Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Increasing people's reading comprehension (a lost cause, I know)

Someone remarked (recently):

~It's as though our country's systematically stripping the dictionary and the thesaurus down to a very small pamphlet.~

I agree. Writing instructors and many editors promote this, directly or indirectly, in all the workshops and on all their blogs. They exhort you (although they'd NEVER use an "uppity" word like "exhort") to eschew (there I go again) any word that isn't in the basic teevee vocabulary. Beta readers circle words and say that they "pulled me out of the story." My response ("Then increase your reading comprehension so that you can garner a meaning from the context and look it up later") is generally said to be one of the reasons I "never succeed." Most people who are in the workplace now just tweet or give very brief e-mail responses to any question they're asked. If you leave a long, reasoned response to any query, you will get "tl;dr" as an answer and everyone will laugh at you. ("Too long; didn't read." I expect to get that in reply to this one, too, from the peanut gallery. At least they're not allowed to throw shells any more because of widespread peanut allergies.)

RANT: This triggers another rant of mine--the "it pulled me out of the story" whine that critique groups have been taught to yodel all the time. It makes me wonder who in the hell taught them to read in the first place. Because when I learned to read, I figured out pretty quickly that there would be a part of my mind that is seeing the "vivid, continuous dream" as projected on the mindscreen, and a part that is the Overmind, which is the part that can chuckle appreciatively at puns the author makes, or take note that the author has misused a comma or a word, or has made some other mistake with the mechanics of the text. The Overmind can take notes and notice such things, while the Watcher (for want of a better term) could continue enjoying the tale. I never got "pulled out of" a story. I might give UP on a story because the prose clunked along, or there were so many mechanical errors that I didn't think the author had any respect for her readers, or there were plot holes, and so forth. But I never got "pulled out of" a story by any mechanical error. I wish they'd stop teaching that phrase. /end rant

Anyway. The dumbing down of everything and the reading level of fifth grade that seems to be the new normal in so many places, sigh. I know of no way to counteract this trend. Our society is on its way to being postliterate, and is proud of that. I'm constantly trying to get people interested in being precise again, but they want sound bites and they don't want to have to think in order to process the input. Sad to see the English language, rich and expressive for hundreds of years, going to pot.

But, as they tell me, "that's the way it rolls! Language evolves! Deal with it!"


I think we should stop dumbing down books for ALL readers, including children and young adults. Acquaintances of mine have told me that their editors have asked them to remove/replace words that aren't commonplace--some words that are more evocative or more precise than others--citing the belief that readers would be "pulled out of the story" (aaarghh). Even when the protagonist is discovering some new pursuit and finding out the specialized vocabulary for that hobby or pursuit, readers aren't being given credit for being able to figure it out on the fly. As Sheldon Cooper might say, we need to be able to pick up the specialized vocabulary of computing or medicine or whatever so that we don't hear a brain surgeon referring to the eighth cranial nerve as "that grayish thing that looks like a loose rubber band" or whatnot.

Learning stuff doesn't hurt. I promise.

When I first became well enough heeled (in my first post-college job) to buy a Canon SLR (single lens reflex) camera (second-hand; I didn't make THAT much), I had no idea what they meant by f-stop or aperture or exposure. I could have given up, but instead I bought several popular photography magazines (which at the time were not yet all about digital stuff) and simply read through the articles, BLEEPING (as Sally Brown in "Peanuts" once said) through words that I couldn't get from the context. Soon my right brain started forming concepts around these words and phrases (f-stop, bracketing exposures, pushing film--wow, this tells you just how long ago all this took place, before digital imaging cameras were out there) and my left brain took hold of them to see whether it now had an educated guess or some structure to build on. It did, and by the end of the second week I could read a "glossary" and understand what they meant, sort of.

(Aperture is how big the "hole" is that lets light reach the film or digital sensor. F-stop is a way to describe standard sizes of aperture. Shutter speed means how long the film or digital sensor is exposed to the light while you are taking a photo. In bright daylight, 1/125 at f/11 is a good place to start if you have manual controls and want to try it out. And so forth.)

Now, did I get "pulled out of the story" by words I wasn't familiar with? No. I soldiered gamely on and was rewarded with new "nodes" in my internal knowledge base. This knowledge that we internalize is the basis for educated guesses of the type you see Jeopardy players making all the time. It is the basis of your wisdom and so on. It is a good thing to have. If you always look everything up on the 'net or using your smartphone, you will not develop this very useful tool. If you always quit or start crying when you encounter a word you aren't already familiar with, you'll never learn much, IMHO.

So! What should we teach new readers to do when they encounter a word they don't know? I must have been taught these things somehow, but I don't remember how. However, here they are.

Terms that could occur in even young children's books are those related to going around in boats (ships!) or airplanes or training animals and the like. Must we dumb these things down?

We don’t want to be unnecessarily obscure. But do good readers really stop in their tracks or derail entirely (note use of railroading terminology in metaphor!) when they come across a new word?

As a child, anytime I came across an unfamiliar and/or unusual word while reading, one of four things would happen:

(A) I would semi-skip over it. This is the best option for things like: “‘Luff, you lubbers! Haul on those sheets!' roared the captain, as the sail went aback”: I didn’t have to know the exact meaning of the words; I could see that the ship was in difficulties and the captain was worried, and that was enough. Luff and lubbers and aback, and their ilk, got stuffed into a mental category of "mysterious words that sailors use." (As did "ilk," in fact. And that’s pretty much where they still are. Well, not "ilk," but the true definition of that one might surprise you because that's not how it's typically understood. Now we're getting into connotation vs. denotation, and let's not, for now.)

