasies of writing the Great American Novel, becoming a NY Times #1 bestseller, earning millions and getting a seven figure deal for the movie rights. Yes, that was a letdown, to be sure, but in my heart I knew I was writing because I wanted to. I enjoyed the research, the work, the late hours letting my imagination conjure people, places and plots. I was having fun. Of late I haven't been having much fun.

The problem is writer's block, but not the kind you are led to imagine is the dark despair of a dearth of ideas. Most writers have more ideas than they will live long enough to commit to keyboard, monitor and hard drive (more modern than paper, you know).  No, the blockage is much more prosaic. It is ordinary life. The things we all have to do. Earn a living, take care of our obligations, spending time with family and friends. These all take time, energy and increasingly a piece of my soul. Which brings me to my Dickens quote.

The actual muse that drives each artist is as individual as a fingerprint, and it occurred to me last Christmas, as I watched George C. Scott deliver those famous words as Scrooge to Marley's ghost, that Dickens could have been describing the creative act. It doesn't take much to upset the applecart, so to speak. Sitting at a keyboard, of course, is the first task, and comes highly recommended from experienced writers, but in and of itself is pretty useless.

I also need a clear head. One that isn't jammed with the detritus of the day, demanding my time, disrupting my process. As they say, messin' with my head. I haven't been able to find that place recently and as a result I lose the momentum of the story. I used to dream in character dialogue and plot lines. Now I dream about elder care and medical procedures and mortgage payments and dinner menus. This is not helpful in finding the way back to the keyboard for something other than Facebook debates on politics or Tweets about where I might be having dinner, perhaps the source of that undigested bit of beef.

And that's really the thing here. Petty annoyances accumulate to create disruption and dyspepsia of my muse. It's really bothersome, too. My writing should be where I find my solace and diversion and when that element is missing it manifests as a cantankerous attitude (well, more pronounced than usual, at any rate), and a sort of irritability whose source can't quite be pinpointed and an amplitude that can't quite be quantified. 

Now this is the point where the reader would expect despair to win, and read an announcement that I was leaving my writing behind to devote more time to other things. You would be wrong. This is actually where I tell you that I draw inspiration from my friends and colleagues who know exactly what this place looks and feels like, yet manage to forge ahead in spite of the challenges. Friends like Jennie Shortridge, who just launched her latest book Love Water Memory, and Robert Dugoni who actually had to tell his law firm that he was a writer first (and a damn fine one), and a lawyer part-time. William Dietrich whose work ethic and finely honed skills as a writer set a standard to which I aspire, Kevin O'Brien who has carved a niche in the thriller genre to be envied and Garth Stein who actually got that brass ring. All these writers and many more whom I know and respect show me that the trick is not in being beset by daily life, but inspired by it.

Now comes the transition. The moment when I actually sit at the keyboard and create new worlds and characters. Now is when the beef, the mustard, the potato, cheese and the gravy come together to make a meal. And sometimes just musing on a blog will kick start the process. So to all my patient and long suffering readers, thanks for lending me a moment as my collective of silent shrinks. I'll try not to waste your time. 

Pardon me for the interruption, I need to get back to work. 

Friday, January 25, 2013

When I was God

 Writing fiction is black magic. As an author it’s an intoxicating power to live entirely in a realm of your own creation, populated by people, places, times and situations that exist or vanish at your whim from a position of omnipotence. Being a fiction writer is being God—at least in your own mind—until you aren’t.

When the real world intrudes, suddenly your God-like status becomes servant to the mundane. Taking out the garbage, doing the dishes, paying the bills, laundry, pets, kids, significant others, bosses, car repairs. A magnum share of mediocrity hammering down on our Demi-godness. Is it any wonder so many of us practicing this dark art are viewed as eccentric, vainglorious, irrational or just plain odd?

When writers hit a ‘zone’ where the words flow effortlessly like water over a falls, dialogue filling our heads faster than our fingers can fly across the keyboard, plot lines converging and resolving in a glorious headlong rush of excitement, it is exhilarating, exhausting and completely absorbing. It is euphoric, like perfect chocolate, or sex so good you forget where you are.

When it goes away; when the voices are thrummed silent by the real world and the plots become a shoebox of notes stuffed under a bed or in the bottom of a desk drawer it is dispiriting, depressing even. Our absence from creation weighs heavily. We drift in a purgatory that seems never ending, carrying us further from the wellspring of inspiration and depositing us where we least wish to be, desperately searching for a magical reset button so that we can begin anew. Writers tell tales of gladness or sadness, of demons and deities, of extraordinary circumstances populated by ordinary people or super beings vanquishing implacable foes. It is our therapy, our muse, our obsession and our most unrelenting taskmaster. In a word, for us it is life: Life as real to us as it is unreal to those around us not tormented by our curious obsession.

