Tuesday, December 30, 2008

90 Degree Turn

I think many of us have this experience: you are about to drop into sleep when an idea comes but you are too comfortable to reach for the pen and paper. So you promise you'll remember the image when you wake. Most of the time that doesn't work. Dream images crowd in and the good idea gets buried under tons of sludge. Last night it sort of worked. I woke to the dog at my side saying it was time to go out, gale-force winds be da--ed. Falling into the usual early routine, I let Duncan out, made the coffee, gave him his morning biscuit and stopped short. Part of the image I had found at the point of sleep popped up like an ad for a free credit report. Not all the things I meant to include in a poem, but enough to get me started. In my journal, I dove in, frustrated that much of what I had planned was invisible, but the bit that remained was enough. I'd write a poem, I thought, about the need to pay attention to the scene in front of us. In my case, that's often mountains, which present a constantly changing view. The mountains stay, but the atmosphere around them varies. Not real news, but good enough. Of course, good enough is another way of saying mediocre, shallow, lazy, scary. Scary?

I think that I often keep to the shallows because I'm afraid to go deep. Then came the turn: from a few lines about the look of the Rockies in winter--a dramatic and amazing thing to a coastal creature like myself--the piece morphed into an apocalyptic warning about not paying attention to what we do to the earth and to ourselves. Whew! This was not what I intended at all, but, you know, it made scary sense and I think it will work. Taking on a huge topic in a poem always makes me pause. Who am I to think I can tell anyone what to think? Well, I don't want to preach or browbeat or thump the bully pulpit, but when I have a fresh image of what we already know,I have to send it into the world. It's cliche, but if one person changes an attitude because she/he read the poem, then I've done my job. And the title for this piece is "An Expert Witness"--someone who swears to tell the truth. What more can I ask for? What else is there?

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Too Many Books

Big book stores or little, I get queasy when I see how many books are in the world. On a bad day it makes me wonder why I should write more. The world doesn't really need more books. Nor do I. When I moved a couple of years ago, I distributed--giving and selling--about twenty boxes of books. I vowed I would not get into that situation again. The library does a much better job of shelving and organizing, it's free, it's greener, and it's dust free. You know the arc or this story, though. Settled into a home of my own, I let the books creep back. I found wonderful used books and have resupplied my reference section and a handful of poetry books. Last week at a holiday party, the host had lined his front hall with boxes of pristine books, inviting all guests to help themselves, to relieve his glut of books. Being both greedy and obedient, I walked out with a handful of books. They sit on my coffee table taking up space, laughing at me and my weak will.

Now for the plot twist: a friend forwarded a link to Paper Back Swap! What a great idea. I list my give-aways by ISBN, the site posts the book, with cover photo and basic press info. Someone who wants the book clicks a box, I get a notice to print out the shipping material and I pay the postage. But, when I order a book, the sender pays my postage, a nice quid pro quo. For now the service is free except for the postage, but may go to a small subscription fee after the first of the year. If no one wants your books, hence you don't build a credit base, you can buy credits at a very reasonable price and use this credit to order books. So far, I am waiting for three books and have established a wish list. The site is easy to use, quite extensive, and much needed. Take a look.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Happy Holidays

Whatever you celebrate, I hope it's a happy, healthy time for all. Neither of these gifts is totally within our control. My neighbor has been hospitalized for weeks and will not be home with her family for Christmas; my friends and relations in New England are struggling with a barrage of snow and ice, putting them and their jobs and their animals in precarious positions. I know they will do their best to endure the deep winter that slaps them around weekly. Health is such a gift, and we can do much to maintain it. Having had a big birthday this month, I am determined to do all I can to correct some bad, lazy habits. Those habits are, if we let them be, inherent in our role as writers. We sit. That's a good thing. If we don't keep the butt in the chair and the hands moving, nothing happens. But praising ourselves for getting the work done might mask the need to move. So, I've joined a gym, had a thorough physical, changed the way I shop for groceries, and the way I eat. I reach for fruit when I'm hungry between meals, eat way less meat, more fish. I passed the plate of gingerbread cookies at a meeting this week. I want to live long enough to finish some of the many projects on my list. I don't want to spend the holidays in a hospital.

So for all my writer friends, all my relatives, all my other dear people, I wish you the gift of health. I can't give it to you, but I can urge you to do what you know is right. Put yourself at the desk when you work, feel good about what you do, then get up and move. Walk the dog an extra time around the block, take up a sport that you love and will pursue, go to the gym, go to a dance. I hope you'll dance. See a health care provider and plan what's next for you. Don't think of your body as separate from yourself. It's not a temple. It's you. Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, Kwanza, Solstice, New Year. Celebrate the coming light however you wish. Be healthy, wealthy, and wise, especially wise. It may be the only thing you can change.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Weather & Books

Famously, Mark Twain warned against relying on weather to set the tone for a book. He never said anything about the effects of weather on writers. Colorado is in the midst of a bitter cold snap (And why a snap? It's more like a snarl.) so I'm hunkered down with coffee and work. I have said earlier about the need to be quiet to write; now I'm thinking about the need to be warm. Fortunately, my heater is very efficient, I have plenty of fleece and wool, and the coffee is as hot as I want it. I'm thinking now about my sister in Maine, where ice is breaking trees and trees knocking down power lines, and coffee depends on electricity. Or my niece driving an ambulance in all that mess. Cold is okay if you're not homeless or duty bound to go out. I'm neither. Yesterday, the first day of this enforced solitude, I sorted things into file folders, because I have so many writing and editing projects going on that I was beginning to lose track of what needed to happen next. That felt good; so did gleaning story ideas from my journal. As some of you know, I am a faithful (compulsive?) morning pages person, so ideas easily get buried in all that free association. From time to time, I go back and pull phrases, plot lines, titles, and put them in an appropriate folder, and forget about them again. But sooner or later, I open a folder and it's Christmas morning, all color and fresh words.

Four folders sit on the desk right now: edits, poems, Ana (a new and, I hope, recurrent character), and non-fiction. I'm done for the moment with the poems folder, having rescued a few good lines from old pieces that seem too watery or sentimental to save in their original forms. The edits folder has one more piece to be dealt with for The Cafe Review editor's issue; Ana's folder is filling nicely with all sorts of ideas and research for future stories; the non-fiction folder bulges, a collaborative project which I'm not ready to air yet. It too has lots of pages, but not enough, so today, as I watch the trees glitter and wonder how birds and rabbits and squirrels survive out there, I plan to add to that folder. I even have an outline! With a nod to Mr. Clemons (happens also to have been the name of my favorite high-school English teacher), I'll avoid weather in the books, but be grateful for weather that pushes me to stay at my desk and work on the books.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Lessons Learned

Since that wonderful discovery about my bent for mysteries, I've been studying. And I have learned a thing or two about my own taste within the genre: Don't bore me! I get the set up, so don't tell me the same thing every time a new character makes the same discovery. That feels like padding or mistrust of the reader. Keep the point of view limited enough so that I can relate to the main characters. And let those main characters on stage early. If I'm tossed a red herring with a bunch of people who don't need to be there, I get lost. I keep expecting them to step up and do something important. I'm not good with long short stories. This attitude surprised me. I love novels, but that intermediate length seems to lose me. Maybe it's hard for the reader and the writer to sustain the pace without chapter breaks.

Keep the dialogue realistic, but concise. And the diction consistent with the setting, both time and place. To notice a word that none of the characters would know lifts me out of the story, as if I were stumbling over a broken place in the sidewalk. As I said in the previous blog, I like the violence off stage. I don't do well with being forced to admire gore, no matter how well written the passage. That's my problem, rather than the writer's, I admit. No writer can serve all readers. I love humor, when I find it, in a mystery story. I love solving the puzzle, but not too soon. I like action to begin--bang!--on the first page, rather than having to wander around in backstory for a while. Amazing what I learned once I knew where to look. Of course, putting all of these discoveries to good use will be the real challenge, but that's one reason I write.

Friday, December 5, 2008


Epiphanies are slow in coming, but when they hit, wow! For years I've struggled to identify my genre in fiction. It's not sci-fi, speculative seems a bit vague, quirky is just, well, quirky, definitely not romance or adventure. Literary? Well, isn't it all when you think about it? Oh, writing cover letters and queries has long given me a sour stomach. I just knew I'd send something out and the editor would immediately toss the ms into the round file or hit the delete button because, hey, if she doesn't even know what she's doing, why should I bother to give her space in my already over-stretched pages? That story line I can imagine all too easily. Recently though, I had a knowledgeable writer suggest that I send a new piece to the "crime" markets. Not having any idea what those markets might be, I did my usual routine. First I looked on line for some suggestions, not reassuring because I could not see my work illustrated with a bloody knife or a law-enforcement badge. So, back from that virtual tour, I headed for the bookstore/my personal library.

And there the lightbulb lit. I read stories in several mystery magazines, and recognized my general approach to the short story. I had just found the keys to a locked door mystery. The real irony is that I've always loved mysteries, especially cosies, those English who-dunnits where the murder happens off stage. I taught a summer course in them one time! How could I not see that in my own work? Please, insert forest-and-trees cliche here. When I pulled out my short-fiction notebook and counted the stories that fit the genre, I found twenty pieces that qualify. Somehow, having looked at each one as distinct has hidden its true identity. As a group photo I can see the family resemblance. Maybe I had to build a collection in order to see where my interest really lives regarding short fiction. For too long, I've considered mystery to be a book category, not a short story label. How silly. Case solved.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Joyous Season

Despite the welcome distractions of holiday gatherings, great food, first snow, and the unwelcome first winter bug, I'm percolating with writing projects. That weekend in Silver Cliff taught me a thing or two that I needed to know about my own process. I really do profit from quiet, so I still rise early to write before the daily stuff of life can intrude, but I no longer reach immediately for the radio. Music, which I love, keeps my mind from wandering, from the free association and focus that it takes for me to be creative. I miss the sound but I'm loving the increase in words on paper/screen. Even allowing for a couple of days under the evil influence of a stomach virus/head cold, I have produced a new short-short, 800 words of a new non-fiction project that will be a collaborative effort, revised another handful of poems, and sent out a batch of submissions.

Not bad for an old lady! Today I will put together a packet for an on-line venue, by invitation! Then I need to find a market for a short story about a ghost horse. And update my rejection/acceptance lists. This is the writing business, always a mix of surprise in the new work and determination in getting the rest out to the readers who complete the process. This is why I left my paid work behind; this is what I have envisioned for most of my adult life. And to think, I just had to turn down the volume to turn up the heat.