Wednesday, December 30, 2020

When People We Admire Grow Clay Hooves

In addition to being a world-class novelist (insert snort here), I have a whole secret life as a huge Harry Potter fan. Of course, it started with the children, reading them chapters every night before they went to bed, and then it segued into meeting some very lovely women who were also enthralled by this universe and have become my dearest friends. We are spread across the country but have bonds that have now extended beyond Harry and his pals. Anyway, there have always been issues with the Potter 'Verse, but as so often with people you admire, you tend to ignore that stuff and focus on what enthralled you. To be clear, I didn't love her writing. I'm not going to go into why I wasn't thrilled by it, because it doesn't really matter aside from my usual cry of: Where's the frigging editor! I'm digressing. What I loved was that I had found a fun world that I could play in--something that people who scorn fandom really do not get at all, which is that ability to still be able to play even though your hair is going gray. Most importantly, I found my tribe, ma soeurs, that I have yet to find in my suburb, even though I've lived here over twenty-five years.

As the Potter 'Verse began to wind up, it became harder and harder to ignore all those, shall we say, issues that were sort of hidden by the fantastic world building. The latest revelation--boy, I bet she regrets being on social media--is the final straw for me. Your mileage may differ. I got some wonderful friendships out of my experience with her world so I'm not left with any regrets. But now that the floods have come and she has no choice but to hike up her writing pants and reveal her clay hooves, I can sigh and mourn a world that I used to love, but one I can now walk away from without a backward glance.

This article spells out the trajectory of her fall from my grace. This is behind a pay wall, but I think you get to read three articles/month free:

Saturday, September 19, 2020

A Comment on Privilege

So, I live in an upper middle-class suburb of California. In the 1930s, my town used to be fairly rural, dotted with small ranches and orchards. In the 1950s, developers bought up a lot of the ranch land, clear-cut the orchards, and made a killing building crappy little ranchettes with no architectural features whatsoever. But they were cheap and a haven for white flight. When we first moved here, most of my neighbors were in the trades, plumbers, painters., etc. My house is only 1500 square feet and that is AFTER the previous owner added a bedroom and an additional bathroom. And then the money came and more ranch land was sold and the mcmansions took over. Much of the population of this town is white--probably at least 90% because you have to have money to live here. We bought our ranchette before housing prices went crazy.  Even though I live in a tiny house, it's worth over $1,000,000. Welcome to California.

So, this morning's experience.

I'm not going to call this white privilege because if your local population is white then your argument falls apart. But this is about how privilege manifests itself in my tiny suburban enclave.

There is a trail in my town that is very popular. My husband and I try to walk as much as possible, for both our health and that of our Golden (of course we own a Golden). This path is paved and not much wider than a car. You nearly trip over all the signs recently put up regarding the mandate to wear masks if there is not six feet between you and others. Honestly? The path is narrow enough that you should be wearing a mask period because passing other people puts you in a ditch if you're trying to maintain any sort of distance between you and others passing you.

This beautiful fall morning, we walked this trail for the first time in over a month because of the smoke restrictions. Three women, probably in their early to mid-50s, passed us, gossiping among themselves. They had their masks pushed down around their necklines. They didn't bother to hike up their masks when they passed us, and after they passed us they walked three abreast, hogging the entire width of the trail so that anyone they encountered in the passing direction would have had to immediately scurry off into a ditch to eke out any distance between them and this group of women. I didn't mention that this path is rather curvy. So in addition to possibly infecting me and my husband, they were in danger of infecting anyone who came around the corner as they HOGGED THE ENTIRE TRAIL. THIS is privilege. Selfish, disgusting privilege.

When people show you who they are, believe them.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

The Inner and Outer Book

I'm involved in a couple of critique groups, composed of writers whose work I admire and with whom I've been working with for years. We are writing completely disparate books from each other, which I think is good. Sometimes you can become so immersed in a genre that you assume things you shouldn't. And the one thing I always say when I've read something that doesn't feel complete to me or isn't compelling me to inhale the next paragraph is, "More, I want more."

What I mean by that is the play between the inner and outer book. The outer book is, nominally, the plot, the setting, the cast of characters, the general, all-purpose construct of a book. What I mean about the "inner" book is that emotion, plot, drama, sorrow, joy, history, and all around emotional temperature of a book between the dialogue, world-building, and plot points. IMO, books that rely on too much world-building satisfy a certain cadre of readers, but for those of us who are character-driven readers, it starts to fall flat when we are bombarded with visuals and not a whole lot else. Same with plot-driven narratives, where the characters start to become paper dolls to be moved around a series of events.

For me, the most satisfying read is one that uses plot to flesh out character and character to flesh out the plot. It's a marriage of sorts, and with most books this works nicely. But a richer book, a book that you keep and not recycle is a book with an "inner" life.

