Friday, September 9, 2016

Fiction Friday: Plot with the Big Girls or Stay on the Porch


Last Thursday I fell off my front porch.

Backwards.

Onto the concrete sidewalk.

Our porch doesn't have any railings, but it does have lots of flower pots to gently herd the careless visitor away from the edge. Generally, that's enough.

So how did this happen?

Things were not going well in my writing world, major plot problems, so I decided to take a break and water my flowers.

But once the flowers were watered, no brilliant solutions had come to me. And then I noticed the spiderwebs on the porch ceiling were out of control again so I got the broom and started sweeping them off.

Only my head was still really wrapped up in the book and I was looking at the ceiling and not the floor and the next thing I knew, I took a step back to discover nothing under my foot but air.

So here's the thing. Our porch is 24" high, That doesn't sound like much, but if you add two feet of altitude when you're already toppling like a sequoia, it gives you time to think.

Thoughts like:

Uh-oh. 

That was stupid.

This is really going to hurt.

And (fortunately) Wait, didn't my t'ai chi teacher say you could redirect some of the momentum of a fall by rolling into it?

She did, and it helped. (I think.) I didn't break anything. I didn't hit my head. My back and arms were bruised and scratched and I was shaken up, but otherwise okay.

At least I wasn't driving.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Fiction Friday: Metaphor and Voice

On Sunday over at Eight Ladies Writing, Jilly talked about writing voice.
After forty years of writing, my own voice has developed a lot over the past five, due in large part to my trusty beta reader and queen of metaphor, Nicole Amsler. Because the experience of developing a stronger voice is so recent, I have some thoughts to offer on this topic.
I recommend going here to review Jilly’s post before you read this. If you don’t have time to do that, here’s a brief overview:
Jilly’s protagonist, Alexis, is a six-foot-tall, shaven-headed girl who was raised as a boy in a monastery of fighting monks. In her first real fight, she fells a much larger opponent in hand-to-hand combat. Jilly was looking for a metaphor to capture the way he falls to the ground.
She also mentioned a perfect metaphor she encountered in Sir Terry Pratchett’s fourth Discworld book, Mort: “Binky moved at an easy gallop, his great muscles sliding under his skin as easily as alligators off a sandbank.”
I don’t aspire to the level of Pratchett (okay, I aspire, but I don’t expect to pull it off), but there are a few requirements for creating good, voicey metaphors:
1) Original. Clichés are rich images—dropped like a stone, fell like a tree—but readers have seen them so many times they’ve lost their vividness. To really be impactful, metaphors and similes need to be fresh.
In one of Annie Proulx’s books, The Shipping News, she described a little girl’s hand as “hot as a dog’s paw.” Dogs’ normal body temperatures run a degree or two above humans’, so if you’ve ever handled a dog’s foot, that image creates a visceral impact.
2) Bounded by the point-of-view character’s experience.
Jilly attacked the task of identifying a strong metaphor in the right way—by first defining the boundaries of her character’s life and then looking for an experience that sums up what’s currently going on for her—seeing her felled opponent drop heavily to the ground.
This is something to consider when you’re building your world. Every decision you make about what does and doesn’t exist in the setting you create for your characters sets limitations on what metaphors, and even individual words, you’ll be able to use in describing later events.
One metaphor that occurred to me for Jilly’s situation is the water bucket dropping into the well.
The problem with this, of course, is that people typically lower buckets into wells slowly, using the hand-crank provided at the top of the well. Only if the axle had recently been oiled and the water-bearer just let the bucket drop unhindered would you get momentum comparable to an unconscious man falling to the ground.
Which brings us to the third requirement:
3) Intuitive.
Metaphors that enrich our writing without making it strained and hard to follow evoke an instantaneous image. They’re like the punch-line of a joke—if someone has to explain it, it isn’t funny. Similarly, if a metaphor needs a long setup, the setup robs it of intensity.
That’s why Pratchett’s alligator and Proulx’s dog paw work so well.
4) Bounded by the reader’s experience
This is a subset of “intuitive.” What is intuitive for one reader may not be for another. I would argue that Pratchett’s alligator works better than Proulx’s dog because if you’ve never handled a dog’s paw, you won’t know how hot they feel, but most of us have seen movies or nature programs showing alligators slithering off a sandbank.
You can’t, of course, account for every potential reader, but keeping in mind the general level of exposure your audience has with your planned metaphor is a good idea.
5) Generating good metaphors:
The first thing I generally do is just ask myself what the thing I’m trying to describe looks like or feels like or sounds like or smells like. I try to let words and images run through my mind, unfiltered.
If that doesn’t bring up anything useful, I sometimes try Googling the quality I’m trying to describe, (e.g. “momentum”). Often, I limit the results to images, since I don’t want to steal someone else’s words. (And sometimes I’m desperate and cheerfully rip off other, better writers.)
Sometimes you can take an element of what you’re describing and just work with that. For example, instead of describing how he fell, you might try describing how it sounded when he hit the ground.
Another option is to use the cliché, but making it very specific to the POV character’s world: not just “He fell like a tree,” but “He fell like a .” You’ll want to set this up ahead of time.
For example, in Jilly’s case, as Alexis is making her way through the forest prior to the fight, she think about the Abraxis tree that towers over every other tree in the forest. One time, one was felled near the monastery. It shook the earth for three miles in any direction. Maybe it knocked over the candles on the altar. Then, pages later, when her opponent drops, she can just make a short-hand reference to an event the reader is already familiar with.
How do you go about generating strong, voicey metaphors?
(This post was originally published on Eight Ladies Writing.)

