#AtoZChallenge 2020: W Is for What (a Fun Read)

Jack Cowherd (NOT Cow-erd) has just been elected Governor of Texas when he learns that Texas is no longer part of the United States—it happened fast, and not the way you think—and he’s actually President of the brand new Second Republic of Texas.  After a ceremony at the State Capitol, Jack, his wife Nadine (well endowed, but not with brains), his chief of staff Tasha Longoria (overqualified in both brains and common sense), newly dug-up chauffeur Rusty. and “fuzzy-cheeked” aide Shane arrive Austin’s Camp Mabry to inspect the Texas Freedom Militia. When you don’t have an official military, you go with what you’ve got.

*

They arrived at Camp Mabry, once home to the Texas National Guard; now occupied by the Texas Freedom Militia. Rusty slowed the Lincoln and turned into the main entry drive. Two camo-clad militia members immediately stepped out of a small booth in front of the gate. One held up his hand. Rusty braked to a stop.

The militiaman with his hand up ambled over to the driver’s window. Rusty lowered it and stuck his head out. “We’re here for the inspection,” he said.

The militiaman said, “May I see your papers, please?”

“We don’t have any papers,” said Rusty. “We’re not with the militia.”

“I know that, sir. That’s why I need to see some identification.”

Rusty smiled. “Oh, why didn’t you say so?” He handed over a card from his wallet.

The militiaman scrutinized the plastic card. “This is your Costco membership, sir. I need your driver’s license.”

“Uh, the thing is, I don’t have it on me.”

“What?” said Tasha. “You’re the driver and you don’t have a license?”

“I have a license. I just don’t have it here, is all.”

“Well, where is it?”

Rusty furrowed his brow. “You know, I think I left it at the bowling alley last night when I rented these shoes.” He pulled a foot onto the seat to show Shane. “See, I’m still wearing them.”

Shane said, “He’s right, ma’am. Those are bowling shoes.”

The militiaman leaned in toward Rusty. “I can’t let you in wearing bowling shoes, sir.”

“What difference does it make what shoes I’m wearing?”

“What I mean is, you can’t come in without identification.”

Tasha opened her door and stepped out of the car. The second militiaman jumped back, whipped out a Glock pistol, and pointed it at her. “Get back in the car right now!”

Tasha glared at him. “Or what, you’ll shoot the president’s chief of staff?”

Camp Mabry Howitzer. By Leonardocognoscenti, CC BY-SA 4.0. Via Wikipedia.

The militiaman lowered the gun in confusion. “What are you talking about?”

“Look in the back seat. That’s Jack Cowherd, president of the Republic of Texas.”

The man peered into the car. “Shit, Lonnie, she’s right. They could have told us.”

“Well I’ll be goddamned,” said the man called Lonnie. “What brings you to Camp Mabry, sir?”

Jack got out of the car. “General Cummings invited me to inspect the troops You boys don’t want to keep him waiting, do you?”

“No, sir!” said Lonnie, saluting. “Nate, put that gun away.”

Nate quickly holstered the pistol. “Sorry, sir . . . ma’am. Just trying to be safe, you know. Just last week they caught a Muslim terrorist over in Copperas Cove.”

“That wasn’t no terrorist,” said Lonnie. “That was a Mexican woman at the swimming pool with a towel on her head.”

“Yeah, but they didn’t know that until they pulled it off and she yelled something in Spanish.”

Tasha said, “I’ll bet it was ‘Give me my towel back, you idiot.”

“No, I think it had more cuss words.”

“Excuse me, boys,” said Jack, “y’all are doing a fine job but I wonder if we could go meet the general now.”

“Yes, sir!” the militiamen shouted in unison. They stepped away from the car and raised the gate.

Jack and Tasha got back in the Lincoln. As the car rolled trough the gate Tasha noticed both guards snapping iPhone pictures of the vehicle. Rusty said, “Damn, I’ll sleep better tonight knowing they caught that Isis woman in Copperas Cove.”

***

Jeffrey Kerr. The Republic of Jack

Says the author, “The Republic of Jack is a whimsical imagining of a world in which modern Texas secessionists get their way, only to learn that Aesop was right so many years when he wrote, ‘Be careful what you wish for.'”

Lines That Shut Your Eyes

 

Twelve-year-old Emma Graham and elderly Mr. Root sit outside the grocery store in a little town in the mountains of Maryland, discussing poetry. From Martha Grimes’ Fadeaway Girl:

“What’s the poem, Mr. Root?”

. . . It was a paperback, not very thick. I saw it was the poetry of Robert Frost. “But I thought you didn’t like Robert Frost. You were all against ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.’ Remember?”

“That one, yeah. But he’s wrote a couple of good ones. I kind of put ’em in between Emily’s, you know, . . .”  Mr. Root cleared his throat and intoned in a sing-song fashion:

This saying good-by on the edge of the dark—

It shut my eyes, that line did, as sure as someone passing a hand over them. “Oh,” I said.