A vanishingly small number of fiction writers actually make a living at the craft. Fewer still ever reach that brass ring of riches. Billions, maybe trillions, maybe more, words flow out, some of them very good that never finds an audience. Yet in the end that isn’t what really matters for most of us scribbling away in obscurity. What matters is that for a while we live among the gods, and if we somehow manage to get published we achieve a tiny sliver of immortality wherein someone, an eon after we are dust, might stumble across a timeworn volume of our work in an obscure old curiosity shop and begin to read our words. If we were good, they will find themselves inhabiting a world of our creation, a world where we were gods.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Do your characters grieve?

It occurred to me as I watch the presidential election cycle play out in social and broadcast media that the Republican Party is collectively going through the five (or seven, depending upon whom you reference) cycles of grief. Briefly those are, in order of appearance, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

That observation, in turn led me to wonder if fiction writers are portraying grief (at least with major characters) in their work. It is an open question and would love to hear what fellow ink-stained toilers think. Feel free to leave comments below.

Using the GOP as a model, what can we learn as writers. If you have been watching, it was apparent on election night that the cognoscenti of the right were beyond astonishment that their candidate was losing, and watching Karl Rove desperately deny the math on Fox News was a supreme example of denial.

What has followed has been the backlash of anger among people who dumped so much cash into Super PACs, media types that make a living stirring up their bases, and rank and file flaming on social media. Politicians are already in the bargaining stage where they will likely learn a 'my way or the highway' approach will no longer will have much currency in Washington. Depression will follow along with acceptance. But political parties tend to react more slowly than  individuals so another display of cultural disconnect may come their way in a couple of years.

But how do we translate grief into our fiction? Whether we wish to portray a societal shift such as the one currently occurring or a personal one happening to a character? I would posit that a clear understanding of these stages is paramount and should be represented as action or dialogue rather than exposition. Take the following as an example:

'Dr. Melman saw the disbelief in Audrey's eyes when he explained the diagnosis of breast cancer and, at age thirty-one, she would lose both her breasts and suffer extensive bouts of chemotherapy. What he hadn't yet told her was that it was probably a losing battle.'

It contains all the information, but none of emotion, the shock, that such a revelation should have at its core. Let's look at another stab at the same scenario:

"I'm afraid I have some bad news, Audrey. It's definitely breast cancer and it is a pretty aggressive type. I'm sorry."
"Are your certain, Dr. Melman?" She had reflexively put her hands to her breasts and then touched her silky blonde hair. Her soft blue eyes had widened, with tears threatening to spill down her cheeks. "This can't be happening to me, I don't have any family history of cancer." She gulped air reflexively then set her jaw, "There must be some mistake. I can't have cancer."
"I'm sorry, Audrey. There's no mistake. I checked the biopsy report myself." The doctor had seen this reaction countless times before and it still tugged at his heart each time he delivered the news. "On the bright side, you're young and otherwise healthy, so you should tolerate the surgery and chemotherapy pretty well."
"Surgery?" The shock was complete now. "Chemotherapy?" She wiped ineffectually at the tears that now ran freely down her face.
"Yes, and I would suggest a double radical mastectomy as soon as possible. We can't begin chemo until you heal from the surgery." Melman handed her a box of tissues. "I would suggest you have a conversation with your family."
"There's only Joe." The silence hung heavy in the air of the overly warm, claustrophobic exam room. "He's my boyfriend."
"Well, he needs to know and you'll need his help."
"I suppose. Can I ask you one more thing, Doctor?"
"What are my chances?"
Melman appraised his patient; young, beautiful, single trying to gauge his response so it left some hope he didn't really believe was there.
"About fifty percent over five years."
"And if I choose no treatment?"
"Six months, maximum."
"What do you really think?"
Now it was Dr. Melman's turn to gulp down some air. He fought to maintain his professional composure and force the lump back down his throat.
"If it were me, I would enjoy the next few months and call it quits." In his professional career he had never given such advice, but right here, right now, it seemed the only fair thing to do.
Audrey sat up straight, hooked her bra and began buttoning her blouse. The tears had stop flowing now and she stood up, collecting her purse and offered her hand which Melman grasped with both of his.
"Thank you, Dr. Melman. I suppose we probably won't see each other again. I'm planning a vacation to Tuscany."

Okay I just crammed all the stages in a few lines done on the fly without any serious editing and admittedly a serious treatment would be considerably longer than cranking out one paragraph of exposition, but I think it is still a useful exercise. Part of the human condition is grief, and giving an authentic voice to your characters will enrich your fiction and draw your readers deeper into your stories. Try it the next time tragedy is about to befall someone in your work and I think you will be pleased with the result.