Voices Carry

I stared at the spokes of light and shadow on my hotel room ceiling, wondering why I was awake.

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It was mostly rhetorical wonder. The Mendocino Coast Writers Conference finished that night, with the banquet, ending in a speech by Scott Hutchins that included a drinking game (a drinking game!), and a standing ovation for Maureen Eppstein. I missed the banquet, but got there in time for the last half of the speech, and the acknowledgment of Maureen. Always, the last night of the conference made me feel like my brain was a blender set to Puree, as I processed the previous three days.

I rolled over onto my side and looked at the clock radio. The crimson numbers glowed at 11:59. I closed my eyes and when I opened them again, the numbers had rearranged themselves to 12:02. It was Sunday. The conference was officially over. I wished I had opened my eyes right as the numbers mutated to 12:00. Writing this, I thought about crafting it that way, but 12:02 is better, more random, and that’s what really happened. Honest.

I got up. I pulled on my Extra Large MCWC hoodie, so large and snuggly it could double as a bathrobe, and, barefoot, went out onto the balcony. Below my knees, cool air sniffed around my ankles and feet. The bridge was alight. Red and green lights flashed along the side, and in the light from the wharf the south pylon’s reflection canted like a cooked lasagna noodle. Someone down at the harbor coughed. I scanned and found a human, far below me, a slender figure with a dark cap and a white shirt, who coughed again. The cough didn’t sound close, but it carried clearly and unmistakably, and when the person took out a cell phone and started talking, sauntering in a diagonal across the parking lot, I could hear the voice. I couldn’t make out the words, but I knew the speaker was female, and from the musical lift-and-descent of her voice I would guess the speaker was happy.

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The mist-laden night air smelled like old metal.

It got quiet, and in the quiet, I heard voices.

The mouth of the harbor and the split-level design of the Harbor Lite created an amphitheater effect, that narrow tongue of the Pacific Ocean a glistening reflective membrane, a drumhead driving sound as if with V-shaped hands toward the balconies. These voices came from speakers sitting in a little clearing alongside the bridge, almost underneath it. I had seen the spot, walking, and I had seen the backpack-toting, bundled-up, moccasin-wearing, often-smoking locals walking down there, or up from there in the mornings.

“Good morning,” I’d say.

“G’mornin,” they’d say back.

One afternoon one of them, a burly man in jeans and two puffy navy-blue jackets, with a nest of black curls and a black beard, was sitting on the very edge of the bridge, in the pedestrian space, smoking. He held his cigarette down, away from me, as I passed.

“Did you see the harbor seals?” he said.

“I did.”

“Get any good pictures?” “I think so. I hope so.”

“You have a good day now,” he said.

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The voices I heard now, at 12:11 AM on a Sunday in August, were both male. After a couple of exchanges, laughter wafted over to me. The conversation grew lively and the word “boat” emerged.

“… that boat… dude.”

“Oh, man! …”

Laughter.

Scott talked about why we write. This is a common topic among MCWC keynote speakers. It probably is at any writers conference, and why wouldn’t it be? It’s the fundamental question. From the bummed out, defeated, “Why am I even doing this?” that bursts out of us when the scene just doesn’t work, when fellow work-shoppers just don’t get it, when the agent says that our work just isn’t ready. It’s the question we ask ourselves about why we’ve chosen this particular style of communication, of imaginative inventiveness, of art, when we could have painted, or carved wood or decorated cakes.

Voices carry. They carry to us from far away, distant in time, distant in geography, distant in economic or social class, distant even in species. Sometimes we can’t completely make out the words. We just get the lilt, the musicality. Sometimes the words carry to us as sharply as smoke from a local’s cigarette.

Voices carry, and they are more than air expressed across vocal chords through a larynx, shaped by lips, teeth and tongue. They carry from the arguing couple at the table next to yours. They carry from that odd internet article you read. They carry from parking lots in harbors up to people on balconies and from bridges.

“Only connect,” Scott said, near the end of his speech, quoting E.M. Forster. We write, Scott suggested, for the same reasons we read – to dream, to experiment, to learn, to connect. Only connect.

In the 1980s, Til Tuesday had a hit song called “Voices Carry.” For a long time I thought the song’s title, and chorus, was “This is scary.” Maybe I wasn’t wrong.

I write to hear the voices. I write to be a voice. I write to share the idea – the story – of a young woman in a dark cap, coming off her shift in a restaurant in the harbor at midnight on a Saturday night, getting over a cold, maybe, calling her boyfriend on the way to her car. I write because, over near the bridge, two local guys are slugging back beers and talking about some dude’s boat. And maybe I just write to remember that I’m not alone in the vastness of midnight, at the edge of the world. I’m a voice, and voices carry.

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The Five Stages of Editing

One of the prizes that goes with second-place in the novel category is the publication of an excerpt of my work in the Noyo River Review. This week I had the mixed joy of editing my section for publication.

Editing your work, like any traumatic event—death of a loved one, a displacement, discovering that Lost Girl is in its last season—takes a powerful toll on the emotions, but it has definite stages and it can be managed. I’m here today to take you through those stages.

My piece was about 6,000 words long. They needed me to cut it to about 2,000 words, although they didn’t tell me that for a very long time. One editor had made line-by-line changes that she thought worked better.

For purposes of this post, because I am ranting about—I mean, addressing in a scholarly manner— a process, I am going to call the two editors with whom I worked Editor A and Editor B. In life, Editor A is a staff member of the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference, a published writer of a lively and witty memoir and a beloved writing teacher. Editor B, also closely involved with the conference, edits and publishes a well-known magazine that covers personal narrative.

(Editor A is the kind of smart, thorough line editor whose work more published writers could use, in my opinion, and Editor B has an almost intuitive ability to make diverse narratives flow together in a publication.)

I’m a professional. I didn’t think I was going to have any problem. When I got their e-mail, I opened the document and plunged in.

Stage One:  Disbelief.

“You want me to… what?”

“That can’t be right. You realize if I cut that paragraph the whole story falls apart, right? You did read the story, didn’t you? Didn’t you?”

“Wait. The whole page. You want me to cut the whole page?”

“Is this the right document?”

Stage Two: Anger.

“No, I won’t change that word to your word. If I had wanted to use your word, I would have! This is fantasy. These people talk differently than you. Get over yourself.”

“How dare you suggest I cut that beautifully drafted sentence that, in one single dependent clause, gives the reader three vital pieces of information about this world and its people! What kind of barbarians are you?”

“This is outrageous! Outrageous!”

Stage Three: Pain.

“It’s okay. I’ll just walk away for a bit. Well, maybe down to the bar. For an hour. Yeah.”

(Reaches shakily for cell phone.) “…Hi, honey. No, I… just needed to hear your voice. Crying? No… maybe a little.”

“It’s okay. It’s only a flesh wound. I’m only stripping out everything that gives the story any meaning. That’s all.”

Stage Four: Snarkiness.

“Of course I’ll follow your suggestion, Ms. I-Don’t-Even-Know-How-a-Crossbow-Works! You’re such an expert.”

“I bet you didn’t take this tone with the lady who wrote the American-south-in-the-1960s story!”

“Yes, I’m sure this is just the kind of experience Stephen King faced with every single book. Oh, wait. No, I don’t.”

Stage Five: Acceptance.

“Well, wait a minute. They don’t plan to print the entire piece. It’s just an excerpt.”

“Nobody needs to know that the wharf collapsed. They’re not going to get to the wharf, or the earthquake, or the big hole in the ground. It’ll be fine.”

“Two thousand to twenty-five hundred words? I wish I’d known that; I’d have ended at an earlier point.”

*

I came in at about 2100 words. While I wish I had known from the get-go that the world limit was 2500 (that would have saved some pain), I did finally make peace with the process.

I’m here to say that with support, understanding and awareness, you can survive the editing process. At least, that’s what I think now. We’ll see how I do when the ‘zine comes out.

 

 

 

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I Should Get a Lollipop

I finished all three books in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy; Mistborn, The Well of Ascension, The Hero of Ages. I think I should get a lollipop, or a ribbon that says, “I Did It!”

I did a quick and dirty page-count calculation, and the trilogy checks in at slightly more than 2200 pages. For people who devour George RR Martin’s books, that’s a sprint, a snack, barely a brochure. For me, though, it’s still a commitment, and the books seemed longer because of Sanderson’s prose.

I wasn’t satisfied but I was intrigued. The story’s ideas almost balanced its deficits. When I reviewed the books for Fantasy Literature, I leaned more toward the positive overall. I think dedicated Role-Playing Gamers and Sanderson fanboys must have loved these.

Here’s my personal breakdown.

What I liked:

The Idea. Sanderson’s premise — a blighted world with a vague prophecy and no real promise of redemption; a rebellion, treachery and magic, is good. I admired the scope of these books. Severals of Sanderson’s characters wrestle with issues of faith, spirituality and ethics. The idea here is pretty original, a different take on a creation myth.

Vin, the main character. Whatever else I thought about this story, I really liked the street urchin Vin and her evolution into a magical superhero. Vin has access to magic and grows steadily more powerful throughout the books, but she remains engaging through the first two, at least, because of her flaws and self-doubts. In reality, all she ever really is to the story is a tool — a realization she has in the middle of Book Two — but she’s a darned good tool, kind of like an intricately machined watch. And here is a dandy plot twist with her that I appreciated.

The magical system. This will end up on both my lists. The magicians in the books use metals to activate magical abilities. They fall into two categories; allomancers and ferruchemists. Allomancers metabolize tiny bits of metal to create powers; tin enhances the senses; pewter increases strength; iron allows the magician to create a wall of energy by pushing; steel by “pulling” (imagine the poles of a magnet). Ferruchemists use metal, mostly in the form of jewelry, like a magical savings account; storing energy, speed, memories in metal and then drawing it out when they need it.

This was a truly different system, and as an added bonus, it inadvertently reflects 1960s drug culture, with allomancers taking little “hits” of metal throughout the books. That provided comic relief.

Secondary characters. A few were standouts, particularly Sazed, the thoughtful scholar and ferruchemist; Spook, an overlooked member of the rebellion and TenSoon, a shape-shifting kandra with strong opinions about humans.

What I didn’t like:

The magical system. Here was a clever idea that led to the worst thing in a fantasy novel, magic with no consequences. The magicians rely on an endless supply of an external substance for their power. They risk little or nothing to use it. More seriously, they never run out. You would think that their adversary, the near-immortal Lord Ruler, would  try to control the supply of various metals, but he never does except for one, the mystical McGuffin metal atium. People can OD on metals and hurt themselves, and they have metal hangovers (1960s drug culture again) but there are no real consequences. It’s not epic fantasy, it’s fantasy wish fulfillment, especially when the laws of physics become elastic.

The world-building. As far as I’m concerned there are two parts to world-building; the writer’s behind-the-scenes work, and the telling detail that makes it onto the page. The first one is important, but it doesn’t matter at all if the second one isn’t there. And it isn’t here until Book Three when Sanderson suddenly shovels in a lot of info with  a “oh, didn’t I mention…?” tone. He has clearly done most of the background work, as the voluminous appendices in each book attest, but on the page, there is too much hand-waving and making-it-up-as-you-go. Combined with his stilted prose this created an impression of an arrogant writer telling me, “Because I said so, that’s why.” This attitude does not lead me to the willing suspension of disbelief.

Sanderson gives us a thousand-year reign of a near-immortal tyrant, in a metal-rich land; he postulates  a late-middle-ages style society, colorful balls  and parties, stained glass windows, highly refined metals and a large slave population, with little foundation. The feudal world has 19th century flourishes when they are needed for the story, like canned goods. Highly refined metals and alloys with no discussion of whether alloys occur naturally or are created; no foundries, refineries, or forges seen until the third book; a weapon system that doesn’t go beyond arrow, staves and swords. The air is filled with ash from the constantly rumbling volcanoes (that never seem to erupt), but not a single person has any respiratory problems. There are no explanations for how metal, food, water or textiles are moved or traded (yes, there are canals; it’s a start). Near the end of the trilogy there is a reference to coal; before that there’s been talk of oil lamps but no source of the oil. Petrochemical? Plant based?  Not explained.

In The Hero of Ages, Sanderson uses the device of quoting passages from a written document gathered by a scholar to back-fill a lot of these questions — clumsily.

Elend, the Emperor. Elend is Vin’s love interest and the designated hero. Apparently he has to be the hero because in this universe a woman, no matter how super-powered, can’t lead. It isn’t explained or discussed — it just seems to work that way. Elend, however, never grows into characterhood in his own right. He is a type, and an all too common one. He is the Scholarly, Rebellious Young Noble. Everything, even his wardrobe, is given to him, and Vin gets him out of every pickle, all the while telling him that he is a “good man.” There is no indication that there’s anything particularly “good” about Elend.

The prose. Stilted paragraph after paragraph, telling-not-showing, (and telling us again, and again, and yet again…) enough use of the past perfect tense to win some kind of a prize.

“Sazed had had to load the memories onto his copperminds, from when the other Keepers had defied the Lord Ruler, who had had a plan to stop them. His plan had failed, and the Keepeers had recorded the information that other people had discovered… ” (Okay, I made that one up, but it is not exaggerated.)

The books cry out for a drinking game. Take a shot every time Vin is described as wearing trousers and a buttoned shirt. Sip a beer each time we see Elend in his white ash-resistant outfit; chug each time Breeze lifts a wine goblet. Here’s one; do a shot each time Sanderson stops the action, in mid-fight, to tell us, again, something about what the Lord Ruler did a thousand years ago, or how Vin feels about her magical powers, or how she wishes she could wear pretty dresses again… or how the Lord Ruler managed to control X, Y or Z.

The problem is not merely that the prose is bad, it’s that there are 2200 pages of it.

Good news though! After or during the writing of Mistborn, Sanderson wrote an award winning novella, The Emperor’s Soul, and a shorter book set in the Mistborn world, a few hundred years in the future (The Alloy of Law). While still a bit pedantic and stilted, the prose in each of those is much better; trusting the characters to reveal their traits through action, not lecture; using a more immediate style and concentrating the action. The Alloy of Law still suffers a bit too much from sitting-and-talking, but nowhere near as badly as the trilogy. Sanderson has clearly grown as a writer and a storyteller.

There is no questioning the man’s work ethic. He completed Mistborn and took on the significant task of completing Wheel of Time, and did so very well. He has started yet another series of his own. Unlike certain other fantasy writers, Sanderson completes a series when he starts it.

I still deserve a lollipop.

 

 

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A Day Out

Linda and I had a day out on Monday. We ended up going to Benicia (I had been there just the day before). We started with a self-guided tour of the art glass studios. Our first stop was at the end of H Street, near the marina, where Nourot and Smyers studios share space in a building that looks like it used to be an elementary school. Tall windows with a southern exposure are great for glass places, and both of these studios have beautiful work.

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Before we went in, we took some pictures of the two derelict buildings on the waterfront. They both look military, but I wouldn’t hazard a guess as to the time period.

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On our way back to First Street we stopped at Lindsay’s Art Glass. It’s on F Street, about a block off First. The glass here was more in the tradition of Art Nouveau and Louis Comfort Tiffany. The proprietor also has some art apparel, mostly painted silk, and someone with a very good eye has arranged the fabric with the glass, creating layers of shapes and color, enriching the visual experience.

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When I’m here with the Benicia Crew, we usually eat at Sailor Jack’s, right on the water, but since I was branching out today, we had lunch at First Street Café. It’s located at the corner of First and East E Street, a narrow two-storied space with sidewalk tables and a long comfortable-looking bar downstairs. Upstairs is their wine and appetizer bar. We chose an inside table by the window, giving us a first-row view of Benicia life this gorgeous summer day.

Since dessert is the most important part of a meal, I’m going to start by describing those. The Café bakes its own pies, cakes and crisps. Monday’s specials included a strawberry bread pudding and a strawberry crisp. In both cases the strawberries had started off fresh, not frozen or preserved. I tried the bread pudding because I was intrigued by the concept. Linda had the crisp. Both came, at our server’s suggestion, warm with vanilla ice cream, the cream melting into the crispy topping. Mine had small squares of good bread, possibly sourdough (there was a bit of a tang); sweetened and toasty, not soft. Underneath the bread layer there was a pool of warm strawberry compost, not overly sweetened, with just enough tartness to be a contrast for the silky ice cream. People who like bread pudding as a spongy-sweet custard might not like this, but I thought it was scrumptious. Linda’s crisp had oats in the topping; equally delicious, she said.

Because I knew I was ordering dessert, I held back for my entrée and had the house salad; mixed greens, green apple chunks, candied pecans and cukes with a balsamic vinaigrette dressing and bleu cheese crumbles. The greens were crisp, with a few leaves of some slightly bitter lettuce for contrast, the apple was fresh, everything melded together deliciously. Linda had the roast turkey breast sandwich, which comes, not out of a deli pack or off a roll, but from the breast of a whole turkey that is roasted on site. The sandwich had cranberry sauce and came with a handful of mixed greens. She was very pleased with it.

The Café gets its bread from Acme Bakery in Berkeley, and many if not most of the vegetables and meats are locally sourced. That does matter to me, so I mention it. It means, basically, that things are fresh. Our young, competent server was friendly and helpful, and didn’t rush us along. I’m sure their coffee is great, but we settled for water. Oh, and their menu is funny!

We shopped the street a bit and Linda bought an elegant top in shades of flame in a pocket boutique.

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Charlie, host of Charlie’s Attic

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How did we end up here?

While many of the street-side antique shops were closed, Charlie’s Attic, in the Tannery, was not. Normally they were closed on Mondays, but they’d come down to get a package ready to ship, and the next thing they knew they had a whole flock of customers. Linda bought a glass paperweight and I found a funny pair of bookends for the store.

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We walked along First Street’s waterfront, watching people fishing and trying to stay out of their way as they cast. Linda has lived in Hawaii for ten years, long enough that she is nostalgic for seagulls. (There are none in Hawaii.) She took a few pictures and we got some nice seascape shots. