Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Brighton: convention, town, dream

There was so much to do and see in Brighton, England, this past weekend. There were the usual temptations of a popular seaside city--restaurants, pubs, museums, dance clubs. There was the allure of the tiny streets, crammed with charming shops and an ambiance of antiquity. And there was the World Horror Convention, packed with programming and respected members of the dark literary world. Just walking close to the convention hotel made me float on a cloud of geekery.

With so much to choose from, I stretched myself pretty thin. I made it to the Brighton Art Museum and the Royal Pavilion, walked on the beach, and enjoyed a silly ghost walk through the littlest and oldest of streets. I made it to a few readings. I sat through some amazing panels. I did a reading. I danced with some really nice people. I bought books. I drank lots and lots of free booze. It was a pretty normal kind of convention.

But at the same time, there was nothing normal about it. I have never been anywhere that was so resoundingly, astonishingly home-feeling as Brighton. I can't help but feel like this quirky town and I are tuned to the same frequency, a pitch both friendly and dark, creepy and cheery, sweet and spooky. Between feeling so magically at home and fining a crew of truly amazing friends, I had one of the most outstanding weekends of my life.

Every day I missed my family and my regular writing routine--but I am so happy I went. And as silly as it sounds, when I took my farewell look at the Brighton shore, I cried to leave it.

Friday, March 26, 2010


Just a super-quick note from an Internet Cafe. I can't believe what a great convention the folks have put together for us! From bags of free books to special WHC candies, a lot of care has obviously been lavished on the production of this amazing get-together. And the town of Brighton is unbelievable! It's like a cosmopolitan Astoria, or a small San Francisco.

I am feeling very inspired after a fun ghost walking tour of town and listening to Ramsey Campbell share stories about his haunted house. Maybe I'll have some ghost stories to write when I get home!

Okay, time for some dinner. Tomorrow afternoon is my big reading!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Ladybugs who surf

Yesterday we visited Ecola State Park, and it was as magical a trip to the coast as any I've ever taken. The road down to the beach showed moss between the tire ruts, and the green-cloaked spruce dripped the last exhalations of the morning's rainshowers. The sky showed that wonderful chiaroscuro Prussian blue that fills my heart with content.

Oddly enough, after a lovely half hour walk along the water and some good stone skipping, we discovered a swarm of ladybugs along the line of waves. Many were dead already, their little bodies flattened by the pounding surf, but as we looked more closely, we noticed that several were still crawling desperately for dry land. We immediately set about helping them.

It's not easy to scoop a ladybug out of wet sand. Tools help. A flat bit of driftwood or a chunk of clam shell works best. You can get several sand-&-bug clumps that way, saving a whole group of little beetles. If you pick them up with your gloved hand, you'd be amazed how firmly they can grip on to the fabric. A ladybug could get hurt being brushed off when it's really clinging tightly.

You'd be amazed, too, how much of a beating those little creatures can take. We spent about half an hour scooping up ladybugs, watching wave after wave fall down on their little heads. Big waves, small waves, waves loaded with clinging foam--the ladybugs just took the beating and then kept pushing their way on to safety. My heart swelled to watch them struggle against odds so unimaginably steep.

I don't know why the ladybugs went down to the water yesterday. I don't know if we really helped them by moving them up above the tideline, and if we did help them, I don't know how many we really rescued. At least fifty, I think.

But I do know that watching a barely motile creature sit in the sunshine, stretch her wings and begin crawling about made me happy. And I do know that of all the people (there weren't a ton of people, but a good twenty or so) on that beach, we were the only ones who noticed the mysterious ladybird beetles. I feel as if the hand of mystery reached out to us and we shook like old friends.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Hystrionics of history!

I really can't remember a time when I didn't yearn to go to England. I know that by the time my sister went to study abroad in Wales and London--I was ten--I was already desperate to visit the historical isle. Unfortunately, I didn't fit inside her carry-on. But now I finally get to go. And I'm totally overwhelmed.

I almost lack words to explain how excited I am. 95% of it blossoms from my inner history geek. Honestly, thank heavens the convention is in Brighton and not Hastings. I would probably go into a history-induced coma and miss the whole thing. I've lived my whole life in Oregon. History started in the mid-1800s out here. (Yes, the Native Americans of our region have a rich and fascinating history, but unfortunately, my predecessors went out of their way to destroy the evidence.) Can you imagine standing on the site of a historical incidence from almost 1000 years ago? For me, it's mind-boggling.