In 'The Tale of Mr. Toad', I didn't worry when I came across: " 'My Uncle Bouncer has displayed a lamentable want of discretion for his years,' said Peter reflectively" - I got the point that Peter was criticizing Mr. Bouncer, and skipped on to the next bit, which was clear enough: "...'but there are two hopeful circumstances. Your family is alive and kicking; and Tommy Brock has had refreshment. He will probably go to sleep and keep them for breakfast.'" I used to read this book aloud to my teddy bears when I was five. I don't know whether they understood it, but they were unfailingly polite and attentive.

(B) I would pick up the meaning from the context. On reading that the Flopsy Bunnies fell asleep because lettuce is "soporific," I didn’t go to the dictionary. Neither did I make a conscious mental note that soporific must mean something to do with making you sleepy; the word merely took on a contextual color, or flavor, which I would recall the next time I encountered it. Children are good at making these associative leaps because this is how they learn their own language anyway. It may lead to the occasional misapprehension, but such things are generally cleared up by experience. (Of course, you may say "muzzled" or "my-zulled" for "misled," because you don't connect the written word with the one you've heard. But you'll eventually figure that out.)

(C) I would ignore the word entirely and carry on, which is what I still do if I’m reading, say, a 19th-century literary essay with bits of original Greek poetry dropped in here and there. Eventually, it might float back to the top and I would take a guess at what it meant and later check that in a dictionary or by asking someone knowledgeable.

(D) I could look the word up in the dictionary, either immediately (if I had a Kindle, that would have been the way) or via writing it down for later, or I could carry the book to my mother and ask, “What does this word mean?”

All four of these options are perfectly legitimate and we ought to be making sure children feel OK about employing them. A healthy reader should be like a healthy cross-county runner whose steady pace is not interrupted by obstacles and stumbling blocks. A confident child reader should have the toughness and elasticity to leap over the odd unusual word and keep going. And how are they going to acquire that confidence if every text they read has been raked and weeded flat?

An acquaintance offered this commentary:

When I was young, the King James Bible was standard reading for everyone. At the age of seven, my classmates and I were expected to learn pieces of prose and poetry by heart. One week it was this:

“Once upon a time there were four little rabbits and their names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and Peter. They lived with their mother, old Mrs. Rabbit, in a sandbank underneath the roots of a very big fir tree…”

The next week, it was this passage:

“The beauty of Israel is slain upon thy high places: how are the mighty fallen!
Tell it not in Gath, publish it not in the streets of Askelon, lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice; lest the daughters of the uncircumcised triumph.
Ye mountains of Gilboa, let there be no dew,
neither let there be rain upon you, nor fields of offerings,
For there the shield of the mighty is vilely cast away…”

I can still recite the whole of David’s lament for Saul and Jonathan, and I loved it as much when I was seven as I do now – maybe even more, in fact. “They were swifter than eagles; they were stronger than lions. . . .”

Did I know what "uncircumcised" meant? Of course not; I didn’t have a clue and didn't need to at that age. Certainly no grown-up offered to explain it to me. IN CONTEXT, however, I understood perfectly well that it was a pejorative. Clearly the daughters of the uncircumcised were – for David – the daughters of people he disapproved of. That was enough for me at the time; nor does a clearer understanding of the procedure of circumcision add anything essential to this beautiful and troubled lament.

And Gath and Askelon and Gilboa: where were they? Again I didn’t know, but again it was obvious from the context they were towns or cities, and their names were beautiful – and just hearing about them made the world wider and more mysterious and exciting.

I kind of hate that they don't make people memorize and recite any more. I can see where the Bible would be controversial in school (although not in Sunday schools, I should hope), but Shakespeare should not be. It would be cool to have children spouting quotations from A Midsummer Night's Dream. What if those cadences stuck with them? Wow.

Don't worry; I'm not suggesting we return to making children learn great swaths of the Bible by heart. But I am suggesting that the best way to learn something is to do it yourself, not to have it always done for you. Instead of worrying about individual words and their possible difficulty, shouldn’t we encourage children to throw themselves into a story and keep going to the end in spite of the odd word they don’t quite understand? Learning not to be afraid of strange words is exactly like getting down the length of the swimming pool without minding the odd wave that hits you in the face.

You discover your own ability, and it’s more fun that way.

One of the reasons I enjoy some books so much (like Pat Walsh's The Crowfield Curse) was that the author makes no attempt to explain all the strange words. At the very end the glossary allows readers to look back, and I am often pleased that I was mostly right about my guesses.

Part of the wonder of reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe for yourself at age eight is discovering and then using unfamiliar words and phrases. To deprive children of this joy is to do them a disservice. Descriptive, evocative language is not to the taste of the mainstream reader any more, but it sets a feeling and an atmosphere just by the sound and rhythm, whether or not the word itself is fully understood immediately.

If we only exposed children to words they already knew, nobody would ever learn to speak. I feel very strongly about this. I totally agree with those who talk about the flavor of the unfamiliar and being able to cobble together the general gist. Also the delights of the dictionary. I would quite often go to look something up and end up spending an hour reading the dictionary instead. I know a five-year-old who has picked up on his parents' rather florid way of talking to each other (Renfaire types, they are) and uses phrases such as "Here's a radical notion."

