REVIEWS

[The Night Shifters is] a fascinating ride. The voice feels a lot like Neil Gaiman. This is a huge compliment in my mind, and one not to be taken lightly.” - Melinda VanLone Reviews

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Strange Ripples


Twelve years ago, on Sept 11, my coworker at Barry School was murdered along with most of her family, including her five-year-old son. The act was committed by one person, for the most petty of reasons, and it generated destructive ripples that slammed into friends, family, co-workers, and the community.

But not all ripples are destructive. You keep working, keep trooping, try to pick up the pieces. Eventually efforts start to pay off. Right after my friend was killed, I received the editing suggestions for my third book, and though my dazed brain could hardly make sense of them, I noticed one thing right off the bat. The main character in the book loses a friend to murder, just like I did, and her reaction was unrealistic. I rewrote that part. And once I had done that, strange ripples began to emanate from those changed places.

I had been re-reading Octavia Butler's book, Mind Of My Mind, one of my favorites. This time around, I saw new things in the story and felt affected on much deeper levels. One night I put down the book, went to sleep, and had a nightmare. When I woke up, I re-thought the nightmare into the premise for my fifth book, The Kronos Condition.

In the nightmare, I was a young girl, on a bus with several other kids my age. We knew we were riding to our deaths. The three adults who accompanied us were planning to send the bus over a cliff with us in it. They were telepaths, and we had to find some way to save ourselves without actually thinking about it.

Yeah, I know, it sounds ridiculous and impossible, but I couldn't help wondering just how you could plan your escape without thinking about it. Turns out the idea isn't as nutty as it sounds. For inspiration, I referred to a book that is much more straight-forward in concept than its complicated title implies: The Origin Of Consciousness In The Breakdown Of The Bicameral Mind, by Julian Jaynes.

Okay, I can see your eyes are crossing, but don't freak out on me. This is a book that I understood pretty well, and I don't have a degree in neurology or psychology. I got several interesting ideas from this book, like the idea that consciousness is actually a model of reality that you build in your head. Consciousness is not perception, it's not the mental state of being awake, it's not even awareness. It's that imaginary model, always under construction, constantly being referred to in decision-making efforts. The more rigid that model is, the more easily shattered. The more flexible it is, the better chance you have of surviving the emotional fallout that occurs after an unexpected event.

And I surmised one other interesting thing after reading the book. Language was not invented by the brain so people could talk to each other, that was just a (mostly) happy side-effect. The brain invented language so it could talk to itself. This makes sense when you remember that the human brain has two hemispheres, and they're not connected at every point. The corpus collosum is the largest area of connection. But the area that may be responsible for the development of language is a little crossroads called the anterior commissure. This structure relays visual information. To do so more efficiently, it translates that information into code.

Code is language.

By this time you can probably tell that my friend's murder really threw me for a loop, and I engaged in way too much thinking, afterward. Too much thinking is a side-effect of grief, as you compulsively engage in the mental version of probing a sore tooth. You shouldn't do it, but you just can't help it. If you're a writer, this excessive thinking can prod you into writing a book. (It can also cause writer's block, but that's another essay altogether). My book was The Kronos Condition, and my main character had to find some way to save herself and her siblings from a trio of evil thugs who called themselves The Three.

All of these characters, the children and The Three, had telekinetic and telepathic abilities. The Three believed they controlled every aspect of the children's abilities, but the heart of the story is that they are wrong.

One way to synopsize any novel ever written is to say things are not what they seem. My way of interpreting this is to say, this character has a problem -- how is he/she going to solve it? This interpretation isn't elegant, but it gets the job done. Sally, the main character of The Kronos Condition, had to find some way to plan her escape without thinking about it. How could she possibly do that?

The answer lies in the fact that we know things we don't know that we know. Yes, that sentence is a tangle, but it's true. For example, when I look for books in the brick-and-mortar bookstore where I work, sometimes I think I can't find them, and then the customer standing next to me says, "You've got your hand on it."

And it's always my left hand. The left hand is controlled by the right side of the brain, the one that doesn't have language centers, the one from which dreams (and nightmares) and poetry spring. That side of my brain knew the answer to the question, Where is that %$#&* book? But it doesn't have a language center, so it simply directed my left hand to the book. The part of me that was in the driver's seat of my consciousness wasn't aware of this until someone else pointed it out.

This is the realization that pointed me to the solution to Sally's problem.

So I wrote a book in which some children face terrible foes and fight their way to a happy ending. For many readers, it was too rough a ride (reminding some of terrors they faced in their own childhood). Others were simply unaware that it existed, since it languished in midlist territory. But I'm glad I wrote it. Writing this book taught me far more than how to write this kind of story. It took me into strange territory, and I emerged whole (if somewhat bruised).

I never did find good answers for what happened to my friend and her family. Senseless acts remain senseless, viewed from any angle. Eventually you accept what's happened, and you hope it will never happen again.

Twelve years ago. So far, so good.


Monday, December 14, 2009

Bloggus Interuptus


I'd love to say I didn't blog for two weeks because I was on vacation (especially this time of year, when the anxious, shopping hordes are tugging at my sleeve at work), but what really happened is that my old computer was gummed up by a program that was supposed to protect it, probably because I kept delaying when they wanted me to pay them for another year. So bah and humbug on that old system, I've got a Mac now. It should help me do my audio books and create spiffy audio-visual presentations when I set up my fiction websites.

I'll be posting new stuff (other than this status report) this weekend. Just pardon my dust while I figure out the new gizmo . . .

P.S. The rock photo was taken with my new Canon.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Audio Books For Gardeners


Several years ago my day job was actually a night job, working as a sweeper at a grade school. It wasn’t a bad job for a writer, because I did it alone, with no customers clamoring for my attention and no tasks that required serious thought, so I could think about books I was working on and do sketchy plotting and character development while erasing chalkboards and emptying trash. I actually looked forward to doing this job, but not because it made me happy to restore order to chaos. I liked the fact that for the last 2 hours every night, after all the teaching staff had gone home, my supervisor would play audio books on the P.A. system.

