Thrilling or Annoying?

So I’ve noticed what I think is a disturbing trend, mostly in thrillers.

The book begins with several short chapters. Each chapter has a different main character or storyline going on.

For readers: How long are you willing to twist in the wind, dangling from disparate threads, before the author needs to start tying them together? Not the wrap up of the big plot, of course, but how long can you hop from Jerry the pretzel maker in Brooklyn to Shawntelle the hair stylist in Athens, Georgia, before you get some clue how they link together? Especially when you throw in a shoemaker in Venezuela and an ex-cop in Topeka?

Does the formula work for you, or does it feel overdone? Do you think writers are getting more and more outlandish, putting more and more impossible distance between their characters before bringing them together?

For writers: Do you use this plot device? How many plot lines are too many? Is this how the story evolved in your head? If not, what’s the reasoning behind keeping the reader confused for so long? Are you exercising your “clever” muscle? Is this a rut you’ve been caught in, and you don’t know how to get out?

Obviously, good writing is good writing, and if it catches my attention and keeps me reading, then you’re welcome to use any plot device you like. But when I’m 50 pages in and the plot device stands out more than the plot itself, I think there’s a problem.

It could be my problem. Learning more about writing has ruined some reading for me. While I’m always reading for the pure enjoyment of reading, I’m also reading for craft. I’m less forgiving of small errors. A strict and frightening dichotomy has divided my brain–half is enjoying the ride, and the other half is meticulously taking apart the structure of the entire piece, from sentences to the main character’s character arc.

Or is this just how modern thrillers are written and I should sit down and shut up? Like sausage, I should enjoy the end product without looking too closely at how it’s made?

 

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Phil–the Gateway Plant

It started with Phil. He’s a Philodendron that some dear friends gave me years ago.

I’m houseplant challenged, you see. I once killed a cactus, although in my defense, I dropped something on it.

Houseplants and me–not a match made in heaven.

But Phil is different. Phil is hardy. Phil is about seven miles long and can drag himself to the sink and turn on the taps if he gets thirsty. No matter how much neglect or abuse Phil gets, he thrives.

And it’s time for Phil to go. Not all of Phil. I’d like to keep a more reasonable sized portion of him. But what we have now would look more at home in the rain forest exhibit of a natural history museum. Like a baby elephant, he’s gotten too big.

So today we moved Phil, because he needs desperately to be repotted, and because I want to put a bookcase in the corner he has been occupying. The spot that used to hold the bookcase will hold the new armoire/liquor cabinet. Which I haven’t finished upcycling from the television armoire it was in a former life. (Hm. Same people who gave us Phil gave us the armoire. And an overstuffed chair with ottoman. And a bed frame. I see a pattern forming here.)

What happens when you move a gigantic houseplant for the first time in ten years?

You find dead leaves, dust, abandoned spider webs and bales of cat hair. After gently disentangling Phil from the curtain rod he lovingly embraced, you find a lot of dust on top of your curtains, and in the cute wooden rings that connect the curtain to the curtain rod. Stop. Dust the top of the curtains. Dust the wooden rings. Realize you have to wipe down the door frame under the curtains. Realize how dirty that side of the sliding glass door is that is rarely opened and normally covered by the curtain.

When you come down off the stepstool that allowed you to clean the curtain rod and all attached parts, don’t forget that you moved the dining room table over about a foot to accommodate all this activity. The closer you come to impaling yourself on a dining room chair, the harder you’ll consider whether your life insurance is paid up, and whether it’s a large enough policy. And if you come off the stepstool the wrong way, you could be in for an unpleasant goosing.

Then there are the phantom spots on the wall. They could be coffee, gravy, red wine, or possibly very old mustard. Small flecks on the wall that need to be wiped off. Which leads to wiping down the whole wall. Which leads to the discovery that you’re a pretty slovenly housekeeper, and maybe you should wipe down your walls more often than once a decade.