Monday, August 8, 2016

The Problem with P

Last Tuesday morning I was working on my novel while eating breakfast. This isn't unusual. Morning is my best writing time and one of the few multi-tasks I can manage these days is chewing and typing.


Something must have happened, though, because somehow I managed to dribble milk from my cereal into my keyboard. (I picture myself leaning forward over the keyboard, mouth agape at some bit of internet insanity that popped up in response to a research term.) It wasn't much liquid, maybe two or three drops. I blotted it up with a Kleenex and kept on working.

Except, a few minutes later, when I tried to type the word "deeper," Spellchecker popped up. And kept popping up. I could type "dee," but as soon as I hit the "p," Spellchecker would announce that "dee" isn't a word.

By then I'd completely forgotten the cereal incident, so I wasted twenty minutes Googling for viruses that make Spellchecker open uninvited. It turns out that's a thing with Word 2010, but I'm still on 2007. (Don't roll your eyes--Nora Roberts is still using WordPerfect.)

While I was Googling, I discovered that if I typed 2007, what appeared in the search box was '20f0f7a'.

Hmmm.

I opened a blank document and typed out the alphabet in lower and then upper case. 'P' was the only letter with a problem, but the numbers and special characters clustered around it exhibited strange behaviors.

Finally, frustrated, I shut down my machine and went on in to work, figuring it would dry out during the day and I'd be back in business by the time I got home.

And then while I was at work, I got one of those emails unpublished writers dream about: "Can you send me the full?"

You bet! I waited impatiently for quitting time, then rushed home and got right on it.

Hitting reply and attaching the manuscript went fine, but when I tried to compose a response I ran into problems. I wanted something simple, but friendly and professional sounding. "Manuscript is attached. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it."

Easy, right?

Wrong, because those two sentences contain 2 p's, which I couldn't get my keyboard to type. I finally copied and pasted them from an existing document, then changed the font to match.

Also, a lot of other characters now sported entourages. The space bar added a trailing "2', The 'h' had a dash and a right parenthesis following it around like love-struck groupies.. And my delete key had deleted itself, so I had to position my cursor after any problem content and use the backspace key to get rid of it.

I finally got the email sent out, so now I'm waiting to see what ha... I'm waiting to see what her res... I'm waiting to see if she likes it.


