Lucky

I’m part of a Facebook group for parents of children with spina bifida. We talk a lot about our kids’ poop (really), because that’s the focus, but a lot of things can come up. One of the things that comes up once in a while is a post from expecting parents who just found out […]

via Lucky — Beautiful Detour

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A Fun Form of Research

books and science

I’ve been spending the last few months working on the first draft of what is turning out to be a novel. It began as an idea for a short story based on a prompt I came across in Writer’s Digest magazine: Your character hears a knock on the door. When he/she answers it, the person who knocked says, “I’m from the future. I’m here to save your life.”

I loved that prompt, and thought I could do something with it. As I worked on the idea I had for the short story, I realized I wanted to know more about that person who knocked on the door. I wanted to know more about that future he was allegedly from. So I started digging, and wrote some more. And more, and more. Soon enough, it was clear I was writing a novel.

Not what I had planned, but okay. It turns out this particular future–without going into too many details right now–is heavily science-oriented, and science has solved a lot of the world’s problems. Awesome. But because of this, books are rare, and reading literature is not particularly encouraged. My character, named Benjamin, nevertheless discovers the joy of reading. Here’s a sampling of the books he reads in the story:

  • The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells. Since Benjamin is from “the future”, then a time machine must figure in the story somewhere. This book excites him when he reads it as a child.
  • Antigone, by Sophocles. Benjamin has a good friend named Ellen, who aspires to be an actress (which is considered another subversive activity, besides reading literature). She puts on one-woman plays for him, including this one, playing all the characters.
  • Murder on the Orient Express, by Agatha Christie. Benjamin is studying law enforcement (considered a second-rate occupation, far beneath the hard sciences–that, and the fact that there’s not much crime to begin with). He discovers a fondness for murder mysteries; though murder is a rare occasion in his world, it becomes horribly real for him later on.
  • 1984, by George Orwell. Benjamin reads this when he is unfairly persecuted simply for being different. He becomes marked and is always being watched. The book mirrors the tyranny that is beginning to bloom in his society.
  • Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Neither Ben, nor my present day character, Brooke, has read this book, but it plays a small, though key, role in the story. And I like the title–there’s a love story in here somewhere, and there is a terrible illness that threatens the future.

I have to confess that either a) it’s been a long time since I’ve read some of these books, or b) I haven’t read some of them at all. If I’m going to mention any of these books in my story, I better have read them and be very familiar with them.

Reading books–what a totally painless form of research! Because I also have to look into sciencey-related things (NOT my strong point), including writing about time travel in a way that doesn’t make a physicist roll her eyes.

I’ve always been a bit lazy about research (or at least whiny about it), but this I can do.

If you’re a writer, do you like research as part of your writing process? Or does it fill you with dread? Any subjects you like better than others? Drop me a line and we’ll talk about it!

First Lines

blank book with letters

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

These are, of course, first lines of famous novels (Pride and Prejudice, Anna Karenina, and One Hundred Years of Solitude, in case you’re wondering).

If you’re a writer, you inevitably come across writing advice that tells you to pay particular attention to the first line of your story. Whether it’s a novel or flash fiction, its purpose is to not only draw your readers in, but also to set the tone and maybe hint at what is to come.

Perusing some of the books on my shelf, I came across these perhaps less famous but serviceable gems:

  • The King stood in a pool of blue light, unmoored. (Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel).
  • For more than two hundred years, the Owens women have been blamed for everything that has gone wrong in town. (Practical Magic, by Alice Hoffman).
  • I still remember the day when my father took me to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books for the first time. (Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon).
  • They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days. (My Cousin Rachel, by Daphne du Maurier).

Coming up with a great first line is an art in itself, and I’m not sure I’ve quite got it down. It takes practice. Personally, I think short story first lines should be punchy and to the point, while novels can ease into a scene–the whole scene taking the place of the first line to grab a reader and lure them in.

Here’s a sampling of some of my short story first lines:

  • Alice left her body for the first time the day George nearly killed her. The Memory of Oranges
  • I went to the river where my husband died, looking for absolution.  Clean
  • Oliver loved the monsters. The Hungry
  • Rose knew they’d be coming soon to implant her. Plugged In

Would you want to continue reading these stories? My hope is yes. Usually with a first draft, I don’t worry about it too much; just begin. Then go back and try to sculpt it into something that says, you just gotta read this. 