The universal dumbing down of everything reduces people's ability to figure out new things and simply enrages those who are trying to figure out what they really meant by the dumbed-down stuff.

Here. Here's a fifteen-dollar word for you.

hebdomadal (heb-DOM-uh-dl): adj., occurring or appearing every seven days, weekly.
Also, in an obsolete sense, lasting seven days. Not that this isn't rare itself. Contrast with diurnal, daily, from the same source. Borrowed in the early 17th century from Latin hebdomadalis (long A mark on the A), from hebdomad, a period of seven, from the Greek stem form of hebdomás, week, from hébdomos, seventh, from heptá, seven.

NOW IF YOU HAD USED THIS WORD JUST TO USE IT . . . maybe people could carp.

OR if you ran around saying, "Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen."

But just using a normal vocabulary should not be the death knell for a book.

If you are ever assigned one of those "read a book and write down every unfamiliar word, then look it up later and give definitions," read Harlan Ellison's essays. I never read one of them (An Edge in my Voice, etc.) without encountering several rarely used words that SHOULD be used more often. He is so erudite. He doesn't write much nowadays. We shall not see that sort of writer again, IMHO, and I mourn the loss.

Meanwhile . . . why not increase your reading comprehension? Or go back to re-reading TWILIGHT. Whatever floats thy boat.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Got Ideas? Yes! You have! (Article)

Here's one of my columns from the late great FUTURES magazine. Modified a few times over the years, but still amusing. . . . (I wouldn't write the same article today. For one thing, Mama's crossed over now, and my family/friends say different things about my work. But this is a good flashback about inspiration, anyway.)

By Shalanna Collins

When asked (for what must have been the billionth time) "Where do you get all your crazy ideas?" Harlan Ellison reportedly said, "From a crazy-idea factory in Hoboken." Others say there's a mail-order catalog source. A few writers are likely to retort, "I wish I knew! I'd go right back and get some more!"

But there are those of us who feel there just aren't enough years in a lifetime to write all the novels that we'd like to finish. (Although we'd also say, like Woody Allen, "I don't really want to live forever through my work. I want to live forever by not dying.") We're filled with story ideas that just keep coming, and we despair of having enough time to work on them all, to keep them alive and exciting in the backs of our minds or notebooks until the current project is complete. What's our secret--if there is one?

There's a secret to it, all right--but it's not so secret. It's nothing more than learning to recognize and cherish the great ideas that bombard us every day from all corners, and being unashamed of writing them down, no matter where you happen to be. You can learn to preserve and use all those story ideas that escape your notice every day, but you must be methodical and persistent. I suggest using four steps to uncloak the mystery of finding those story ideas and then to conjure the courage to put the plan into practice. I write fiction, but the same method could be applied to finding article topics.

1. Don't buy the hype. The act of creation only seems esoteric and mysterious to us because it has so often been advertised that way by instructors (and reinforced by the eccentric film and television portrayals of creative people.) It seems that unless you experience some magical "inspiration" all at once, you aren't being creative. Everything has to leap forth fully formed like Athene from the mind of Zeus, and it must be as dazzling as "Creation," the Sistine Chapel fresco with God's hand touching man's, or it's not Art. No second try with that slab of marble: you carve it right the first time. No wonder that's daunting to many people, who think (or have been told by educators--professional educators, who "must know what they're talking about") that they're "not creative." Unlike being not-female or not-Chinese-Irish, this is more a state of mind than a permanent condition.

Sometimes the spontaneous Song from the Muse does fill my ears, and when it does happen, it's wonderful. (Often it's Thalia, in charge of comedy.) But the rest of the time, it's more practical for the working writer to remember what Einstein said: all great inventions result from 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration. Creating a novel, poem, story, or essay "out of nothing" is a fantastic accomplishment, whether or not it ever sees print. It seems weird, extraordinary, difficult, tiring, an act of God (though I'm not saying it isn't all of these--at least just a little). It's something that could never happen to you. . . .

Not unless you let it.

I might compare the way I come up with a story or story idea to with the mundane act of deciding whether to ring a doorbell. First I hesitate on behalf of the people inside: should I bother them? Shouldn't I have called first? What if I'm interrupting something? My fingertip goes slowly forward; hesitantly, I touch the bell. But, at last, there's a moment of heedless courage when I experience the flash of decision--Just do it now!--a moment when I give myself permission to reach out and BEGIN.

I have to be typing or penning something--anything; a shopping list, titles of books to read, baby names--before I can hope to capture those ideas. Sit before that blank page. The idea is coming--give yourself permission to freewrite, to succeed, to fail, or just to amuse yourself. First nothing's there but the "ether"; then, all of a sudden, a phrase, scene, or situation is ready. What if. . . that old man sitting on his front porch as I drive home every evening were really a spy in disguise? . . . a visitor from another planet? . . . a Nazi war criminal, still in hiding? Has he ever left this little town? Will he ever? Does he sit there all day, just watching? Or waiting for someone? Anyone in particular, or would I do? Hundreds of possible ideas could come out of this "I wonder." Yet most of us would dismiss it all with, "But it's been done. I can't do anything new with that idea."