"P"—it's more important than you think.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Peeing in the Gender Neutral Bathroom



This year, for the first time, there were (almost) enough toilets at the RWA® National Conference. This is because they converted the men's room on the main conference floor to a gender neutral bathroom.

So how did that work out?

It will come as no surprise to anyone that I'm a proponent of gender-neutral bathrooms. I've stood in way too many long lines at concerts and ballgames, doing an unchoreographed dance while I wait for one of three stalls to open up so I can expel two pints of liquid from a one-pint bladder. And while I jitterbug outside the ladies', guys are breezing in and out of the men's room with no wait whatsoever.

I've never been able to figure out what the big deal is about having a single, gender-neutral toilet instead of segregated facilities. Many of us, possibly even most of us, share a bathroom with a male of some age at some point in our lives. While they're not the neatest potty-mates (comedian Rita Rudner says of men and bathrooms, "They're not very specific.") it's really no worse than trying to share a bed with them.

Anyway, the conference in San Diego was my first opportunity to put my beliefs where my bladder is.

After downing orange juice, a coffee and a bottle of water over breakfast, then sitting through a keynote followed by a workshop on Networking for Introverts (Smile!), I felt like an at at-capacity water balloon. I race-walked to the Ladies', only to find it overflowing with ladies. Then I remembered seeing the above sign.

A quick toddle down the hall and there was the men's room, completely devoid of stall-competition. Two minutes later, I was washing my hands at a long row of marble-and-stainless-steel sinks with the mirror all to myself. When I walked back down the hall, there was still a line outside the Ladies'.

I started employing this strategy after every session. (Yes, every session. Do you have a problem with that?) A couple of times there were men in residence, and to be honest it felt a little weird. But the johns at the Marriott all had louvered wooden doors, so we were all quite private. (Although it must be noted that some of us are noisier than others.)

At no time did I walk in to find anyone utilizing a urinal, and I'm pretty happy about that. (Side note: Urinals remind me of the old cast iron sink that hung on the wall in the kitchen of my Great-Aunt Bertha's place in eastern Kentucky--sensible, functional and devoid of beauty.)

On Saturday morning I actually led a bevy of impatient ladies' down the hall and showed off my find. As we hurried down the hall, Tracy Brody (two time Golden Heart® winner for Romantic Suspense--that Tracy Brody) said, "I may be from North Carolina, but I don't care what they say about using the 'right' bathroom."

When we got to the door of the men's, she hollered, "Coming in!"

A male voice responded, "Come on in."

The whole gaggle of us went in and did our business. The one-man welcoming committee washed his hands and left. Another couple of other men came in. When they encountered a roomful of women, they blinked, then manned up and headed for the stalls.

And we all got along just fine.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

A Hairy Horror Story

The last Stephen King book I ever read was Pet Sematary. It was good--King is an excellent craftsman and possesses a well of inspiration that never runs dry--but that book finally creeped me out to the point that I couldn't handle him anymore.

In case you've never read it, Pet Sematary is about a family that relocates from Chicago to Ludlow, Maine. At the edge of this small town, children have created a pet cemetery (but the little darlings can't spell, thus the typo title) out of haunted ground and childish yearning. If you bury your pet there, it comes back to life. Unfortunately, the resurrected pets are not really the same--they tend to smell bad and be psychos.

When the protagonist's two-year-old son is run over by a speeding truck, although he knows it's unwise, he buries the boy's body in the pet cemetery. What comes back is a tiny, earth-scented serial killer.

A few years ago, I noticed my hair was thinning. I was wearing it shoulder length, and you could see through the bottom few inches. I knew this was a possibility--my mother's hair was so thin you could see her scalp--but you never really think those pesky family genes are going to land on your genome until they do.

After watching my hair continue to fall out for another year or so, I bought a supply of Rogaine and began applying it daily, per the package directions. It runs about $10/month and takes 10 minurtes a day. I'm plenty vain enough for both of those.