What are some of your favorite first lines? Any great ones of your own? Drop me a line and we’ll talk about it!

 

 

 

Fire and Fury

No, this isn’t in reference to the political tell-all that’s been in the news lately, and thank God for that.

Let me begin here: I was sitting at the computer the other day, casting around for an idea for a blog post. Nothing was forthcoming. I literally stared at a blank screen for I don’t know how long.

Inevitably, I started goofing off out of sheer boredom. Facebook, Pinterest, Youtube. I suddenly had an idea. No, not for a blog post. But I could listen to the new U2 album on Youtube. Does anyone even listen to “albums” anymore? U2 fans of a certain age do. And used to be, I had to save up my pennies to buy that new CD. Now I can listen to an entire album for free on my computer. Ah, progress!

Anyway, as I listened to “Songs of Experience”, I started to get a sinking feeling. I didn’t like it. Usually, it takes a few listenings for me to get the feel of an album, but I have to at least recognize some kind of affinity for me to listen a second time, and a third, etc. It was like that for their previous album, “Songs of Innocence”, and I ended up loving that album. But “Songs of Experience”, the “companion” album to Innocence, left me definitely unimpressed.

This isn’t a review of that album. I didn’t like it; let’s leave it at that. It’s been hit or miss for me with this band for several years now, maybe decades, and I was left wondering: what happened to the band of my youth?

U2 young
Then: angry young men.

Well, Tina, they got older, just like you.

Okay, but what does that mean? Does it mean they should hang it up? That Bono should just concentrate on his activism, which is a worthy and noble undertaking? Because it pains me to see this group put out mediocre work (Yes, I have very high standards. Don’t blame me, they set the bar).

Is Rock’n’Roll dead? Yes, in a world now dominated by pop, rap, and whatever the hell else they’re calling music these days, I fear it’s true. (Do I sound ornery? I sound ornery.) And that breaks this Gen Xer’s heart to the very core. All we can do is look back, because no one can seem to capture the magic anymore. Even those acts that did work the magic back in the day. They’ve lost something. What is it?

Well, youth, obviously. But also the main ingredient that comes with it (besides freshness and intensity and raw urgency): anger. Fire and fury. And the energy to scream (sing) about it at the top of their lungs. I’m thinking about Boy and October. I’m thinking about War and Unforgettable Fire, and Joshua Tree.

Remember Alannis Morissette? That was one pissed off bitch. Where is she now? If I had to guess, she’s baking cookies for the PTO.

Not that we (people over 40, just so we’re clear) don’t still get angry. I can honestly say that I’ve felt more rage in the last decade of my life than I ever felt in the first three put together. But it’s a different sort of rage. It’s more of an internal thing than at the wider world (though there’s that, too, especially now).

Or maybe the anger is the same, but we’re different. We simply don’t have the time to indulge in unadulterated rage. Because there’s runny noses to wipe, and bills to pay, and doctor appointments to get to, and aging parents to take care of, and marriages to tend. Anger has to be set aside, because there’s shit to get done. It’s not about you and your disaffected anger anymore.

Yeah, growing up sucks. It can be boring.

And honestly, you get tired. You can’t sustain anger over a long period of time; you’ll burn out. In youth, the flame energizes and inspires you, because that’s all you have. In the later years, it simply burns you. It might even kill you.

U2 now
Now: it’s complicated.

Bono understood that he couldn’t just sing about injustice. He had to take action. Walk the walk. And you can’t meet with world leaders and start yelling about how unfair everything is. You have to cultivate patience, and understanding, and perseverance. You have to be willing to compromise, to choose between the lesser of two evils, sometimes. In youth, there was no gray areas, only black and white, and compromise meant you gave up. Evil was evil, period. But after life runs you over a couple of times (or a couple dozen), the fire gets stamped out. Hopefully humbleness replaces the anger. If you’re lucky, gratefulness replaces the fury. At least enough to balance out the cynicism.