“What?”

“Nothing.”

He read on, although I was still back there on the edge of the dark.

Then he came to:

I wish I could promise to lie in the night
And think of an orchard’s ar-bo-re-al plight
When slowly (and nobody comes with a light)
Its heart sinks lower under the sod.

My eyes snapped shut again. I had never heard anything so fearfully sad. I bit my lip to keep from crying. I could almost see it, the trees too young to be left alone, waiting for someone or something to come, and finally knowing no one ever would.

“Yep,” said Mr. Root. “Some of his, well, I’d say he knows what he’s talking about. Straight talk. That’s what Frost was really good at, none of those namby-pamby poems about Greek urns and stuff. Nope”—he held up the book—”just plainspoken, to-the-point words about nature and stuff.”

“Mr. Root,” I said, “I don’t think he’s plainspoken. He means a lot more than what he seems to be saying.” . . .

Mr. Root pushed his feed cap back on his head and scratched his forehead. . . .

“What do you mean by that?” His eyes narrowed as if I were insulting him.

I didn’t want to talk about it; I don’t know why I had to open my big mouth. “Well, I think he means something different from what he’s saying. Or seems to be saying.” . . .

I asked Mr. Root if I could borrow the book for a minute, and he handed it to me.

“And could I have a piece of paper and use your pencil?”

He tore off a little sheet and handed that to me, too, along with his pencil. “Whatcha doin’?”

“Just copying.”

I wrote the last lines on the paper and folded it up and stuck it in my change purse.

***

Are there any lines of poetry or prose that shut your eyes?

What’s Literature For?

 

What good is literature? What’s it for? Why do we study it?

High school English students used to ask me that all the time.

I told them that reading novels and short stories, especially classics, would give them an edge on Jeopardy.

Today I’m going to tell the truth.

Once upon a time, the library I directed sponsored a scholarship contest for seniors going on to post-high school education—$100 for the best essay on the subject, “A Book That Changed My Life.”

One student wrote about Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, an autobiographical novel about a young woman’s descent into depression. At her lowest point, she attempts suicide and is hospitalized. With treatment, her condition improves. The book ends with her preparing to have an interview to determine whether she can leave the hospital. It’s suggested that she will go on to live a normal life.

About The Bell Jar, the girl wrote that she had once seriously contemplated suicide. After reading the novel, however, she abandoned the thought and had hope for her future.

Another student wrote about Judy Blume’s Forever. Katherine, who is preparing for college, falls in love with Michael and begins a sexual relationship with him. They’re sure they’ll be together forever. Later, Katherine becomes attracted to another boy. She sees that her relationship with Michael is limiting. She breaks up with him. She realizes that she can get over the break-up and knows she will go on to have other relationships in the future.

Disclaimer: I believe that teenagers should be allowed to read widely. I believe teens are capable of reading at a deeper level than many adults give them credit for. But when I read Forever in a graduate course in library school, I was horrified. The sex scenes are graphic, and the protagonist’s main concern is her sex life. No, no, absolutely not.

Then I read the girl’s essay. What she took from the novel: “I love my boyfriend, but I learned I have to be responsible for myself, and not depend on somebody else to take care of me. I carry the book in my purse all the time,” she wrote.

Wow.

One novel convinces a teenage girl not to commit suicide; another shows a girl that she must be responsible for herself.

So what is literature for?

For that.

I apologize for being flippant. The next time I’m asked what literature is for, I’m going to be serious.

Literature has nothing to do with Jeopardy.

Literature is for life.

 

The Past Alive

 

It used to be that the world had rested entirely on her father’s shoulders. He was the steady one, the safe one—the person she could depend on when her mother was in a state.

But even the thought of her mother, now, gave her a tugging feeling of loss, and she often found herself missing that shy look her mother used to send from under her eyebrows when she hoped to be forgiven for something, and her lighthearted, girlish laugh, and her floating soprano voice singing, “Write me a letter, send it by mail . . .”

Oh, sounds were what brought the past alive most clearly! “Take my hand,” she heard the back of the room boys crooning, “I’m a strange-looking parasite . . .” And then other, more anonymous voices, blurred and staticky like those ancient radio waves rumored to be traveling endlessly out into space. “One potato, two potato, three potato, four,” and “He-e-re’s Johnny! and “Instinctively, the arthritis sufferer rubs the afflicted area.”

From his bed across the room Peter gave a sudden sharp sigh, and Willa started. It took her a second to remember who he was.

~ Anne Tyler, Clockwork Dance

***

But your voice– never the rushing
Of a river underground,
Not the rising of the wind
In the trees before the rain,
Not the woodcock’s watery call,
Not the note the white-throat utters,
Not the feet of children pushing
Yellow leaves along the gutters
In the blue and bitter fall,
Shall content my musing mind
For the beauty of that sound
That in no new way at all
Ever will be heard again.

***

But the music of your talk
Never shall the chemistry
Of the secret earth restore.
All your lovely words are spoken.
Once the ivory box is broken,
Beats the golden bird no more.

~ Edna St. Vincent Millay, excerpt from “Elegy”

Interview with Elizabeth Buhmann, Author of Blue Lake

 

Yesterday we posted a review of Elizabeth Buhmann’s novel BLUE LAKE. Today we hear from the author herself:

 

Where did you get the idea for Blue Lake?

A friend told me something about her family history. Her grandmother, who was born in 1910, had 12 children. By the time the last child came along, her oldest daughter was in her twenties, childless, and wishing she could have a baby. So that youngest child was given to her sister and grew up believing that her sister was her mother and her mother was her grandmother.

The way my friend told it, the situation played out without great trauma—the little girl learned that she was adopted in the usual sort of way. But to me, the possibilities for very deep emotional upheaval were striking, just depending on the circumstances. For my main character, Regina, being given to her sister was a disaster, and the feelings of betrayal, rejection, and abandonment are intense.

Why the mid-century setting?

Another friend, who read a very early draft of this story, said, “It’s great but the setting in time falls between contemporary and historical. Can’t you tell the same story set in present day?”

The answer is no. For two reasons. One: too many things that happen in the story could not happen now. Advances in forensic science, victim services, and child protection would be expected to change the outcome at nearly every stage. And yet I think that many of the old attitudes and assumptions—especially about female victims, racial prejudice, and the sovereignty of the family—are stubbornly alive today.

Two: There is a shape to that era—the twenties, the Crash, the Depression, World War II, emerging modernism—that is unique and still shapes our world experience. And I don’t think anyone disputes that the Old South continues to haunt us.

This book is very different from your first!

It is! LAY DEATH AT HER DOOR was a much riskier project, having a protagonist who was in so many ways also an antagonist. And it was contemporary. And although the crimes reached back decades, the truth about them was entirely accessible in the end.

In Blue Lake, the violence reaches back so far in the past, and in a time when the truth about an isolated incident could so much more easily slip out of reach forever, that it felt to me as though Regina would never be able penetrate the mystery. It was a challenge to lead her to the answers she so desperately needed.

Always murder! Why do you write about murder?

To me it is the ultimate drama, when human emotions result in one person killing another. I try to treat murder with respect, for the extreme and shocking act that it is for real. I love a good cozy mystery as much as the next person, but I cannot write one. Murder is a deadly serious topic—could not be more so.

I also read mysteries and thrillers that feature serial killers, though these are not my favorites at all. These murders are committed by people who fall well outside the realm of normal human emotional response. I am more interested in a murder that is understandable, so to speak.

I would not go so far as to say that we are all capable of killing another human being. I have no idea whether that is true—probably not? But I think we all recognize and experience emotions which, if we were tested to a limit and beyond, could make us really want to kill another person.

Laws are quite clear about issues such as self-defense and justifiable homicide, but our individual perceptions of these concepts, in extreme and highly emotional circumstances, can be quite elastic. And it may well be that anyone who murders has a deeply flawed character. But character flaws are universally human, too.

*

Elizabeth Buhmann is originally from Virginia, where both of her novels are set. Growing up as the daughter of an Army officer, she lived in France, Germany, New York, Japan, and Saint Louis. She graduated magna cum laude from Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, and has a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Pittsburgh. For twenty years she worked for the Texas Attorney General as a researcher and writer on criminal justice and crime victim issues. Her first murder mystery, Lay Death at Her Door, earned a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly and twice reached the Amazon Top 100 (paid Kindle). Elizabeth lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband and dog. She is an avid gardener, loves murder mysteries, and is a long-time student of Tai Chi.

*

BLUE LAKE: A Mystery is available at https://www.amazon.com/Blue-Lake-Mystery-Elizabeth-Buhmann-ebook/dp/B07SKJ1CF4/

 

 

 

 

LAY DEATH AT HER DOOR is available at https://www.amazon.com/Lay-Death-at-Her-Door-ebook/dp/B07D7YPNC2

A Is for Anne Tyler: #atozchallenge

Anne Tyler has done it again.

The last time I wrote about her, I was in a snit. She’d killed off my favorite character halfway through the novel I was reading, and I was not happy.

I’m writing this time because she’s made me laugh. The book is Vinegar Girl, a retelling of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, and in it she kills no one at all. She must have had a wonderful time writing it.

“Petruchio and Kate” by Smatprt licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

For a quick recap: Shakespeare’s shrew is Katherina, daughter of Baptista and older sister of the gentle Bianca. Afraid Katherina, whose reputation precedes her, will never receive a proposal, Baptista tells two young men eager to marry Bianca that his older daughter must marry before the younger. The suitors recruit Petruchio to woo Katherina; Katherina resists, but finding him her intellectual equal, agrees to marry him. Then Petruchio sets about “taming” his bride. At the end, Petruchio presents her to the public as the model of a sweet-tempered, obedient wife

Tyler’s Katherina is Kate Battista. Ten years before the story begins, Kate was invited to leave college after telling her botany professor his explanation of photosynthesis was “half-assed.” Her medical research scientist father made no fuss about her expulsion because he agreed the explanation was half-assed.

Since then, Kate has worked as a teacher’s aide at the Charles Village Little People’s School, where she spends a lot of time in Mrs. Darling’s office, being counseled in the need to use tact, diplomacy, and restraint when speaking with parents. For example, when Jameesha’s father asked her to do something about Jameesha’s finger sucking–Jameesha has a “habit of sucking her two middle fingers, with her pinkie and her index finger sticking up on either side like the sign language for ‘I love you'”–Kate told him not to worry: “Chances are she’ll stop soon enough, once her fingers grow so long that she pokes both her eyes out.” Mrs. Darling says she must develop “some social skills. Some tact, some restraint, some diplomacy.” Difficulty navigating the school’s “mysterious” etiquette has Kate on what Mrs. Darling calls “thin ice.”

Kate also runs the household and takes care of her father and her fifteen-year-old sister Bunny. Taking care of her father includes delivering his oft-forgotten lunches to his lab and doing his taxes. Taking care of Bunny includes preventing her from getting too friendly with her “Spanish tutor,” next-door neighbor, Edward Mintz, whose mother says he has “that Japanese disease . . . the one where young people shut themselves in their bedrooms and refuse to go on with their lives.” Bunny, who was normal until about the time she turned twelve, also has the “irksome habit” of “turning declarative sentences into questions.” Bunny isn’t easy to deal with, and Kate has been dealing with her since their mother died, when Bunny was six years old.

Working at a preschool and being a family manager isn’t the life Kate expected to have, but when the story opens, she’s not expecting anything to change. Then her father introduces her to his research assistant, Pyotr Cherbakov.

When they meet, Kate says, “Hi,” but Pyotr says, “Vwwouwv!” That’s the kind of thing men often say when they first see Kate, “due to a bunch of dead cells: her hair, which was blue-black and billowy and extended below her waist.”

(She stopped getting her hair cut when she was thirteen because she couldn’t take any more of the “Chatty Cathy act”:

“In the beauty parlor. Talk, talk, talk; those places are crawling with talk. The women there start going before they even sit down–talk about boyfriends, husbands, mothers-in-laws. Roommates, jealous girlfriends. Feuds and misunderstandings and romances and divorces. How can they find so much to say? I could never think of anything, myself. I kept disappointing the beautician. Finally I went, ‘Shoot. I’ll just quit getting my hair cut.'”)

Then Dr. Battista brings Pyotr home to dinner. And snaps photos of her and Pyotr with his cell phone, which he never uses because he’s a little afraid of it. And tells her that in two months, Pyotr’s visa will expire and he’ll have to leave the country, and he’s the best assistant Dr. Battista has ever had, ever could have, and the whole scientific community knows about Pyotr Cherbakov, and he’s the only one Dr. Battista can possibly work with, and without Pyotr he might as well abandon his research, because it’s doomed . . . unless . . .

“Unless, perhaps, we could get him an . . . adjustment of status.

“Oh, good, get him an adjustment of status.”

She brushed past him and went out to the hall. “Bunny!” she shouted. “Supper’s on!”

“We could adjust his status to ‘married to an American.'”

“Pyotr’s married to an American?”

“Well, not quite yet,” her father said. He trailed her back to the dining room. “But he’s fairly nice-looking, don’t you agree? All those girls working in the building: they seem to find different reasons to talk to him.”

“So he could marry a girl in the building?” Kate asked. She sat down at her place and shook out her napkin.

“I don’t think so,” her father said. “He doesn’t . . . the conversations never seem to develop any further, unfortunately.”

“Then who?”

Her father sat down at the head of the table. He cleared his throat. “You, maybe?”

And so it begins. Such fun.

Or maybe not.

Shrews aren’t usually born shrewish. Shakespeare shows that Baptista favors Bianca; it’s no wonder Katherina is out of sorts.

Kate Battista, too, is the daughter of a widowed father who seems to take her for granted while focusing his attention on his younger child. When Pyotr observes Kate is pretty, Dr. Battista says, “You should see her sister.” That must hurt.

And then he makes a heartless request, urges her to marry a man she doesn’t know so he can keep his research assistant.

“I guess I just couldn’t believe my own father would conceive of such a thing.  . . . You would never ask Bunny to do this . . . Your precious treasure Bunny-poo.”

The Taming of the Shrew poses a problem for modern audiences: It is misogynistic? Maybe. Maybe not. Some scholars say Katherina isn’t tamed at all, but that she and Petruchio are putting on an elaborate show for the banquet guests and are enjoying every minute of it.

