Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Day of Fooling


Maybe we need comic relief more than ever and maybe mischief is what passes for comedy to some. But this is my blog and so it's my plea to seriously not fool around on this April Fool's.

I know. Bummer. Tomorrow is a sanctioned day for pranks. I like clever humor, but was never fond of the sort April first brings.
Blame it on my first memory of this thing we call April Fools’ Day.


I had just turned five, walking hand in hand with my father. He said that today it is all right to lie. I asked why. He didn’t explain, but said, “Watch me.”


We were approaching our apartment building, where we lived on the second floor. The first floor apartment directly below us was the home of my best friend. Every apartment had back and front porches, and we played on either. That April first, my best friend (who was four at the time) was standing on her front porch and waving to us enthusiastically.


“What happened to your face?” my father said to her, his face painted with a horrified expression.
“What?” she said.
“Oh, dear girl, this is terrible!” my father said. “We have to take you to the doctor right away!”
I was baffled. I squinted to see better. My friend was shaking.
“What is it, Abba?” I whispered.  
“Her face! It’s bright green!”
My friend clutched her face and burst into tears. She ran inside.
“See?” my father said to me. “This is April Fools’.”


My father was a gentle and kind person. I viewed him as the voice of truth. This was very confusing. I had seen no green or any other unnatural color on my friend’s face. I tried to absorb what just happened. I rubbed my eyes as if that would fix my vision.


Then I started to cry. If her face was bright green and my eyesight was failing, April Fools’ was about ill health and possible imminent blindness. A reasonable conclusion under the circumstances.


In the years since I have found most pranks to contain some element of cruelty. Maybe this is a residual taste from that one long ago. Ten years later, my friend told me she didn’t remember this at all. No harm done except that, well, I don’t like it. So there.


Take it easy, everyone. Especially on the young’uns. Especially now.



Tuesday, March 24, 2020

What the Dickens!


Meaning, Work Harder



Here's a bit of writerly contemplation to remind us that the world isn't ending. Whatever is ahead, good storytelling was-is-and-will-be forever a cementing part of the human race. Dickens himself lived through a few scourges.
~~~


However you feel about Charles Dickens stories, few will disagree that he was the master of first lines. Every one of these first lines can be seen as prescient. That's what great lines are.


Once upon a time, it matters little when, and in stalwart England, it matters little where, a fierce battle was fought.
The Battle of Life


Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.
David Copperfield


Now, what I want is, Facts.
Hard Times




Some are as short as it gets:

“London.”

Bleak House


And some are preposterously long:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us , we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way–in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
Tale of Two Cities





But what Dickens taught storytellers is that first lines, like first impressions, matter. A lot.



Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Manners and Decorum et al


As the world enters a new stage of trying to cope with a pandemic, it obviously affects everyone in many ways. I am choosing to continue my mulling (here) and writing (on WORD) as before, even as non-virtual life is changing by the hour. This space is the COVID19-free space. In front of the computer screen, this particular contagion is not a factor.

So on that ^ Note, allow me to reflect as before on what someday (hopefully soon) will once again seem central to sharing our public space.
~~~

When I was five years old, my father tried to persuade me that it was fine to eat a chicken drumstick with one’s hands.

“Even the queen of England does it,” he said.


Well, if she does it then it must be okay. We all know the royals set the standard, at least for table manners. So for the next ten years or so, I felt just fine picking hard-to-cut food off the plate using my hands.


Turns out, he was wrong. My father might have been thinking of her Majesty’s ancestor, Henry VIII (as depicted by Charles Laughton in a movie made long before I was born) who ate drumsticks with much fanfare in a scene for the ages.



But the queen, heavens, does not do that. At least not in public. My father gave me the wrong advice.


“So,” you say, “What’s the big deal? You got to eat with less sweat, after all.”

As I reflect on the matter of manners, I realize it is a big deal. It seems more pertinent now than ever, with the significant deterioration in public life of polite decorum. Disrespect starts somewhere in the heart, and once it’s allowed to seep into the waters of public discourse, there’s no slowing this gusher. We’re flooded, and drowning in our own muck.


This is just one of the reasons I don’t use four-letter-words and avoid hotheads when I can.


Teach them well, starting by example. Keep fingers clean. Learning to use a knife and fork takes some time and effort, but the result is a slowing down and added deliberate thoughtfulness. It’s what civilizing is about. That goes for all conduct.


And you know what? Everybody will get to eat while digesting more slowly.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Writing in PRESENT Tense


How do you feel, as a reader, about stories in present tense?