One of the things I loved about U2 was that underneath all that youthful discontent, they held onto hope. Their faith had a lot to do with that, and I admired it. I think it’s sustained them for 30-plus years. Is it better to burn out than to fade away? I’m not so sure. Let’s ask the 27-Club: Jimi, Jim, Janis, Curt, Amy. Oh yeah, we can’t. They died before they got old.

Maybe maturity makes for boring music. But not always. I find it interesting that I loved “Songs of Innocence”, when U2 wrote about growing up in Ireland, but “Songs of Experience”, presumably about their older selves, left me cold.

Tell me about when you burned, when life was a flame that set you on fire. That’s where the energy is. That’s where the magic is.

Thoughts on Star Wars: The Last Jedi

last jedi 2

This isn’t any kind of formal review of the movie, just some personal reactions to what’s been happening in a galaxy far, far away.

When I was ten years old and saw The Empire Strikes Back for the first time (I was a bit too young for the first movie, and had to back-track), I never thought I’d be watching new Star Wars films with gray in my hair. Of course, I never thought I’d have gray hair, or ever be over twenty years old, for that matter.

My point is, when I was a kid, Star Wars was magical. It could do no wrong (although, at the age of thirteen, I had some trouble taking the Ewoks seriously). It had taken a permanent place in my heart as something I held very dear, and always would. Return of the Jedi’s happy ending left me feeling satisfied and that all was well with the universe.

Except it wasn’t. There are no lasting happy endings, and as someone with a little gray in her hair, I understand that now.

Prequels and stand-alone movies never mattered to me. What mattered were the original characters I came to know and love, and what happened to them. So when I heard that Episodes seven, eight and nine were being made, I paid attention.

The Force Awakens, for the most part, pleased me, but you can go here and see how I reacted to Han Solo’s death. I whined and belly-ached that it wasn’t a worthy death. Of course it wasn’t, that was the whole point. It got me engaged, it made me angry and I wanted justice. I was invested on an emotional level, which is what any good story should do.

And The Last Jedi? I don’t know. Despite numerous space battles and personal skirmishes (and believe me, I was a bit battle-weary by the end of the movie), I wasn’t wowed. I understand that part of the appeal of Star Wars is exciting space battles, but maybe we’ve seen so much of it in so many movies lately that we’ve grown numb to it. I have, anyway. In the original films, there was maybe one big battle the story line was culminating to, or it began the film and there was fallout from it. Now we’re just bombarded with explosions and violence and it’s supposed to entertain us. Maybe I’m just getting old, but I need more than that.

There were some character arcs that I found interesting. The whole Kylo Ren/Rey connection (even though orchestrated by Snoke [and where the heck did that guy come from, anyway?]) was illuminating. The internal struggle between Kylo Ren and Ben Solo has been made painfully clear, and it’s equally clear that the minimally-trained Rey is having problems controlling her emotions, namely anger, impatience, fear, and hatred. And we all know where those emotions lead, don’t we, kids? So while one still has a spark of light, and the other is vulnerable to the dark, they both still stubbornly hold to their courses. Still no clue as to who Rey’s parents might be, even though Kylo Ren asserted that they were nobody. I doubt it.

There were several new characters this time around, including Rose, a Resistance fighter who helps Finn on a mission to find a codebreaker to shut down a tracking device so….oh, never mind. I really thought they’d find Lando Calrissian in that gambling city, but they only found this weird guy played by Benicio del Toro, whose character name I don’t remember, if I ever caught it at all. A business man who doesn’t take sides, only the side of money. I’m assuming by the end of the trilogy, he’ll find his heart and do the right thing, like an erstwhile Han Solo.

In fact, I found too many echoes of the original here. I noticed them in The Force Awakens, but I was willing to forgive it in the first movie, as a means of making us feel we’re in familiar territory. Not now. The same exact themes are explored here, which in itself would not be unforgivable, but it is when it’s almost word for word. When Kylo Ren tempts Rey to turn to the dark side and join him to rule the universe, I just had this sinking feeling (I have a really bad feeling about this…). Come on, guys. You’re creative geniuses. You can do better than that.