Don't extend that thought to its concluding absurdity, saying that, since "there is nothing new under the sun," you couldn't possibly invent a different slant on it. You are a new and unique person. Start typing. You can always recycle the "good parts" later on if it doesn't work out; at least you'll have something. To get started, type out one sentence out of a newspaper article, a joke told on the elevator, a chance remark you overheard down the hall at the copier. If it's written down and allowed to germinate, to change, to percolate through the wrinkles in the gray matter, it can become the basis of a short story; inspire a scene, character, thematic idea, or some other part of a novel; or even lead to an article like this one.

Hope your family and friends aren't as nosy as mine. But if they are. . . .

2. Start today. I used to put off everything so long that by the time I was ready to start writing it, either the deadline had passed or the freshness of the idea was just completely gone. It was dead, and it was like trying to make grass cuttings into a fragrant lawn full of interesting bugs: it just wouldn't work. So don't let it all get away. Let the stream of words flow freely now and edit later. Make time today for those things that have set you aflame.

This is the simplest of the four rules, but so often it is the one ignored. "When I get the time. . ." can turn into "if I'd only used my time" before you realize it. Remember the doorbell analogy: there's no catalyst but yourself. Set the alarm for 3 AM and write for those hours before work. Do whatever it takes. How badly do you want to write? Or do you just fantasize about having written a bestseller, without desiring the act of creation itself?

Nobody will remember tomorrow whether you vacuumed the carpeting or folded the towels. Possibly not even in two hours, after the kids have tracked in mud and the cat has made a bed out of the laundry basket. But your writing has the potential to speak to future generations and give you literary immortality. Which is more important?

3. WRITE things DOWN! Somewhere, right when you find them. You might have the germ of an idea that you think you'd never forget, but if you don't write it down right away, it is gone. Even if you're working on something else at the time, you must record these ideas. Once I kept a little notepad in my purse on which to jot down these things, but I'm ashamed to say that, after many scuffles with the family (who would steal it for phone messages, or just read it and snicker), I changed my methods. I think I invented coded speedwriting after the morning my husband announced to the contents of a crowded van pool, "What do you mean by, 'She's all over me like baby poop?' We don't even have a baby." (He had read one of the "interesting colloquialisms" I'd recorded for later use.) In fact, I used that line of dialogue as the first line of a short story for young people; eventually, it was "tightened" out, but it had started the whole thought process that led to the story "Mademoiselle Kate."

It would've been even worse had he found the list of elf names for my fantasy trilogy. Trust me on this one.

These days, I also hide gems like these electronically: they reside on my computer's disk in word processing files I name sequentially, such as "Ideas.001" (and .002, .003, etc.) When I'm driving, I also write ideas on Post-Its™ and stick them in the zippered pocket of my purse. (I pull over first.) They survive the trip back to the computer much more often this way.

Actually, you probably shouldn't even let the wrong person read the first draft of your pieces. It can be quite uncomfortable if while they're reading your story thinking it's them in the bad guy mode and you were about to ask them to please do the laundry. There are many people who won't comprehend (or can't handle) your subject matter, and can ruin your story in its incubation stages--before the caterpillar has unveiled its gossamer butterfly wings, if you will, or has at least turned into a moth, if such be its destiny. I once experienced a terrific scene when my mother read some stuff I'd left lying on the sofa by mistake after a full night of editing:

"Where in the world are you going to send these crazy stories?!" she yelled in exasperation, waving a sheaf of papers as I walked in bleary-eyed (this was before breakfast, and normally I don't get up before eleven unless it's Christmas morning and I heard reindeer on the roof the previous night; I don't even see in color until noon.) "Like this one about the two LDS missionaries who walk in on the meeting of the snake-handlers' church. You can't exactly send this one in to the Baptist Standard!"

"Relax," I said. "I'm working on a novel."

This sent her into a serious vale of tears, as she apparently had hoped to hear I had an interview at Penneys that afternoon. "Get a real job!" I could hear her moaning through her sobs.

This ugly scene could have been avoided if only I had kept those early drafts out of sight. And, please, don't ask people who don't read for pleasure to read your work! If they can't be amused by anything that moves slower than MTV on fast-forward crack-cocaine speed, how can you expect them to give you any helpful feedback on the romantic beginning of your historical novel set in Italy during the Renaissance? Most of your co-workers, unless you know them to be leisure-time readers, will develop the attention span of a three-year-old when confronted with a sheaf of boring old manuscript pages. They are the types who walk into your living room where the bookshelves are and exclaim in astonishment, "Have you really read all these books?!" And they're serious. Trust me on this one, too.

4. Don't waste it on "telling" or kill it with over-research. These two are insidious. I've been so excited about some of my ideas that I rushed right out at lunchtime and blabbed the whole storyline to shocked or appalled co-workers. DON'T do it. If they don't completely discourage you with their complete apathy ("Uh-huh. What?" "That's nice, dear," or maybe "Aw, mom! I'm trying to watch TV"), they'll either think you're strange, or they will pick away at flaws in the unformed idea as if they were helping rid you of an old scab on your knee, so fiercely that you go away thinking your great idea was completely stupid.

Also beware of the allure of endless research. (Don't we all love libraries?) You may find you need to ask a question of someone who knows about snakes or plumbing or whatever (this is called either an "interview" or an "imposition," depending on your viewpoint), but be careful. For example, say you need to ask a computer whiz whether, when you delete a file on a certain type of PC, the file is actually erased, or is just marked for deletion later. Your fictional detective needs to "undelete" a file to catch the killer. and you need to put it on the proper computer I'm not telling you that if you have a difficult part in a tale that you shouldn't go to an expert and ask, but I don't recommend you let on that "it's for a story." (Asking is the lazy way out, because everybody knows you should really research this in the library--but I try to stay away from the library during months in which I hope to get some work done; they appreciate it, too, because then someone else has a chance to check out some books.)

Go ahead: ask your expert--how about that co-worker who happens to be an enthusiastic computer hobbyist?--those enticing leading questions. Only keep the reasons for asking to yourself. Just imply (in the perennial student's famously vague and preoccupied way) that you need to know the answers for school or work--a research paper, or something; match the reason to what you think the person being questioned would consider "worthwhile" (translation: "real work"). Not everyone is willing to answer questions if you let it be known that you ask because you're writing a story: to many, that's an open invitation for them to start asking you about your publication credits or to start laughing because you are "wasting your time with that." There are so many ways to flatter a person with a question that you should have no trouble getting an enjoyable ten-minute lecture on the subject, if you have chosen your teacher properly.

If you ever had parents, you already know how to do this. My mom, for example, has little time for novel-writers and story-crafters, but will drop anything to tell you all about (any one of her diverse areas of expertise, such as) wallpaper hanging or bread baking or finding the area under a curve or what Hamlet's tragic flaw is--if she thinks it's for something "legitimate" like a term paper, a book report, your continuing education class, or (in my case) if you've really changed your lazy ways and are ready to learn homemaking at last, after all! You know how to do similar "adjustments" to the truth without exactly lying--after all, you will take that college course one day, won't you? If not, you're a writer--use your imagination. Once you know so much you're sick of the entire subject (or when your hidden tape recorder runs out of tape), thank your helper. Then smile enigmatically.

And don't do all the research up front; just circle or underscore the facts you need to check, and continue with the flow of the words. After all, how do you know you won't edit that out before you need to know whether all flamingoes are the same shade of flamingo pink? (They aren't.) Then you know all the things you'll need to find out about after the first rough draft is finished. I know research can be slightly embarrassing. In fact, I'm known around my workplace and my neighborhood as a nice but slightly eccentric person who's apt to pipe up after church, "Does anybody know the easiest way to pluck a chicken?" But they're used to me now.

As a result of my bravura and curiosity, I've learned even stranger things than that. I can't spend any more time discussing it, though, because now that I've given the secret away, it's working for me again. I can't wait another moment to begin the tale of the little girl who just appeared in the doorway of my imagination, and said, "Come quickly! I need to show you something. . . ."

With my finger on the proverbial doorbell, I begin to write.

-The End-

Friday, June 9, 2017


I've changed directions because I got hopelessly bogged down in the YA non-fantasy I have been working on. Everyone says what they want to read is a sequel to MURDER BY THE MARFA LIGHTS. So I already had the opening, and now I've got five chapters of it and a good idea what's going to happen. I think I am finally in a good place to write (the depression is still here but not as heavy, and I've gotten the cataracts fixed).

Here's the opening.

Porpoises have sonar. RuPaul has gaydar. My sister Zoë has Zodar.

"Something's about to happen." Zoë handed me one of the Pink Thing ice cream treats she'd just bought. Who'd have thought a thirty-two-year-old would be hooked on a kiddie treat? But she loves them, and I often suspect we seek out roadside carnivals just to find them. Sometimes I eat one to be nice.

"Please. Not in the mood. We're here to have fun." Standing in the midst of the crowd on the parking lot of the old east Renner mall with the music from the carousel drowning out the screams of the teens on the Barf-a-Whirl was no place hear predictions of doom and gloom. "Let's ride something. How about that?" I pointed at The Spyder, a large and menacing-looking contraption in which each car spun horizontally as the spider's arms rotated vertically, just to irritate her.

"I do not ride things that go around and around." She glared at me under the Spyder's flashing colored lights. "I like to keep the contents of my stomach from reversing back up. But mark my words. Something's afoot. Something not good."

On cue, my cell phone trilled.

She frowned. "Did you forward your stupid work phone again?"

I peeked at the Caller ID. Unavailable. "I had to. Remember, I cover evenings on Tuesdays."

She waved me away. "They won't be able to hear you."

I stepped under the awning of a cotton candy vendor where it was somewhat quieter, plugged my free ear with one finger, and picked up. "Aqualife Tech Support, The Fishes' Lifeline. This is Ari French. How may I help you?" I recited mindlessly.

"Yes," said a strained voice. "Are you"--the voice consulted a rustling page--"um, Arnelle. . . ."

The voice trailed off, unsure, as most do when they encounter my full name. I go by Ari, but it's actually Ariadne, pronounced "R. E. Oddney" and straight out of Greek mythology.

"Ariadne Diane French?" I prompted.

"Yes. The niece of Agatha Suzette French of Pacific Grove, California?"

A spider eight-footed its way up my backbone. "I am, at least one of them, I mean."

"I'm sorry to have to be the bearer of ill tidings." The voice went on for a minute or so, but I could barely comprehend it. When it quieted, I thanked it and poked at the screen to terminate the call.

Zoe wandered back over to me as the teens on the parachute ride shrieked in freefall. "What?" She eyed my Pink Thing, now dripping all over my hand.

