Monday, April 25, 2016

Make Way for Ducklings

I am not a big fan of humans interfering with nature. I think, in general, we're too focused on short-term goals and too unaware of possible unintended consequences for this to work well most of the time.

Last Monday when I got off work, a mama Mallard and her eight ducklings were crossing four lanes of traffic to visit my campus.

I pulled out my phone to snap a picture, only to realize the babies were too small to hop up on the curb.

Mom was on the sidewalk, quacking encouragement, but try as they might, the little guys couldn't scale a cement cliff twice their height.

By the time I was in range, the kids had given up on mountain-climbing and wandered off, looking for another option.

A few feet away lay an open storm drain,

It was obvious this wasn't going to end well, so despite my misgivings, I threw down my purse, lunch bag, keys and phone and scooped up the first duckling. His leathery little feet paddled frantically against my palm until I set him down on the sidewalk, squawking indignantly.

Instead of being happy to have her baby back, Mom started quacking at me.

"Calm down, birdbrain. I'm trying to help."

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw one of the remaining ducklings toddling toward the storm sewer. I ran over and herded him back to the flock, then picked up a second duckling and set him beside Mom.

She still didn't get what I was trying to do. Instead of counting her blessings, she hopped off the curb, quacking. One of the kids tumbled off after her while the other looked around frantically, trying to figure out what happened to Mom and brother.

I started to scoop up the jumper, only to see one of his brothers toddling in the direction of oncoming traffic as fast as his tiny webbed feet could carry him. I ran over and herded him back to Mom. Meanwhile, another duckling was halfway to the storm drain.

I settled into an unseasy rhythm: pick up a soft, fluffy, freaked-out duckling, set it on the curb, then run around in a circle, herding the remaining ducks away from traffic and the sewer. Grab another duckling and repeat the process.

All the while, the ducklings kept waddling in all directions and toppling off the curb as soon as I set them on it. I was making negative progress. My heart sped up as I realized one of them was almost certainly going to plunge into the sewer or toddle under a passing car tire before I could get the whole family relocated.

About that time, one of the students who'd been studying in the nearby grass ran over to help. His assistance more than doubled our throughput because he didn't have to handle herding duty, too. In no time, the entire family was safely on the sidewalk.

Without so much as a quack-you, Mom led them away like they were escaping from a pair of duck-o-philes.

My takeaways from this encounter: occasionally humans can help Mother Nature  and never expect gratitude from a Mallard.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Still Jeanne

This year's Erma Bombeck Writing Workshop yielded a huge epiphany for me: I don't have Alzheimer's. (At least, not yet.)

A couple of weeks ago was my third time attending this great conference, The first time was back in 2006, a year after winning the local division of the Erma Bombeck writing contest. My essay, entitled "A Mistake in Identity," told the story of running into my old high school drama teacher at a local theater and gave him a big, exuberant hug, only to realize he was not, in fact, Mr. Scott, but a former co-worker.

What does that have to do with my non-Alzheimer's diagnosis?

Here's the deal: Over the past few months, I've had two separate occasions where I failed to recognize someone at work. These people are not strangers--they're co-workers I've interacted with occasionally for years. The first one occurred when I quoted someone in a meeting, "Well, Janet Schmitt says...." And a middle-aged blonde woman at the table said, "Wait. I'm Janet Schmitt and I never said that."

That one was fairly straightforward. Somewhere along the line I got another woman (young, brunette, apparently prone to false statements) attached to the name Janet Schmitt.

It could happen to anyone.

The second time was a little scarier. This time, I waltzed into a meeting, saw a woman I didn't recognize and thrust out my hand, "Hi. I'm Jeanne. I don't think we've met."

She stared at me, bemused. "I'm Angie," she said. "We work together all the time." While our work together is mostly via email, I had met her face-to-face a few times.

It totally freaked me out.

I came straight home and Googled "impaired facial recognition" and discovered an aggressive though rare form of Alzheimer's that presents with this symptom. Both of my grandmothers spent the last 10 or 15 years of their very long lives (they lived to 97 and 99, respectively) in nursing homes, wearing diapers and not recognizing anyone. Alzheimer's is my greatest fear. I'll take cancer, heart disease or a bad car wreck any day over that bad boy.