Needless to say, I'm a little wound up about this trip. On top of my natural nervousness about leaving my family--and I've never spent more than one night away from The Midget, so it's a pretty serious nervousness--I have to worry that I'll bump into some historical plaque and become so overwrought with the vapors of the past that I pass out.

People reading this are probably smugly certain that I'm exaggerating. I'm not. You're reading the rantings of a woman who looked at a fossil of archaeopteryx and began bawling hysterically. A woman who became so shaky and weepy at the Art Institute of Chicago that she had to go back to the hotel and take a bath. A woman who raved for two days after entering the rare book room at the library.


A really, really excited dork.


Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Inside every great writer is a vicious sado-masochist

It has not been easy focusing on my novel the last few days--making travelling plans, getting sick, and discombobulating my hand have all sort of distracted me. But at least I have some stories in the pipeline that need editing. Sometimes, the word-weaving part of my brain gets bogged down by the minutiae of life; the analytical part is always ready to lock'n'load.

I think this has something to do with my training in science and philosophy. There is nothing like pounding through Kant at 3 in the morning to get your brain worked into shape. It's like a reflex action--make sense or ship out, soldier! Actually, when I think about it, I'm not sure why they don't just change the course title from "Critical Thinking and Introduction to Logic" to the much more honest "Brain Boot Camp." They'd probably get a lot more recruits ... er, majors.

Sometimes it's dangerous to have a brain ready to leap to attention, fully prepared to dig a foxhole and rake your ideas across the muddy trenches. It's a sure way to slow down production on a first draft of anything. But I like to spew out first drafts and let them lurk on my hard drive for a while. Have a bad day at work? Bam! I just take out my frustrations on some unworthy adverbs. Feel a little brain dead? I'll feel like a genius after I've chewed out the stupid idiot who changed her main character's name from "Aline" to "Alina" halfway through a story. (Yeah, that happened last week. Doh.)

I do get a little concerned with my mental health when I find myself enjoying the sheer nastiness of my internal editor (I'm also worried by just how much pleasure I take in tormenting my characters). I'm not sure if it's healthy to exult in the shredding and berating of the word-producing segment of my brain--or if that part of my psyche should be so happy to see its work carved up and beaten. But when I get done with a good editing session, I just feel upbeat and energetic, like I've had a good workout. It's usually the right thing to get me back on track and ready to produce some new words.

They'll be sloppy words, of course. Overweight and ready for a trip to the Editing Bitch--and that kind of puts a smile on my face.

[If you enjoyed the over-stretched metaphors in this blog entry, thank you. You're a kindred spirit. If you did not, well, you probably have good taste--and I should invite you to be one of my critical readers. ;) ]

Monday, March 15, 2010

Prolific Blogger award + housekeeping

Sunday the terrific Helen Ginger gave me the Prolific Blogger Award, which was an awesome and exciting thing to receive! For one, I've been posting to this blog for almost 6 years now, and only recently gotten a regular blogging schedule under my belt--becoming a "prolific blogger" has been a real goal for me in last year or so. I feel like I'm really working toward my goal now! Part of the award is passing it on to other special bloggers who are doing their part to fill up the blogging sphere. Here are some people who inspire me or whom I'd like to encourage:
  • Miriam, from Dancing With Dragons is Hard on Your Shoes. Miriam and Helen have both been incredibly inspiring bloggers. They are very busy with their writing careers, but have made blogging a priority. Miriam's discussion of her own blogging schedule motivated me to create a blogging schedule for myself! Also, Miriam is super-funny and adorable.
  • Erin, from Snarke. This is the woman who taught me to blog! Erin's been blogging since blogs were invented, and her regularity is astonishing. And she's really, really funny.
  • Kristina, from Ten Minute Missive. Kristina has recently been making a real effort to blog on a more regular basis--and thank goodness! This lady makes parenting hysterical! Not only is she a great blogger, but she's also a stand-up comic, owner of 8 pets and mother of 3. Oh, and my sister, which just goes to show that we have dorkdom in our genes.
  • Sandra, from Sandra Wickham's Blog. Sandra's just created a regular blogging routine, and I'd really like to get the word out about her site. It's fun; it's funny, and it will motivate you to put down the pie and run off to the gym.
  • Wendy, from Where Ladybugs Roar. Wendy is extra-special, and not just because she is another writing Wendy and Washingtonian (my dark secret: I was born in eastern Washington. Don't tell the rest of Portland, 'k?). Wendy is a posting machine--you should see her smoke Twitter--while managing work and two amazing kids. I stand in awe of this woman.
So click over and spend some time with these fantastic women of blogging!