When you’re wiping out suburban spider town, you start to wonder. Spiders are supposed to eat flies, right? So why the heck do we always have so many fruit flies with a veritable metropolis of spider webs around the dining room ceiling? Are the spiders on strike? Have they unionized, and they’re waiting for higher wages and better health care benefits? They should be sending me thank you cards, not leaving their abandoned slum webs for me to clean up. Of course, they could be protesting the cat hair that floats up, attaches itself to the web and makes foot traffic impossible for the arachnid set.

Today, I was going to move a bookcase. Thanks to Phil, I’ll be washing walls, ceilings and windows. I’m pretty sure at some point, while I’m teetering on the stepstool, arms pinwheeling to keep my balance, I’ll look over at the light fixture over the dining room table and realize it also needs disassembling and cleaning.

Phil, how could you do this to me?

If anyone wants a large Philodendron, please let me know.

 

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What book group is reading (Oct. 2014-Aug. 2015)

Always a pleasure to spend an evening with the ladies of my book group, enjoying a potluck and picking out what books to read for the next year.

 

Oct. 13, Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline
Nov. 10, The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes
Dec. 8:  Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson
Jan. 12: Abandon by Blake Crouch
Feb. 9: Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake by Anna Quindlen
March 9:  The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
April 13:  Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
May 11:  The Meadow by James Galvin
June 8: Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt
July 13: The Translation of the Bones by Kay Francesca
Aug. 10:  The Big Tiny: A Built-It-Myself Memoir by Dee Williams
Sept. 14: The Choosing and potluck

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A Walk on the Wild Side

To steampunk, or not to steampunk?

For the uninitiated, Wikipedia says: Steampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction that typically features steam-powered machinery,[1] especially in a setting inspired by industrialised Western civilisation during the 19th century. Steampunk works are often set in an alternative history of the 19th century’s British Victorian era or American “Wild West”, in a post-apocalyptic future during which steam power has regained mainstream use, or in a fantasy world that similarly employs steam power.

Think of Will Smith’s movie “Wild, Wild West” and you’re there.

At the Pikes Peak Writers Conference next month, one of our keynote speakers is Gail Carriger, who writes a delightful series in the steampunk genre. At the Friday night dinner, when she will be speaking, we are having an optional steampunk costume contest.

This is a really long-winded way to get to the point: for women, steampunk usually means wearing a corset. Usually over a white blouse.  I feel that, having attained the sagacious age of 50, if I was corset sort of woman, I’d have one by now. Heck, I’d have half a dozen, in various styles and colors, from black leather to purple brocade.

From what I can tell, the main function of a corset is to keep your posture bloody perfect, and to cinch in your waist. If you’ve anything extra at your waistline, as most of us do, the corsets pushes it out both ends. Think of grabbing a toothpaste tube in the middle and giving it a good, hard squeeze. Since I am sufficiently supplied at both the bosom and the backside, I’m not sure why I’d want to either increase the padding on my hips OR push my boobs up to my chin.

Do you see where this is going?

Sure you do.

Some of the women of PPW were talking about corsets for the costumes. So I decided that instead of going out with a group of women who are predominantly younger and thinner than I am, I would slip into a local store that sells all sorts of boudoir accessories. For the sake of anonymity, let’s call the place Seductions.

I cross the threshold. The music is loud. Okay, I’m not THAT old. But it’s loud enough that the female sales clerk and the male customer she is assisting need to shout at each other to be heard. While they were busy with a lengthy discussion of his purchase, I perused the stock at the front of the store, ears quietly bleeding.

I was trying not to pay attention to what they were doing/discussing. Really, your sex secrets? Your little kinks and peccadilloes? I do not want to know. That’s not a judgement call–you have to understand that I truly, madly, deeply do not care what you do in the bedroom, as long as nobody is being coerced.

The man left the counter, came back. Left, came back. Packages were opened. Batteries were inserted. He want to what I imagine was the changing room for men. He came back out, said, “Oh, yeah, that feels really comfortable.” The sales clerk said, “Walk around, see how you like it.”