Prior to that time, I had foolishly scorned audio books. I thought they were for lazy people who didn’t want to read. And that’s partially true, we still get plenty of kids at the book store where I work who don’t want to read an assigned book, who think they’ll be able to pay attention to an audio version (and who probably don’t have the attention span to do so). But once I began to listen to audio books myself, I realized my scorn had been mostly unfair. Good audio books are as entertaining as a good radio show, something most Americans are too young to have heard. I have become an devoted fan of them.


Now I tend to listen to audio books under three different circumstances. I like to listen while I’m gardening, because the books divert my attention away from the fact that I’ve got such a huge amount of work to do. When I’m listening to a book, I can pull grass and weeds for hours. I can prune roses until it’s too dark outside to see (and my hands are clawed all to heck). I can lug stones back and forth, and fertilize annuals, and rake leaves, and still feel like I’m having a good time.

I listen to books while I’m cleaning too, everything except vacuuming. And while I’m cooking and baking, except for when I’m running the power mixer. Audio books have actually helped make me more attentive in the kitchen, instead of letting me wander off to let something burn. So they actually get credit for improving my domestic skills (even if accidentally).

I have some favorites that I’ve listened to many times. Dean Koontz probably tops the list with the audio versions of Fear Nothing, Seize The Night, One Door Away From Heaven, Life Expectancy, By The Light Of The Moon, Intensity, the (brilliantly performed by B.D. Wong) abridged version of Tick-Tock, and, last but not least, Dragon Tears.

Stephen King also has some audio goodies to offer: The Green Mile, The Cell, Lisey's Story, Duma Key, and all of his short story collections. I also really enjoyed the books recorded of the Gunslinger series.

Any audio book you can get by Agatha Christie is a treat. Likewise the audio versions of books by Elisabeth Peters and Ellis Peters. Elmore Leonard’s audios are even more entertaining than movies that have been made out of his books. Diana Gabaldon’s Voyager books are fun, and Elisabeth Kostova’s wonderful Dracula book, The Historian, is worth listening too over and over. Anything by Ray Bradbury is great, especially if he’s performing it himself.

By now you may have noticed a pattern in my preferences: thrillers, mystery, horror, sci-fi. But I listen to non-fiction too. Probably my favorite non-fiction author in audio is Sara Vowell. Assassination Vacation is as funny and entertaining as it is informative (very!).


The main problem with audio books has always been cost. Some of them are $50 or $60, sometimes more. Even the more moderately-priced audio books can run $25, and that’s too much for me. I look for inexpensive pre-owned copies, or remaindered (“sale”) stuff. But I suspect the audio book will decrease in price just as much as the hard copy will, once it becomes an electronic download. I would even be willing to get an ipod for audio books, something I’ve resisted doing for music so far.

I plan to record audio versions of my own books, probably starting in spring of 2010, and sell them as audio files online. I’m thinking $2.99 to $4.99 will be a fair price in this new millennium of depressed incomes. Ideally, I’ll be able to feature audio samples on my website, maybe even make commercials for you-tube. I suspect I’ll be a bit clunky at first, but this is the sort of thing you can only learn by doing. After all, Stephen King and Ray Bradbury are good at performing their own work – it’s not unheard of.

And in the meantime, I’ve got all these great books to listen to, setting the best example. Try them if you like audio. Check them out of your local library if you have to. Maybe, like me, you’ll become a fan too.


Saturday, November 14, 2009

Heiroglyphic Trail


Ernie and I went hiking up the Heiroglyphic Trail in the Superstitions yesterday (there are actually petroglyphs at the end of the trail). Rain had parked itself over those mountains (disdaining Phoenix and surrounding cities) so when we arrived we crossed paths with a number of happy wet people on their way down. The trail was beautiful, and the mist gave it a Shangri-La quality. We sat at the top, studying the petroglyphs, for at least half an hour (we may have experienced some time dilation). That place is sacred. I gazed up at the crumbling mountains and realized again how much I love the Southwest. I've made a pledge to Ernie -- from now on, we work as little as possible to make a living and as much as possible to visit these places we love.
My camera was on the fritz, so I'm using an old photo from Peralta Canyon Trail. But I'll be getting a new camera soon, and when that happens -- look out, blogspot!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Piestewa Peak Mystery


When you’ve hiked in a place several times, and you love that place, and maybe even have made up your own names for features you always see along the trail in that place, you can actually get the idea that you’ve really seen that place. Then you’ll notice something you didn’t see before, and you realize you’ve only seen bits and pieces.

Take Piestewa Peak. You can make some assumptions about that mountain and its close neighbors based on the rocks you see, many of which are metamorphic. They have been squeezed and fractured, melted and re-crystalized, weathered and then colonized by plant and animal life. At some point, tons and tons of weight rested on them, they are the remnants of a mountain range. It has slowly crumbled and created some of the “valley fill” that hides the grabens (“pull-apart” faults) and low spots in the Basin & Range areas of Arizona.

And you can tell the area was under water for many millions of years, prior to and after the mountain-building stages. Fossils all over Arizona testify to that fact, as does the presence of limestone and other sedimentary rocks.

If you look at the entire Western United States you can see the train-wreck mountain ranges that run from Alaska to Mexico, the result of the counter-clockwise, Northwest shifting of North America after it broke away from the last supercontinent and plowed into Island chains, making them part of the continent. During that shift, Arizona overrode some very hot spots in the mantle, and melted stuff was forced up into cracks in fractured rocks to give us copper, quartz, and lots of other interesting metals and gems.


Those hot spots also generated lots of volcanic activity, so you see all kinds of magma, both light and dark, in fractured “necks” that cooled below the ground and then were exposed by erosion, and in collapsed craters that exploded and hurled rocky projectiles hundred of miles around. You can see the remnants of pyroclastic flows made of ash and melted stuff that scooped up rock debris as it flowed at top speeds across the landscape. And you can see that flowing water, blowing winds, human construction, and even plants and animals have moved rocks and sand far from their place or origin.

When Ernie and I first hiked Piestewa Peak last year, I observed the tilted stratification and wondered if it may have been the result of the Laramide Orogeny (“mountain-building period”), which is thought to have begun around 75 million years ago, and is also thought to have lasted up to 25 million years. And yes, that may have created the old mountain range that squished those metamorphic rocks in the first place. But now I wonder if something else pushed those layers up and out. Some of them seem to go almost vertical. Could super-hot stuff boiling up underneath have shoved those layers up? This is one of the questions with which I plan to pester the geology gurus when I pursue my degree in 2010.

But, mysterious as the geological history of Arizona may be, it’s not even the mystery that caught my attention last Friday, when Ernie and I took advantage of the cool weather to go hiking on our favorite Phoenix trail. We were headed for a spot we think of as The Secret Canyon, where a higher group of rocks sticking out of the mountains looks out over a wider, deeper spot in an arroyo. It’s no Grand Canyon, it’s not even an Oak Creek Canyon. But it’s a magical spot, where the wind blows and on some lucky days you can’t hear the sounds of town at all.


Hikers like to pause at that spot and nibble trail food, sip water, talk about their dreams. There’s a memorial bench up there that will bring tears to your eyes if you pause to read the dedication plaque. I think of it as the heart of Piestewa Peak, though many others believe the Summit Trail is that spot. I brought my camera up there this time, hoping to capture even a fraction of the spirit of the place.

I paused all along the trail to snap photos of interesting stuff. At one point I stopped to take a picture of a saguaro, and that’s when Ernie noticed something that’s been there all along. “There’s a rock stuck in that hole in the saguaro, over twelve feet up!”


Someone or something jammed a rock into that hole. And when we stopped to really look, we could see that several of the saguaros had similar rocks stuck in them. All of these were high off the ground, all stuck firmly into their holes. Many were the same size as the hole, but there were even a few big rocks, maybe the size (though not the shape) of oranges, that were also stuck fast.


I remembered the photo I had taken of the Zombie Saguaro a few months back, and he had a rock in his mouth that looked like a tongue. I had assumed some wise guy hiker had put it there. But these other rocks were too high up for a human to stick them in the holes, and if they had been thrown, they would probably just have bounced off. You’d have to stay there a long time, patiently throwing rocks at those tiny holes in order to get one to stick, and that’s not why people are on that path in the first place– they’re just out getting exercise and enjoying the view! Plus many of the saguaros weren’t even accessible to foot traffic.


So – birds? They might account for the small rocks, but what about the big ones? Are eagles stuffing rocks in saguaro holes? Or buzzards? Hawks? Pterodactyls? Muscular chipmunks? Why are they doing that? Do they think the holes look untidy? Are they trying to make the saguaro a more secure place to build a nest by closing off “back doors?”

Once we noticed the rocks, we realized dozens of the saguaros had them. Some of those rocks may have been there a hundred years. Unless gravity and wind and rain dislodge them, they may be there a hundred more.

So the next time you’re out hiking and you see a saguaro, look for the rocks. Yeah, it’s not the biggest mystery out there, but it made me stop and wonder what else I’m not seeing. That, alone, makes it worth pondering.

And please – let me know if you spot the saguaro gremlin that’s responsible.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Spoink!


I’ve been gardening in Phoenix for about 10 years now, and I’ve learned that if I want the seeds I sow to sprout, I have to use the blitz approach. If I want 3 or 4 sweet pea vines to sprout, I have to sow 10 to 15 seeds. If I want a tub full of zinnias, I need to sow 50 zinnia seeds. If I want larkspur to tower above the scene, I need to take the dried-up old stalks in June and shake them over the area where I want them to grow the following year, a hundred little seeds or so.

After that, I need to shred old, dead matter from expired plants and gently sift it over the spot where I sowed the seeds. I need to water that area 2 to 3 times a week. Over the next several weeks, sprouts will appear. I call them spoinkers. This is because I imagine spoink! is the sound the sprouts make when their leaves pop out of the seed casing. All over the garden, it’s spoink! Spoink! Spoink! And those casings go flying.

I’ve tried a lot of flower varieties for my Phoenix garden, and I’ve settled on a few stellar performers. Sweet peas, zinnias, stocks, larkspur, celosia, snapdragons, and nasturtiums. If I’m lucky, one or two of the dozens of sunflower seeds I sowed will grow big enough to open a giant head.

But Nature is way better at sowing seeds than I am. Every year, several of the flowers that grow in my garden were sown by wind, and rain, and pooping birds. They don’t need to scatter shredded mulch over the seeds, they don’t need to fuss over them at all. Wild sunflowers bloom in several places, and I try to leave 1 or 2 of them where they are, because the birds and bees love them so much. I figure I owe them at least that much. Because no one has perfected the blitz approach half as well as Nature.

And thank goodness for that!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Ragnarok And Striped Socks


I don’t believe in the End of the World. Call it Ragnarok, The Apocalypse, Armageddon, The Rapture, 2012, whatever. It’s not going to happen.

Though admittedly, sometimes it almost happens. The climate changes, a comet slams into us, ice ages and volcanoes occur. There’s even evidence that the sun may have partially fried us with a really massive solar flare a few-hundred million years ago. Yet life persisted and flourished.

I don’t even believe in World War III. The damned thing would just be too expensive. Any super-virus would burn itself out before it could pass itself on, any toxic agent would not spread far, any bomb would do limited damage. Our current world-wide depression is little more than an annoyance for most people, even as it provokes wide-reaching changes.

Losing a loved one can seem like the end of the world. Or losing your home. Lots of people experience figurative ends-of-the world. But even when we die, it’s not over. We’ve had an effect, we dented the universe with our own, particular gravity well, and even if no one remembered us, we still existed – nothing can change that. Time and space wove together to create our existence, and even as the arrow of time moves past our lives, the cosmic garment it knitted is still there. I like to picture it as a colossal sock. Maybe with stripes. Or polka dots.

Nope, there’s no end of the world. Though some day, maybe 4 or 5 billion years from now, the sun will lose its current balance of hydrogen-into-helium and it will expand to swallow the inner planets. But I wonder if the shock wave of its expansion might nudge us farther out, rather than swallowing us. Not that we would be in good shape, even if it did. Anyway, at that point we’ll have a different solar system. Some surviving planets might even evolve a hospitable habitat. After all, didn’t Superman come from a planet that had a red sun?

Okay, I’m reaching with that one, but in 4 or 5 billion years, if we still exist, we’ll probably be smarter and have better gizmos. We’ll have colonized space. We could actually outlive our world, though no species from Earth has managed to do that so far. I’m just saying it’s possible. In fact, what seems kind of impossible is the fact that we exist in the first place.

Think about it: we had to have just the right kind of sun: not too big, not too small, not too heavy, not too gas giant-y. Our solar system had to have enough of the right elements present when the planets coalesced to make minerals and amino-acids and all that good stuff. And collisions had to take place; several planetoids collided to form the earth, and one of those collisions had to produce our moon. Enough nickel-iron had to be present by then to form that nice, spinning, electromagnetic-field-producing core that keeps radiation from frying us, but that field also needs to let enough radiation in to allow for mutation. Our moon has to be large enough and orbiting at the right distance to stabilize our axis of rotation and provoke regular tides.

During an early period of heavy bombardment, comets crashed into us and brought water. Little comets still do. We have currents in our mantle that move the continental and oceanic crust around, volcanoes blow up or ooze various types of lava so we can have minerals beneficial to crop-bearing soils. We have the right ratio of land to water to generate storms that drop rain.

Hooray for volcanoes! Hooray for weather! Hooray for cake! We’re here, and that’s amazing. We can wonder how it all came to be. We can dream about what’s possible in the future.

But the end of the world? Not gonna happen. Not as long as we keep thinking and dreaming and planning. That’s what we evolved to do. Somewhere between all those bombardments, volcanic explosions, ice ages, and hurricanes, we got up on our feet and peeked over the next hill to see what might be there. We survived the Almost End Of The World. We could do it again.

So stick around. You won’t witness the End Of The World, but who knows what other strange stuff might happen? After all, that’s what makes life worthwhile in the first place. That and striped socks.

Or maybe polka dots. Whatever.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

She Sells Seashells (On Her Website, Wholesale)


Recently I’ve been kvetching a lot about the book biz, specifically about working for one of the big brick & mortar chains. And I’ve had good reason to grouse, though it’s also true that there are many day jobs that suck way worse than mine. This is still the best job I’ve ever had in terms of work environment. I like my co-workers very much, my G.M. has bent over backward many times to give me the schedule and vacation days I want, and this is nothing to sneeze at. Even with all of its flaws, I would keep this job for 10 more years if I could. And because of this, I do everything they ask me to do, including offering extra items to people at the cash register and addressing them by name. Who knows, maybe it will work.

But I’m not just a sales clerk, I’m also a shopper. So when I wonder what’s going to happen to big-chain brick & mortar retail businesses, I think about what I prefer in my own shopping experience. And most of the time, what I prefer to do is go online. Here are the reasons.

When I first started shopping online, it was because I couldn’t find something I wanted locally: seashells. Yes my friends, I found a website where she sells seashells. (In case you’re interested, it was Sanibel Industries, but there are many others.) After that point, I no longer thought about shopping in stores if I could get something online, and this included clothing, rugs, baking supplies, garden supplies, and books & music.

So selection was the first reason, but it wasn’t alone. Price and convenience were also factors. There I sat, in my jammies, sipping coffee and listening to the birdies sing outside, and I could use my search engine to find the best whatsis for the most reasonable price. You have to be cautious about where you’re willing to enter your credit card number, but I’ve had that problem in brick & mortar places too. Credit card companies are much more alert to fraud attacks than they used to be, and I always review my statements.

So the possibility of fraud doesn’t scare me away from the internet. It’s a great source of information too, and I’ll probably be enrolling in some online college courses this year, so I wonder how necessary it’s going to be in the future to set foot on a campus. I can get news online from a variety of sources, no more newspaper is necessary. I can research hikes I want to take, places I want to visit, movies I’m thinking of seeing. I can find the classical music that brick & mortar stores haven’t been willing to stock for years. I can find out-of-print books and DVDs. So I have to ask myself, if I didn’t work for this big book chain, would I even set foot in any of its stores?


And the answer is no.

The thing is, there are still stores I’m willing to visit in person. Like the grocery store. And it’s nice to eat out from time to time. I love antique malls too. I like Costco and Target, though I don’t visit either of them as much as they would probably like me to. I go to Home Depot and Lowe’s, though my favorite places to go for gardening supplies are family-owned nurseries. I can buy shoes online, but my husband has weird-sized feet and needs to try shoes on. An experienced clerk can really make a difference in those situations.

Which brings up a key concept – the small business with a devoted clientele. Some of these do very well, despite a bad economy. They tend to be small restaurants, bakeries, plant nurseries, antique shops, curiosity shops, etc. I still like to visit those. Most small book stores only do well if they are hybrids that combine books with other products and services, in a fashion that doesn’t enable too many freebee readers and shoplifters.

But they don’t make huge amounts of money. And they don’t spend huge amounts either. Old fashioned business principles tend to apply to these stores much more than they do to big chains, who mask a lack of profitability with easy credit and who waste money so shamefully, it’s a wonder they don’t fail a lot faster than they usually do.

I don’t know that Big Business will ever be totally finished. But the next ten years or so may be the era of Medium Business, brick & mortar stores that are big enough to obtain the loans and credit they need and the name recognition that will attract the customers, but small enough to avoid the waste and the overpaid executives whose sole purpose in life is to think up Kafka-esque bullshit.

But what will happen online is hard to say. Hundreds of millions of people (me among them) will be offering things for sale and even things for free online. As people become more computer- and web-savvy, they’ll have more options, as both buyers and sellers. Not to mention entertainment consumers. Not to mention entertainment producers! We’ll see more change in the next ten years than we saw in the previous ten, and that’s a heck of a lot of change.

Will book stores still be around? That depends on whether one or both of the two biggies fail. I’m expecting to see a transition period, but I’m not sure how long it will last and whether or not there will be a huge glut of remaindered hard-copy books for sale. Or whether people will embrace the different e-readers so thoroughly, a lot of books will get pulped or buried in landfills.

Even libraries may convert to electronic systems, though how much remains to be seen. Librarians would use their time assisting research rather than shelving and alphabetizing.

What would happen to book store clerks, then? We may end up doing the same thing as the librarians, but with a different pay system. I wouldn’t mind that one bit. I’m good at research, and it would be a great way to develop a friendly customer service environment. You wouldn’t even have to do it at a bookstore, you could work with a headset, a telephone, and a computer at home.

Oops. We’re doomed!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Autobiography of an Idea


Previously I blogged about ideas, specifically where writers get them. I mentioned that writers don’t have a problem thinking up stories, we’ve got the opposite problem. We’ve got too many damned ideas, so many that we can feel overwhelmed by them. But that doesn’t really answer the basic question readers are asking when they wonder where those ideas come from, so I thought I’d take another stab at it. Let me tell you where I got the idea for my Lee Hogan novel, Belarus.

Belarus was not actually the novel I intended to write. The novel I dreamed up was titled Shrouded Woman, the book that eventually was published as Enemies. One night Ernie and I went to visit Borders. Back in those days, Borders was a novelty, a gigantic book store where you could actually hang out. I was looking at the new books on the big tables at the front of the store, and one of them captured my attention. It was titled The Autobiography of a Face. The cover featured a close shot of a woman whose face was partially obscured by a veil. But even with all that fabric in the way, you could see her jaw was disfigured.

That author wrote about how cancer had changed her face and her life. Her image on the cover haunted me, I kept coming back to that book and looking at it. I didn’t buy the book, and I never read it either, mostly because the image on the cover had moved into my head and stared evolving into a character. I had no room in there for reality, fantasy had taken over the machinery.

When we got home, we discovered that a bunch of movies had arrived in the mail – we’d had the bad judgement to join one of those mail-order movie clubs, and our freebee-enticement selections picked that fatal moment to show up. We decided to watch Anastacia, starring Yul Brynner and Ingrid Bergman. For those of you who’ve never seen it, the movie is about a woman who may be the last survivor of the Russian royal family, an artifact of a lost world.

I went to bed that night and dreamed. In my dream, the lady with the veiled, disfigured face and the story of Anastacia had merged. By the time I woke up, I knew it was a story I had to write. I sat down at the computer and started to sketch out the basics. I asked myself why the lady at the center of the story was disfigured. Then I puzzled over why the society she lived in would insist she hide her condition behind a veil, and why that society should resemble imperial Russia, especially since it had been transplanted to another world. Why should anyone do that? What did they find when they got to that world? I already knew an alien race lived there – who were they? Why were they there?


I kept asking myself the questions whose answers would explain the lady. That’s how I pieced together her back-story. But I felt I had to explain that back-story to my editor at ROC when I pitched the book (otherwise she might not understand why the shrouded lady should exist), so I wrote a 35-page treatment instead of the usual proposal. I had already written 7 other books for ROC, and the last one, Broken Time, had been nominated for the Philip K. Dick award. I thought I could get away with it. And I was right — sort of. My editor loved the back-story. So she wanted me to write 2 novels instead of 1, and the first would be about Andrei Mironenko, a sketchy-yet-important character, the guy who had founded the planet Belarus.

"Sure!" I said confidently.

Belarus turned out to be the hardest book I’ve ever written. It was a multi-viewpoint, third person narrative full of brilliant, complex characters. I made the mistake (thinking I’d never have to actually write the scenes) of promising 2 wars in the story. And I knew almost nothing about imperial Russia. I hadn’t a dime to hire a researcher and I was holding down 2 jobs at the time. I ended up making a few historical boo-boos that were pounced upon by a couple of reviewers on amazon (I’ll be fixing them in the upcoming electronic edition), but that wasn’t even my major concern at that point. I was busy dreaming up a world.

So remember, we started with a picture of a lady on the cover of a book and a half-digested movie, glommed together. They ended up in the Cuisinart of my dreams, and I asked myself a bunch of questions to explain a few things. Then BOOM, a contract. The fun part was behind me, the pick-and-shovel work took over my life. Time to mail an SASE to that Idea Company and buy some help. Only there IS no Idea Company, there’s just my feverish imagination. And the amazing part? That’s enough.

I started with a sketchy idea. As I wrote each section, characters just showed up. I didn’t plan them, I rarely thought about them. They walked into the room and tapped me on the shoulder. They knew what they were going to do and why. Most of them were a complete surprise to me, and that includes my favorite character from both books: Baba Yaga. She was the easiest one to write, she was the magic that made the whole shebang come together.

But don’t get me wrong, I didn’t sit down every day and channel all these folks. Some of them took a lot longer to arrive than others. I often sat down feeling baffled, and I often got up the same way. Some sessions I only managed a paragraph or two. I had to finally set myself a quota of ½ page per day, because I didn’t think I could accomplish a whole page. Having set myself the challenge of figuring out how a space war might be fought, I had to conclude it was a ridiculous notion. I conferred constantly about the technologies that might be involved with my super-smart husband, Ernie. The whole mess creeped along, one shambling step at a time.

But eventually, the machinery I was constructing began to run on its own, and Belarus took on momentum. Once that happened, I was able to write several pages a day, on one memorable occasion turning out 25 pages in just a few hours.

Ideas come from the subconscious. When you train yourself to retrieve and shape those ideas, they take on a life of their own. It’s sort of like having your own Central Casting, a mob of method actors who are convinced there’s no business like show business. Sometimes they’re brilliant, sometimes they’re corny, but they’re always THERE. You’re stuck with them. They’re stuck with you. Once you’ve written about them, they’ll move into other people’s heads, even if those people don’t remember where they got them.

Ideas think themselves up.

I hope that answers the question. Even if you didn’t ask.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Ideas And Baseball Bats


There are many perfectly innocent questions that readers ask writers, but the one that’s most likely to make some writers go ballistic is Where do you get your ideas?

Not all writers go ballistic, we know these folks are actually asking, how we get our ideas, not where (as in some town that ships out ideas in little boxes). People who don’t make up stories wonder how it’s done, what’s the magical process, what arcane lore do writers possess that allows us to invent entire worlds, fill them with people, then (coherently) chronicle their adventures? These same folks might be a little freaked out if they found out that writers get their ideas from the same places lunatics get their obsessions, delusions, and hallucinations, and that the mental condition that causes some people to compulsively check the stove 25 times in a row to make sure it’s really off also prods us into writing about stuff that never happened to people who don’t exist.

The truth is not very romantic, I’m afraid. And furthermore, writers aren’t either. You’ll find the same spectrum of personality among writers as you would find among teachers, lawyers, construction workers, sales clerks, and everybody else. Some writers are open-minded, good-humored, and nice to puppy dogs, others are nasty rotten twits. Most of us are somewhere in between.

Yet despite our real-life limitations, it’s possible for us to write about anything, from anyone’s point of view. Our characters may be saints, serial-killers, soldiers, kings, beggars, dogs, aliens, even talking coffee pots. We write from these points of view with varying degrees of success, but the point is, we can at least imagine the universe from their perspective. I think that’s one of the traits all writers share.

But to be a successful writer, you need two extra things: drive and the ability to learn. Drive is going to keep pushing you through unknown territory as you wrangle your story from its beginning to its end. And you will learn how to do it as you go, not just that first time but every single time you sit down to write. Once you’ve done it enough times, coming up with ideas won’t be a problem. In fact, you’ll have to beat ideas off with a baseball bat.

And that’s actually another problem. You end up with too many ideas. You’ll often feel compelled to scribble notes for them, do rough outlines if the idea is a good one, and you end up with twenty or thirty novels-in-progress at any given point in time. Even if you don’t have a day job (and most of us do) you couldn’t possibly write all of these novels, not if you want to do a good job of it. And that can paralyze you, much in the same way a sink full of dishes makes you want to avoid doing the dishes at all costs.

So how do you get past that? You pick a spot and start. Sometimes you have a false start, so you pick another and try again. You commit to a particular story and you finish it, come Hell or high water. That’s where drive comes in. If you try to rely on inspiration, you’ll start writing a hundred books and drop every one of them when the work gets too hard.

I’ve written fourteen books in about twenty years. That’s not counting another twenty that are about half finished and yet another twenty that are just in the form of rough notes. If I’m lucky, I’ll get to keep writing books as long as I want to, until I croak in front of my computer (or whatever gizmo takes its place). Getting enough ideas probably won’t be a problem, even if I get over the need to write and develop some other all-consuming pastime. No, I suspect my problem will always be too many ideas (and too many dishes, for that matter).

So pardon me while I pick a spot and get started. And pass the dishwashing liquid.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Halfway


When you’re under 20, you think you’d rather commit suicide than get old, partly because you can’t imagine how you’re going to cope with looking wrinkly and grey, and partly because you have no freaking clue how much it actually hurts to croak. Since you also (usually) have no idea what the hell you’re going to do with your life, it’s hard to imagine that you may have another 80 years to do it.


Mercifully, your perspective changes as you get older. Your attention turns outward, you realize you’re part of a bigger picture, and you have friends, family, hobbies, and goals. It’s not the same for everybody, of course. Some people go through a midlife crises that causes them to try, in vain, to recapture their physical youth. Others are fortunate enough to realize that older people actually do have something in common with very young people. Our perspective is changing along with our bodies, very much like theirs is. Call it reverse puberty. Though you’re going out instead of coming in, the feelings you have are actually quite similar, and it seems as if you’re on the verge of an exciting, wide, mysterious world.



For me, those feelings became very apparent when I went on the road trip to Utah I wrote about in the previous two blogs. But it became even more so when I was hiking with my husband Ernie on my 50th birthday. I had forgotten it was my birthday, we were hiking simply because we had the day off. And we were excited about trying a new trail, Peralta Canyon Trail in the Superstition Mountains. It’s a gorgeous trek through a hoodoo-haunted canyon shaped by running water through breccia (volcanic rock consisting of broken rock fragments and volcanic ash) and welded tuff (super-heated ash and debris) from volcanic explosions millions of years ago. Since Arizona was underwater for a few hundred-million years, and featured lakes and rivers afterward, there is also some sedimentary rock to be seen. The water only runs after storms these days. The lower part of the canyon features a variety of lower-desert flora, including saguaros that must be at least 300 years old (it takes them 70 years just to grow arms). Since it was April, those old giants were blooming as we picked our way up the trail.


We were experienced enough by then to know we needed a gallon of water each and some nuts and Fig Newtons. And we took plenty of rests, mostly because I continually stopped to snap pictures. The hike should only take four to five hours if you’re just in it for the exercise – for us it would turn out to take seven. We climbed steadily, toward the upper-desert terrain at the end of the canyon. About halfway there, we stopped and surveyed our destination, then looked back the way we had come. Spectacular views both ways. And then it hit me. "Ernie, today is my birthday!"


The symbolism wasn’t lost on either of us. Halfway through the canyon and halfway through my life, I loved the view. And I was still climbing, still setting goals and trying new things. My mother has always done the same thing, and she’s 88. If anyone could get to 108, she could. This spring, she’s coming with us on another Utah road trip, and she plans to hike with us and see places she has only driven past before.



I’ve got new books to write, new designs to try in my home and my garden, new places to hike and explore, a new subject to study at the college level (geology) and in a new way (probably online courses). The big shake-up in the financial world may shake me loose from my old day job and into a new one (or several new ones). The changes don’t upset me. And now, instead of wondering how I can look younger, I’m wondering how I can stay healthy enough to do all of the things I want and need to do.
Fifty years is a long time. Lots of stuff may happen to change my mind.
But what the hell. I’ve got water and Fig Newtons. Let’s see what’s around the next bend.

Onward and upward.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Ernie's View


Ernie had his own take on the Utah road trip I wrote about in the previous blog entry. He saw things from an artist’s point of view. This posting features a few notes he took, along with some art he scribbled on the way. The hoodoos of Bryce reminded Ernie of tikis, so he invented a new form, the tiki-hoodoo.


Ernie: None of it seemed real until we were up in Northern Arizona, when all the structures along the roadside were trading posts and the mountains took on flowing, shattering shapes. Suddenly Phoenix, Glendale, the job, the routines that controlled our lives were far away. Possibilities were now wide open. Anything could happen.


When we stood on the Route 89 bridge that spanned the Colorado, Nora and I snapped away with our cameras – we were the two obsessed with taking pictures (though I was definitely the most frequent snapper – I think I took over 600 photos). Chris is a rocket scientist, he thought the bridge was pretty cool in and of itself. The river flowed somewhere between 100 and 200 feet below us, it was a little hard to tell the depth. I’m still wondering what caused the spooky bubbles – organic matter decaying?


As we continued into Utah, Ernie kept thinking like a painter.
Ernie: It was like wandering around inside a Max Ernst panting. Ernst painted many landscapes that resembled this geologic wonderland, most of them decades before he finally moved to Sedona.

The Red Rock country of Vortex Land is mild surrealism compared to Vermillion Cliffs on the Navajo Reservation. And this was just a warm-up for crossing into Utah. At first the rocks just talked. Then they sang. Eventually they sent out vibrations that echoed across the universe.



Those may sound like fanciful remarks, but I felt the same way. One of the reasons I took so many pictures was that I was trying to capture the whole experience. Looking at them reminds me what it felt like to be there. But I wish I could have made quality sound recordings of the places themselves – an odd notion, because it was the silence of those places that impressed me. You can’t record that. If you could, those recordings of CANYON SILENCE would sell like hotcakes.


The first Utah city we stayed in was Kanab. Here’s what Ernie had to say about it.
Ernie: We spent a couple of nights in Kanab, with its authentic and Hollywood cowboy memorabilia. From there we checked out Zion (where the bus driver warned us about the Datura AKA the Devil’s Trumpet AKA loco weed that grew all over), and Bryce Canyon, where we found out that the fantastic spires of rock are called hoodoos. A lot of tourists and park workers were speaking French and German, making it like a visit to Europe. At one point I overheard a family speaking French, and they turned out to be Asian.



I loved Kanab so much, I wondered if I might like to move there some day. It’s well-positioned for exploration of the National Parks in the area, from the Grand Canyon and Vermillion Cliffs to Zion and Bryce. I imagined driving to Zion for daily hikes. But when I set my weather function on my Cox home page so I could see how cold it got in the winter, I quickly realized it’s probably too cold for me. It’s perfect in summer, though. So maybe we could rent a place there for a couple of months . . .

We underestimated the time it would take us to travel Scenic Routes 12 and 24 on our way to our next stop, but the roadside scenery was fabulous.
Ernie: Our next stop, through some more fantastic landscapes, was Moab. There we stayed at the Inca Inn, run by a nice German couple. It was next to a Mexican restaurant that offered Mayan fare, and Lin Ottinger’s Moab Rock Shop and Fossils, where geologic treasures are guarded by a dinosaur covered with Christmas lights. Datura grew up through the decorative gardens in front of many of the businesses on main Street.



I think I loved Moab even more than Kanab, and that’s quite a lot. I confess, Lin Ottinger’s rock shop and the great Mexican restaurant next to it may have influenced me.
Ernie: From Moab we went to the Arches and Canyonland National Parks, where hoodoos spoke, and we learned about cryptobiotic soil, a living crust of bacteria and microbes that grow on desert dirt as the first stage to making it viable for plant life.


We were all very careful not to step on the cryptobiotic soil. And in Arches and Canyonlands we saw the two geologic features that I liked the best. In Arches it was Park Avenue (a place I think of as the Hall of Kings because one of the formations to the East looks like a pharaoh wearing the crown of Upper Egypt).


In Canyonlands it was the Sky Island viewpoint of the Colorado River. The scale of both of these views is really hard to portray in a photograph.
Ernie: From there we took more incredible scenic byways, as the signs called them, cross-crossing the Colorado River all the way to the state of Colorado, where we stopped at the Dinosaur Journey Museum and took a break among the mechanical dinosaur and fossil displays before heading through more crumbling mountains that grew higher and greener as we made our way into Denver.


Ernie’s reaction to the World Science Fiction convention was to feel inspired to get working on things again. That alone makes it worthwhile. Here are his conclusions:
Ernie: How could the WorldCon compare to geologic wonderlands? Science Fiction is another world. Another world in crisis. Another world in transformation. The short story still has potential, but New York has turned its back on that. I say it’s time to turn our backs on New York. Anyway, I’m determined to finish my fetal stories and set them loose to show the bastards how it should be done.

Denver is still another world. The 16th Street Mall is a great place for a convention to spill out into. Places to eat, characters walking the streets talking to cell phones or themselves. New and old styles of architecture, buses, and trolley cars create a 21st century urban experience, complete with Nigerian street vendors, homeless beggars, and tattooed youths.

Somehow I managed to find and talk to all the people I wanted to catch up with at the convention. I changed my mind about the short story market, decided to start making a go of it. Also, the editors at ANALOG and ASIMOV’S said that they’d rather have their magazines in the science fiction section than on the magazine rack. I told them that I’d get to work on it.

Em got an idea for a novel, she happily spent most of the con working on it. I looked at ‘Mars-A-Go-Go’ and found that it was not far from being finished. I need to work out an agenda for short fiction. I’ve also been drawing every day this vacation so far. The creative juices are flowing, and this wasn’t yet the end.

Ernie did a bunch of drawings during the trip, and he finished up some stories. He didn’t lose the energy he found on that trip, and I didn’t either. Now we’ve got a scanner, so he can post his art online. Our blogs and our Facebook pages give us new and better ways to connect with an audience. So the story has a happy ending – because it’s just the beginning!

Friday, September 11, 2009

On The Road

You don’t need to read Jack Kerouac to know that road trips can change your life. In August 2008, a road trip changed mine.


But here’s the thing, I’m not sure you can plan a thing like that. You can hope for it, and ever since the movie Easy Rider was released, plenty of people have. But me? I just needed a vacation. It had been years since I had gone out and actually seen a place, other than Disneyland. Not that I don’t love Disneyland, in fact I love that place as much as I did when I was a child, for no rational reason whatsoever. I love visiting Ernie’s family, too; they’re wonderful people, way better than I deserve. It’s just that when I was a kid, I used to visit wild places. And even as a kid, my soul responded to those places, my heart pined for them (even if they didn’t have pines). You know the religious feelings some people get when they’re in church, or looking at sacred art, or listening to the Mormon Tabernacle choir singing Hallelujah? I only get those feelings when I’m looking at a canyon.


When I was a kid my mom took us to Yellowstone, Bryce, Zion, the Grand Canyon, and let’s not forget good old Oak Creek Canyon. But as an adult, I found it a lot harder to travel to those places. Or any places. Or to buy groceries and pay rent, for that matter, because I was a writer. Writers don’t have any money, so I had to get a day job. After that I was too busy working, and the years flew by.

Finally 2008 rolled around, and I noticed that WorldCon was in Denver. "Say," I remarked to Ernie, "wouldn’t it be neat if we drove to WorldCon via Utah and saw some national parks on the way?"
He agreed it would be nifty. And we managed to talk two friends into taking the trip with us, Chris and Nora. They were even willing to share a room when the rates were too expensive. So we picked our dates, and we plotted our course, and Nora called all the hotels to make reservations. Ernie and I began to take morning walks so we would be in shape to explore canyons, and finally the first day of the trip dawned. Chris and Nora drove up in a rented SUV Chris dubbed "The Battlestar Ridiculi," and we all piled in.

I should have had some clue what this was going to mean to me when I was almost too excited to sleep the night before. Jeez, how desperate for a vacation can you get! That morning I was in a daze, so happy I hardly recognized the emotion. And as we drove North on I-17 in the Battlestar, I thought, This is really happening! It wasn’t just something we talked about doing some day. We were On The Road.



As we turned onto Route 89, we began to pass some of the formations of Vermillion Cliffs, and the music from Ralph Vaughan William’s Double Piano Concerto started to play in my head. Yeah, I know, most people think of the Grand Canyon Suite when they see Arizona, and I don’t blame them. But Vaughan Williams wrote music that evokes beautiful desolation, and I think that sums up Arizona and Utah perfectly. We skirted those formations for miles and miles, rank after rank of them, and I didn’t need to read a book, didn’t need to play an album to be entertained.

When we crossed the Colorado River, we stopped at a convenience store to buy sun hats, and then we went onto the bridge to look down at spooky bubbles rising from the depths of the river, which moved very slowly there. The sun was just beginning to drop behind some mountains, and it shone on the Eastern stretch of the river. For me, standing on that bridge was like standing in a temple. I felt awed by the silence of the place, by the sense of incomprehensible age. I was also scared of the height, and fascinated by the massive, concrete bridge with its steel struts.



As we drove toward Kanab, Utah, I watched the light dying in the sky and wished the sun were coming up instead of going down. I haven’t felt that way since I was 10. And frankly, it’s a little nuts, because I really need my sleep these days. But that night, I just savored it. Pure happiness. And – dare I say it? Even better than Disneyland.



From that point forward, I knew my soul had just gotten a gigantic jolt, a charge that will last for the rest of my life. That first day we hiked in Zion, we visited Coral Pink Sand Dunes, we read all the roadside markers at the viewpoints and collected free literature. And I bought geeky t-shirts. The next day we drove to Bryce, possibly my favorite National park in the whole universe, and we hiked in the Queen’s Garden, Hoodoo Heaven. It was just outside Bryce that I was shooting pictures of clouds and captured the Cosmic Question photo I featured in a previous blog.


And even when Routes 12 & 24 ended up taking twice as long as we thought they would, I didn’t care. They took us through the Northern region of the newest national park, The Grand Staircase / Escalante. Once again, I was happy to just look out the window. I wish we could have seen Capitol Reef – we’re planning to go there in May 2010, but that night we hauled ass all the way to Moab, the wonderful town perched between Arches National Park and Canyonlands. What I saw in those wild places made me feel like a pilgrim in Mecca.



So I felt more than a little let down when we finally rolled into Denver for the convention. Though my buddies were so happy, I had to stop moping and enjoy nifty downtown Denver. And for a consolation prize, I got to see the rain going sideways because of a small tornado outside my hotel window. Cool!

By the time we left Zion, I already had the beginnings of a new novel in my head. By the time we left Bryce, I had begun to write a treatment for it. Every night in Denver I added more, and I had 100 pages done by the time we got back to Phoenix. I’m still working on the novel, but I have something important to do before I can feel confident that I can write it as well as it can be written.

I have to become a geologist.


I don’t mean a working geologist, but I have to study geology, both in college and out of it. I want to learn everything I can about the subject, because I love it. And I want to keep going back to those places that inspired me, and see new places, and see old places with new eyes. Ernie and I have started hiking in and around Phoenix now, we’ve hiked the magical Piestewa peak, right in the middle of town, a place where the world seems to go away. We’ve hiked Peralta Canyon Trail and we’ve seen Belly Button Rock (and I fell in some horse poop, but it was totally worth it).

That road trip changed my life. It revived a passion in me that doesn’t war with my other passions, that adds to them instead of distracting me from them. And maybe most importantly, it allowed me to realize my own version of religion. Call it Canyon Religion if you want. Not a woo-woo, New Age kind of Canyon, but something very, very old. Something you feel when you stand on that bridge looking down at the Colorado River, something strong enough to overcome vertigo and fear of spooky bubbles.

Hallelujah!