I handed her my melting treat, not having taken a single lick. "Aunt Suzette. She's dead."


"She had a good run." Zoë tipped back her bottle of Bubble Tea and drained it before settling back into one of her rattan dinette chairs. "You know Mother's family doesn't make it far past seventy. Eighty, max."

"But sixty-eight. That's still young." I looked down at the information the voice had given me. "It doesn't make any sense that she'd have an aneurysm. It runs in families, but not in Mother's. I can't accept it."

"This person gave you the date and time for the service?" She stood, apparently unable to stop pacing for long. My legs were too heavy to walk around just now.

I nodded. "Auntie had a pre-arranged plan. Her sisters in Eastern Star are taking care of a lot of the other things."

"I don't know why they called YOU when Suzette is my middle name." Her lower lip threatened to push out.

"They got my number somehow. I don’t know. Maybe off her cell phone. I call every year on her birthday and at Christmas."

Before she could look up sharply at me (I wasn't implying she should be doing the same, merely explaining), I add, "Someone has to keep the family in touch because you know Mother certainly won't."

"You know they won't go."

Meaning our parents.

"Probably won't even send a 'floral tribute.'" My sister put the phrase into air quotes.

"I know." Mother had been estranged from her sister for years after a nasty fight over our grandparents' estate. It had been worse because of that crazy extremist church they'd joined soon after. They weren't as devout about it now as they had been back when Zoë was sixteen and pregnant and they threw her out of the house to survive on her wits, but they hadn't gone back to mend any fences or un-burn any bridges or whatever it was, either. "I kind of want to go anyway. I want to pack up Auntie's photographs and family stuff that I know she'll still have. There's nobody else who'll care, but I don't want to see her and Mama's baby pictures hit a flea market. And just to see her house again. I love that area so much."

Zoë held up both palms. "We know, we know. The world has heard it over and over every day."

"Maybe not every day."

"Trust me, we know that the Pacific Grove area is beloved of monarch butterflies, sea lions, and my sister." Zoe hit her freezer and took something out, then loaded it into her microwave. She and I both have this comfort eating thing, but I haven't settled into being zaftig yet, or at least not as zaftig as she is. After all these years I'm still stuck with the fifteen pounds I gained as a freshman at Southern Methodist University, but men seem to like me with a bit of pinchable flesh on my hips, go figure.

Zoë calls herself "statuesque" or "Rubenesque." She's not only two years older than I am at thirty-and-a-half, but also three inches taller and quite a bit wider. No one will ever hear me say that aloud.

Her hair isn't naturally red, either, but a sort of chestnut with auburn highlights like mine. You can bet your bippie nobody'll ever say THAT aloud, either.

The microwave buzzed, and she handed me a Twinkie. She buys them in bulk when they're on sale., then freezes them. When she wants a snack, she microwaves a Twinkie and garnishes it with chocolate syrup out of a bottle. I sometimes eat one to be nice.

"God, I hope she didn't have some smarmy Holy Joe in her church that we have to deal with like we did with Aaron." Zoë rolled her eyes. Privately I think she had sort of a crush on Gil, Aaron's neighbor and pastor who led us through the circumstances of Aaron's death. But of course she'd rather have her toenails pulled off by a team of rabid pit bulls than admit to it.

"No, like I say, the Eastern Star ladies are doing most of the stuff. I don't think you have to worry."

"Maybe we should just send a nice floral tribute."

"We have a moral obligation to go as the representatives of the family. And the butterflies will be returning to Pacific Grove next month."

"Who can afford to lollygag around out there for a month?" She could, that's who. Me, that's a different story. "You can get a color postcard from the Chamber of Commerce." She squirted the chocolate syrup on a plate. "I found out it's better to dip the Twinkies so they don't get soggy."

I made a noncommittal noise. She was just making the requisite protest. I waited. Zoe adjusted her half-moon reading glasses (she's far too vain to admit she needs them, so she won't wear bifocals, just gets Wally World cheapies with purple frames) and looked down at the folded newspaper in front of her. She does the crossword puzzle every day. In ink, naturally.

Today she had filled in less than a third of the blanks.

She pointed her Twinkie at me. "Of course you understand I will not fly." She'd made an exception for me when my ex-fiance Aaron died last year, and she never let me forget it.

"It's only a three-day road trip from here. We'll get to drive all the way across Texas"--Renner is one of the northern suburbs of Dallas--"and New Mexico and Arizona as well as California." I made my voice happy. "We need a road trip."

Her glasses slipped a few millimeters down her nose. "We can't afford that. My old Mercedes would never make it."

"We can take the Navigator."

"You still making those payments?"

"Well . . . mostly." I had "inherited" Aaron's Lincoln Navigator along with the payments. They were a little steep. I might be behind one or two months.

"Get real, Airhead. You're going to get a call to surrender that any day."

"They're working with me. I might be able to catch it up." Unspoken between us was, "If she left me any money."

Zoë shook her head. "Forget it. Auntie always said she'd be leaving her entire estate to the Cat Rescue Crew of Greater Carmel. I believe her."

"Well, maybe. Let's wait and see." I searched my denim hobo bag for a scrunchie and pulled my long hair back into a ponytail. "That's not why I want to go, though."

"I know."