He walked around the store with a springy step. I confess, I looked at his feet. He was not wearing new shoes. But he had something battery-operated either attached to or inserted into some part of him covered by his clothing.

And I still couldn’t find a corset that looked like you could wear it over a poofy white blouse, OR one that looked like it would span my thigh, let alone my waist.

The man finally wanders off to the back of the store to examine more battery-powered accessories, and I approach the sales lady. Her lips were moving and she was smiling at me, so I yelled “What?” After another couple of shouted exchanges, I was able to explain that I was looking for a corset that could be worn on the outside of a blouse, and I need one that wasn’t Barbie pink or Barbie sized.

The sales lady stepped out from behind the counter. She was the smallest human being I’ve ever met. The top of her head didn’t even reach my shoulder. She led me to the single bustier in the store that was my size and not covered in cheap and itchy red lace. She smiled when she held it out and told me I could try it on.

I looked her in the eye, and said, “You want to explain to me exactly how that works?” I had images of needing an Nascar pit crew. But it turns out that these garments often lace on one side, and have hook and eye closures on the other side. Roughly a hundred hook and eye closures, so it’s like fastening your bra except that it takes a whole lot longer. You loosen the laces in the front and wrap it around you so the hooks are on your side, rather than in the back. You fasten them. You keep fastening them. After an hour or so, you’re all in. Then you have to yank and pull the corset into place, so the laces are properly in the front and the hooks are at the back.

For a moment, I considered buying the damn thing just so I wouldn’t have to wrestle it off. No matter the fit was off, the material cheap and the construction shoddy, to the tune of $59.99.

That’s a whole lot of effort for a garment that has been (successfully) replaced by Spanx. (Not that Spanx don’t have their own foibles, but that’s a different post.)

I left the store with two options. One, I could skip the costume and just enjoy watching other people wear them. I like that option. It suits two of my sterling qualities: laziness and frugality.  Two, I could look for a steampunk inspiration that didn’t involve a corset.

The decision? You’ll have to wait until conference to find out.

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March 8 Horoscope

I don’t know exactly where the Gazette gets their horoscope column. But here is what mine says today.

Hold court. Your inner circle of friends will be fascinated by anything you care to share with them today.

When you’re done rolling on the floor laughing and you’ve got your asthmatic wheezing laugh under control, read on.

So I burned my fingers taking my (delicious, homemade) soup out of the microwave at lunchtime. I’m 50 freaking years old. When am I going to stop getting really stupid steam burns? I’d really like to know, because I’m terribly afraid that my cognitive abilities may have peaked already, so it’s all down hill from here. Maybe I’ll have to stop using the microwave and stop hardboiling eggs. I can generally heat water for tea without harming myself. Probably because without tea, I would start harming others.

Yesterday I found a ball of cat hair on my floor so enormous, I thought it was a kitten. Both of the felines are incapable of producing offsprings. I was afraid that perhaps Pogo had started shearing off bits of himself, like an amoeba, creating an army of orange furry beasts. But no. Just a dust bunny. The kind that looks like it would nip at your ankles in the dark.

The writers retreat last weekend ruined me. I can’t have hours upon hours of uninterrupted writing time at home. Even if I can clear my schedule, I always hear the siren song of dirty dishes, dirty laundry, unswept floors or stale sheets that need changing. I’ve tried earplugs and headphones–I can still hear the call of wild housework. And there is always, always a book or three or twenty that is begging to be read.

Speaking of books, I just read “The Tao of Martha” by Jen Lancaster. I think it might have changed my life. I think I’m ready to give up on being a disorganized slob and let the sunshine that is Martha Stewart into my life. How much do I love Jen Lancaster? So many. (That’s an obscure Misha Collins reference.) She (Jen) always makes me laugh out loud, regardless of whether or not I’m in the privacy of my own home. Although this time around, when she talked about losing her beloved dog, I was fighting back tears.