There are as many different ways to "deepen" a narrative than there are blades of grass. Frankly, it's the difference between a standard romance novel and Jane Austen. Both consider women getting married. And that is about the only comparison you can make between a beach read and one of the greatest word smiths of literature ever born. Or to be more personal about this, the difference between one of my mysteries and, say, Raymond Chandler. Yes, I do consider Chandler to be literature.

None of us are Jane Austen or Raymond Chandler. So where to we go from here? We try to be them, that's what we do. That's when you strive to create an inner life to your book. What distinguishes you from any other writer is how you manage the inner book. This where the "you" in writer comes in. I have heard it said there are no new plots in this world, and I believe that is true. Shakespeare apparently hogged them all to himself. But to say that there are no new writers is complete nonsense.

Let's delve into this with a little example.

Mary said, "Bob, I've got to tell the police what happened."

Bob replied, "If you do that, the serial killer will carve you open with a knife cutter and hang your innards from a meat hook like he did everyone else. Don't say anything, Mary. I'm so worried about you."

Her brother. Such a kind man. He'd been her protector for years, shielding her from her mother's criticism as best he could, acting like an older brother even though he was  four years younger. 

She clamped her legs together tightly to make sure that Bob didn't see the steak knife hidden in her lap.

When he stood up, she wasn't sure what he was going to do, Would he keep trying to convince her? Did he know she knew? She waited.

Wow, there is plenty of drama in this little snippet, possibly enough to stand on its own. But what if we add some "inner-ness" to this scene. And you could certainly say that the above is nothing more than a first draft. Fair enough, but isn't that the point of a second, third, and possibly fourth draft. You have the bones, now search for that "inner" searchlight that illuminates everything around it and beyond. You're looking for words that hint at another story lurking around the first story.


Mary said, "Bob, I've got to tell the police what happened."

She'd been so afraid all her life that this bold statement shocked her a little. Like it wasn't actually coming from her mouth, but from someone braver, from a confident woman who'd own any room she'd walked into without any effort. Someone who'd never had any problem meeting people's gazes or confronting bullies; someone who wasn't deathly afraid of spiders, heights, dentists, flying, bees, and thunder (but not the lightning, odd that). But this was bigger than she was, and maybe that was the point. She stuck out her chin in a defiant gesture willing Bob to contradict her.

Which he did. As she knew he would.

First, he smiled. It wasn't condescending, comforting more than anything else, and he put a warm hand on her shoulder, as if to add to a physical gesture to the smile meant to comfort. He'd been her protector for years, shielding her from the worst of her mother's criticism as best he could, acting like an older brother even though he was four years younger. He'd spent their entire lives trying to protect her, her ever-willing spider killer, holding her hand when they flew on planes, waiting for her at the dentist so that he could drive her home because he knew she'd be too emotionally shattered by the drilling to drive herself home safely. He didn't even kill the spiders she asked him to get rid of. He'd search for a glass and a notepad to slide under the glass and then free the frantic spider outside somewhere, even watching it scurry away to make sure that it was still alive. Such a kind man.

Bob replied, "If you do that, the serial killer will carve you open with a knife cutter and hang your innards from a meat hook like he did everyone else. Don't say anything, Mary. I'm so worried about you."

She winced at that visual reminder of all those other women who'd been tortured and terrified for hours and days on end. True victims.The cool of the metal against her thighs was so foreign to the usual softness of her skin. Still, she clamped her legs together tightly to make sure that Bob didn't see the steak knife hidden in her lap, the folds of her skirt bunched around the blade.

When he stood up, she wasn't sure what he was going to do, Would he keep trying to convince her to stay silent? Did he know she knew? She waited and moved her hand closer to the knife handle.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Memorial Day and Lemon Meringue Pie

Today, I honor my stepfather, Ken Horne, who was a radio operator in the RAF and was captured on Java in 1940. He spent five years in a Japanese prison camp and survived. He was a decent man, who stepped in and provided me and my sister with the father that we didn’t have. He was there for our triumphs and our failures, which is more than I can say for my “real” father.

And lemon meringue pie. This is one of those desserts that I alway associate with my mother, that and angel food cake. I can never make angel food cake without feeling guilty about wasting all those yolks. Of course you can freeze them, but I tried that and I always end up NOT using the frozen yolks and then discover them in the freezer six months later, all shriveled and sad from freezer burn.

My mother was of the “looks like shit” but “tastes like heaven” sort of baker. My little pastry chef heart could not bear to watch her slice into a pie or a cake without wincing because she’d shove the knife in and cut large pieces, which were all different sizes. But they all tasted great. So I’m thinking today of Ken and my mother, and hope they are together on that beach in heaven, reading good books and drinking their treasured tais.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

April in Qurantine

I am a homebody. This enforced quarantine isn't making me itch with boredom. My neighbor across the street is going berserko-frantic dealing with this isolation. To tell the truth, this appeals to the latent or not-so-latent sloth in me, plus I'm working from home and dealing with enormous projects that have identical deadlines. Boredom would be a blessing.