Vinegar Girl poses no such problem. Kate is no Katherina, rife for taming. But after ten years of routine, she suddenly has a lot more to think about than doing taxes and cooking meat mash and keeping Bunny in line. The idea of marrying Pyotr is unthinkable. But it’s so important to her father.

Will she please her father or herself? Can she do both? Will her sense of honor and self-respect survive the ordeal?

Does she have the tact, diplomacy, and restraint to carry her through? Or will her own mysterious etiquette be enough?

And, by the way, where does Pyotr fit into this puzzle?

Tyler’s Vinegar Girl is a delightful romp, part Shakespeare, part Jane Austen, all Anne Tyler. It would make a fine summer read. Or fall. Or winter.

Or now.

***

Anne Tyler. Vinegar Girl: William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew Retold. Hogarth Shakespeare, 2016.

Elizabeth Berg: The Last Time I Saw You

10-12-2019 TTM pixabay CC0 african-boerboel-2138273_640Lester Hessenpfeffer awakens on a bath rug stuffed into the corner of a gigantic cage and stares into the open eyes of the bull mastiff. The dog wags his tail once, twice, and Lester feels his chest tighten with joy. Just before he fell asleep, he’d been preparing a speech for the dog’s owners about how he’d done his best, how he’d tried everything, but . . . Samson had ingested a few Legos the day before, which the owners’ great-grandchildren had left lying about. One had perforated his intestine. By the time he was brought to Lester’s clinic, the dog was in shock and the prospects for saving him were almost nil. Lester had slept in the cage with him to provide comfort not so much for the dog as to himself. He’d known Samson since he was a puppy, and he was very fond of the owners, an elderly couple who thought Samson hung the moon. They’d wanted to spend the night at the clinic, but after Lester told them he’d be literally right beside the dog, they reluctantly went home. Lester had hoped they’d get some sleep, so that they could more easily bear the news he was pretty certain he’d have to deliver in the morning. This is always the worst part of his job, telling people their pet has died. Sometimes they know it, at least empirically; on more than one occasion someone has brought a dead animal into the office hoping against hope that Lester can revive it. And when he can’t, he must say those awful words: I’m so sorry. He’s noticed a certain posture many people assume on hearing those words. They step back and cross their arms, as though guarding themselves against any more pain, or as though holding on more time the animal they loved as truly as any other family member, if not more. Oftentimes, they nod, too, their heads saying yes to what their hearts cannot accept.

But here Samson is, alive and well enough to give Lester’s face a good washing with a tongue the size of a giant oven mitt. “Hey, pal,” Lester says, “you made it. Let’s have a look at that dressing.” He rises to his knees and very gently turns the dog slightly onto his side. Samson whimpers and holds overly still, the way that dogs often do when they’re frightened. There’s a lot of drainage, but nothing leaking through. He’ll give Stan something for pain and then call Stan and Betty. By the time he’s done talking to them–he can anticipate at least a few of the questions they’ll have–he’ll be able to change the dressing without causing the dog undue distress. He thinks Samson will be able to stand and move about a little this afternoon, and imagines him lifting his leg with great dignity against the portable fireplug his staff uses for cage-bound male dogs (the girls get Astroturf). The portable bathrooms had been Jeanine’s idea; she was always coming up with good ideas. She had the idea for Pet Airways before they came up with Pet Airways, although her suggestion was that owners and pets fly together–cages would be installed next to seats so that an owner could reach down and scratch behind an ear, or speak reassuringly, or offer a snack. This was a much better idea for alleviating the stress caused to animals when they fly, and Lester advised Jeanine to write to Pet Airways suggesting it. She said she’d rather keep the idea for herself, because she wanted to start Dog Airways, as it is her belief that only dogs really care when their owners are gone. She is by her own admission a dog chauvinist, but she’s good to all animals who come to the clinic, even the hamster whose hysterical owner brought her in because she was gobbling up her babies as soon as she gave birth to them.

Jeanine also had the idea that Lester should attend his high school reunion. When the invitation had come to the clinic, Jeanine had opened it, and then immediately begun a campaign to get her boss to go. Lester knew what she had in mind–she wanted him to find a woman. . . .

*

From Chapter Two of Elizabeth Berg’s The Last Time I Saw You
Random House, 2009

“As onetime classmates meet up over the course of a weekend for their fortieth high school reunion, they discover things that will irrevocably affect the rest of their lives. For newly divorced Dorothy, the reunion brings with it the possibility of finally attracting the attention of the class heartthrob. For the ever self-reliant, ever left out Mary Alice, it’s a chance to reexamine a painful past. For Lester, a veterinarian and widower, it is the hope of talking shop with a fellow vet–or at least that’s what he tells himself. For Candy, the class beauty, it’s the hope of finding friendship before it’s too late. As these and other classmates converge for the reunion dinner, four decades melt away; desires and personalities from their youth reemerge, and new discoveries are made. For so much has happened to them all. And so much can still happen.”