The article linked to a Famous Faces test on which I scored 85%. That would have reassured me, but at least one article indicated a score of 85% was iffy (although another said it's only when you score below 50% that you have a problem).

So now I was even more concerned. I talked about it with Old Dog who, thank God, is accustomed to my freakouts. He talked me down. We agreed I'd mention it to the doctor the next time I saw her.

On Friday night at the Workshop, I sat next to a young woman who asked about my ancient contest win. I told her my story of hugging my startled ex-co-worker in front of his equally surprised wife and daughter. And that was when it hit me: I don't have Alzheimer's.

I just suck at recognizing people.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Travel Tuesday: Sedona, Arizona

I just got back from a research trip to Sedona, AZ, the setting for my work-in-progress and I was fascinated by the trees there.

 This one was in Oak Creek at Crescent Ranch Park. I should have had someone stand among those roots to give you an idea of scale. The bottom part of the trunk was roughly the size of one of those little Fiats you see everywhere these days.

According to the New Agers, the Sedona area has four "vortexes," where energy converges. They claim magnetic resonances in these specific areas cause the trees there to twist as they grow. Kelly, the guide for our Pink Jeep tour, a great storyteller and not a New Ager, says the twisting happens when part of the tree is injured or diseased and the healthy part keeps growing. I don't know which is true, but the trees were as fascinating as the rock formations.

We saw this one at the vortex near Airport Mesa.


This one was my all-time favorite. Near the Bell Rock vortex, it looked like a sleek modern sculpture.

This one's not twisty, but I had to admire its spunk, growing on the side of a cliff.

This one isn't a tree, it's a yucca plant. Have a little respect, please, because it's dying. The last thing dying yucca plants do is throw up a shoot that's 18 to 20 feet high. Which seems tragic, giving that last gasp like Mimi in La Boheme, until you learn that the DNA in those shoots are exact replicas of the original plant. It's not so much dying as giving itself multiple new bodies to start over with. Who wouldn't sign up for that?

This last one isn't from Sedona, but from the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix. It's the skeleton of a dead cactus. I always pictured cacti as being all mush inside, which doesn't make any sense, since mush couldn't hold up a forty-foot tall plant. What they have inside is the fibrous skeleton pictured here.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Fiction Friday: Critiquing Beginning Writers

I've been doing a lot of critiques for friends in my various writers' groups lately. Some of them are still fairly early in their writing careers, and it occurred to me that the feedback I give to beginning writers is very different from what I share with seasoned veterans of the Writing War. Here are a few tips:
  • Stay positive. I read somewhere once that, when providing criticism, you should offer two items of positive reinforcements/praise for every bit of negative feedback.To be honest, I can't usually pull that off, but I do shoot for a 1:1 ratio of positive to negative.
  • If you genuinely don't want to do the critique, or you don't have time, say "no." A decline is better than writing up a hurried, ill-considered critique
  • Be upfront about your genre expertise. I can offer useful criticism on romance and women's fiction because I write those genres. I'm less helpful with SciFi/Fantasy because I haven't read enough of it and I don't know the rules for the genre.
  • Don't use the critique to demonstrate how clever you are. You're not writing to entertain and amuse. You're there to help. Skip the zingers and stick with simple language, couched as positively as possible.
  • Avoid critiquing word choice. It doesn't matter if it's not the word you would have chosen. When you suggest alternate wording, you're not trying to improve their writing. You're trying to turn it into your writing. Unless the word is used incorrectly, leave it alone.
  • On a similar note, don't try to hijack their story and take it in another direction. If you feel strongly that their premise or plot are cliched, it's okay to mention other books that have a similar story line, but every story is different. Cliches got that way because those themes resonated with people. Let the writer tell the story they want to tell.
  • For first drafts, stay at a high level. At McDaniel, we used the following template:
    • What Must Be Kept?
    • What Needs Work?
    • Where Do I Think This Is Going? (for partials)
That last one is especially useful because it lets the writer know what they're telegraphing via subtext or the use of familiar tropes. I've had several wrtiers say, "Totally didn't realize it was coming across that way," or "Wow, that's a little too obvious. I need to rethink this."
  • Finally, let yourself enjoy the process. You never know when you might be fostering the growth of an amazing new storyteller.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

WWJWD--What Would Joss Whedon Do?

