Sunday, March 31, 2013


Today is the day the Christian faithful celebrate The Resurrection. I could spend a few lines talking about the alleged Pagan roots of the celebration, but that’s a controversy with little actual importance and even less chance of convincing either side of the veracity of the other.

But resurrection, there’s something I could write a book about. Oh, that’s right. I am. Technically the book deals more with a myth of reincarnation than with resurrection, but there are a couple of characters who seemingly leave this life and pop up again for another round.

Coming back from the dead is a popular theme across countless mythologies. And, why not? If we have to die--and all evidence seems to point there--we should at least be able to come back in a shiny new body. Or, how about living forever in a new place? That has a certain appeal, even if harps provide the Muzak.

So, I understand the appeal of this great centerpiece of Christianity. So do the characters in my book, though--spoiler alert--at least one of them will abandon her belief in the end.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Time on My Hands

I’ve been waiting many, many years for this moment. Although I have had the time to write a handful of books while working and going to school, I have been looking forward to retirement so that I could devote more time to writing.

I have some trepidation about that. Not because I fear writing, but because work has taken up so much of my time. All retirees face the issue of what to do with their time. Those still working often envy retirees and are baffled by such concerns. Even if they like their job, the prospect of having so much free time seems so enticing.

It is a jolting change, nevertheless. We lose the routine that has kept us going for so many years and, more importantly, we risk losing our identity. The first question often asked when we meet someone new, is “What do you do?”  Soon, I will have the option of saying, “Nothing.”

I could say that I’m a writer. I have been one for decades. That’s rarely how I answer the question, though, because my working career was how I made most of my living.

I often avoid telling people I’m a writer, because I primarily write fiction. I’m not ashamed of that. It’s just that the questions that follow mostly have the same answer: “Read the damn books.”

Fiction is its own explanation. It is pointless, really, spending time describing your novels.

Now that I’m about to have more time, maybe I can spend some of it coming up with a polite answer.

Friday, March 29, 2013

My Gay Characters

It is an important week in American history. The Supreme Court of the United States has heard arguments about marriage rights for gay citizens. I bring that up in this book blog because the book I’m writing examines gender relationships. One could argue that all the characters are gay.

I did not set out to write about lesbian relationships, but some will assume that is the whole point of the book. The fact that many of my characters are in loving, same gender relationships is an effect of a worldview that has left the rails, not the cause of it.

Nevertheless, my mostly positive depiction of characters who are in such relationships will probably be seen as promoting the dreaded “gay agenda.” Using the word promoting in this context is already judgmental. What would be the point of promoting something that people have no choice about?
I am close to several people of both genders who are gay. It is a biological fact for them. For me, it is part of what makes them unique individuals. How can I help but treasure that?

For my characters, same gender relationships are a cultural norm.  Those who may feel different urges suffer some confusion, because they have no option to act on them in their society. How that society became that way is a sub-plot with many hints but no concrete explanation.

The larger and parallel plot is about how a society is shaped by religion.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Elevator Pitch

Someone asked me yesterday what the book I’m working on is about. The flip answer is “80,000 words.” I don’t blame people for asking that question. It’s the natural one to ask. It just happens to be very difficult to answer. 

Think of books you’ve read. What is APrayer for Owen Meany about? What is Angleof Repose about? Could you explain, on a moment’s notice, what Nineteen Eighty-Four was about? In three sentences?

Of course, you would not be prepared to do that. As the creator of a book, perhaps I should be. Certainly I will need to invent a book blurb at some point to entice people to read the book. That is quite different from what people are looking for when they ask that difficult question, though. So, here goes.

It is a book about the origin of a tribal culture’s world view and how a nearly forgotten historical event misshaped their entire understanding about life.

Boom. Give the man a peanut.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

The archaeology of writing

I would not be the first to bemoan the loss of the art of letter writing. I love email and even understand the utility of texting. Those methods are rarely considered communication. The very act of writing a letter made you stop and think. It took some effort, not just the effort of finding a pencil or rolling paper into a typewriter, but the effort of gathering your thoughts to put them into some cohesive form.

Your investment in a letter in terms of time was magnitudes beyond what one usually devotes to an email. In our heads, email is free. We don’t stop to do the math that takes into account the electricity, the computer, the broadband and the frustration that has gone into that free email. But a stamp, there’s something that has a price tag. You made a commitment when you wrote a letter. It was something that might be around for 200 years and it cost you a visible fraction of an hour’s wages to send it off on a physical journey across the country.