“For the delightful hours it takes to read this novel, it seems that the characters jumped off the page and joined the crowd for a casual family supper.” — Chicago Tribune

“Marvelous . . . plenty of pathos and can’t-stop-laughing moments . . . readers will care about every character. — The Oklahoman

“Book groups are clamoring for upbeat yet significant works that are entertaining as well as enlightening; Berg’s latest novel satisfies and succeeds on both counts.” — Booklist

*

 

Image via Pixabay

 

Scrimshanking

“After the Edit” licensed by Laura Ritchie under CC By-2.0

At my office/coffee shop/bookstore, sitting at the computer bar at the side of the room, laptop plugged into an outlet beneath,  iced Atzec mocha against the wall where I hope it won’t spill, two industrious critique partners on my right.

I am scrimshanking.

The spell checker says scrimshanking isn’t a word. That’s what it knows.

Scrimshanking is a word, because I saw it on Dictionary.com five minutes ago, just in time to use it.

We are sixteen days into National Novel Writing Month. Writers following the plan are 26, 762 words into their projected 50,000-word  novels.

I am 75,000 words behind.

I DO NOT WORK THE NANO WAY.

Someday that will sink in.

It sinks in every year, but someday it will sink in.

 

No, No, NaNo or, Just Do It

NaNoWriMo –National Novel Writing Month–the month* in which participants vow to write a 50,000-word novel–and some of them do–began yesterday.

The goal–if you want to reach 50,000 words and win NaNoWriMo (which from this point on will be called NaNo), you need to write an average of 1667 words a day.

I’ve registered for NaNo–there’s a website–at least three times, maybe four. Unfortunately, every year, as soon as I signed on, I became claustrophobic and began to hyperventilate. Mentally, not physically, but mentally is bad enough. There was something about having to write a novel in a month that made me feel the walls were closing in, as if I had to do something I didn’t want to do, as if someone were forcing me to write that novel in a month. No one was forcing me, but seeming can feel a lot like being.

Eugène Delacroix (1834): Hamlet, I, 2 - The qu...
Eugène Delacroix (1834): Hamlet, I, 2 – The queen consoles Hamlet. (Photo credit: Wikipedia) Public domain. {{PD-Art}}

For example, consider what Hamlet** says to his mother the first time we see them together. He’s been going around wearing customary suits of inky black day after day, and suspiring all over the palace, and although his mother knows he’s grieving for his dead father, she says everybody does that at one time or another, and asks why he seems so much more miserable than others in the same situation.

He answers,

“Seems,” madam? Nay, it is; I know not “seems.”

In other words, this isn’t put on, he’s genuinely perturbed. Of course, there’s more to it than he lets on: After his father died, before the funeral baked meats, like the casseroles and tuna sandwiches the neighbors brought in, had been consumed, his mother went and married her husband’s brother, who doesn’t have much to recommend him. That would make any prince suspire. And Hamlet must be irritated that his mother is so clueless. She asks a silly question, and he sasses her. “Nay, it is; I know not “seems,” is, in modern terms, something like, Well, d’oh.

Anyway, back to NaNo. The mere act of registering gives me a serious case of the fantods.

David Garrick in Hamlet, I, 4
David Garrick in Hamlet, I, 4 (Photo credit: Wikipedia) Public domain. {{PD-Art}}

Hamlet could have addressed his fantods by confronting his mother and his uncle and asking  straight out what in the world they thought they were doing, but instead he takes the passive-aggressive route and pretends he’s unhinged.

I, on the other hand, have, every year, faced my dilemma head on: I’ve dropped out. No novel, no problem.

 

This year, however, I’m confronting it by plowing on through. I shall, and I will, write 50,000 words by November 30. I’ll go from beginning to middle to end, I’ll  submit my scrambled manuscript through the NaNo website, and I’ll win.

On the basis of my experience, both past and present, I’ve come up with some helpful hints I’m happy to share:

  1. After you register for NaNo, be proactive. Fill out your profile. You don’t have to use your real name. Title your book. It doesn’t matter what, just name it and record it on the website. Join a community. Then write a synopsis. If you don’t have a plot, wing it. Nobody’s going to read it, and it might end up working out. Complete these steps and you’ll receive badges. I got one for filling out my profile, one for joining my community (I told them where I live), and one for “creating” my novel. I take issue with that creating business, but if it makes them happy to think so…
  2. Badges make you feel better, so award yourself some for personal achievement. I gave myself a Plantser badge, because I usually have to write for a while before my characters tell me what they want to do (flying by the seat of my pants, or pantsing), but then, once things get going, I come up with a rudimentary framework (plotting). Plotter + pantser = Plantser. I also gave myself a Rebel badge to declare myself a NaNo Rebel!, state my belief “that rules are meant to be broken,” and admit that on November 1, I’ll “start writing anything but a brand new novel.” I could not have phrased that better myself. Plantser and Rebel might seem contradictory, but who cares.
  3. Relax. Getting all het up won’t help. By Thanksgiving you’ll be so antsy your family will make you take your plate and eat out on the porch.