One of my big discoveries while at McDaniel was Joss Whedon, The man is a god where plotting is concerned. He routinely puts his protagonists into situations where there seems to be no possible resolution--at least none that include continued existence and/or happiness. And he equally routinely manages to pull off crazy creative solutions that accomplish just that.

I dream of someday getting a review that says, "reminiscent of a Joss Whedon story." 

Told you that to tell you this:

Recently, I read a romance novel with a plot that was what Jenny Crusie calls a string of pearls--a series of tenuously connected events that are all roughly the same intensity.

The book started out strong. The protagonist was the widow of a famous musician. Her husband had died a year or so before and she was dead broke, living in her car and selling off her possessions on eBay to buy food until hubby's will cleared probate. Only then it turned out hubby had invested everything in some company that failed. There was no money.

Hubby had also, just prior to her death, informed her--on national television--that he had three kids by a mistress she knew nothing about. Especially painful given that she always wanted a family but was never able to have one.

The protagonist and, for that matter, the other characters in the book, were all really likable and believable. Overall, the book had the feel of a Susan Elizabeth Phillips novel. (Another wrtier crush of mine.)

On a 1-to-10 scale of potential for a great read, I'd give this an eight. And I'm a tough grader--I reserve my nines and tens for books that leave a mark on me.

Soon after that slam-bang beginning, though, her former brother-in-law brings her to live in a mansion. She meets the three daughters of the (now also dead) mistress, who are also living there, (bad) but she almost instantly learns to love them, and they her (good).

In order to keep the money flowing in, she has to agree to do another season of the reality show where she first learned about her husband's other life (bad). The studio agrees to pay her an insane amount of money, to place the cameras only where she directs, and to declare anything she doesn't want to share off limits (good). Under the terms of the contract she negotiates, if the show doesn't finish out the season for some reason, they still have to pay her. (unbelievably good)

Her character arc is to let go of loving the douche-bag dead husband who cheated on her (bad) and turn her sights toward the BIL who is really good-looking, wealthy, and has been in love with her since the day he set eyes on her. (good)

It's another case of the author not being willing to torture her beloved characters.

If Joss Whedon had been plotting this, it would have started the same way, but:

1) The kids would have hated her. Everything she tried to do to win them over would have just made things worse, up to the point where kids were running away, using drugs, skipping school and possibly setting the house on fire to make their point.

2) The studio would have given her half what she wanted, but only in return for setting up cameras inside the bathrooms, bedrooms and anywhere else you might want a little privacy.

3) The brother-in-law would have treated her like a gold-digging hooker.

And that, in my opinion, is what Joss Whedon would do.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Negotiations with the Tooth Fairy

Recently, my 8-year-old grand-nephew became concerned that he was being shortchanged by the Tooth Fairy. Being the kind of kid he is, he took steps to remedy the problem:

However, the Tooth Fairy, it turns out, is no pushover. In what may be the most brilliant bit of parenting I've ever seen, he received the following response:

With these skills, this kid will grow up to

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Fiction Friday: Starting a New Book

This week I wrote the first words of a new book, The Demon's in the Details, Book 2 of what I call my Touched by a Demon trilogy.

I've been fooling around with the idea for the book for several months, figuring out the turning points and the characters and their arcs, while I finished up revisions on book one, Demons Don't.

(This is the back of this month's Romance Writers Report with me on the cover! The back cover, but a cover's a cover.)

This week was the first time I actually started putting words on (electronic) paper, though, and I have to tell you I simultaneously love and hate this beginning stage.

I love it because the work is fresh and full of possibility. At the beginning of each manuscript I always believe that this one, this time, my reach won't exceed my grasp and the story I wind up with will actually be the one I set out to write. I believe that my words will actually capture and communicate the vision that's in my head. Demons Don't got a lot closer than I've ever gotten before.

I hate this stage because there are so many decisions to make, and each of those decisions can lead you toward a destination that is NOT that vision.

You have to start somewhere, though. The journey of 100,000 words begins with a single typed character.

So far, I have about 4000 of them.

What are you working on these days?


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