Because that’s how I roll. I laugh long and loud and hard, and I don’t care who sees me or hears me. It’s a big laugh, not petite and cute, but it’s honest. Tears, on the  other hand? No, thank you, I’d rather do that in private. They’re also very honest, but I’d rather not have to explain that I’m in the middle of a giant estrogen flux and a commercial for snow tires set me off, rather than the imminent destruction of the earth that you suspected based on how hard I was sobbing.

Is Harry Connick, Jr. really making a difference on American Idol? I only watched a couple of seasons, and I don’t know that even Harry can lure me back. Any thoughts?

My sister, who I love and adore, told Thing 2 this week that she didn’t have to wear her retainer all the time, because Aunt Nancy said so. Nancy, don’t make me get out the potato peeler, that’s all I’m saying.

My mother, who is 84, has a live-in boyfriend who was recently hospitalized. I’m still not sure why, unless being a gigantic, thundering pain in the butt is something that can be treated with IV drugs now. (Wouldn’t that be great?) While said boyfriend was in the hospital, one of his adult sons took it upon himself to YELL at my (84-year-old, 105-pounds-with-sensible-shoes-on) mother. Twice. In front of a room full of people. Once because she had the audacity to mention that the doctor suggested the boyfriend should go to a nursing home for 2-3 weeks of rehab before going back to the apartment. Go on, shake your head, you know you want to.

For those of you who get to hear about this family dynamic on a regular basis, the answer is: Yes, this is the same son that called my sister a “fu**ing bitch.” I’m sure that one day I will meet this man, and I will waste no time in demonstrating that Nancy is, in fact, the nice sister, and this cretin has no idea what a bitch really is. I look forward to educating him on the matter.

I’m both happy and sad that my time as a food writer is drawing to a close. I’ve really enjoyed doing restaurant reviews for the Gazette, but I need to reclaim that time for other purposes. For Rob Molumby, I’d like to say, “I went there. I had some food. It was good.” (That’s also for everyone who thinks the job is easy as falling off a log. I’ve fallen off plenty of things. Writing is much, much harder.)

It occurs to me that I might be afraid to finish my book because then I have to edit the damn thing. That’s both exciting and scary. Exciting, because I get to make it better. Scary, because I have to face up to the less-than-fabulous bits that either need to be reworked or mercilessly cut.

A warning to everyone on the planet: You do know that everyone else on the planet can read your Facebook posts, right? If you portray yourself in a certain way in one setting, but display a completely different personality on FB? We know. We see it.

People, please stop diagnosing your friends and relatives with all varieties of mental illnesses. Mental illness is a huge deal, and frankly, most of you aren’t qualified as diagnosticians. Just because someone is having a spectacularly bad (or good, or both) day does not make them bipolar. Or schizophrenic. A kid with questionable grades does not automatically have ADD or ADHD. Be supportive and let a professional make the call.

I just saw the funniest clip of Family Feud. Two handsome men, probably mid-20s, stood on either side of the podium, leaning forward, anxious to be the first to hit the buzzer. The host (could have been Steve Harvey, but I’m not sure) asked a question that was something like “What piece of furniture is your wife most like in the bedroom?” Something just mind-boggling in its level of inanity. The guys looked at each other. One shook his head. The other shook his head. And they stood there and refused to answer the question as the clock ran down. Good for them, I say, refusing to make fun of their wives for the amusement of a faceless television audience.

I fear that if my metabolism gets any slower, I’ll be declared legally dead.

I’m getting the itch to let my hair grow long again one more time. But I’m afraid I’m too old. And just to cranky to be bothered with it.

Does anyone know where I can find a pair of women’s dress shoes for a man who wears mens size 13 shoes? I don’t want to buy a pair, I’d just like to borrow them. And no, they aren’t for Joe. Really? You had to ask?

I think I’m done holding court for now.