I think my favorite secondary characters were the porgs and the crystal foxes. Way better than Ewoks. Just wanted to say that.

porgcrystal fox

Of course the most important character to me in this film is Luke. Or, as I like to call him, Dark Luke. Not the Dark Side, just dark. This is not the sunny, optimistic farmboy from A New Hope, or even the newly mature and sober Luke from Return of the Jedi. This is a weathered Luke who’s given up all hope, who’s given up, well, everything. Even the Force. His failure with Ben Solo has crushed him. He is heavy with regret and despair. He’s got a bit of gray in his hair.

I like him.

Mark Hamill himself has made comments on how he was a little disappointed in the way Luke is portrayed in this film. He felt that Luke, a Jedi, would never give up, that he’d be stronger than that. I suppose. But I find that I dig Dark Luke. He’s much more interesting than he’s ever been before. He’s realistic. He’s an older, wiser Luke who’s been battered by life. Just like the rest of us. He’s not a hero, he’s real. I also loved Yoda’s little cameo. I dug Dark Luke, but he did need a bit of scolding.

But naturally, he becomes a hero in the end. I liked that little trick he played on Kylo Ren. Luke’s death was a worthy death, a good death. I’m satisfied on that point.

dark luke

So, while there are certainly flaws in Episode 8, I’m still in. I want to know what will happen. I’m curious to see how Leia’s character will be dealt with considering the untimely death of Carrie Fisher. Episode 9 was supposed to be her showcase, but it wasn’t meant to be. At least we got to see her escape death in the film–even cold, dark space can’t kill our Princess!

 

Are you a fan? What did you think of The Last Jedi? Drop a line and we’ll talk about it!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Recent Obsessions

Here’s what I can’t get enough of lately:

TV: Stranger Things, Seasons 1 & 2.

stranger things

They had me at 1983. I was 12 years old, just like the kids of Hawkins, Indiana. I wasn’t playing D&D (alas, I’m a girl), but I remember the music, the hair, that sense of being, well, a weirdo. I’d watch this show for the pure nostalgia (casting 80s icons Winona Ryder and Mathew Modine was a nice touch, and they’re great here), but it’s so much more than that.

Ryder plays Joyce Byers, whose sensitive son Will has gone missing, literally out of this world. Will’s crew of faithful, geeky friends are determined to find him; they meet a mysterious girl named Eleven who seems to have supernatural powers, and perhaps knows where Will is. Meanwhile, the town’s police chief Jim Hopper (the wonderful David Harbour), investigates, and climbs deeper into the strange happenings centering around the secretive lab nearby. Strange indeed, but addicting, replete with monsters, a parallel universe, and a surprising amount of heart.

(And because I couldn’t get enough, I watched “Beyond Stranger Things”, a series of short interviews with the cast and creators the Duffer Brothers, which was fun to watch, too).

Movies: Pride & Prejudice & Zombies.

PPzombies

How can I not love this? It blends two of my favorite things: Jane Austen and The Walking Dead (disclaimer: I haven’t watched the last two seasons of WD–I just couldn’t deal with the never-ending heartache). There are Austen purists who sniff at any tampering with their beloved author’s work (and I know some who dismiss any movie version outside of the Firth-Ehle pairing), but I’m not one of them. Let’s face it, adding a little blood and gore to Regency England’s genteel society is just great fun.

Lizzie Bennet’s weapon has always been her words, but here she wields a sword to add to her considerable arsenal. Austen’s story plays out with the usual, well-know scenes: the country dance where Lizzie and Darcy meet, the Netherfield ball, Mr. Collins’ unwanted proposal, the visit to Rosings, Wickham’s deception. But here England has been invaded by a terrible plague that turns people into zombies; everyone must train in the martial arts to defend themselves from the scourge. Darcy is a colonel in the army; the Bennet girls strap knives to their thighs under their dresses and carry swords and guns.

My favorite scene is Darcy’s botched proposal to Lizzie–while they verbally spar, they engage in a physical fight, throwing each other around the room and attacking with pokers and letter openers. I never knew I wanted Lizzie to kick Darcy’s ass in this scene until I saw it! The plot devolves into a weird zombie scheme involving Wickham, but rest assured, the lovers come to each other’s rescue and overcome their pride and prejudice to wed in the end.