Recently I have been helping a California writer who is doing a book about the artists of that state, one of whom was my delightful cousin Mabel Bennett Hutchinson. He has a thousand questions, many of them about her early years. I wasn’t around in the 20s when she was just starting her art career. But she saved her correspondence from that time, and later used those letters to help her recreate her life for an autobiography she wrote for the family.
There are letters and papers still around from my great grandparents. It is through those that we learn about their lives. They are the core of more than one book.

Where will the novelists and historians of the future look to learn about our everyday lives? Emails, I suppose, if some of them survive. Few of us make any effort to preserve them. Even if they are available will they simply portray us as shallow and frivolous? Where is today’s considered communication between friends and family? Facebook? Please.

I love email, texting and even Facebook. If they are the record we leave behind, though, tomorrow’s archaeologists will be poorer for it.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Pasture

For a little change of pace, here's a new short story I wrote a couple of days ago.

When the alarm went off at 5:30 that morning his first thought was, I didn’t get up during the night to pee. His second thought was, They can never take that accomplishment away from me.

He took his blood pressure pills and child-sized aspirin, tossed his shorts in the laundry basket and shut the door to the bathroom so the light wouldn’t bother Janet. He turned on the light, hung his towel on the hook next to the shower, put down the mat and started the hot water running. Next, he slide the scale to where he could stand on it, let it zero out and stepped on. One hundred seventy six. He kicked the scale back into its cubby next to the toilet and stepped over to the shower. The water was hot enough now to turn on the cold and twist the control that shot the mixed water into the showerhead. He did not have to test the temperature.

He peed in the shower. Hey, why not? It saved water, and urine was practically sterile. One pump on the shampoo dispenser gave him more suds than his thinning hair could use, so he spread it around to armpits and none-of-your-business. Rinse, don’t repeat. You didn’t need to lather your hair twice. That was a scheme by shampoo companies to sell you more product. He was in advertising himself, so was just that savvy.

He toweled himself dry with what Janet called a shower sheet. It was a big flippin’ towel, was all, but he liked it and she could call it whatever she wanted. He slathered on lotion, practically head to toe. If he skipped that for a day or two, he itched, simple as that. His face got a lot of extra lotion, because he used it instead of shaving cream as whisker lube. A few quick swipes with the razor took care of the hair. Except for the head hair, of course. He combed that into shape and let it air dry while while he brushed his teeth, 30 seconds per quadrant thankyoumistertoothbrush.

He picked a shirt he hadn’t worn lately, facilitated by his clever method of using separators in his closet for shirts worn once, twice and thrice. The big choice of the day was what color of socks to wear, khaki or blue, which in turn determined which color of pants he would wear, khaki or blue. The socks always went on first before the pants, because otherwise you had to fight with your pants legs to pull them up. Next came the belt, black or brown, which determined the color of shoes, black or brown.

The shoes and belt were the tricky part. If he made too much noise with either--we’re talking any noise--the dogs would take that as their signal and start barking. They’d start barking the minute he opened the door, anyway, but he always wanted to keep that to the bare minimum.

There were multiple dogs--three--but actually only one barker. The hound expressed every emotion and every opinion through barking. The two schnauzers had their moments, too, but feeding time for them required only butt wiggling.

He stepped down the stairs, part of a canine avalanche, buttoning the sleeves of his shirt as he went. The hound darted out the dog door to the back yard. Schnauzer one sat quietly in the entry, while he and schnauzer two went out to retrieve the paper. Before they got back to the door the hound was always back in the house barking her enthusiasm for being fed. She continued the enthusiasm through the measuring of food. By this time drooling accompanied the barking, so it was always a good idea to step with care in case an extra slimy pool of drool had puddled beneath the hound flews.

The food disappeared in under 30 seconds. He thought this was perhaps the quickest single diminishment his paycheck suffered in an average month.

He grabbed his lunch, pre-packed the night before, and was out the door by 6:01.

About 7,500 times. That was the quick math he did on his way to work that morning. Take out weekends and ten or so holidays a year... wait, he forgot vacations. Subtract about ten days a year, and it came out to 7,200 times that he had gone through pretty much that same morning routine. He planned to beat the crap out of that alarm clock with a sledgehammer when he got home that night.

To his not-at-all surprise, his office was draped in black crepe paper. Helium-filled balloons--black, of course--were doing their trivial part to deplete the world supply of that gas. He thought he would probably take a couple of those home tonight to drive the dogs crazy.

Someone had abused the office plotter by making a colorful sign, complete with beach-themed clipart, that said “Bon Voyage, Bill!!!!!”

Clipart. Did they even call it that anymore? Back when Bill started in the Biz they had subscribed to a service that sent them big sheets of artwork every month. They would use scissors to cut out the art they wanted for a newspaper ad, run it through the waxer and paste it down on a blue-lined sheet of paper which, in turn, would be pasted onto a bigger sheet of paper that included the news stories and other ads which would be photographed, then turned into a negative, which was turned into a positive on a sheet of aluminum, which then went on the press to make a magic newspaper.

When was the last time he’d even seen an X-acto knife? Everything was digital, now. He did not lament that. Far from it. Bill was there to see the first crude computer typesetting machines, the first layout programs, and the first newspaper websites. The younger crowd had nothing on him. So what they were born knowing how to run a keyboard. He was there when email was a new concept. He’d picked it up and welcomed every other change computers had brought with them.

Bill was not a fossil. He was a vital part of a dynamic organization. He would be a fossil a week from now, or a month. Things happened that fast.

They had the obligatory cake and ice cream that afternoon. Stories were shared. Rebbeca, who he had never quite had the nerve to sleep with after that single Christmas kiss, cried.

Through it all, he thought about his mother. It had irritated the hell out of him when he went to visit her in the assisted living center not so many years ago. She obsessed about food. She talked constantly about what they had for breakfast, dinner and supper. Holiday meals were a subject of special importance, where the menus were anticipated for days ahead of time. Until that moment it had not occurred to him, the busy ad executive, that she had nothing else to talk about.

Right now he was who he had always been. In six months he would be some geezer at the front desk if he stopped in for a visit.

It made him want to bark.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

And Now, a Little Diversion

I have talked a bit in this blog about the advantages of E-books from a publisher’s standpoint. Free distribution, no returns, no storage, no unsold copies, etc. I have also acknowledged that paper still retains some charm.

Digitized books may or may not completely replace paper books one day. Either way, there are some uses for paper that will probably never go away. To wit:

Tomorrow I'm going to try something different. I'll be posting a complete short story on the Anjels blog.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Weighing Words

Writers are less obsessed about word count than they once were. That may be to their peril.

Word count is one way to measure writing. It is, perhaps, the worst way. In general, there are three length categories in fiction, the short story, the novella and the novel. There is no universally agreed upon length for each. No one can say which word puts you over the line from short story to novella or novella to novel. Various prizes for literature place the novella as somewhere between 7,500 and 40,000 words.

Most of my novels have run about 100,000 words, give or take the length of a novella or two. The novel I’m working on now is likely to be about 75,000 when it is finished. In draft form I’m up to about 50,000 words now. So, hurrah,  I have a novel. By length alone, this blog would qualify as a novella at more than 10,000 words to date.

Every reviewer--every reader, for that matter--would tell you it is quality not quantity that is important. They are kidding themselves. Sure, you want quality, but you also want to purchase or borrow entertainment time. You literally weigh (estimate) the worth of a physical book. You feel like someone is trying to put one over on you if the book you’re considering is priced the same as its neighbor, but half the size. When you consider an audio book, the number of hours of entertainment it gives you enters into the decision. In the case of audio books it may be only that you’re driving to Pocatello and back and need a book of a certain length, of course.

I hear writers now talking about word count in a totally different way than in the past. The gist of this discussion is that you don’t have to write a 100,000 word book anymore. E-books let you get away with writing a 50,000 word book and dumping it on the market. You could write two books in the time it takes you to write one!

Books are a commodity, so writers can be forgiven for thinking that way. I believe they will eventually regret the pump-it-out philosophy, though. Readers are not stupid. They will begin to feel cheated by novels that are clearly produced just to provide a minimum amount of entertainment.

There will always be some who are reading just to fill time rather than to enrich their lives. For them, the novella, perhaps even one on the skinny side of the scale, will be good enough.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Dagwood has it Right

I rarely quote, or even reference, the comic strip Blondie. I read it just because my eyes have to move across that space anyway to get to the next strip. The other day, though, the situation of the strip struck a chord. Dogwood was on his couch trying for what was probably approaching his millionth nap, when Blondie rousted him. He was supposed to be painting. He tried unsuccessfully to convince her that painting involved some quiet time to visualize the finished project.

Hang in there, D. You are not so far off.

There is a land we all walk between sleep and wakefulness. In it our mind wanders where it will, or it may be nudged in a particular direction. Either way our curious thoughts sometimes stumble upon solutions to some problem of our waking hours.

I do this a lot with art, particularly if it is a piece that requires some element of invention. I think it through and think it through while relaxing on a couch or recliner or even in bed. Sometimes I will sit up with the solution never having gone to sleep at all. At other times, I’ll wake up at 3 am with the tendrils of three new plot lines threatening to fray away if I do not immediately write them down.

So, Dagwood, go ahead and visualize that paint job or short story. Doing so is the mind’s practice.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Picking a Title

As you may have noticed--probably to your everlasting irritation--I have been referring to the novel I am working on as Anjels (working title). I’m going to try out a couple of others today to get your reaction. They are:

1). Blood Anjels
2). Remember Me
3). Memory Keeper
4). Other Anjels

If nothing else, the jarring difference between the first title and the others will illustrate the importance of a title.

Note that not a single one of these titles is completely original. I did not take them from any other work, but I did google them and found that each one is associated with another book or movie. This is not unusual--you cannot copyright a title--but it is something that I will need to keep in mind when choosing a title. 

I flipped titles 1 and 3 around and found more books and other associations. It is nearly impossible to come up with a title that is not already in use for something else. Wizard Chase was an early online game. Wizard Girl(s) is an anime meme. Wizards End is a website in the UK where you can buy a nice cape. 

Pick your favorite, please, and tell me why you prefer it.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Breaking a Few Eggs

Why would a novelist have to research anything at all? They are just making up a story, right?

Yes, novelists are just making up a story. It should be a plausible story, though. Also, novelists would prefer not to look like complete fools.

For instance, when writing a scene about welding with an oxy-acetylene unit, you want to make sure the welder uses a striker to light the torch, not the tip of his cigarette, unless you’re trying to make a point about the welder’s inexperience, stupidity or devil-may-care attitude. If you’re writing a period novel you won’t want someone working on a PC in 1975.

A science fiction writer is seemingly free to invent whatever warp drive she wants to, without explaining how it works. I’ve used wormholes as time tunnels myself without fear of being called out by physicists, because no one knows that they could not be used in that way.

It gets trickier when you’re writing about biology. True, there could be extraterrestrial forms of life that would baffle a biologist. But if you’re writing about something common to Earth biology, you’d better have a plausible explanation for deviations.

That’s why I’ve been researching eggs. Laying eggs is part of a common method of reproduction on Earth, as it will be on the world in my novel. They are key to an important misunderstanding of reproduction my characters hold. That misunderstanding runs parallel to the metaphysical misapprehension that forms their basic world view.

The eggs in my novel have to grow. Eggs on Earth, once laid, seem never to do that (please correct me if you know better). Once an egg leaves its mother it already has all the energy it needs stored up inside itself to take its occupant to hatching.

There would be evolutionary advantages for an egg and its occupant to grow after it leaves the mother. Chief among those would be that a hatchling could reach a much larger size without trauma to the mother. The disadvantage would be a long period of somehow nourishing a growing egg outside of a body. Also, such an egg would be fragile and exposed for a long time.

Providing some kind of medium in which an egg could grow doesn’t give me a lot of difficulty. I have settled on that. I’m working now on the shell. Is it simply leathery as it grows, absorbing nutrients through its surface? Does it then harden for hatching? My original vision was that the eggs end up with a hard shell, but I’m not certain why they would do that at the end of growth. Perhaps as a signal that they are ready to hatch. Maybe to protect some late-stage vulnerability.

I’m also toying with the idea of something like molting. That is, a soft inner shell grows along with its contents, forcing a harder exterior shell to shatter and sluff off. The inner shell would continue to expand a bit, then harden. The process would repeat until the egg was ready to hatch. This gives me the hard shell I’d like to have, but it seems evolutionarily inefficient.

Cook up some thoughts for me, please. You may have to break some eggs along the way.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Parasites, Fluffy and Not

What is your relationship with parasites? Before you answer 'none' let me list a few organisms or diseases you may have run into:
Mosquitoes, bed bugs, head lice, fleas, pinworms, roundworms swimmer’s itch, giardiasis, crab louse and scabies.
Free of those? Good. There are more than 60 other parasitic organisms that cause humans a lot of grief.

I bring this up not because I want to make you shudder, but because parasitic behavior is important in the book I’m writing about. There is also a fair amount of symbiosis, some of which can be just as creepy.

In general, creatures who are the targets of parasites do everything they can to rid themselves of the pesky things. Even when they do not act as a vector of disease (think malaria), they sap the energy of their hosts.

What a quandary, then, for anjels. They actually like their parasites.
Phlox (singular and plural) are flying parasites who seek long-term, but not permanent, attachment to their hosts. Their preferred hosts are anjels. Over time anjels and phlox have reached an accommodation. Anjels will generally pick one phlox at puberty and allow it to attach to them.

Phlox are furry, flying creatures who come in a variety of colors. They are one of the few decorations an anjel can “wear.”  Some anjels will go overboard, collecting phlox like some women collect shoes. Those anjels are called flaunters. Their colorful phlox make them quite dazzling. And constantly famished.

A phlox is about a foot long. It is snake-like, if you can imagine that in a furry, flying critter, and its tail is prehensile. Determining where its body ends and its tail begins is difficult. Phlox are based loosely on lampreys. They have the same head-topping nostril and circular, sucking mouth.

Anjels tolerate them because they are not just parasitic, but symbiotic. Phlox have evolved along with anjels and help them in their hunting.

There is an ambivalence about phlox among the anjels. Some pain--short and sharp--is involved in the attaching and detaching of phlox. There is a cost to having them, in terms of calories. Yet, they are pretty and they can earn their keep.

Phlox may remind you a little of the relationship you have with a furry little biter of your own. No, of course Spot is not a parasite!  And you keep Puff around because she is soft and beautiful and she hardly ever sucks your blood!

I maintain that our relationship with dogs and cats is symbiotic. I can get away with this partly because there is not complete agreement on the term’s definition. Most pet owners would argue that we do get something important from them, though it may often be intangible. Do they get something from us? Perhaps the same intangible? Perhaps just kibbles.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

How Weird is This?

So, how weird is it to be blogging about a book so seemingly removed from the human experience as Anjels (working title)? There is a part of me that cringes a little when people ask what I’m working on. I know that to many this sounds like some teenage fantasy that I’m cooking up under the covers at night by flashlight. I wonder sometimes if I should just tell people I’m working on a detective novel.

L. Frank Baum probably had the same feeling when people asked about his work. “Yes, it’s about a girl and her dog who are swept out of Kansas by a tornado into a world filled with witches and flying monkeys.”
My book has little in common with The Wizard of Oz, except for how ridiculous it sounds in a sentence. “It’s about angels, only they’re nothing like the angels you think you know about, and they live on another planet and don’t understand anything about sex.”

I could probably buff that description up a bit for an elevator pitch. Still, your takeaway word would be “weird.” And yet, I plan to sell a lot of these.

A book is so much more than its elevator pitch. This one is about love and loss, the joy of flying, coming of age and, ultimately, the eternal question about why we are here. Yes, I answer that one. Obliquely. 

Perhaps I should say something like, “It is about a young girl discovering the agony and joy of life.” But I wonder if I could resist saying, “And she has wings instead of arms.”

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Avoidance as a Writing Strategy

I don’t think I’ve ever suffered from writer’s block. There have certainly been many times--many times to the power of a thousand--when I have not wanted to write. Most of those times I did not write. Was that writer’s block? I don’t think so. That was avoidance. That was being lazy.

Often there are a dozen things I’d rather do than write. I’ve come to accept this over the years, and I’ve even made it into a bit of a strategy. There are times I would rather do a dozen things than paint. There are times I’d rather do another dozen things than sculpt. I have a list of--hard to believe--about a dozen things my better angels (not anjels) would have me doing, because they are creative, lucrative, or non-fattening. My trick is to keep THOSE dozen things in my mind. When I don’t feel like writing, I can turn to a watercolor. When watercolor seems like it is just too much trouble, I can work in wax or pound some copper. When those things aren’t interesting enough, I can always write.

Put another way, which would you rather do, write or mow the lawn? Yes, I know the answer is mow the lawn for many of you. For me, it’s writing. If I can find something else to avoid, something that is boring me this moment, or something I would rather not do when it’s raining, well, there’s always writing to fall back on.

Writing is often a chore. But, you’re not a writer if you don’t write. This little trick helps me when it’s chore time and I really, really should write. Other times, the story grabs hold of me and yanks me into it. That’s when I need no tricks to make the words fly.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Harlan the Blogger

Harlan Ellison was a blogger before blogging existed. Most of his writing career predated the Internet, but he still had blogging down cold. Harlan was my hero because of the way he wrote, what he wrote about and, mostly, because he shared himself with the world. It was easy to get to know him because he often gave readers some background on his stories. Inside information. And, he shared his views. Enthusiastically. 

He did not hesitate to bite the hand that fed him. His collection of essays about television, a medium for which he frequently wrote, was called The Glass Teat

Best known, perhaps, for his anthologies Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions, Ellison has been a prominent purveyor of speculative fiction for decades. Think Star Trek and Twilight Zone.
As I said, Harlan has long been my hero, and he has been a great influence on my life as a writer. Bear with me, I am not changing subjects. 

Another hero of mine was Mabel Bennett Hutchinson, a well known sculptor and watercolorist in California, who happened to be my cousin. Mabel and I were frequent correspondents when she was in her 80s and 90s. We talked about everything from art to politics. I was lucky enough to visit her home a couple of times. It was an art museum in its own right.

Mabel was best known for her exquisite doors, some of which fetch $30,000 today. It turns out she made one for Harlan. I did not know that until after she died. That fact alone made me smile. She had actually met my hero. 

Imagine my surprise, then, when Mabel’s niece, whom I regularly correspond with, sent me a clipping about Harlan with a note that said she’d just sent all his letters to Mabel back to him. They were friends, corresponded for many years, and I did not have a clue. 

I wish I could have read those letters before she sent them back. I don’t think Harlan would have minded a bit. He was a blogger before there were blogs, after all.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Going Home Again

You Can’t go Home Again according to Thomas Wolfe. That has always haunted me. Writers are supposed to have tragic childhoods. The scars are so useful.

My childhood was magical. I lived on a ranch along the Blackfoot River. Not Norman Maclean’s Blackfoot River, the one everyone has heard of.  This was my own private river, winding through a valley that was half real and half imagination.  

When I was eight or nine my mother would make me a Wonder Bread sandwich, stuff it in a little backpack along with an apple and set me free to wander the valley. My dog and I would visit the Indian writing, as we called the pictographs at the upper end of the valley, or the Jungle, or the lava cliffs, or the river. Wherever we went it was the setting for the movie in my mind. A tree that had fallen across a gully became an airplane. The windbreak strawstack was a train in a Western. The barn roof was the Matterhorn. 

My magical world included a fish pond across which we poled a skiff chasing frogs and Finn.
All childhoods end, and this one did abruptly with the death of my father a few days after my eleventh birthday. We left the ranch, a place so essential that we had never named. It was always just The Place.
And still it is. Wolfe was right about the going home. The physical place is still there, but The Place I inhabited is gone. And not gone.

What Wolfe might have known, but never did say, is you can never leave it. That Place you inhabited as a child, good or bad, lives with you forever. If you are lucky, as I am, you can visit it anytime and draw from its slaking well whenever you have that special thirst.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Flight Behavior

I did a little traveling the last few days, which gave me a chance to finish listening to Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver. It is not my purpose to write book reviews by other authors in this book blog, but neither will I ignore what I am reading.

Flight Behavior  is a marvelous book on so many levels. It is a cautionary tale about climate change. It is an examination of the way an accident of birth can hold back a great mind. It is as good as anything I have read about marriage.

Kingsolver’s character development is excellent. Most of her characters are just scraping by in small town Appalachia. What they do and what they say is often hilarious, but she never crosses the line into making fun of them for their situation and their beliefs. She seems to love and understand these people, even as she disagrees with them. She goes out of her way to show us why their beliefs are, in their way of thinking, logical; even necessary. 

Dellarrobia, her protagonist, comes of age about 15 years late. Her intelligence and spirit stunted by surroundings she could not imagine escaping, blossom with a crisis of butterflies. We learn about her species--the hard scrabble Appalachian--as she learns about Monarchs. The world of both species is upturned. The choices are not simple for either. There is a lot of despair here, but at least a little hope, about as substantial as a butterfly. 

Kingsolver chose to narrate her own book. That’s not always a good choice for an author. I don’t think I’d do it, even with many years experience in narration and broadcasting. It works for Kingsolver, though. She’s a talented narrator who uses well her intimate knowledge of how her character’s speech should sound.

Saturday, March 9, 2013


I’ve been reading Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver. I was probably attracted to the book by its title, given that I am struggling to accurately describe the unique method of flying that my main characters use.

Kingsolver gave me no help, there. But she did remind me that butterflies exist. I had been thinking about them for some time. The sky of my anjel world seemed a little barren to me. In this stage of the draft there are only a couple types of waterfowl and one kind of scavenger bird that share the air with anjels. I have now started to write in something like butterflies and a cleaning bird.

We think of butterflies as beautiful pollinators, when we think about them at all. I thought there might be a role for them as scavengers. I Googled scavenger butterflies and was not surprised to find several recent references to this type of behavior on the planet we call Earth.

So, now I’m having some fun playing beauty against disgust. We tend not to admire our scavengers. Think of vultures and hyenas. Yet, they do perhaps the most necessary job on the planet. In the American West, where I live, one of the most common scavengers we encounter is the magpie. I have never understood why they are so reviled. They are gorgeous, intelligent birds, just going about their business.

Does scavenging play a large role in how we see magpies? Bald eagles are scavengers, too, but we tend to think of them as noble creatures. Maybe magpies are downgraded because we see them doing their work on the side of the road. Eagles are not typically so bold. Besides, they prefer fish, a critter that only rarely succumbs to passing autos. 

Butterflies, or their anjel planet analog, have the advantage of hiding their scavenging work with their delicate selves. Their colorful swarms are much easier to look at than the carcasses they cover. Death is always just behind the curtain, but it is easier to take if the curtain is beautiful.

Friday, March 8, 2013

A Word About Wizards

And today, a word about wizards. No, not the seemingly magic-dispensing kind that live in my Wizards Trilogy. I want to take a moment to thank the wizards at Google for making it possible for me to keep writing through some technical issues.

This past weekend I was trying to upgrade my computer system so that I could run Adobe Premiere. I want to be able to do a little freelance video work. In the process of doing that, I fried something. The jury is still out on what that might have been, but it turned my computer into a brick. I don’t do yellow tablets, so I was screwed. Or, I thought I was.

I work on Google Drive. It makes everything I do available to me in the cloud wherever I am. I could access my work from my Chromebook, but typing on a flat keyboard is extremely annoying to me. Then it occurred to me that the wizards at Logitech had made at tiny USB interface device for my wireless keyboard and mouse. I didn’t have my computer anymore, but I did have my wavy, natural keyboard and mouse. I plugged the USB module into the back of my Chromebook and, tada, it just worked. The screen is about 1/4 the size of my desktop screen, but I’m writing! Wait. No, I’m not. I’m blogging. And now, back to our story...

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Weight Loss for Writers

It is my understanding that most writers tell their story lavishly, at first, spending words like they had no credit limit. For them, writing is a weight loss program. They go back with a scalpel and excise the extravagance until only the leanest story is left.

I write leanly to begin with. On the second and subsequent reads I usually find a few words that I can slice away without affecting meaning. On nearly every read of every section I find some little tweak to make.

My major rewrite, though, is when I go back through the story after I complete the first draft and add in what I have missed. As I go along, the story will build on itself and I will find that I need to go back earlier in the book to include an explanation or flesh out a story line. I may even add a minor character and it is not uncommon at all for me to add scenes to the story that I realized somewhere toward the end must exist in order for a reader to understand the world she is reading about.

Again, this is where an editor really earns their keep. After I have read some passages 20 or 30 times, and the whole book six or seven times, the story is so internalized for me that it is difficult to remember what is on the page and what is still stuck in some corner of my mind. My editor lets me know when there is a break in continuity. It is not my favorite thing to hear that I have left something out or explained something poorly. Better to hear it from an editor, though, than from a reader.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Imaginary Death

I’ve heard it said that all books are about death. I suppose there is something to that, if you consider that they are also conversely about life. Life and its end are what we have. That is the sum of our certainty. It is from this that all tragedy, all comedy, all art springs. We celebrate life all the more because we know that death is in our future.

And, here’s where religion steps in. Since we cannot remember a time when we were not alive, it is nearly impossible for us to grasp a future so rude that it needs us not at all. We seek explanation, reassurance and hope. Maybe we will live again. Or maybe we will live some reflected life in the memories of others.

Anjels (working title) is about a common human belief about death and its impermanence. It envisions a fairly simple culture clinging to a primitive belief about reincarnation. That the anjels misunderstand so much about their physical lives will lead at least one character to question their beliefs about the metaphysical. As with most of us, this questioning is brought about by a proximate death.
I am writing that scene today, or at least I think I am. Sometimes it takes longer to get to some particular plot point than I think it will.

Writing about the death of a loved one--even one loved by a character you have created--is always difficult. Inevitably it becomes, at least in part, a reliving of deaths you have known in your own life. In writing about death in a world of winged creatures, how can I not remember the five of my friends and family who have fallen from the sky?

This imaginary death will not resemble those in its particulars. Its aftermath will be familiar to us all, though. Maybe that is why it has been said that all books are about death. No matter how our lives differ from one another, we have this one thing in common. This thing that repels and compels us. This end to what we know.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Educating Anjels

One of the major themes of the book I’m writing is passing on knowledge from generation to generation. In the novel that becomes an unhealthy obsession that stunts the growth of the people who participate in it. In reality, though, it is the most important thing we do. 

Most often we think of this passing on of knowledge as education. But I don't think we always realize what we're doing when we educate. We are making the tribal memory of the human race available to newly minted people. Because we have been able to pass stories along, then save images on rocks, then create an alphabet, then, and then and then, until we have computers and the Internet and beyond; because we can pass that knowledge on, people do not have to be blank slates learning everything again that has been learned a trillion times before.

There is no reason to believe that people who lived 10,000 years ago were less intelligent than we are today. And yet, they did not fly around in airplanes. Why is that? It is because passing on knowledge through storytelling has severe limitations. If you want proof of that, play the childhood game of telephone a time or two.

Once alphabets and writing were invented, and technologies came along to preserve the thoughts and experiments of our forebears, knowledge increased exponentially. The speed of that tsunami is picking up every day. And now, the singularity may actually happen in the lifetimes of people around us today.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Always Avoid Annoying Alliteration

Alliteration is a useful mnemonic device, especially in poetry. It helps you remember a line, as does rhyme. English is a rhyme poor language. Just think of lonely, friendless orange. Oh, there are the oblique rhymes for that famous word, but who wants to write a love poem about mange? Or orange, for that matter.

I am not writing poetry so I do not intentionally rhyme. Modern poetry makes much less use of it, anyway. Accidental rhymes are fairly rare. One quick read of a line or two and an accidental rhyme stands out like a mime in organized crime. Rhymes are easy to spot and easy to kill. Alliteration happens by accident more frequently than it happens on purpose.

Alliteration adds to a story like spice adds to stew. Too much makes it intolerable. The trick is, “too much” is in the ear of the annoyed. 

As mentioned earlier in this blog I have intentionally set myself up in some boxes with this current book. The alliteration box is not one I intentionally created, but it does exist. As I said, alliteration is easy and often accidental. Add to that characters who fly, characters who have fur, characters called phlox and a character named Fox and you have a flurry of furry flying phlox in a fury about Fox. 

I am constantly examining and reexamining alliteration in this book. I kill a lot of it, but sometimes it is so sweet it simply must stay. 

Did I mention that everyone needs an editor?

Friday, March 1, 2013

Which One is You?

One question writers often get is some variation of, “Which character is you?” Some people seem to think that writing is a matter of taking the people you’re familiar with, changing their names and dropping them into an interesting situation to produce a novel. 

It rarely works that way. We are all products of our experiences, so the quirks and habits of people we know are bound to seep into our characters, as are the quirks and habits of characters we read about. Writing a character based on someone you know is far too limiting and a potential source of trouble you don’t need.

My first novel, Keeping Private Idaho, featured characters in a fictional state tourism agency. Since I knew and worked with many people in the analog of that agency, I carefully avoided giving the two main characters the attributes of the characters who actually held those positions. The real tourism director at the time was an amiable, thoughtful man whom I considered a friend. So, I made the fictional character a strident, blonde female who would walk over anyone to get her way. Even so, the real tourism director was less than thrilled. We’re still friends, but it illustrated for me the dangers of treading anywhere near a real person when developing a character. Ironically, C.J. Box used our mutual friend’s name--with his permission--as the name of a character in one of his books. The character was a nasty guy. Our friend thought it was hilarious. 

So, no, I don’t use people I know as characters in my books. And, no, the lead character is not always me. The fact that I have written two books featuring a 12-year-old girl as the lead character should be a clue. The answer to “Which one is you?” is, none of them. And all of them.