My last two drafted novels for Middle Grades are in first person present tense. A year and a half ago I read an excellent YA, Bound by Vijaya Bodach, written that way. When I next sat to write my story, my writing inner voice would have it no other way.


In present tense, I see, taste, and feel what the narrator does in real time. Every detail is vivid, and what is obscure to the narrator is also obscure to me, the writer. There is an immediacy and urgency as I follow, just as in this paragraph.


Of course, present tense has its limitations. An excellent reflection on this (as well as a plea to not use it) can be found in this article. Like the passive voice, (which I also use thrice in this paragraph) there is a reason for the choice of tense. Past tense allows greater flexibility narrating back and forth in time. But blimey if some things aren’t lost or become diffused by past tense narration, just as in this paragraph.


Sharp, immediate, intimate. This is present tense narration in a nutshell.


In picture books, it also seems the most natural. Very young persons begin speaking in present tense. Compare these two sentences and see how natural present tense is for the little ones, as opposed to moving back and forth in time:
1.   I tell Mom I need this cookie
2.   I told Mom I will need this cookie



Imagine what Snoopy can do if he changes it to –

It is a dark and stormy night



Just sayin’. It’s easy enough to edit the whole text to simple past later, and if an editor insisted, I would do it. But for holding my own interest in telling and writing it down, present tense narration does it.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Fear of Unfinished Projects

I have a fear of unfinished projects.


It could have started with a rather ambitious project that, in hindsight, turned into a traumatic event. I was four years old when my mother discovered that all of her feminine napkins disappeared. Two packages, which she discovered an hour later in tatters, cut into various shapes.


“What is this?” she gasped. “Did you do it?”

“I am making an airplane,” I explained. It made sense to me. The feminine napkins had one side colored a lovely pink, which I thought made perfect, lovely, fluffy seats.

“You are making what? With what?” she said. Actually, she screamed.


I never made that airplane. My mother’s yelling knocked the air out from beneath my wings.


Many other creative bursts that went nowhere followed. At the age of twelve, filled with nascent romantic notions, a friend who lived about a five minute walk away wound up staying until midnight as we feverishly “made a book” using pop song lyrics and magazine cutouts for each page. It was so much fun she forgot to call her parents and let them know where she was. We vowed to continue our book the next day, and she again forgot to tell me that her parents grounded her when she appeared at the door so many hours after they alarmed everyone they knew including the police. That book of romantic song lyrics was never finished.


I had creative bursts that left feverishly begun and then abandoned projects throughout my teens and twenties. I was twenty-eight before I figured how to work.  


For me, it entailed a solemn vow to not begin something until I finished the last thing.


When writing, “finishing” is never final and done. But to me it means the first draft is written, then a second draft, and then at least one beta reader gave feedback and I revised again. That makes three drafts. After that, a story may sit in the digital drawer or go on to many drafts and revisions. But every manuscript, short or long, will include a typed last line, THE END.


This deal I made with myself has saved me from starting what I couldn’t or wouldn’t finish, and from hundreds of begun-but-orphaned roads to nowhere.


©Doogie Horner

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

My Favorite Meal


Do you have a favorite meal? Mine is, hands down, breakfast.


Breakfast means, literally, break the fast. You’ve not eaten since maybe eight the night before.*
*(Unless you are the midnight by-the-fridge sort, which is an image I’ve only experienced watching movies/sitcoms. In real life, middle of the night is a time when the last thing I want to do is stand by an open refrigerator or even think about food.)

So now it’s eight in the morning. You’ve “fasted” for twelve hours, and you should be ravenous.

For me, this is the mystery of breakfast: I’m not hungry in the least. I don’t know why, I just don’t get that peckish sensation that precedes lunch or dinner. This makes breakfast a meal of complete non-urgent food choice.  
A long time ago I vowed to never eat something I don’t enjoy, (with the exception of social circumstances when someone else is in charge and I want to be polite) so breakfast is pure pleasure food.

It so happens that American food conventions also include my favorites as breakfast food. Pancakes, scrambled eggs, hot cereal, and...
coffee, blessed coffee.




I liken it to reading for pleasure. Not assigned books (whether for school, work, or a book club) or books that are “good for you,” as in must-read-because-it-won-the-Pulitzer-prize. But pure pleasure reading.
At the same time I abandoned “good for you” breakfasts, (bye-bye bran flakes and cold milk) I also vowed to never finish a book that didn’t resonate.

Life is too short.
            