Now for the Don’ts:

  1. On November 1, don’t let a podiatrist operate on your foot. It won’t hurt, but it’ll take a chunk out of your day that you should spend working on your novel.
  2. On November 1, don’t have two meetings, even if they promise to be interesting and you want to go. See #1 regarding chunks.
  3. On November 1, when you want to quit, don’t. If you feel the queasies coming on, follow Eloise’s lead: Say, “Pooh pooh to you,”***  and get over it. (Eloise and Hamlet’s mother have a lot in common.)
  4. Don’t schedule the Sisters in Crime chapter newsletter you edit (and write) to post on November 1. Before you post, you’ll have to tweak, and you’ll tweak everything, even things that don’t need tweaking, and you’ll add content, and it’s already too long, and it’ll be 9:00 p. m. before you press Publish.
  5. Don’t download the trial version of Scrivener**** that’s available to every NaNo participant. Even if you’ve used it before, you won’t remember how it works, because it’s big and complicated, and you don’t need it right now anyway, you can get it later, and MS Word is sufficient, and if you have Scrivener, you’ll open it and work out how to color code, and then you’ll spend the rest of November color coding everything from plot points to red herrings to subplots to your cats, if you can figure out how (blue for Ernest’s gray coat, much of which currently adorns my sweats, and rust for William’s elegant cream tabbiness).
  6. On November 2, don’t open your email. Don’t open Facebook. For goodness’ sake, don’t open your blog. Opening your blog will lead to writing a post, any post, because you’ll do everything in your power, even write, to get out of making up 1667 words, which by now have increased to 3334 words because you had surgery and two meetings and a newsletter on November 1. Email might not pose a problem– it depends on how popular you are–but Facebook will take you directly to Candy Crush and you’ll be lost. (Candy Crush Saga, Candy Crush Soda Saga, and Candy Crush Jelly Saga, all of which you sneered at during the years sanity prevailed.)
Screen shot of Scrivener; ready open a new project

There are other d0’s and don’ts, but I’m too tired to remember what they are. Except for the one about getting enough sleep. Last night, I didn’t. A nap is inevitable, but there goes another chunk of writing time.

Anyway, that’s my take on NaNoWriMo. Contrary to the what you’ve read here, I have a positive attitude. I’m going to make it.

Because I want to call myself a winner. I want to experience the satisfaction of a job well done. I want to finish a novel so I can go back to short stories where I belong. I want to be a winner. I want a tee-shirt.

But above all, I want Scrivener. I want Scrivener when I create, plot, organize, research, file, write, revise, prepare a final document. I want to join the legions who say Scrivener is the greatest gift to writers since the eraser. I want the 50% discount on Scrivener that winning will earn me.

But above all else, I want Scrivener so I can color code. 

 

***

* A man invented NaNoWriMo. We know this because it takes place in November.

** For a quotation, an example, a whatever, go to Hamlet. Hamlet and Mark Twain. Everything you need is there.

*** I think Eloise says “Pooh pooh to you.” Somebody says it.

****Scrivener is a sponsor of National Novel Writing Month.

***

I’ve now written about 1370 words. Only 1964 to go before midnight and I’ll be caught up. Blog posts don’t normally count, but if your main character participates in NaNoWriMo and writes a blog, they do.

Everybody’s Politics

Isabel did read Italian; if she had any difficulty with La Repubblica, it was with understanding the complexities of Italian politics. But that, she suspected, was the case with everybody’s politics. And it was not just a linguistic difference; she could never understand how American politics worked. It appeared that the Americans went to the polls every four years to elect a President who had wide powers. But then, once he was in office, he might find himself unable to do any of the things he had promised to do because he was blocked by other politicians who could veto his legislation. What was the point, then, of having an election in the first place? Did people not resent the fact that they spoke on a subject and then nothing could be done about it? But politics had always seemed an impenetrable mystery to her in her youth. She remembered what her mother had once said to her about some American politician to whom they were distantly related. “I don’t greatly care for him,” she said. “Pork barrel.”

Isabel had thought, as a child, that this was a bit unkind. Presumably he could not help looking like a pork barrel. But then, much later, she had come to realise that this was how politics worked. The problem was, though, that politics might work, but government did not.

Alexander McCall Smith
Alexander McCall Smith (Photo credit: Wikipedia). By TimDuncan (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

~ Alexander McCall Smith,
The Charming Quirks of Others

Creativity and Imagination

Creativity and imagination, unlike faith,
is constantly replenished
by our need to question the universe,

to give it form and purpose…
That’s why it is so dangerous
to marry the power of the church to that of government.
Only corruption can result.
                                                                ~ Meredith Lee, Shrouded

Through a Glass Darkly–eBook on Sale Today Only

TODAY ONLY

Karleen Koen’s novel THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY is on sale TODAY ONLY for $1.99.

To order, go to BookBub at  https://www.bookbub.com/ebook-deals/latest?page=2

But today only.