You’re welcome.

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Take Advantage of Me!

Well, not me, personally. I have teenagers for that, thanks.

The “me” I speak of is the 2014 Pikes Peak Writers Conference. In particular, there are four different opportunities that offer a way to get some professional feedback on your work.

The first three are for those who haven’t quite completed that manuscript.

For the absolute lowest stress possible, we offer R&C Author. This is a closed session, meaning the only people in the room are: the moderator, the published author giving feedback, and eight lucky attendees. You bring three (3) copies of the first two pages of your manuscript. You may give the title and logline at the beginning. Example: “Bullwinkle Must Die is a noir mystery set in cyberspace. When someone threatens Bullwinkle’s life, it’s up to Boris and Natasha to save the day and prove their innocence.” You read it aloud, seated at the table, and the author gives you immediate feedback and helpful comments. Because this is a smaller, more intimate setting, there’s more interaction between you and the author in your session.

Our time-tested favorite is called R&C X. Why X? Why not? In this session, everyone who has signed up in advance will give two copies of their first page to the moderator. When your name is called, you stand up and state your title. It’s acceptable to give your genre, perhaps word length, and a brief logline. Example: “Life Among the Frogs” is a 90,000 word romance. When a girl has kissed all the frogs in her home town, where does she look for love?” Then you read that first page aloud. You may sit or continue to stand (your choice) while the agent or editor faculty gives you their immediate feedback. This session is open, meaning anyone can attend. It’s a great way to suss out an agent or editor you’re going to be pitching to, even if you aren’t participating. The agent or editor may ask you a question or two, but there’s not really time for lengthy questions.

The latest and greatest is R&C 123. Similar to the X version, you hand over four (4!) copies of your first page to the moderator. It’s perfectly acceptable to have the genre and logline at the top. Something like “The Litterbox Conundrum is Science Fiction. When all the cats on Earth reveal their hidden opposable thumbs, who will be left holding the business end of the pooper scooper?” Then our extremely talented designated reader will read the submissions, one by one, to a panel consisting of one agent, one editor and one published author. The panel will give feedback on their first impressions. No questions and no stress for the writer, because nobody knows who it is. You don’t have to worry about your knees knocking or your voice cracking.

Two things to bear in mind about R&C sessions. First, when you hand over your precious manuscript pages, they’d better be in standard manuscript format. You know the drill: 1-inch margins, 12-pt Times New Roman or Courier font, double spaced. The moderator makes sure that everyone involved gets their fair share of time, so you aren’t going to slip in single-space 7-point font and get away with it. (Note: on the copy that will be read aloud, feel free to make the font as large as you want.) Second, we aren’t able to match you with specific authors, editors and agents. We ask you to specify what genre you’re interested in, and we match you up from there.

Wait. I said R&C was open to finished or unfinished manuscripts. What about Pitching?

Pitch is for those with completed manuscripts. You show up at the Pitch sign-in desk 5-10 minutes before your designated pitch time, so you have time for a breath mint and wiping your clammy palms on your jacket. You will be ushered into the pitch room in an orderly manner, where you’ll find your designated editor or agent, introduce yourself and tell them about your book. At the end of your designated time, you will be ushered out in an orderly manner. (We’re on a tight schedule, so please don’t make us get out the cattle prods to remove you from your seat.)

Before you dismiss the entire concept of traditional publishing and roles of agents and editors, think again. These are industry professionals. These are the people who work every single day with new authors. They know what’s out there. They know the marketplace. They know what’s been done a million times and, like it or not, they know if your storyline sounds unique and interesting or not. This is a great opportunity to practice speaking in a professional manner about your book. Just because an agent or editor says, “Send me your first 50 pages” doesn’t mean you’re committing yourself to that agent or that editor. But isn’t it nice to have options? And get some skilled, experienced feedback?