Another great thing about getting this award is that reminded me that I hadn't updated the quote of the month or fixed the random layout error that gave me the unintentional pseudonym "Wendy Stumptown." And while I love my city, I don't plan on marrying it. ;)

That's about it on updates. I don't have much new to share, except that I've been introduced to book's editor, and that in one week and one day, I will be on my way to Brighton, England for the World Horror Convention!!! I'll be reading my story from Severed Press's 2012 AD anthology and attending a workshop with Jo Fletcher. It should be terrific!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Ordeal by Bra

Ordinarily, Saturday would be a day devoted to food talk, but today I have something much more pressing on my mind: bras. Or more precisely, trying on bras.

First, I have to confess that if I had my druthers, I would just go to Nordstrom and get professional assistance, because when it comes to brassieres, you are really much better off with an expert at the helm. There are many, many issues that affect the way a bra fits, and unless you have a lot of time on your hands (and possibly a degree in engineering), you're going to get frustrated.

But the last time I went to Nordies, I spent a lot of money, and while those were very worthwhile purchases, I am currently gripping every dollar bill quite tightly (this trip to England is going to be really expensive!). So it was Target and a lot of time in the fitting room this time around.

When I was younger, buying a bra was easy. I had the same criteria for foundation garments as I did a mate: stable and really good-looking. I would pick out something that looked cute, jump around the fitting room, and if everything had stayed inside, buy the darn thing. But now my boobs have quirks and special needs--like me, they come with baggage (and by baggage, I mean a kid who nursed for two years. Cause I'm a recovering hippie.).

For one thing, the boob parts of my boob (the soft, jiggly parts) hang down to about my navel, leaving the normal breast all skeletal and ribby. And for another, they can no longer be squished together in that sexy romance-novel-cover cleavage-y manner. There is no cleavage. There is a canyon. And attempts to push together the two sides of the canyon does not create attractive cleavage--age has given these melons willpower that simply sends them shooting out over the tops of the restraining material.

I do not look my best with boobs coming out my armpits.

Needless to say, when I shop for a bra, my first order of business is to search for something with a diesel engine and a crane attachment. I haven't found anything yet, but with all the options (padding! push-ups! gel inserts! wires! microfiber!), I feel it's just a matter of time before Caterpillar designs something for me. If anybody can work a forklift into shapewear, it's them.

Lord knows they've got Playtex beat. I worry that company has a new CEO: the Marquis de Sade. I'm a big believer in underwires, but these bras used their metal parts to break new ground in pain. Instead of "lifts and molds," the tag should have read "crushes and mangles." Said garment did, however, take the armpit boob to new heights--I could barely lower my arms to get the darn thing off.

On the plus side, all the twisting, dancing and shaking to get 15 models of brassiere on and off gave me a good workout. After spending forty minutes in a fitting room, looking at my shirtless body, I know I need one.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Headless Cupid

Yesterday I was a bit naughty and took a break from all my should-read materials. I started The Headless Cupid by Zilpha Keatley Snyder, whose Green Sky trilogy is one of my all-time favorites. And you know what? It was a terrific read! In fact, it might rival Below the Root as my favorite Zilpha work.

The Headless Cupid is about David Stanley and his younger siblings, whose father just recently remarried, and whose stepmother has a twelve-year-old daughter fascinated by the supernatural. David, Janie, Blair and Esther are all younger than Amanda, the new stepsister, and very interested in her occult pastimes. But as mysterious ghostly happenings begin to upset the family's routine, David begins to suspect there's more to his new stepsister's magical powers than she'd like them to believe.

The story is a great book about families and has wonderful fantasy elements. Definitely recommend!

Monday, March 08, 2010

Setting: not just the pretty flowers, but the sneeze

One of the reasons I've gotten so bogged down in my WIP is that there is a major change of setting. For some weird reason, that setting change threw me for a loop.