Aunt Agatha had been the only family member who was willing to help Zoë and shelter her until Ricky was born. She'd paid for Zoë's plane ticket to Pacific Grove and then another to get her and the baby back here and settled. She even helped her get work at a day care center here in Renner through a lady in the Eastern Star who'd moved here when California became too expensive for her on her retirement income. Zoë had made good on her own and now she was the owner of two day care emporiums nearby. She checked on them now and then, but she had others to manage them. She didn't like to go inside because since Ricky died she gets sort of sick whenever she sees little kids, especially six-year-old boys for some reason. If Ricky had survived the leukemia, he would have turned fourteen last month.

She squinted. "You going to eat that Twinkie?"

I handed it to her. ~~~ This is going pretty well. Yay?

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Change of pace for a moment

For a change of pace, let's see how many of these questions people know the correct answers to.

How many branches of government are there?
How many members are there in the House and Senate?
Who’s third in line for the presidency?
Describe the difference between the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.
What are the term limits for the American president and the representatives/senators?

You probably had an easy time of the first. Executive, legislative, and judicial. There are checks and balances built into the way these three branches function so that we have a fairly level system.

Easy answer on the Senate--fifty states, two Senators each, so 100 Senate members. The House is tougher. The number of voting representatives in the House is fixed by law at no more than 435, proportionally representing the population of the fifty states.

The line of succession is President, Vice President, Speaker of the House, President Pro Tem of the Senate, Secretary of State. If we ever had to go further than that, we'd be in BIG TROUBLE. (LOL)

The Bill of Rights consists of the first ten amendments to the Constitution, while we declared our independence with the other document. Do you know the Preamble to the Constitution? We used to have to memorize it in seventh grade.

The President now has a limit of two terms (after it appeared that FDR could serve forever.) Congresscritters have no term limits and can return over and over. There's a movement afoot to slap term limits on them, as well. Now, why did the Founding Fathers not put limits on them? They had NO IDEA there would ever be such a thing as a career politician! To them, it made sense that someone would put himself out there for a few years and serve the country, and then return to his huge land holdings to manage his business affairs. They couldn't have envisioned the way it works today.

How do you feel about the Electoral College? Never mind . . . don't need a flamewar. LOL

Friday, August 19, 2016

Two series/serieses--why? Why not?

On FB, we were discussing whether or not to do character sheets/character questionnaires. I don't do this, because the one time I did for a class, I lost all motivation and interest in writing about the character. I would be the person who put all those details in instead of only the ones that were needed. I do keep a file with significant information, such as hair/eye color, occupation, and that sort of thing for each character. I sometimes need to know who knows Morse code or whatever without searching the file.

But once I realized I was writing two mystery series, both with thirtyish female amateur sleuths, I opened a file called "Jac vs Ari." Jacquidon's book is in intimate third person; Ari's story is first person. Jacquidon is the college grad who had such great career opportunities, Ari the loner who had a distant mother and an admired elder sister who got into trouble young. Jacquidon is the elder sister to Chantal; Ari is the younger sister to Zoe. Zoe had a child who died last year; Chantal is single and has a boyfriend who never comes on the scene in person but is a comic relief figure who has often JUST called and is often invoked or quoted or has given Chantal some piece of the puzzle somehow (or sent just the right tool to use to fix something)--this is used for comic effect as well as to advance the plot. He's like Mrs. Columbo--remember, we never saw her int he original series, but he was always saying, "MY wife--she thought of this, and I wanted to ask...."

That kind of thing. But the reason for that file was so that I could show others that they weren't at all alike and that I couldn't possibly "just make both books about the same sleuth" for the sake of having one series. The books are rooted in the world known to each character and what happens/plausibly occurs to her.

Jac's books are light, funny, witty, Snoop Sisters-type, like the Anne George novels crossed with Joan Hess (or so I fancy). Ari's stories are darker, deeper in a sense, have more emotional development and change (at the end of the first book, Ari's sister has come out of her self-imposed hermit state somewhat in the process of solving the crime, and may come back out into the world from which she retreated when her son passed.) Jac's story clues use technology/computers. Ari's are more traditional mystery clues.

So now you know. I could NOT "combine" them, no matter if that was a Penguin editor saying so. Note that Penguin has discontinued most of their cozy mystery series just a couple of weeks ago. They no longer have that hashtag on Twitter. SO they're serious about it.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Plot Nuts and Bolts, Part II (Conclusion)

Last time, I talked about plot bolts--a way to keep your story's threads tied together.

Okay, now for the PLOT NUT (nope, that's not a fan who has all the plotlines in the old STAR TREK series memorized.) What I'm talking about is a "helper" for your plot bolt. It's a reaction to the plot bolt that strengthens the connection. It's the equal and opposite reaction to whatever it was that prompted the "plot bolt." And it starts an entire string of events by its very presence or existence. This is tough to explain without an example. So--

Let's take an example from my upcoming standalone traditional novel, Southern Discomfort. Let's say that Christopher and Diane (two City Council members) know that Kimberly (a shrew, and his stalker--um, I mean she has a major jones for him and intends to win his heart however she can, even through blackmail or whatever) is watching them through the surveillance camera at the spa (she got a job there as an aerobics instructor just so she could follow him when he works out, say.) Chris and Di wait for a quiet moment in the hot tub and strip, starting to make out, just when they KNOW Kimmie can't get aloose and come bursting in on them (she's stuck covering the security cameras or something while others are at lunch.) This isn't real attraction, but just X-rated implication to frustrate and torment her. Let's say that, furthermore, they are doing this while they whisper about the conspiracy working against Kim (to reveal her theft from Chris's campaign's money when she was on his staff as treasurer.)