Through_A_Glass_Darkly_s2

Publisher’s Weekly says, “Readers will be captivated.”

 

Karleen Koen has written four historical novels, teaches writing, and has worked as an editor. She lives in Houston, Texas.

 

A Finely Shaped Head

When I think of my wife, I always think of her head. The shape of it, to begin with. The very first time I saw her, it was the back of the head I saw, and there was something lovely about it, the angles of it. Like a shiny, hard corn kernel or a riverbed fossil. She had what the Victorians would call a finely shaped head. You could imagine the skull quite easily. ~ Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl

 

Kaye George Comes to Austin

Austin Mystery Writers were in a dither over a visit by Grand Pooh-Bah Emerita this week. Gale Albright supplies the gripping details.

Visions and Revisions

The members of Austin Mystery Writers were clustered at their literary haunt in the BookPeople café on Thursday morning, eagerly awaiting the arrival of famed author and Grand Poobah emerita Kaye George.

“Gosh,” I said to the group. “I hope she remembers the little people.”

august 15 bp 050I need not have worried. With all her usual charm and warmth, Kaye George appeared wearing a big fedora, carrying a giant magnifying glass, and blinding us with her dazzling smile.

We had missed Kaye George. Once a guiding beacon in AMW in Austin, she had moved to Waco, then Knoxville, Tennessee, too far away to attend the weekly critique group meetings.

However, that didn’t stop Kaye from being an active participant in AMW. She’s still a major player in the group, we’re glad to say.

august 15 bp 058Kaye George has been an inspiration to fellow writers. She fought hard to become a published author

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Loving Molly

Author Susan Woodring’s post “This Writer’s Wish List: A Love Story” has been on my mind since I read it two days ago. I can’t make it go away.

Susan Woodring (short story)
Susan Woodring (short story) (Photo credit: suzanne carey)

It sticks with me because what Woodring says is true. Uncomfortably so.

She says if we write because we want something–wealth, fame, a room of our own, shoes–we’re destined to fail.

To write well, we have to ask what the story wants. We must write out of love.

I have at times worked according to the love principle: when I wrote an eight-chapter satire on life in the teachers’ lounge; my first couple of short stories;  a segment of the Mystery in Four Parts for the annual Austin Sisters in Crime celebration; the daily assignments for the retreat in Alpine last year; the very first, and unspeakably horrible, draft of Molly; every post that appears on this blog. The less the product matters, the more I’m willing to consent to its requests, and the more I love to write.

My Friday critique partner and I even wrote the love principle into the title of our partnership. Recognizing that publication would not be a slam-dunk, we lowered our expectations–or as my thesis advisor once recommended, modified our aspirations–and named ourselves the Just for the Hell of It Writers. 

Somewhere along the way, however, I meandered away from the ideal. I focused on getting it right the first time, being perfect, failing to trust that something would come from nothing. I wandered away from the playground and haven’t found my way back.

While wandering, I suggested to CP that we change our name to something more serious, more business-like, a name we could take out of our tote bags and flash around at writing conferences, a name that would look good on our resumes. After much discussion, we chose Waterloo Writers. We even voted. The motion passed unanimously, 2-0.

Ah, the pomp and the circumstance. One could almost hear the strains of “Land of Hope and Glory” replacing Willie Nelson from BookPeople’s speakers overhead.

(Epiphany: As I write this, a Frasier marathon, compliments of Netflix, plays on TV. I just realized I am a Frasier. Uptight. Perfectionistic. OCD. No wonder I’m not having fun.)

Anyway, I haven’t loved Molly for quite a while. I haven’t asked what she wants, and I’ve ignored her attempts to tell me. Even when she’s yelling. She yells a lot, all day every day. And at night when I’m trying to sleep. I can’t make her–or her passel of friends–shut up. No one else hears them.

Ignoring the cacophony takes energy. And sugar. Today the shouting was so intense I plowed right through the sticky, cloying chocolate thingies my husband bought at Wal-Mart to take to work for lunch. Enough for the next two days, he thought. Tonight, to make amends, I baked brownies, which I have already sampled. If I go to bed soon, they have a chance of lasting till morning.

Obviously sugar isn’t working. It never does.

Giving up isn’t an option either. In the words of another critique partner–one I consider my mentor–“Writing is part of my condition.” I may stray from the rule, but never from the desire. The voices in my head keep clamoring, and there’s just one way to calm them.

For this writer’s brand of schizophrenia, the only effective drug is the one Susan Woodring prescribes: love.

Plus, I would add, equal measures of faith and hope. The three have a history of joyful collaboration.

*****

Susan Woodring’s latest novel is Goliath (St. Martin’s, 2012). She lives in North Carolina. More information about Susan and her books is available on her blog.

*****

Picture of Susan Woodring by Suzanne Carey, via Flickr, CC BY- NC 2.0.

Goliath cover from Susan Woodring’s blog.