Why? I couldn't wrap my head around this strange experience. I'm the kind of writer who loves writing about bizarre universes and made-up realms, and here my characters finally leave the regular world, ready to explore a new magical environment, and my creative energy blows out? This is not my kind of problem. I should be relishing the moment when all hell is about to break loose, not yearning to send my heroine back to the comfort of her kitchen.

But upon reflection, it all makes sense. After all, setting isn't just the icing on the cake--it's not just the pretty flowers around the edges of the action. It's also the main character's allergic response to all those gorgeous daisies. Setting is what sub-stands (holds up) and sustains the action. It affects the logical relationships within scenes, limiting what actions make sense. It also colors more than what happens in the story, shaping the characters' emotional responses to the action and giving those responses extra resonance.

In this weird new world, my heroine isn't going to function at her normal level; I have to dig down into her character and try to figure out how she'll respond to new challenges and strange experiences. Not only do I have to envision the new environment, but because the story is from her point of view, I need to describe it in a way that helps my reader experience the new world the way my heroine experiences it. The descriptions also need to provoke a tension within my reader, tossing out little whispered hints about what might happen in the storyline and underlining the thematic elements of the piece.

On top of all that, my characters experience a new power dynamic in this place. This is going to affect the way they respond to their environment, too. So I need to re-evaluate the direction their relationship is moving and try to evoke that through word painting. Some of this is going to be 2nd draft stuff, but with any luck I will capture a little of it the first time through.

Really, the heroine's kitchen is looking better and better!

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Do they make mental ear plugs?

I am and am not excited about the new developments in my writing career. I have a reading coming up a few days. I just signed a book contract! I have the crippling desire to take my laptop and hide under my bed.

The terrible thing about writing is that the better you do, the more you want to do it and the more you have to do. There just become more and more opportunities and more and more fun. I'm getting pretty heavily involved in an online writing group, whose fine work is encouraging me to do my best and put my best words out there. They're lighting the fire under my butt to reach high and work hard. That's good. And fun! And I'm going to conventions and really getting to know other writers and workers in my field, which is good and fun and inspiring. I love it!

But once upon a time, it was just me and my computer and that wonderful feeling of writing a first draft: pure words and the romance of creation. For me, that moment is the ultimate high, the most enjoyable part of my day. Eating donuts or drinking good wine or falling in love are similar but not equivalent sensations. And unfortunately, all the other business can take away from that.

You can't become a great writer just sitting there blissing out. You have to pull away, have to put on your analytical hat. You have to look around and study new techniques; if you lock yourself away, you will become stale and pointless. (Eyes Wide Shut, anyone? Sure it was pretty, but Kubrick's sexy idea felt outdated by a good 20 years.) You have to marry the two worlds, the inner and outer, to make a beautiful life of promising work.

Balancing the two isn't easy. Right now, I'm on the too-worldly side of affairs, wishing I could slip away into a secret world where I could just hammer out word after word. And I can't, because the business-side of my brain is yammering too loudly for me to hear a single syllable.

The only thing to do is read and try to relax and hope that tomorrow will be a better day to type and type and type.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Magic of "33" Vegan Chili

Well, this chili didn't win any prizes for me at the 2nd Annual Abernethy Chili Cook-off, but it did score its fair share of compliments. This is a medium-spicy chili, perfect for loading with sour cream and piling on fries. Good thing it's not too bad for you!

Magic of "33" Vegan Chili

2 medium onions, diced
2 green bell peppers, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp olive oil
1 package Soyrizo

1 lb pinto beans, soaked and cooked until tender
1/2 lb kidney beans, soaked and cooked until tender
2 cans diced tomatoes with fire-roasted green chilies (I used Muir Glen)
1 bottle Rolling Rock beer
1 Tb cumin
1 Tb chili powder, New Mexico-style
1/2 tsp oregano
2-4 garlic cloves run through garlic press
salt to taste

In a skillet, heat oil over medium heat and add onions and peppers; stir occasionally and cook until onions are translucent. Stir in minced garlic. Stir in Soyrizo and heat through.

In large pot, add vegetables and Soyrizo to cooked beans. Add tomatoes and beer; bring to a boil. Turn down heat and allow to simmer about ten minutes; then add cumin, chili powder and oregano. Simmer another hour or longer. The flavor will continue to develop as chili simmers. About half an hour before serving, add pressed garlic and salt. Serve piping warm.

This chili will become more flavorful as it ages, so plan on leftovers!