About 4 months went by before I started seeing any results. After that, it grew, like the rest of my hair, at about 1/2 inch a month. So, if your hair is six inches long (i.e. short), it will take another year for it to grow out. If it's a foot long from the root, as mine is, it will take two years. I'm about halfway there.

A couple of weeks ago, though, I noticed that the new hair that's coming in is not the same texture as the hair I lost. It appears to be a lot more pourous, which means that if it's humid (and Dayton, Ohio is the humidity capital of the Midwest) it frizzes.

It looks a lot like that cat's on the cover of King's book, actually.

I've tried creme rinse, Argan Oil treatments and industrial strength hair spray. Nothing helps. As I was fiddling with it yesterday in preparation for a party at the neighbors', I suddenly realized it was Pet Sematary hair.

It came back from the dead, but it's never going to be the same.


Monday, May 16, 2016

My Little Town: Bicycle Guy

(Not actual Bicycle Guy. This is why I don't usually attempt to Photoshop anything.)

During the week, I get up at 4:30 a.m. and make my way to the gym three miles up the road. (Yes, I know this sounds crazy, but I also go to bed at 9:30 p.m. Which only sucks in the summertime, when you can hear kids still out playing.)

Many mornings, as I'm heading to the gym, I see a guy on a bicycle heading toward My Little Town. It's always dark--even at the solstice, the sun doesn't rise here till 6:08 a.m.--but there he is, pedaling his heart out, making his way toward work or school or wherever he's going.

This is impressive in summer, but in winter it rises to the level of inspiring. The past couple of winters have been brutal, with lows well below zero (Farenheit) for days at a stretch and lots of ice and snow. And through the worst of it, I'd see him.

I have no idea what he looks like. I have the impression that he's young (in his 20's maybe) and African-American, because the flash of my headlights swooping across his shadowy figure reflects back dark skin, but that may be a trick of the no-light.

Some of you are probably thinking, "Bicycle Guy is crazy," and he may be. I don't know his story. Maybe he doesn't have a car. Maybe the bus doesn't run that early in his part of town. Maybe he's getting ready for the Tour de France. I don't know.

All I know is, Bicycle Guy inspires me. There's something he wants to achieve, whether it's a competition or staying in good shape or simply being on time for work, and he's committed to it. So every morning when I pass him, I send a little prayer out into the universe, asking for his safety and protection.

Because my world would be a sadder, smaller place without him.


Monday, May 9, 2016

Instagrammification

Wild Hyacinth
On the first of May I set up an account on Instagram.


Although I've been told Instagram is where the cool kids hang out, I was reluctant to do that for several reasons.













Dogwood


I already have this sorely neglected blog, a website I've never finished building, a Twitter account I have no idea what to do with (I don't get Twitter. I'm trying to be a team player, but I just don't get it. It's just all these fractional thoughts whizzing by at the speed of light.) and a Facebook account I spend way too much time cruising.

(Although I'm proud to say I've never played a single round of Candy Crush. On the other hand, I'm a total sucker for those Buzzfeed quizzes.where you find out which Jane Austen character you'd be.)




Fleabane
Given these facts, you may ask, "Why the heck do you want an Instagram account?"

















Lilies of the Valley (from my yard)
Because of wildflowers.



Mayapple
On Saturday mornings I hike at a local preserve with Pauline Pruden Persing, whose hands you see holding the Dogwood blossoms. We stroll through the woods and take pictures of wildflowers. We've been doing this for several years. Pauline is a painter and a photographer and a wildflower fancier and she has a great blog.









Over the years, she's taught me a tiny bit about which wildflowers are which and what constitutes good composition for a photograph.


Shooting Star


Plus Instagram is all pictures. It just takes a second to look at a post and get this little hit of beauty. Unlike Twitter, which appears to be all self-promotion and huh?










My plan is to try to post one picture of a flower every day. The pictures on this page represent my first week's efforts. (No idea what I'll do when winter comes.)















If that sounds like something you'd enjoy, come join the fun. I stuck a button in the upper right-hand corner of this page to make it easy.




Nodding Trillium seen from below



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