So eat when you don’t have to, and read when you don’t have to. Life will be good.


Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Ruminations on Winter in California


The dead of winter where I live, is the time the gates of heaven open and water comes down every few days to bring life and green the land. There is nothing dead about winter here.


Only a few hours’ drive, the deepest snow in the United States can strand travelers even today, just as it did the Donner Party over a hundred and seventy years ago. You can certainly think of that swatch of California as being in the dead of winter. The story of the Breen and Donner families is taught in fourth grade of every California school. DH was told he’s descended from the same Breens, and so we’ve earned the right to reside over those lethal hills and past the freezer zone, on the beautiful always spring-like coast.


I don’t write this to make you jealous. ‘All y’all,’ seized by cabin fever and thinking just about now that you’ve had enough winter, take heart and some hot chocolate. Sunny is not all it seems.


“A sunny place for some shady people.” This saying by a clever writer, made me think how vivid writing works. It’s about delineating. It’s about marking contradictions, pointing differences, making a line that pops.


California is all about lines. It’s a land of extreme if adjacent climates. A state that shines in exploration even as it cultivates a shady subculture of folks running away from this that and the other, including norms of decency held onto by older cultures in older states. It’s a tantalizing contradiction from which great human dramas are born, told, written, filmed,  and like all life— eventually evaporate.


Reminding the creative self to cherish these lines, and raising a glass of soymilk to the sunshine.



Tuesday, February 11, 2020

That Loving Smell...


Valentine's Day around the corner, and the stores are saturated with the sweet smells of roses and chocolate.
If you’re a chocoholic, you are happy already. You also won’t be sympathetic to this post.




Although I make a point to stop and smell the roses as I go about life, I haven’t been caught by the seduction of chocolate. Call me Ms. Vanilla.


I got to thinking about why so many confuse chocolate with that loving feeling. I read about the studies that supposedly prove a certain chemical in chocolate is identical to what our bodies secrete when we’re in love. The chemical, phenethylamine, causes the release of endorphins or some such.
Allow me to be skeptical. No doubt, the chocolate business loved it.


Long ago, red ripe tomatoes were viewed as love offerings, the way roses are now. As I examine this dispassionately, (pun intended) I think tomatoes are a far better choice. A good tomato is colorful (unlike chocolate) and beautiful, and we now know it’s good for you. Medieval Europeans, apparently, thought tomatoes were poisonous. Think of how much good eating they missed.


This bring me to (what else?) writing conventions. We hear that editors are hungry for “different,” but much of what is published is a slight variation on the same. What if we really thought outside the box?



Think picture books that are one hundred pages long. Think middle grade stories that consist of links only, each telling their POV of the same event. Think novels that are wordless. Just think.


Okay, the smell of love in the air has my brain floating on a misty wave. In a week, I’ll be back on earth, and working on my next (very grounded) revision of a tried, true and conventionally acceptable manuscript.
With love.


Tuesday, February 4, 2020

More CAT Tales


Allow me to indulge is some wee cat tales, and also tails. This links to writing in a roundabout way, I promise.




All three of our cats are, well, cats. This they have in common. They have whiskers and pointy ears and fur and, yes, tails. But here is where they differ.



^Clara, the oldest, has never done a bad thing in her life. She never sharpens her claws on anything but the cardboard we provide for such purpose; never nudges anyone off their food bowl; never attacks the others, and has never met a person she doesn’t like. She does not assume you want her on your lap, so she looks to your invitation and will leave with the slightest sign you’ve had enough. She’s the best (and only, actually) real mouser, and has kept us rodent-free as fee for her care.
She is the cat you want if you need one working feline.




^Sokolov, our only male, was of feral stock. To this day, he only accepts five humans, us plus a friend. When I say, “accepts,” I mean he runs to greet us at the sound of our footsteps, the way a loving dog would. No other human will ever see him, as he zooms to hide long before they are at the door. Visitors have to believe me Sokolov exists, because no one gets as much as a glimpse of his black furry tail. He constantly challenges the others (and us) for our food, and proceeds to leave vomited hairballs everywhere. You’ll have to take my word that he’s more than worth all that trouble. Sokolov is the most intelligent and, at least towards us, the most affectionate.



^Our youngest, Nougat, is a senseless goof. She gets herself into spaces she can’t get out of, considers everything a batting toy, and talks all the time. She can hold a continuous conversation for half an hour, as long as you keep responding. Her sentences are as varied as they are entertaining. She prefers your company and play to a tasty morsel every time. Folks who think cats are just food motivated, haven’t met Nougat. “Food? What food? Play with me, I tell you. Meow-meow, I’m talking to you!”