Friday, March 05, 2010

The beginning

This is my first post as an author with a book in the works. As in, had a book accepted by a publisher.

It's a short book. It's a small publisher.

I'm a little on the short side myself.

Kind of nervous now.

Ok. Bye.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Lessons from free fiction

I'm not writing this post to impugn any publications that aren't paying pro-rates. I know that they are being published out of love, and the writers writing for them love their work, love writing, and are sometimes submitting fantastic stories. Amazing work. And I also know that just because a market pays more doesn't mean it's higher quality.

But I also know that there comes a point in someone's writing career when they can create a story that some editor is willing to buy for 5 cents a word, and after that point, those writers aren't settling for free anymore. That's because they've worked long and hard and feel a certain kind of entitlement. Or maybe empowerment, depending on if they're your friends or not.

Anyway, the point is that I've been reading a lot of writing from folks who are not a member of the 5-cents-a-word crowd (heck, I'm not a member of that crowd yet!), and I'm starting to get a feel for what doesn't work in their stories. It's hard to explain, because I'm just getting the idea, but at the request of a pal, I'm blogging about the few problem areas I can definitely describe. Here in a handy list, some frequent problems in free or reduced price fiction:

Failure to create and sustain tension/conflict throughout the piece. I just reviewed a story where a couple goes to stay at a haunted cottage and are eventually killed, and they spend the first 500-1000 words being romantic and jolly and joyous. Then they get a little nervous by the appearance of a shadowy figure on the beach. Dude, it's a horror story. If I don't have a bad feeling by the end of the first paragraph, I'm not interested. At least have the characters wonder how on earth they got such a terrific last-minute deal on a beach cottage!

Pacing issues. Once again, the beach cottage story--about 1000 words before any unpleasantness, and the wife doesn't get it until the next to last paragraph. And the dude is dead just a few sentences later. Beginnings are almost always too long in free fiction. Middles limp along, and then the end snowballs onto us before we've had a chance to cheer on the evil ghosts!

Failure to show what is at stake or failure to raise the stakes. We can't get invested in the characters if they're just going to prance around, having fun and then going home from vacation. Something must be seriously threatened by the story--maybe it's their lives, maybe it's their relationships, maybe it's their dreams, but whatever it is, they need to be ready to fight for it or lose it.

Failure to create expectations or failure to live up to the expectations created. You've heard the old saw that if you show a gun in the first scene, you better use it by the end of the movie. That's an example of the failure to live up to the expectations you created. But if you don't set people up to look for anything--if you don't show an abandoned makeup bag in the bathroom, raising questions about why the previous renters left in such a hurry--it's impossible to work up a sense of excitement.

Elements that do not relate to the EMOTIONAL CORE of the story. Everything that you reveal within the framework of the story needs to relate to the emotional core of the work. EVERYTHING. Think about the movie "Signs." They really milked the strange relationship between the doubting pastor and the failed baseball player brother, didn't they? They went into a lot of detail about that failed baseball career BECAUSE Baseball Brother uses his slugging powers to destroy the aliens. And that's only important BECAUSE Dead Wife's dying words about Baseball Brother's batting destroyed Doubting Pastor's faith. And remembering those words saves them, thus restoring his faith. The emotional core of that movie is the conflict between doubt & faith, not aliens. Who cares about aliens? Not that many people. Who cares about doubt and faith? Anybody who has ever place their trust in anything outside themself--and that's 90% of humanity.

Have a central core that is larger than the surface of the story. Make it about humanity, not aliens, just like M. Night Shyamalan did.

Logical connections. Another free story I just read features a man who learns his wife is into sadomasochism. He also learns that his daughter kills dogs. Then later he finds his daughter getting involved with the sadomasochistic neighbors (pretty kinky stuff), and then worries that his wife has killed a toddler and served it for dinner. And all I can think is "How does that make any sense?" The wife is a perv. The kid is a murderer. One thing or another, unless you can hang them together--wife has created perv/murdering kid. You're talking a few thousand words. Everything needs to have a logical connection to everything else, or your story falls apart. If there is a connection, for god's sake, show it.

So far, that's what I know that I've learned. There's a lot of other stuff about grammar and dialog tags and crap like that, but that's just frosting on the cake. If you can ferret out these kinds of problems in your story, you just might take home semi-pro payment on your stories. And then you can afford to have your cake and frost it, too!