Twist the nut on a little: Kimmie shoves in a blank DVD where there's a convenient machine and records the whole "show." Then she mails it to, um, the local TV station--these two are high-profile city council members, let's say, and are assumed not to be involved with each other because of a conflict of interest, not to mention that they are both "taken." Whoa--the plot thickens! The station manager shoves the disc into his pocket and heads off to blackmail Chris.

On the way, the station manager has a fender-bender with a little old lady (in her car, not as a pedestrian!) as he's headed for the council meeting to confront Chris. He throws off his overcoat (which lands somewhere on the hood of his car) to change her tire and then to help the man hook up the tow truck for his Ferrari (these things are expensive, you know--you can't have Just Anyone touching the axle, or whatever.) The video DVD (you saw this coming, but you were giddy for it to happen, weren't you?) slides out of his pocket onto the pavement, of course. The tow truck guy picks it up to hold it for him and forgets to give it back. Guess what is in the pocket of the tow trucker's coat when the trucker gets back to pick up his wife, who runs the city's biggest day care place . . . and the owner's bratty kids pull it out, thinking it is their Rainbow Frog video he promised to get off the Internet for them. Suddenly, on the screens of the kids' day care room, there is a suggestive picture that does not go unnoticed. . . .

As someone said, imagine those smart missiles during the Gulf war suddenly showing DEBBIE DOES DJIBOUTI. And trying to find THAT target. (Not to worry: nothing graphic is going on at the beginning of the recording, at least not YET.) It's not a pretty sight, all those caregivers and mothers screaming and dashing for the DVD player. The one who ultimately snatches the disc out is the best friend of Chris's long-time girlfriend, a woman who has long hoped to "wake up" her friend and make her dump Chris because of what she feels are his Unethical Practices. She'd love to get him off the city's power base.

Now she has the ammo!

I'd say that this item is a little more than a maguffin, perhaps a Plot Nut that holds that Plot Bolt (which was the intersection between the Kimmie-is-stalking-Christopher thread and the City-Council-Scandal thread) firmly on. It helps to make the coincidences and implausibilities in the plot seem a lot less so.

I've used this technique to connect two wildly varying plotlines, such as subplot 1, the girlfriend who wants Chris and her friend to break up (hey--possibly so that SHE can snag Chris for herself, or so she can snag her girlfriend for her homely brother Gus who is in place to console her . . .) and subplot 2, the mayoral race in which Chris hopes to be a candidate, and which would be lost for him if he were caught fooling around with Diane, who is the wife of the current mayor. (This book is part screwball comedy.) Tensions heighten and the audience squirms in delicious anticipation of the blow-up that is sure to come.

Let's try something more subtle. Henry does not talk about his family, ever. In this mystery, the prologue and some scenes from the (unnamed) murderer's POV have established that he's doing it to protect a secret in his family. Every time anyone asks about Henry's holidays, relatives, etc., he quickly deflects the question, never having to answer. (There's the plot bolt.) Everyone suspects Henry, of course. (A nice diversion.)

Late in the book, Theo (our sleuth) is at a party where the punch is spiked and also (unknown to any of the party-goers) doped with a fashionable party drug. Theo (our heroine) is the only one besides Henry (and the real killer) who does *not* drink the Mickey Finn punch, leaving her the only one to deal with the killer who drugged the punch. Naturally, she's now convinced Henry didn't drink it because he spiked it, and therefore the killer blindsides her when he takes Henry hostage. The hero arrives, and the two of them play out the final confrontation with the killer, who now has Henry as a hostage. (Here comes the plot nut.) The reason Henry never spoke of his family is because he's ashamed: his father, who's all the family he has, has been jailed for (hot checks?) drunk driving (and has dodged the bullet once with a vehicular manslaughter charge) and is an alcoholic. And that's why he didn't drink the punch: he saw the gin being surreptitiously added, and he won't touch alcohol. The suspicion (a bolt throughout the book) is answered and ties right into why he's the only other one left on his feet for the confrontation, forming a plot nut.

Naturally, MOST of the best plot bolt and nut combinations are serendipity. Usually, when you were writing the first scene, you didn't realize why you were putting in that part about the alcoholic daddy until it came time that the later scene was flowing from your fingertips. And then people ask how you come up with these tight plots. Only another writer could understand the unexpected thrill of that plot nut screwing into place!

You can, of course, plan a connection between your subplots from the very beginning. That's why the subplots are there--to enrich the main story--and thus they need to be related. If you can come up with something that really sets up conflicts between major characters, such as his being a pilot and her being totally petrified of any thought of heights or flying, so much the better. Then she'll HAVE to get in the plane with him, barfbagging it or cowering on the floor of the light plane while they do the dogfight, or whatever. Conversely, maybe she turns out to be right about heights when he realizes the plane will NOT get off the ground in the shape that it's in, and then they jump out and let the criminals steal it and crash it into the stand of trees just across the road from the airstrip.

. . . this is called "setting up your crisis early" with things that your critique group tries to get you to cut, claiming you don't need these little hints that are obviously in there only for characterization. NOT!

The heck with them, say I. Plan your plot bolts, and place them throughout your book to strengthen it.

And if you find a nut for one of them, twist it down tight!