This brings me to writing. Yes, they’re all cats, of the Felis Catus species. But they are individuals. A good reminder not to have generic characters when telling a story. 

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

A Conversation with a Four-year-old


This morning I had this conversation with a four-year-old who lives next door.


            4YO: “What are you doing?”
Me: “Cleaning my backyard.”
4YO: “Why you’re not cleaning my backyard?”
Me: “Because it’s yours. You could clean your backyard, and I will clean mine.”
4YO: “I think that’s funny.”


We both laughed. Me, because his conclusion was funny to me.


When writing for young’uns, it’s good to remember they see things from a different perch. 
Bless my neighbors for sharing their kids, when mine are no longer the age I write for.



Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Opening Paragraphs


Every writer knows how important a strong, engaging, punch ‘em in the gut opening is to selling a story.

It’s the antithesis to the way we teach schoolchildren to write letters, beginning with “dear so-and-so” and proceeding with “I am writing to you...”
BO-RRR-ING.



The first paragraph is a rude thing. With it, we must break ingrained habits of polite address, which build methodically and leisurely to the point of why we are writing in the first place. None of that pitter-patter to the entrance, folks.


But I find the first paragraph serves not only to engage a reader, but to set me, the writer, on the right course. It is a reminder of who, (the voice, i.e. the personality of the narration) the why, (why is writing the whole thing worth my while) the what, (the theme is embedded right there) the where, (at least in terms of how it's emotionally situated if not physically as well) and the when.


If, along the winding way of first drafting, I find myself unsure of any of the above^, I re-read and reorient with the help of that first paragraph. In the event that it doesn’t serve to correct my writerly meandering, it’s a failure.


It’s not only for the reader or the marketing department. Great first paragraphs are the writer’s lighthouse to get back home. 

©Shelagh Duffett

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

This Date in Personal History


Ever wake up, note the date, and think there is something about this date that is meaningful, something you should remember, do, or register. Something important...
But nothing pops into your conscious mind. Nothing even crawls in. Nothing.


I have that feeling every few months. I wonder if the birthday of a friend from long ago (like elementary school) or some appointment or work deadline I was supposed to meet is causing this sensation. Maybe. Probably. Who knows?


And this is when I go to this date in history. When all else fails, I feel a need to connect with the collective consciousness.


So on this date in history, the fourteenth of January, in the year 1601, church authorities in Rome burned Hebrew books. Oy vey. Sadly, not the last time this would happen.
On a positive note, in 1878 the U.S.A. Supreme court ruled race separation on trains unconstitutional. It would take eighty-five years for this to sink in some states, but it’s progress.
And on this very date in 1979, President Carter proposed Martin Luther King Jr. Day.  


I still can’t connect to the date’s personal thingamajig, but I’m satisfied.

{Last year’s, ^ but I love it}

Have a wonderful day!

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Going for a Hike

When I read that a writer revised a novel sixty-four or a hundred-and-eleven times, I am not awed. I'm baffled.


Tackling a revision is like going for a hike.


First draft, for those of us who are planners, is like going for a hike to an unknown place but using a map. Pantsters (those who write by the seat of their pants, no outline) are hiking to unknown places without a map. Pantsters have only a vague sense of where they must end, which is some variation of home, be it a mental or emotional state for the main character or the plot coming to a place of equilibrium.


I always work on the first and second draft alone, and it’s the closest I come to hiking without a map. By the second draft I already know the trail (=first draft) but now I must see if this was a good, satisfying hike. Before anyone else’s feedback, I’m not clear how to asses. So I made some standard questions I ask myself as I go.
Theme?
Consistent voice?
Foreshadowing?
End that echoes the beginning?


Now it’s time to have others join me; Beta readers, whose feedback is invaluable. Their specific comments become the trail map for the next outing= the third draft. I find it much easier to revise to specific feedback. It is like hiking with specific places to pass on the way.


Revising is also akin to hiking in that after many rounds you stop seeing much of the road. It just goes by with nary a single detail noted. This is why my process stops at the fifth or sixth draft. For me, there's a point where I no longer see what a reader would, and that's where I'm done. I’m always ready to go back after some time has passed, or an acquired manuscript gets new eyes to guide it. But on my own, it’s a five-six times trek.



Because writing, like hiking, is an effort that should reveal and enhance, not suck the life out of the traveler.