Books: Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series.

dark tower

I’ve been in a King kind of mood lately, just having read Sleeping Beauties (click here for a mini-review). With the movie The Dark Tower recently in theaters, my interest was piqued. I didn’t get around to the movie, so I thought I’d check out the first book of his epic fantasy series, The Gunslinger.

Here’s the premise: Roland, the last Gunslinger in an alternate world, pursues the Man in Black across a desert wasteland in his quest to find the Dark Tower. That’s about all we know. What’s a Gunslinger? What happened to this decaying world that has “moved on”? Who is the Man in Black? What is the significance of the Dark Tower? Answers come slowly and incompletely. King’s writing style here is different than what most of us are used to, dense and perhaps a bit pretentious, as King admits to in his forward. He came up with the idea very early on in his career, fresh out of writing seminars that dictated language over story. But he knew he wanted to combine the quest story (like Lord of the Rings) with a spaghetti western-style protagonist and landscape.

Despite some initial impatience, I kept on reading the book, and found myself drawn in. I’m well into the second book, The Drawing of the Three, which employs the King voice and style we’re all familiar with, and know I’ll continue with the other books (7 or 8 in all), though probably over time, interspersed with other books. Now that I’ve started, I have to know what happens. I have to penetrate the mystery of the Dark Tower.

 

What’s obsessing you lately? Interested in any of these entertainments? Drop me a line and we’ll talk about it!

 

 

What’s Been on My Kindle

Here are a few books I’ve been enjoying lately:

See What I Have Done, by Sarah Schmidt.

see what I have done

When I saw there was a novelization on the story of Lizzie Borden, I knew I had to read it. I wasn’t disappointed. Schmidt speculates on what might have gone through the mind of 32-year old Lizzie, during the days leading up to her father and stepmother’s ax murders in Fall River, Massachusetts in 1892. The result is appropriately creepy and mesmerizing, alternating between Lizzie’s point of view with that of her sister Emma, as well as that of a possible intruder on that fateful day. What emerges is a claustrophobic tale of rage and jealousy that culminated in murder.

Sleeping Beauties, by Stephen and Owen King.

sleeping beauties

I’m not the kind of King fan that reads every single novel he puts out, but every once in a while I’ll read one that stands out for me for whatever reason. And when I do, I’m reminded of why he is, indeed, the King. He wrote this one with his son, Owen, and I loved it. What if the women of the world fell asleep and didn’t wake up? That’s the premise of this story, which takes place in the small Appalachian town of Dooley. Women all around the world are falling asleep, presumably from what is being called the “Aurora virus”, and becoming cocooned in a white, web-like substance. Any attempt at unwrapping the women and waking them up leads to the sleepers becoming violent, with fatal results. In Dooley, a woman called Evie appears, the only woman who can sleep and wake again, and who seems to possess supernatural powers. How is she connected to the Aurora phenomenon? As the men left behind become increasingly desperate to wake their women up, Evie polarizes them into two factions who will fight either to protect her or threaten her. In the meantime, the sleeping women of Dooley find themselves in an alternate world with no men (and doing quite fine on their own, thank you), and must eventually make a fateful decision whether to stay and make a go of it, or go back to what was. This is a timely, fascinating story on the essential natures of men and women, wrapped up in a riveting supernatural tale that I found impossible to put down.

The Rules of Magic, by Alice Hoffman.

rules of magic

I read Hoffman’s Practical Magic years ago (and watched the movie, of course) and enjoyed both. Even though my recollection of the story was vague, I was ready to read this prequel. Practical Magic was about the two Owen sisters, Sally and Gillian; this book centers on the youth of their elderly aunts, Frannie and Jet, as well as a heretofore unknown brother, Vincent. The setting is 1960’s New York City, for the most part, and the iconic events of that decade as a backdrop for the formative years of the Owens siblings. Frannie, the eldest, is practical and logical, and plans on becoming a scientist; Jet is sweet and a great beauty, and Vincent is independent and headstrong. All three of them have witchy powers, and all must contend with the “Owen curse” which dooms any person they fall in love with. I’ve always enjoyed Hoffman’s magical realism, and this one is no exception.

 

Have you read any of these books? What have you been reading lately? Drop me a line and we’ll talk about it!