But what has happened is that I'm suddenly aware of how much stuff I have. Every single room in my house has a bookcase (or five) with the exception of the bathrooms. I'm a book lover as my friends well know, and although I purge now and then, I apparently don't purge enough because books are shoved into odd corners with a randomness that suggests a scattered mind or a woman who has run out of space in her bookshelves.

Also, lots of clothes. Yes, I purge my clothes closets with more diligence than my bookcases, but there is at least thirty years of fashion ephemera, and some dresses, blouses, etc., that I can't bear to get rid of because I still love them. A blouse that I picked up in the U.K. when I was twenty. A ton of sweaters knit by my mother that I will never wear because even at the present weight of, shall we say, too much, she assumed I have the dimensions of a polar bear and these sweaters hang off me, even now.

The point is (I always get there) thus: this reevaluation of my stuff isn't to embrace Marie Kondo, but to just stop buying things. I have enough for one lifetime going forward. More than enough. I'm not at the point of cutting up my credit cards, but I'm getting there. Shoes seem to be something I will always need as my feet keep on growing. Weird. I used to wear a respectable size 8 shoe. Had the kids and my feet grew an entire size. Got rid of a bunch of Italian-made shoes that I adored (and could afford at the time, sigh). Now I'm at least a 9-1/2 and a 10 in some brands. WTF!

When God closes a door, he opens a window. The payoff is that my boobs seem to be growing as well. Having been a woman with an, ahem, what I would call a modest-size rack for my entire life, I am now, well, much bigger. Enter another WTF! Will my breasts follow suit? When I go to that great beyond at some point, will I enter heaven with size 20 feet and 38F tits?

The musings on a gloomy Saturday.

Saturday, February 29, 2020

Ode to Walter Satterthwait

Another good writer has received his angel wings: Walter Satterthwait. He was one of those writers who, IMO, never really got his due. His book, Lizzie, is one of the best character studies ever written. Brilliant book. It goes in and out of print as the market dictates, but if you can find a copy ( is your friend if you can't find it other places), I highly recommend it. Those who love historical mysteries will appreciate his writing. He was a master at capturing a historical period and has written several mysteries with historical characters as protagonists: Houdini and Oscar Wilde come to mind.

I met him at Bouchercon when I was a new writer. My first book had been accepted but wasn't published yet, and I was trying to establish some sort of presence before publication. I was nervous and a little awed, sitting in some outdoor cafe trying not to sound too desperate. Those of you who attended that particular Bouchercon (I had a Sharp's container in my hotel room, and I don't think it's because there was a diabetes convention in town. WHAT a shit show!) will remember that there was no place really to sit and have a drink. The hotel wanted you at the tables. But mystery writers will ALWAYS find a bar or make something into a bar.

Anyway, I was sitting next to Lee Child (here's a gigantic shout out to Lee--what a nice guy, didn't know me from Adam--and bought me several rounds of drinks while we trashed George Bush; what innocent days those were) and Walter Satterthwait and his partner (who I want to say is named Caroline). I had just read Lizzie and was awed by the writing, just bowled over. I gushed to him over what a marvelous read that book was and did he have anything else coming out? He told me that he did, but he was back to tending bar in the mean time to make ends meet. That was roughly twenty years ago, and the publishing market was robust enough that a no-name like me could get a publishing contract. Of course, I was working full-time, but I wasn't an established writer. The publishing climate is a million times worse now, and I see that Satterthwait's last book was published by Mysterious Press, another mystery publisher who's gone under.

But my point is not to whine, but to honor someone I think was a great writer, whose way with words lives on in his books. Isn't that part of the lure of writing? You never really die. Your voice always has a place on the page.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

February is here

I know that we Californians live in a strange land. Many of you are shoveling snow and packing in the supplies for the big freeze that's about to hit. I am watching my magnolia tree begin to blossom, and literally hearing the roses growing. I drove up to my sister's house in Sacramento this weekend for some bonding time and the drive up was a visual extravaganza. The cherry trees were in full flower and the almost trees were beginning to strut their stuff. Although housing has been the driving financial engine up there for many years, I am now seeing vineyard after vineyard hugging both sides of Highway 80. I surmise from this that it's much more profitable to grow grapes or almond trees that it is to build housing. The economic smash hit Sacramento very hard,  there were parts of Sacramento where a huge percentage of the housing stock was underwater. It's obviously much more profitable to grow grapes or almond trees than it is to build housing.

I am working like a fiend on my new Y.A. novel. It's very much coming together, the narrative no longer filled with those annoying holes that you know you have to solve before you can create a satisfying ending. I always have a beginning, a middle, and an end that is set in stone. This helps me not wander too far off from what I'm trying to say. The middle can be squishy, moving earlier or later, and the beginning? Sigh. I always write that at least ten times. I don't change that much, but I am constantly fishing for that beginning that will keep the reader reading. And I never change the ending. Never. Because that is the heart of what I want to say.