There is a beauty to each of these approaches. In R&C Author, you get advice from a fellow author, someone who has been in your shoes and is rooting for you to succeed. In X, there is something terrifying and yet exhilarating about reading your work out loud to others. It gives you an ownership of your words like nothing else can. In 123, you will hear your words through someone else, and there is nothing more eye-opening. You will have an immediate sense of what you did right and what you can improve, because the words aren’t filtered through the voice inside your own head. And preparing for Pitch will make sure you understand your work backward and forward.

If you’ve never tried a Pitch appointment or an R&C session, consider signing up for one or both on your registration form. You can find all the details at pikespeakwriters.com about format and formalities. You’ll have fun, you’ll step outside of your comfort zone, and you’ll come out of it with a better handle on your work. All that, and we don’t charge extra for it!

This bit is also posted today on the Pikes Peak Writers Blog. Two-fer!

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My Miserable Existance

In response to my post about why my conference (Pikes Peak Writers Conference) is the best conference, I got the following comment:

“Is your life so empty that you live in the fantasy world of fiction? Does your family mean so little to you that replace them with books?”

The person’s name was listed as “The Thing With Feathers.”

So, three cheers for me! I’m being criticized by an anonymous stranger!

But just in case ol’ Feathers is still paying attention, I thought I’d address his or her concerns.

Is my life so empty. Hm. Let me think about that. I have a husband who can still make me giggle. I have two teenagers with outrageous senses of humor. I’ve got family and friends. I freelance a weekly column for the daily paper in town. I’m the Programming Director for a fairly large writers conference, and I’m on the board of that same writing organization. (Hi, PPW! I’m waving!) I belong to a book group and a critique group. I just signed on to be part of the committee selecting a new principal for my daughters’ high school. Just had a big birthday bash to celebrate turning 50. I’ve devoted a portion of my life to the care and feeding of two cats. I’ve served as a local election judge. My involvement with Girl Scouts lasted ten years, as a leader. And I play Bunko once a month with a group of women I met when I belonged to the Rocky Mountain Moms Club. So no, I can’t say my life is empty.

Live in the fantasy world of fiction. Well, yes. Every chance I get. I don’t see any other way I’m going to visit other planets or get inside the head of a 1920s gangster or a Scottish warlord or an Orthodox Jew. Every time I read a book, I learn something. Maybe about the world, maybe about myself. My soul is a piano and books are the players. I’ve explored the many facets of so many different emotions while reading. Reading is relaxing, energizing, edifying, inspiring, amusing and educating for me, all at the same time.

Granted, I could take up drinking or drugs to relieve stress. Reading fiction just seems less messy. I could go to bars and pick fights. I could leave anonymous snarky posts of the blogs of people I don’t know.

No, I’ll stick with reading.

Does my family mean so little. All I can say is, I didn’t spend ten years as a Girl Scout leader for my own edification. Ditto volunteering at elementary, middle and high schools. I wouldn’t have married my husband if he wasn’t a reader, too. In fact, he introduced me to the works of Lois McMasters Bujold, Orson Scott Card and Michael Connolly, to name a few. (To be fair, I introduced him to Robert Crais, Terry Pratchett and Joe R. Lansdale, so I think we’re even.)

I’ve replaced them with books. ??? Well, books have never peed, pooped or vomited on me, and my children have done all three. My family (and here I extend past my immediate household and reach out for all the glorious, brilliant goofballs I’m related to) has made me laugh louder and longer than any book ever has. Books don’t hug me. Books don’t hold my hair back when I’m vomiting up my toenails because of the stomach flu. Books never need a tissue, a tampon or a towel when I’m otherwise engaged. Although books don’t interrupt me when I’m finishing other books, or use the last sheet of toilet paper and not replenish the supply.

No, I’d have to say I haven’t replaced my family with books. Or manbots. Or life-size cut-outs of the crew of the Enterprise. Or stuffed animals, overgrown zucchini, or inflatable dolls.

There is no “family or books.” Around here, it’s family AND books. And we like it that way.

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