Saturday, July 21, 2018

Hot Off the Press, Part 4

by Jean Roberta

Michael Ondaatje is an award-winning novelist who seems fascinated by the details of history which are often hidden or forgotten. His own life reads like a novel: he was born in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1943 of Dutch, Tamil, and Sinhalese ancestry to parents who split up soon afterward, and left him with relatives. At age 11, he was sent to join his mother in England. As a young man, he emigrated to Canada, and never left. He has won numerous awards for his historical fiction, including The English Patient, which was made into a highly-praised movie.

Canadian references to Ondaatje usually define him as a Canadian writer and academic.

Warlight, his most recent novel, probably draws on some of the events of his own childhood. It is told from the viewpoint of Nathaniel Williams, a 14-year-old boy with an older sister, Rachel. During the Second World War, Nathaniel and Rachel are moved out of London for safety, then they are told that their parents have to go to Singapore and live there for a year, for unspecified reasons. Their mother packs a trunk while assuring her children that she will come back on schedule. The parents leave separately, and the teenagers are left in care of a man they call “the Moth,” who introduces them to his friend, a boxer called “the Darter.”

Actually, the children are sent away to separate schools where they aren’t happy. Knowing that their parents are too far away to help, the children escape and return to the family home where the “Moth,” “the Darter,” and other Dickensian characters (including Olive Lawrence, an upscale intellectual who shows up as “the Darter’s” girlfriend) are the only parent-figures available to them. Rachel has alarming seizures (later described as symptoms of epilepsy) that Nathaniel is unable to understand or to help with. She finds their mother’s trunk in the house, and Nathaniel openly asks the “Moth” whether their mother is still alive. “The Moth” says she is, but Nathaniel is unsure what to believe.

The “Moth” tells Nathaniel an anecdote from the boy’s early childhood about his violent, troubled father, who apparently never recovered from the First World War. According to “the Moth,” he was a neighbour of the family, and little Nathaniel ran away to live with him after his father killed Nathaniel’s pet, a beloved cat who liked to “sing.” (The father clearly considered this sound unbearable yowling.) Teenage Nathaniel doesn’t remember any of this, and claims he doesn’t like cats.

The events of Nathaniel’s teenage years give rise to philosophical riffs about the un reliability of memory and the simple explanations that adults give to children to disguise morally-ambiguous reality.

All through the first half of the novel, I was afraid that the mysteries would never be resolved, though Nathaniel’s work in a restaurant (arranged by “the Moth”) and his involvement in “the Darter’s” greyhound-racing scam are exciting in themselves. Nathaniel even acquires a girlfriend in the restaurant, and the two of them have romantic trysts in empty houses where they can be alone. On one occasion, they keep a pack of restless greyhounds with them overnight, hoping the barking won’t lead to their discovery. Animal sounds are clearly dangerous.

Whether Nathaniel’s actual father is in Singapore or not, he never returns. Their mother Rose, however, is shown to have been near her children all along, and her own shadowy career is the stuff of legend. She has a reason for remaining hidden, and the children’s adult caretakers are her colleagues.

Eventually, every loose end is tied up. By the last scene of the novel, Nathaniel is a grown man living in his mother’s childhood home in Sussex. He has learned the truth, but it hasn’t set him free. His mother, his sister, his girlfriend, “the Moth,” and “the Darter” are all permanently gone from his life for reasons that seem inevitable.

This novel is full of local colour and suspense. It reveals the ugly fact that wars don’t really end when one side is declared the winner, since reprisals continue for years afterward. The revelations that shed light on Nathaniel’s teenage years are dramatic but plausible.

Unfortunately, I can’t imagine most of my first-year students enjoying this novel as much as I did, so I decided not to choose it as a textbook.

I chose The Marrow Thieves, a 2017 novel by Cherie Dimaline, a Metis author (of mixed indigenous and French ancestry) in a future Canada which has largely been destroyed by climate change. Most of the institutions of urban society have broken down. A sign of the collective trauma is the general inability to dream, from which indigenous people seem to be immune. Their life-saving physical and spiritual ability to enter different narratives in sleep is thought to be located in their bone-marrow. Of course, those in power want to capture the dreamers and extract their marrow in a liquid form, thereby killing them on operating tables in institutions described as “schools.”

The biology of all this is sketchy, but it’s not the point. Throughout the novel, a makeshift “family” of survivors must camp out on the run, developing traditional survival skills while protecting the oldest and the youngest among them from the “Recruiters” who try to capture them. The action is shown from the viewpoint of “Frenchie” (Francis), a teenage boy who comes of age while learning words in indigenous languages, developing hunting skills, and falling in love with Rose, another teenage survivor. The de facto leader of the groups turns out to be a gay man who quietly grieves the disappearance of his “husband” while encouraging everyone else in the group to tell their “coming-to” stories.

I can already hear the complaints from my first-year students:

This novel is racist against white people,
It is based on an unbelievable plot-premise, and
A major character is sexually perverse.

However, there is no way to please everyone. I think most students who graduated from an English-language secondary school could understand the author’s straightforward writing style, and I like several of the messages in the novel. There might be a recent novel that I would like better, but I needed to make a decision and go on to do other things.

As some of you probably know, I write reviews for The Gay and Lesbian Review, based on lists of recent publications sent by the editor to a stable of reviewers. I chose the ironically-named So Lucky by Nicola Griffith (ex-pat British lesbian fiction-writer living in the U.S. with her partner, also a writer).

Not for the first time, the editor told me he didn’t actually have the novel on hand, so he asked me to order it from Amazon, promising that the Review will pay me back. (I hope so. I get paid for my reviews in subscriptions.)

Luckily, the novel is slim and concisely written. So far, it shows what happens to a successful woman when her wife leaves her, her best friend announces her departure for New Zealand, and she receives a devastating medical diagnosis. This is not easy reading for any person of a Certain Age, though the central character is actually much younger than I am now. I’m comforting myself with the thought that at least I live in a country that believes in universal health care.

Hot Off the Press, Part 3-and-a-Half

by Jean Roberta.

Have you been counting the number of titles I mentioned in Hot Off the Press, Part 1?

I've finished describing the four upcoming titles from Lethe Press, but I had even more reading to do. I had to design syllabi for the three classes I am scheduled to teach in September.

In the English Department where I teach, it is a rule that students in a first-year literature-and-composition class have to read an assigned novel on their own and write an essay about it.

An allegorical Canadian novel from 2015, Fifteen Dogs, seemed to me to be a good, thought-provoking choice when it was new, but then I discovered that a growing number of reviews and critiques make it easier for students to plagiarize. So I set out to find something even more current.

I wanted to stick with Canadian content. I ordered a library copy of Warlight, the most recent novel from a prestigious author, Michael Ondaatje, through Interlibrary Loans. (It arrived within days from the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. The university where I teach started life as a local branch of this institution.)

Warlight is an impressive achievement, but I thought it too historical, too complex, and too subtle for the kind of first-year students I usually get. Many of them are from faraway countries, and have a sketchy grasp of English, while some of the locally-sourced are the products of a public school system that seems increasingly reluctant to fail any student for any reason.

I looked for recent Canadian novels with indigenous characters, and found The Marrow Thieves, a YA novel from 2017. Stay tuned for a longer description.

Hot Off the Press, Part 3

by Jean Roberta

Perennial: A Garden Romance by Mary Anne Mohanraj includes a sweet romance between a lonely divorced man (half-Scottish and half-South Asian) who runs a flower shop, and a lonely woman (apparently White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) who is diagnosed with breast cancer in a leafy town where she moved from New York City because her late uncle left her an older house which she decided not to sell.

The chapters of the romance are interspersed with simple, almost childish drawings, and free-verse poems. Here is one:

“Friends rush in for overdue mammograms, even the ones who were resisting going at all, afraid of what they’d find.
Husbands are kinder to their wives, hold them tight at night, seeing a future without them.
It can make you cranky; this should be about you, but now it’s also about them.
You let it go.
May something good come of this— more check-ups and kisses. We should all be kinder to each other, to ourselves.”

This little book seems to have been inspired by the author’s own bout with breast cancer in 2016 as well as her interest in gardening. (Both the progress of her cancer treatment and the development of her garden have been extensively posted about on Facebook.) This book would make an appropriate gift for a convalescent who needs reading-matter with a happy ending.

Read by Strangers, a story collection by Philip Dean Walker, is much more unsettling, and I wouldn’t recommend giving it to anyone who has already received bad news.

Confession: I haven’t finished reading the whole book, so my generalizations should be taken with caution. So far, I haven’t found any supernatural elements in the stories, but real life in middle-and working-class American families is shown to be sufficiently uncanny.

In the first story, “Unicorn,” a group of kids explore an abandoned farmhouse their parents have warned them to stay away from. One bedroom is still incongruously decorated with images of unicorns. The barn (now burned to the ground) was the site of a tragedy: the teenage daughter tried to ride a horse which she had been forbidden to ride, and since the horse didn’t know her, it kicked her in the head, killing her and leaving the imprint of a hoof on her forehead. There is evidence in the house that she had been trying to escape from something unspeakable.

In “Revolution,” Anna is in a long-term marriage with Hank when she suddenly discovers a sister she never knew about before: her mother’s first, unplanned child, who was raised by an adoptive family. The intrusion of the sister, Billie, changes the dynamics in Anna’s own family.

In the wittily-titled “Hester Prynne Got an A,” the mother of a teenage daughter seduces the male English teacher on whom the daughter has a crush, discovers that her son (the daughter’s twin brother) is gay, and shows that the welfare of her youngest child (a daughter who seems eerily calm and cheerful and therefore abnormal) is more important to her than trying to recapture her reckless youth.

Another wittily-titled story, “Brad’s Head Revisited, ’94,” shows the long-term effects of homophobic bullying in high school on one of the bullies (or a sidekick of the ringleader) rather than on the victim. Here the narrator seems disarmingly direct:

“I fuck for money and I like it. The studio tells me how good I am, how much money I bring in, how I look even hotter on film, like a god. Just like a fucking Adonis.”

Do you detect a note of defensiveness? This story is discomforting, especially considering the allusion to Brideshead Revisited, a novel of privileged English life in the 1920s, in which an envious outsider shows the lifestyle of a titled family from which the gay son is exiled.

The narrative voice in Walker’s stories is clear and unadorned, and much of the explication takes the form of dialogue. Most of the characters seem to be trapped in unsatisfying situations, and they can’t find a way out. Even in the first-person stories, an omniscient, well-read narrator seems to be hovering above the characters, unable or unwilling to give them enough perspective on their lives to provide them with any relief.

The stories are well-crafted, but if read in bed, they lead to depressing dreams.

Hot Off the Press, Part 2

by Jean Roberta

Does It Show? By Paul Magrs (second in the “Phoenix Court” series) focuses on the residents of a housing estate in the actual town of Newton Aycliffe, northern England, in the 1980s. The story is a rollicking sit-com in print in which the locals call their children “bairns” and sometimes exaggerate their Geordie accent for effect. It’s a kind of northern Coronation Street with fairy dust and a 1980s soundtrack.

Here is the “Prologue:”

“Penny had always been a bright kid. She was born on the ninth anniversary of the first moon landing. Her father wrenched her from the incubator and ran to the steps outside, by the car park. It was a warm summer’s night.

He held her out to the moon, swaddling clothes draped down to his elbows. ‘You’re going there, Penny,’ he said, face shining. ‘You’re going to the moon, you are.’

And as the nurses came bustling through Reception to retrieve her, Penny glanced up at the moon, then witheringly at her father.

‘Fat chance,’ she said. ‘I know where I’m going.’”

This little scene contains the flavour of the whole saga: kitchen-sink realism with intrusions from a supernatural realm.

The first few chapters introduce the residents of Phoenix Court, the place where Penny arrives as a teenager with her apparent single mother, a diva named Liz. (Hint: Liz has a big secret.) Penny’s father seems to have disappeared, and her childhood has been punctuated by her arguments with teachers who tried to force her to scrub the black off her fingernails, not knowing it was permanent. Penny’s dreams show a certain clairvoyance which becomes clearer to the reader as the unknown people she has dreamt of appear in her life.

The narrative is told in a knowing third-person voice which includes the thoughts of the character under discussion. For long sections, Penny is kept in the background while the ongoing tensions within Phoenix Court are explained.

Penny, like all the adult characters, hopes to “fit in,” and she is the new girl in school. She meets Vince, another outsider who returned as the new English teacher to the purgatory of the school where he was bullied as a student by the physical-education teacher, who is still there. In due course, there is a satisfying confrontation between the two men.

Vince strikes up a friendship with Penny which is debatably inappropriate, but she is not the object of his lust. Penny’s companionship gives Vince the courage to reconnect with his first lover, Andy, who lives over a dusty shop full of dead, stuffed animals. As the two men agree, this is all very Victorian, especially since the shop owner is Andy’s benevolent relative, a taxidermist.

Liz’s abandonment of Penny for a romantic getaway with the local bus driver is debatably irresponsible, but as he reassures Liz, seventeen-year-old Penny can take care of herself.

The novel ends with an apparent non sequitor: an anecdote about an old woman on the estate who finds an actual pot of gold coins amongst second-hand donations to a charity shop. When she asks aloud how much the treasure is worth, she is answered by the ghost of a child on a hobby-horse who torments her with questions: Are the coins made of real gold? Would old Charlotte be safe if she kept this treasure for herself? If she took it to the bank, wouldn’t someone there be tempted to cheat her, or to turn her in?

Life is queer in this novel, and not only in a sexual sense. In the working-class world of Newton Aycliffe, the familiar tropes of childhood fairy tales don’t necessarily lead to happy endings, but the plot always thickens.

This novel is more-or-less self-contained, but since it is part of a series, I suspect everything in Volume 2 makes more sense to those who have read Volume 1.

The quirky inside-cover photo of the author as a thirtyish man smoking a cigarette suggests that he is already at work on the third novel in the series. It would be interesting to follow the lives of the whole cast of characters.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Hot Off the Press, Part 1

by Jean Roberta

For the past few weeks, I’ve done more reading than writing. I’ve plowed through six recent books, and started reading a seventh.

Steve Berman of Lethe Press often sends me gifts through the mail: uncorrected advance proofs of Lethe books that aren’t available to the public yet. He doesn’t ask me to review them, but the request seems to be implied.

The latest batch consists of:

1) Forget the Sleepless Shores, a collection of stories by classics scholar and poet Sonya Taaffe (from New England).
2) Does It Show? A novel in the “Phoenix Court” series by Paul Magrs from northern England.
3) Perennial: A Garden Romance, a slim volume by fiction-writer and cancer-survivor Mary Anne Mohanraj of Chicago.
4) Read by Strangers, a collection of stories by Philip Dean Walker (who lives in Washington, D.C.)

All these books are scheduled to be released in August.

Forget the Sleepless Shores is the one I read first. The title put me off because I thought it looked pretentious, and it has no clear relevance to any of the stories. Another aspect that both charmed and irritated me was the author’s poetic style in fiction. She clearly prefers to “show, not tell,” and is unwilling to “murder her darlings” (clever turns of phrase that don’t advance a plot). There is so much description of water in this collection that I felt as if I had to dry out between stories.

To sum up, I found Sonya Taaffe to be an acquired taste. However, her work rewards perseverance.

Here is the opening paragraph of “Chez Vous Soon,” the story of a doomed sexual relationship:

“The rain was full of leaves, like hands on her hair as she hurried home. Grey as a whale’s back, the last cold light before evening: the clouds as heavy as handsful of slate, pebble-dash and mortar; the pavement under Vetiver’s feet where blown leaves stuck in scraps to her sneakers, brown as old paper, tissue-torn. There were few trees on her street, but the wind hurled through them as hungrily as for a forest.”

The viewpoint character, “Vetiver” (who prefers her middle name to her first name, Julia) is going to visit her artist lover in the run-down apartment where he is obsessively trying to capture the look, sound, smell and feel of Autumn on canvas. The word-pictures in the story illustrate his efforts to express what seems inexpressible, at least to him. Asked if he has taken his medication for mental illness, he responds that he doesn’t want to blunt the power of his mind when he is working. The distance between the lovers seems unbridgeable, and the tragic outcome seems inevitable.

Most of the stories in this collection were previously-published in various anthologies and journals of speculative fiction (the on-line journal Not One of Us ran five of them), and therefore they are inconsistent in length, theme, and impact.

The author’s literary style is excellent for creating atmosphere, and the stories about the spirit world are effectively spine-tingling, even though most aren’t clearly identifiable as horror stories. (Or at least they have little in common with the work of Stephen King.)

Several of these stories seem to channel the voices of immigrant ancestors, translated from Yiddish and various other European languages. In “The Dybbuk in Love,” a contemporary woman is the love-object of a man who is long-dead but is capable of temporarily possessing the bodies of the men in her life.

The most brilliant of the stories that invoke Jewish folklore is “The Trinitite Golem,” in which an animated bomb confronts J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist who created it. Here is the clinical description of its making:

“It is easy to destroy a life. Take thirteen and a half pounds of 8-phase plutonium-239, stabilized by alloying with gallium at three percent molar weight and hot-pressed into solid hemispheres of slightly more than nine centimeters in diameter, electroplate with galvanic silver to reduce chemical reactivity and encase within seven-centimeter tamper of neutron-reflecting uranium-238.”

The recipe for the “golem” continues in detail, and is then followed by a recipe for the ruined creator, a kind of twentieth-century Victor Frankenstein:

“It is easy to destroy a life. Take one theoretical physicist who has not published a paper in four years, who a dozen years ago made himself over into a director and administrator as thoroughly and ruthlessly as he once metamorphosed a misfit rock collector from Riverside Drive into a mesmerizing polymath with quotations in nine languages at his Chesterfield-callused fingertips, the benefit being the A-bomb, the cost being the rest of his concentration, and then in open court and the public eye strip him of all authority and trust.”

All this accurately reflects the life-story of Oppenheimer and the “Red Scare” of the 1950s. (I looked him up.)

Space doesn’t allow me to discuss all the stories in the collection, but several others are also brilliant and haunting.

Did I mention water? I was intrigued by “All Our Salt-Bottled Hearts,” a story based on “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” by H.P. Lovecraft. Taaffe’s story was originally published in Dreams from the Witch House: Female Voices of Lovecraftian Horror (Dark Regions Press, 2016).

Two of us here at the Grip have written very different versions of that same Lovecraft piece. Lisabet posted a spoof, “The Shadow Over Des Moines,” here quite awhile ago.

My version of the story, “Innsmouth Blues” (narrated by an African-American schoolteacher of the 1920s) appeared in Equal Opportunity Madness: A Mythos Anthology (Otter Libris Press, 2017). This anthology was intended to overturn Lovecraft’s prejudices.

Taaffe’s more serious version focuses on the process of transformation, in which a contemporary woman who is at least “half-deep” (descended from “the people of the sea”) comes of age by desperately trying to return to her true home in the Atlantic. The references to an incomplete genocide, from which the scattered survivors reconstruct a group identity over several generations, echo several historical atrocities.

When the book becomes publicly available next month, I recommend buying a copy.

Stay tuned for my descriptions of the rest of my recent reading-matter. I’ll try to be more concise!

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Into the Woods with a Good Book #amreading

by Giselle Renarde

I have a little ritual I repeat from year to year.

Every year when we arrive at the cottage, the first thing I do is peruse the bookshelves.

The cottage is not our cottage, and so the books are not ours. The owners of the cottage are avid readers (of literary fiction in particular), and their new books quickly carve a path to the cottage bookshelves.

But, among the newer books are a host of older ones, the jazz standards of the cottage bookshelves. They're always there and I never tire of seeing them. Plenty of Canadian fiction: Robertson Davies, Stephen Leacock, Margaret Laurence.

A few years ago I read A Bird in the House. This year it was A Jest of God.

There's a reason I don't bring my own books to the cottage: I'm generally a slow reader, and choosing a book from the owners' shelves challenges me to read the entire thing in the span of a week.

You can't take it with you--the book, that is. This isn't a lending library.

So I spend the week reading.

At home, I start every day with a book. Now that I've kicked coffee, I brew a cup of tea and I sit and read for a while. But at the cottage that while stretches out, fills much of the day. Reading, eating, board games, DVDs at night. That's a family vacation at the cottage, and it's really something special.
If you'd like the inside scoop on this year's cottage vacation, I invite you to read my second book of correspondences, Hi Babe. It's just a little book of letters, the ones I wrote to my girlfriend while I was away.

This year's vacation was more eventful than relaxing--not at all what I'm looking for at the cottage. As much as I complain about the city, our family getaway proved that life follows you wherever you go. It even follows you into the woods.

Thank you, technology.

If you're at all interested, grab a copy this month from Smashwords, where you can get it for free during July's big ebook sale:


Wednesday, July 18, 2018

A Tiny Candle for the Dark

Recently at church we had a service on the subject of “the book that changed my life.”  There is a part of the service in Unitarian churches called ”The Time for All Ages”, in which the little kids gather up front and the speaker of the day tells them a wisdom story or teaches them a lesson.  My story last Sunday was of a very tiny and humble and transient book that profoundly changed my life though I’d almost forgotten it.

I don’t even know the title or if it even had a title.

From the time I was 6 years old until about 10 I was plagued by terrible dreams.  It was my greatest fear.  Looking back the nightmares seem kind of dumb, being chased around by Frankenstein and stuff, but they were scary enough.  After one of those dreams I was too terrified to go back to sleep again.  I’d lay awake all night, waiting for the dawn to come so I wouldn’t have to sleep.  I dreaded the night.  They were long nights.

I found this book in the kitchen, I suppose someone gave it to mom.  It was laying around.  You could hardly call it a book, more like a pretty little pamphlet I the shape of a book.  It was a little book, a little bitty book.   It was red, fake leather embossed, held with a single staple, and about one inch square, it could fit in a matchbox.  A tiny, tiny little excuse for a book.  It was filled with the words of Jesus and Buddha and others, talking about god and love and compassion.  No story, just their own plainly spoken words.  I could barely understand it, but the language, the sound, and the ideas spoke to me.  I continued to have my dreams, but when I woke, I could turn on the light and read this little talisman of a book and just the words and the kindness of the words dispelled these fears and I could sleep again.  This book was my friend against the dark and its terrors.  I kept it for many years and now it's lost.  I wish I had it, because there was sound magic in those pages.  It pointed me where I was going.

What I wanted to tell the kids, what I wanted them to understand is that books have their unique magic, a magic you can’t really get in a movie or a TV show or a video game.  The magic of story, yes, but also the magic of sound, the music of words, and the beauty of those musical words assuring you there is an end to the darkness, that no matter what, it’s the nature of the dark and the fear to pass away somehow.  Books, the right kind of books can do that for you.  I wanted the kids to know that.  

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

#WhatIvebeenreading Plagues, human slavery and bumps in the night

As usual, my literary consumption is made up of reading and listening. I love audiobooks, listen to them frequently in the car and on train journeys, especially now that I’ve invested in a super duper pair of cordless Bluetooth earbuds. And, as ever, I keep returning to one of my all-time favourites, Nora Roberts.

Ms Roberts used to write a lot of sweet(ish) romance, populated by modern royal families, wedding planners, reclusive and damaged heroines and the strong and sturdy types who ‘rescue’ them from their self-imposed exile. All good stuff. If you can ignore the shameless head-hopping she spins a decent yarn, does Mrs Roberts.

But of late I detect a shift to darker themes. Nora is not alone in that, many of us have embraced our darker side and while some are just too hardcore for my tender sensibilities, I tend to prefer the grittier storylines. Nora does not disappoint.

Year One chronicles the first year following a massive and catastrophic epidemic of some sort of plague which wipes out about 90% of the world’s population in a matter of weeks. The survivors are a random set of individuals who for some unspecified reason did not succumb to the infection and are left trying to survive in a world where systems and infrastructure are gone, law and order no longer exist and no one knows who to trust. Some of the survivors are supernatural beings – fairies, elves, shape shifters, demonic creatures, witches, and there are good and bad among those also. The tendency for at least some of the human survivors to blame these ‘others’ for the disaster which befell them is reminiscent of racism through the ages and no less stark for that.

Year One is a harrowing tale, and it doesn’t offer an HEA (yet – remember, this is only Year One). But the story’s premise is one I found fascinating. What does happen when all around you crumbles? How mindlessly do we rely on the structures we use everyday – health provision, transport, technical expertise, communications, not to mention the families we love and take for granted, and how would any of us cope when all these disappear? But also, the story tells of the resilience and grit of humans and others determined to survive and rebuild a world worth living in.

My current ‘listen’ is Come Sundown, also by Nora Roberts. This tells of the usual wealthy family running a successful business and the love interests curling gently among the characters, all of whom are competent, likeable, and living with the shadow of a family tragedy. One of their number, a girl of eighteen, left home about twenty years before and was never heard of again. Her mother, sister, niece all harbour carrying degrees of curiosity, grief, resentment. The underlying story is one of unspeakable cruelty and violence, where a man imprisons a young woman, beats and mistreats her mercilessly and keeps her as his personal sex slave for years and years and years and years, taking away her babies soon after they are born. I don’t know how it will end, but I’m eager to find out.

Recently I finished reading a ghost story with a bit of a twist. I’m not normally especially fond of ghost stories but I knew the author, it was her debut novel, so wanted to give it a try. The Women of Heachley Hall is a beautifully crafted tale of love, regret, penance and redemption. Set in the gorgeous Norfolk countryside the descriptions of the setting are almost as entrancing as the unfolding relationship between the young woman who inherits Heachley Hall and the enigmatic handyman who keeps her company amidst the weird goings on and bumps in the night.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Traveling, Reading

Book and Plane

By Lisabet Sarai

I am writing this two weeks ahead of time because on the day it posts, I’ll be far away from my home and my computer. I’ll be traveling for twelve days, and I won’t be able to access the blog, even to reply to comments.

So far in advance, I’m not sure what I’ll be reading, but I know I will be reading. Indeed, reading is one of the joys of being on the road. A fourteen hour plane trip provides a lot of opportunities to lose oneself in a book—not to mention the hours waiting to board or to make connections. I may be doing an all-day train ride as well. Meanwhile, since I’ll be in a rural area at least part of the time, I expect that there will few activities in the evenings to compete with reading.

What will I bring with me? Well, my tablet, of course, stuffed with at least two dozen titles, many of them erotica. Thank heavens for e-books. They definitely lighten my luggage!

I’ll also be carrying George R.R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons, the last (so far) volume in the Game of Thrones series. I’ve been rationing my consumption of that series, saving it for long journeys. I read the first half of this volume (five hundred plus pages) on my last international odyssey. I’ll finish it on this one, then feel frustrated, I’m sure, because just like real life, these books never tie up the loose ends.

That won’t be enough, though. After a while, I get tired of reading on a screen. I’m sure I’ll want to bring at least a few more print books, even with our limited luggage allowance (low cost airlines... argh!) But which ones?

At the moment, there are all sorts of candidates on my bookshelf. Riven Rock by T.C. Boyle. Sweet Caress by William Boyd. Books by Umberto Eco and John Crowley, Thomas Pynchon and Salman Rushdie, not to mention half a dozen titles from Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series and (as a stark contrast) Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Lots of less well known writers, too—we have access to some excellent used book stores!

One needs to use special criteria choosing books for travel. They need to long enough to justify carrying them, but small enough not to take up too much space. I look for books that will really hook me and pull me in, to distract me from delays, backaches, hunger, bad smells, and other inevitabilities of travel. At the same time, for me at least, a travel book can’t be too intense, complex or intellectual. I’d rather read those books at home, where I have a wider selection and can put them down to pick up something else.

Anyway, I really can’t tell you in any detail what I’ll be reading as you read this. Very likely, though, I’ll be enjoying it.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Stuck at the Beginning

When it came time to write about this cycle’s topic, stuck, I found myself very much so. Like most writers, my first thought of being stuck is always in relation to my work, though I seldom get writers’ block. While I do have a lot of unfinished stories, most have been tucked away because I had other more pressing projects, or the energy just wasn’t there for them at the time. Some get finished, some don’t. Others have evolved into something else entirely or have been cannibalized by still other stories. Even if I am stuck in some part of a story with a plot logjam, almost always a good long walk will help me figure out what to do to move forward. 

While there are a thousand other ways to be stuck that don’t involve writing, under the deadline for this post, the need to call to mind an example worth blogging about only left me more stuck. Oh, the pressure!

But blogging is writing, after all, so I did what I always do. I went for a walk. In fact, I went to the English Lake District and went for several very long walks. That got me thinking about the anatomy of stuck. Just exactly what does it mean to be stuck? Stuck is the starting place for a lot of great novels. When I got to thinking about it, it seems to me that stuck is the starting place for most archetypal stories. It certainly is the starting place of the hero’s journey, which is the ultimate story plot, because stuck is quite possibly the scariest place of all -- standing on a cliff with toes curled over the edge oblivious to the peril. 

Stuck often takes the form of the perfect life, the ideal happy-ever-after being lived out day to day. While in the real world, that may be what we dream of and hope for, in fiction, there’s the reason why the happy ending is, in fact, the end of the story. What comes after the happy ending, from a reader’s perspective, is boring. 

The subtext of happy ever after beginnings is “hold on to your hats, shit’s about to get real.” Our hero or heroine is stuck, and they are about to get unstuck in a really brutal, horrible way. In happy at the beginning stories, spouses die, are murdered, run off with someone else, kids are kidnapped or killed, great wealth is suddenly lost, in fact everything that matters is lost. That shattering point of becoming unstuck is where the story really begins. It is the being kicked out of Eden that we readers have been waiting for. Living the good life does not make for interesting reading unless maybe in a how-to book. 

The second kind of stuck in story happens when the main character is truly stuck in a rut, same old same old, bored now, want out. This kind of stuck involves the hero or heroine of the story wishing something would change, wishing they were anywhere or anyone else. They are waiting, desperately waiting, for their life to begin. The story starts when they get their wish, and it turns out to be way more of a challenge than they bargained for. They are well on the path to discovery and adventure that will change them forever, if it doesn’t kill them first. It’s only at that point we readers have a story worth reading. And that’s the point at which we writers strive to make readers willing and happy to take that leap with our characters. 

Whether the character is happy with his life and then loses everything or is bored with his life and then has change thrust upon him, the story can now begin. Enter chaos! 

While stuck is the jumping-off place from which the real story begins, once that happens, it’s chaos that rules the day. Nothing is easy, nothing is orderly, nothing is safe. The driving force of the story is the mess that keeps getting messier and messier until the hero or heroine muddles their way through and out on the other side to their happy ever after, or at least their happy for
now. At that point, there are two choices for the writer. Either consider the tale finished and write THE END, or make a sequel that tears away the stuckness of a happy ever after and cast the poor hapless character back into chaos for round two. 

I wonder sometimes if, for the “bored now” characters, stuck is hard to endure because stuck isn’t the natural state of things.  For those characters basking in their happy lives, there’s always a neurotic dose of waiting for the other shoe to drop. Either way, stuck doesn’t last because life is in flux, and everything about it is in motion. Nothing stands still for very long. The journey is cyclical, not static, and moving from stillness into chaos and back again is as much the shape of our natural journey as it is the shape of an interesting story. That being the case, it’s not surprising that readers love to live that journey vicariously, magnified, larger than life. And we writers love to write it for the very same reason. We see ourselves in that cycle, and on some level, even from the safe distance of story, we feel right at home. 

Thursday, July 12, 2018

When thoughts feel like quicksand

By Annabeth Leong

Sometimes I talk about my thoughts like they’re a field full of quicksand from an old movie. I step into certain thoughts and suddenly I’m sinking fast. While I’m capable of things like doing the dishes even while I’m rapidly drowning in my own brain, it’s very hard to do anything that requires clear thinking, such as writing.

I’ve been using the quicksand metaphor for a long time, but it just now occurred to me to look at the solution to quicksand to see if there’s anything that applies. What I found was actually quite calming.

With credit to WikiHow, there are a bunch of ways that I think the advice for quicksand can apply to dealing with the kinds of thoughts that mess up my life and stop my writing dead.

1. Drop everything

As in, don’t struggle with quicksand while carrying a giant backpack. My association here is trying to sort out complex psychological problems without making the space to do so. Sometimes I do have to cancel that hard thing I was going to do this evening. Conversely, sometimes I have to leave certain things undealt with so I can go do whatever it is that I need to do.

2. Move horizontally

This refers to taking a couple steps backward, maybe, instead of just struggling forward. Basically trying to see if there are other directions to go. And indeed, if I’m really stuck on one problem, sometimes it’s possible to find other places I can make progress.

3. Lay back

This is to get the pressure off your feet so you’re not just bearing down in one place and sinking deeper. To me, it also gives an image of relaxation and not fighting directly. Sometimes for me those quicksand thoughts are particular pain points, things that make me just grind away without getting anywhere in particular. I think the psychological metaphor here is to let go of trying to sort that particular thing out. Lay back inside my brain. Let it do its swirling without pressing down and going under.

4. Take your time

“Whatever you do, do it slowly,” says the article. And this is absolutely great advice for those psychological issues. I have found that if I am able to give myself enough time and space, I can get through my work even if my brain is attacking me. It’s not the time to add deadline pressure, though. Or to expect myself to operate at maximum efficiency.

5. Take frequent breaks

It’s tiring to extricate yourself from quicksand, and you don’t want to lose strength entirely. I’ve made no secret of how I’ve struggled for about the last year. Things are gradually getting better for me—gradually. But I’m working better now than I have in a long time, and one thing I do is set a timer so I stand up and take a break twice an hour. It keeps me from getting too stressed and miserable, and it saves me from sliding into the many types of quicksand offered by the Internet.


The article I found about quicksand doesn’t address the possibility of being helped by a friend, but I think that’s a thing, too. Sometimes what you really want is for someone to throw you a rope to hang onto, and sometimes what you really need is for someone to help pull you out.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Stuck in neutral

By Tim Smith
I took my initial interest in creative writing in high school. This was in the early ‘70s and the English department didn’t have a formal text book for the course (it was being offered for the first time). We had to buy a paperback from the bookstore to use as a course guide. I still vividly remember the opening words.

“Does the blank page hold terror for you?”

To this very day, sometimes the answer is a resounding “Hell yes!”

I suppose like everyone else I’ve had my share of stumbling blocks when it comes to writing. It usually follows a pattern. I get so far into a story, then come to a spot where I stare at the screen and think “What happens next?” I developed a routine to handle these situations. Since I typically have more than one project in the works at any one time, I put away the one that’s giving me trouble and move onto one of the others. Then after a couple of weeks, I go back to the first one and move forward. This has served me well through nearly 20 novels and countless shorts.

At present, I have four manuscripts that are unfinished. One of them is my dream project, and I started working on it 8 years ago. The rough draft is finished, but it needs a lot of editing and rewrites. I think what’s holding me back is that I originally wrote it when I was still doing print books exclusively, before I was fully into digital media. The problem? It’s the “War and Peace” of romantic spy thrillers, probably 90,000 words at last count.  

Have you checked the word count on a typical e-book lately? Something this size would have to sell in excess of fifteen bucks, and it would be released in three volumes. Someday I’ll get around to finishing it.

On the subject of getting stuck, I have a favorite anecdote about a favorite author, Raymond Chandler, who popularized the pulp fiction style of writing. Chandler battled alcoholism his entire adult life until one day he decided to quit, cold turkey. He had just landed an assignment to write an original script for Hollywood, which would become the film noir classic “The Blue Dahlia” with Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. Chandler jumped into the writing, cranking out page after page in his trademark hard-boiled style. The producers were ecstatic, knowing they’d have a hit on their hands.

Then one day, the unthinkable happened. Chandler sat down at the typewriter, and…nothing. He was stuck. Even reading his previous output didn’t help him get back on track. This went on for a few days, driving him crazy. Then it hit him. He had stopped drinking at the start of the project and had stayed sober. He realized that he actually wrote better when he was buzzed. He began the next day with a tumbler of scotch, which he sipped throughout the day, replenishing it as needed. Problem solved. He got his groove back. Of course, he still had a drinking problem, but at least he had cured his writer’s block.

As a footnote, that approach doesn’t work for me. When I try writing (or texting or e-mailing) after I’ve had a couple of drinks, the results are not only incomprehensible, they’re usually inflammatory and insulting.  

I think I still owe a couple of apologies for something I posted on a chat board during my last bender.      

Monday, July 9, 2018

Stuck in the Brambles of My Mind

Sacchi Green

I don’t know how I’ve managed to write anything, ever. Without deadlines I’d never finish anything, although I generally manage deadlines that I’ve promised to meet. Many a story hasn’t made it in time to meet the deadline in one or another Call for Submissions where I’ve made no commitment. Sometimes another chance will come along, and I can manage to finish an abandoned story in time, although by then it’s morphed into a somewhat different story, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

But I can’t multi-task when it comes to writing. If I’m supposed to be writing one thing but get stuck, for one reason or another, I can’t work on any other writing project. I procrastinate and avoid, and think longingly of other things I want to write, and Calls for Submission that sound tempting, but I don’t let myself turn to another project while a current one is hovering gloomily over my head, which all too often means that little or nothing gets done.

 I keep plenty of other kinds of metaphorical plates spinning in the air, though somewhat wobbling at times. Just now I’m handling selling my father’s house (where I grew up) now that he’s in a long term care facility, and dang, that kind of thing is complicated, what with realtors and lawyer-speak and town restrictions and clearing out sixty years of a family's accumulations. And I visit my dad almost every day, taking him to doctor appointments, and lunch twice a week, while also caring for another family member with severe effects of Lyme Disease. And I manage to keep my traditional vegetable garden going, so far, in spite of a crazy deer who seems to think tomato plants are tasty. Housekeeping, not so much, but I get by. Anyway, I can multi-task when necessary, when there’s no avoiding it and other people are affected.

But I can’t work on more than one writing project at a time. I don’t think it’s a matter of not being able to think about multiple things more or less at once, but of recognizing my tendency for procrastination and trying not to put off one thing and turn to another. That, of course, is totally unproductive, since nothing gets done, and I might at least be managing partial stories that could be finished up when another chance comes along.  Maybe I’m punishing myself for getting stuck in a major project like my first novel (which is, however, essentially done now, having taken as long as I used to take to write ten or so short stories.)

I guess I used to be more prolific, but even then I couldn’t manage to have more than one story in progress at a time. And I haven’t managed to follow the prime advice for writers, which is to write every day, no matter what, no matter how stuck you may be, or how blank your mind feels. And…well, okay, no matter how distracted you get by following Facebook and/or Twitter and all the ways that news both fake and factual and generally depressing batters at your consciousness.

But look, right here, in spite of having nothing to say, I’m finishing a piece of writing that I’ve committed to doing, and on time. I’ll take my sense of accomplishment where I can get it. And maybe now I’ll go spend an hour on something else I should be doing, like revising a never-quite-finished story I want to include in a collection of my work so that there’ll be at least one piece that hasn’t been previously published. Unfinished stories do come in handy, after all, although this particular one may be unfinished for good reason, and stuck beyond hope amid the brambles of distraction and procrastinative tendencies of my mind.  

Friday, July 6, 2018

The New Pandora

by Jean Roberta

For me, there is a thin line between an unfinished piece (usually a short story that wants to be a novel when it grows up) and one that is more-or-less finished but apparently not publishable in its current state.

I recently took another look at a long story I wrote several years ago. It is based on Victor Frankenstein’s creation of a male monster in his makeshift lab, and it refers to contemporary same-sex parenthood, especially lesbian couples becoming parents when one of the women is artificially inseminated, often with sperm from a man in her partner’s family.

The problem with my story is that it has two parallel plots: a dispute over the creation of a “daughter” in the present day, and a set of letters (roughly circa 1818, when the first version of Frankenstein was published) written by Margaret Saville, ancestor of the present-day mad scientist.

This is all probably too much for a short story. The original version was rejected for an anthology, and lately, a shorter version was rejected for an on-line journal of speculative fiction.

It seems as if I have to limit the story to the contemporary plot OR rewrite it as historical fiction, saving only the letters about the creation of the monster, the “new Pandora,” in the late 1700s. Or else I have to rework the thing into something long enough to stand on its own, probably with alternating chapters in different eras.

Here is the opening section of the current version, "Pandora II:"

To make things clear from the beginning, I’m Liz the librarian. I never thought I would move in with a science nerd like Victoria (who doesn’t accept shortened versions of her name) until I did. I wasn’t thinking with my mind.

After two years, we talked about having a baby. Some of our friends thought that lesbian couples who go sperm-hunting to have their own babies are slaves to the capitalist patriarchy. I didn’t care. I wanted to become a mother while my biological clock was still ticking. Having a girl was less important to me than having a baby who would be related to both of us.

“Babies take so long to raise.” Victoria sighed. “And I don’t think there’s a way to guarantee you’ll get all the features you want in a kid: intelligence, good health, strength, beauty, female plumbing.”

Victoria seemed to be at her peak: her classic features and creamy complexion were photogenic, and she was athletically slim. Combining our family genes seemed like a good idea. A procedure involving her brother’s sperm could result in a little miracle.

I tried to imagine the sensations of breast-feeding. Then I remembered that motherhood was not supposed to be overtly sexy.

“You can’t control everything in life anyway,” I told her. “You have to go into parenthood with an open mind.”

She slid her feet to the floor as she sat up, making room for me to sit beside her. Victoria was in a long-hair phase, at least where her scalp didn’t resemble a closely-mowed golf course. Her dark braid caught the light as it swung forward.

“We both disappoint each other sometimes, honey,” she reminded me. “I’m not complaining, but think how much more frustrating it would be to raise a child, trying to instill our values in her, coping with colic and scraped knees and birthday parties. And when she seems almost grown, we lose her when she rebels against us, drops out of school, and runs off with some asshole man.”

I didn’t think that outcome was inevitable. “But if we show our child a better way—“

“We’d still be fooling ourselves.” Victoria stood up. “We need a daughter who already has the right mind-set. We don’t have to leave it to chance.”

“You want us to adopt? How would that be risk-free?”

“You need to meet someone.” She stood up, turned off the overhead light, and walked through the indoor dusk to the coffee table where her laptop waited to be of service.

I saw the logo of Bio-Tech Laboratories, Victoria’s employer, on the small screen. Victoria continued typing.

A transparent, three-dimensional image of a woman appeared in front of me. “Hello, Pandora,” Victoria greeted her. “She’s a hologram,” she explained to me.

“Good – evening, ladies,” came a hesitant but fluty voice from the laptop. The image appeared to dip slightly in a delayed curtsey. She wore a full-skirted gown that obscured the shape of her body below the waist. Her hair was gathered into a large bun at her neck.

“What the fuck?” I asked.

As if in answer, the voice explained: “I am five feet tall, and seven stone in weight. I was created in 1795 from the remains of three gentlewomen who were chosen for their beauty and their accomplishments. I was named Pandora after the first woman formed by the gods of ancient Greece: she who had every gift.”

Pandora turned around slowly. As she did, her clothing disappeared. She looked like a ghostly female statue with small, high, well-shaped breasts, a visible ribcage and hipbones, graceful buttocks, and girlish legs. The eerie smile on her face never changed. It reminded me of the “Attic smile” on the faces of Greek statues.

I felt shaken. “I bet she didn’t go out like that in the 1790s.”

Victoria grinned. “How do you like her?”

“I want to know why you brought her into our front room. And what she has to do with our conversation about raising a child.”

Victoria pressed a button, and Pandora disappeared. “She’s the project I’ve been working on. The biologist who hired assistants to put her together in the 1790s left notes and diagrams, so we reconstructed her in this form. The next step is to –“

“No,” I interrupted. “Don’t tell me you’re going to dig up bodies to bring her back in real life. There’s a certain novel about a monster that a mad scientist made that way as an experiment. The story doesn’t end well.” I knew exactly where to find that book in the public library, and how many borrowers asked for it every week.

“The novel was based on the real case, Liz. We know a lot more about human development now. We don’t have to raid the cemetery for material. Some tissue can be grown in the lab, and we won’t set her loose to wander the countryside.” Victoria radiated the energy of a fanatic.

“Okay. Okay.” I stood up and turned on all three table lamps to shed light on the subject. I felt a headache coming on. “You and Eric can have fun building an antique woman in the lab. I won’t even ask what you plan to do with her after you’re finished. But she’s not living here with us.”

“It’ll probably take us another year to finish, anyway. Think about it, Liz. She’ll be custom-made. Nothing left to chance, or the randomness of heredity. You don’t know how much love she has to give to her family, the ones who accept her as their creation.”

Ice-cold fear raced up my spine. “Jesus, Victoria. Can you hear what you’re saying?”

“You don’t know her background. She had so much potential. Everyone knows about Frankenstein, but no one outside the family knows the real story because the actual letters were never published. There are five printed copies, and I have one. You need to read it.”

“Whoa, woman.” I paced the floor because I couldn’t stand still. I grabbed Victoria by both hands. “You’re serious, aren’t you?”

She pulled away, and closed the laptop. “About reading Margaret Saville’s letters? You’re always reading, Liz. Why don’t you want to read them?”

“You’re talking about three or four things at once. I’ll read anything you give me to read, but we were talking about having a baby. Or adopting, or whatever. A baby of our own. Why do you want to bring a dead woman back to life?”

“That’s not really what we’re doing,” she explained patiently. “No one knows how to create a child in the lab who will grow up, unless we start with a fertilized egg, and that’s not much different from normal conception. Same process, different location. Do you see what I mean?"

My head was spinning.

Victoria was on a roll. “If we have to give Pandora an age, I’d say she’s only about twenty-one.”

I had seen library patrons in their early twenties, and I wasn’t convinced that Pandora had anything in common with them. I looked at Victoria, trying to beam common sense into her mind. “I need a drink. We’ve got an open bottle of merlot.”

“Bring me a glass, baby. Maybe that will help.”

By the time I returned from the kitchen with two glasses that glowed ruby-red in the lamplight, Victoria was holding a leather-bound volume. “Petticoat Lazarus, or The New Pandora,” she read aloud. “These are the letters of Mrs. Margaret Saville, my English ancestor. Eight or ten generations back. I’m not sure, but that’s not important.”


Note on names: in the novel Frankenstein, the central character, Victor, has a fiancee named Elizabeth. (In the original version, she is his cousin.) Margaret Saville is the sister and confidante of the sea-captain Robert Walton, who sends letters to her about the strange, pitiful man, Victor Frankenstein, whom he rescued somewhere in the Arctic, and whose story he relates.

In my version, Margaret Saville and Lady Roberta Walton are discreet lovers who run a home for gentlewomen in distress. One of their tenants is a certain Swiss lady who calls herself Victoria Beaufort because her actual family name has become notorious. (In Frankenstein, Beaufort is the maiden name of Victor Frankenstein’s mother.) Mademoiselle Beaufort says she is grieving for her child, but then the two Englishwomen discover that her “child” is an adult woman that she constructed out of body parts, and who resents being called an abomination. She resents it so much that she kills those who insult her, or who sexually assault her, and the inventor feels responsible for the carnage.

It seems I have made a monster out of different story-parts. I really hope I don’t have to kill it.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

There's No Place Like Freedom

by Giselle Renarde

Did I tell you my grandmother has moved to a retirement home? It was kind of a big deal.

I'm not entirely sure how the decision was arrived at that my grandmother would move out of her house and into a retirement home. It was such a momentous event. You'd think I'd be able to pinpoint exactly how and why it happened. But I can't. This year has been such a whirlwind of family stuff. It seemed like one day she was living in her house and the next she'd rented a respite room for 6 months. She'd been there 3 days when she signed a lease to move in permanently.

In the beginning, everything was wonderful. Everything was perfect.  My grandmother raved about the food, the care, the accommodations, the activities.

She'd been there less than a week the first time I visited her. Right away, she told me, "I have friends already!"  Which is wonderful. When she lived at the house, she had family, but that's it. Not a friend in the world. I mean that seriously. She relied on her kids for everything, including socializing. She's got a sister who is two years older than she is, and they only speak twice a year. So making friends was a big deal.

All the same, it was clear to me she was seeing this retirement home through rose-coloured glasses. That's fine. She's 87 years old. She's allowed to be excited about something. But she obviously wasn't acknowledging the negatives. It's almost like she'd fallen in love with the place. It was new love.

My sister and I visited my grandmother this weekend. We both had independent and innate feelings that it was very important to see her right away. My mother had mentioned to us that my grandmother's been ill of late, but that's no surprise during a heat wave. I've been sick too. Totally because of the heat.

When we visited, we found a grandmother who was practically a changeling of the one we've always known. My grandma has faced a lot of hardships in her life, but she's always had a positive attitude. The grandma we visited this weekend was the opposite of that person.

Everything was terrible. Everything! The retirement home she'd raved about when she first moved in was a prison to her. She hated it, hated everything about it.

She wanted her freedom. She wanted to go home.

"If I was at home, I could go out in the backyard and sit in the sun. I can't do that here. I'm locked in this one little room. I'm trapped here."

Well, I hate to call bullshit on my own grandmother... so I didn't do it to her face... but I will do it here. Because when we arrived, where did we find her? Locked in her one little room? Nope. We found her out on the accessible front deck overlooking the gardens, basking in the sun, chatting with her friends.

At home, she couldn't have gone out in her backyard if she tried. There are steps to get down into it and she no longer has the mobility to access spaces without ramps.

The freedom she imagines is imaginary freedom.

That's the thing about freedom: a lot of it is in your mind.

Easy for me to say. I can hear and see and walk on my own. I'm not 87 and my body isn't falling apart. My grandmother has been complaining about her physical deterioration for years, and she has every right to her complaints. I'd be complaining too, if I had all her medical conditions.

But there was a subtle difference this weekend, when we saw her. The complaining wasn't good-natured as it used to be. My grandma has always liked to laugh at her foibles. She's always told funny stories about all the inappropriate places she's peed (in my uncle's car, in my aunt's car, at Subway...), but this weekend's story was about waking up in blood and shit. It wasn't a funny story. It wasn't meant to be funny.

She kept saying, "I wish they'd just take me out back and shoot me."

Now, she says stuff like that all the time. The difference was the tone. The despair. The depression--a state I know all too well, but I've never seen it in my spirited grandmother.

In my mind, it's natural that she's dipped into this low. Maybe not usual for her, but it was bound to happen. When she first moved in, she couldn't find a single fault with her new residence. Now she can't find even one bright spot. She'll even out in time. The place isn't perfect, but it's far from terrible.

I just hope she's got that time ahead of her.

This weekend, a family friend's grandson lost his battle with cancer. He died two weeks shy of his sixth birthday. I was just reading his obituary, since the funeral is tomorrow. His parents ask that everyone wear blue instead of black, because that was his favourite colour. OR, if you happen to own a Star Wars T-shirt or Pokemon pyjamas, wear those. "He'd want you to be comfortable."

His parents miss him, obviously, but they insist he's found freedom.

I want my grandma to live forever. I love her. She is my font of wisdom, of stories. Nothing surprises her. There's nothing here she hasn't seen before. But every day that passes brings more pain, and she's lost hope. She's gotten to a point where she doesn't believe there will ever be a day where she feels better than she felt the day before. In her body. In her mind.

But you know what? When my sister and I left, she thanked us for the visit. She said she'd been feeling awful, just awful, and seeing us brightened her day.

I guess we'll have to visit more often. At this stage, it's all we can do.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Stuckness and too much of a good thing

I echo Lisabet’s tale of woe from yesterday, though probably not to the same degree.

A starter -finisher by nature I like to have one story done and dusted before I start the next and in the past when I was less busy and more solitary, with far fewer invitations to join in box sets, that was easy enough.

There were the occasional hiccups. If an opportunity arose with a deadline, I could grit my teeth and set my current project aside for a month or so, do whatever, then pick up my original project. I wouldn’t say I liked that, exactly, it went against my natural way of working, but I would never forego an opportunity I fancied just for the sake of sticking rigidly to self-made rules and meaningless deadlines.

Nowadays though, what used to be an occasional deviation from the path of righteousness has become the norm. I currently have three unfinished books actively on the go, two of them co-writing projects, as well as another with edits pending. Can’t say I’m, comfortable with that. It bothers me, not least because I lose my thread. Normally, when I’m engrossed in a story I’m thinking about it a lot between writing stints, turning over plot twists, rehearsing dialogue in my head. I think through what might be coming next, then sit down and try to write it.

This is a strategy that flies right out the window when I’m flitting from one story to another, further complicated by working with other authors who are writing alternate chunks. I don’t actually know for sure what comes next, only that I’ll pick up the plot and take it a bit further forward when the ball lands in my court again.

Which brings me to the nub of my post – Planning.

I used to be a pantser, hence the preoccupation with mentally rehearsing the dialogue or experimenting with various plotting scenarios. A story could go in all sorts of ways and as often as not I’d sit down not quite sure what I was going to write but hoping it would flow. Sometimes it did, not always. But without fail I would get stressed over it. It was always daunting, not really knowing what the next chapter or two would contain, where the plot was headed, where the story’s ultimate destination was or when I might reach it. With experience came a marginally less pessimistic attitude – I’ve never (yet) abandoned a book unfinished – but I would wallow in doubt and dwindling self-belief anyway.

With co-writing that’s no use at all. Working with another writer, one with as great a say in the end result as I have, brings with it a serious need to plan, to agree beforehand on the plot in a degree of detail I had never bothered with before. Also, the methodology of it all, whether to use Scrivener, or Word, or Novel Factory. There are Dropboxes to be set up, not to mention agreeing on beta readers, who should edit which bits, and so on. The more of this that is bottomed up front, the less scope for falling out during the course of the writing. And I’d really hate to sour a great relationship with another author I admire and want to work with because of some hitch we didn’t foresee and resolve amicably. So, each co-writing project has a script, chapter headings, with the content specified, POV set out, each allocated to one or the other of us so we both know what we’re doing and what the other is going to do.

So far, fingers crossed, it has worked. No one is lying dead in a ditch or sulking or crying in a corner. We’re still speaking to each other. But it hasn’t ended there, for me. At last, necessity being the mother of invention and all that, I’ve learned how to plan a novel. Not that I’m claiming there’s one perfect way or anything so grandiose as that, but I have a way which works for me.

I’ve tried the same method for my current solo project, and guess what – I have another script. Or should I say, a detailed synopsis printed out and sitting next to my laptop. When I start writing again I just need to pick it up, flick to the bit I got to before and I can straight away see what’s supposed to be coming next.

Of course, with the solo version it’s not so vital to stick rigidly to it if a better notion enters my head in the course of the writing. I can go ‘off piste’ if I choose to, but the basic framework is still there and I can retreat back into it rather than worry about where to go from here, and is ‘here’ the right place to be in any case? All of that, I now recognise, could and sometimes did leave me feeling paralysed by indecision. At last, I feel to be in control and it’s intoxicatingly liberating. I can see how far along in my plan I am and even hazard a guess at how much further I have to go, in terms of time or word count.

Yee hah!

Not that I’m about to get giddy and start planning books way out in advance, but in theory I could. I know some writers do, but that’s really not me. I’ve learned the value of planning my way out of stuckness, but I still think you can have too much of a good thing. The bare minimum needed to get by will have to do.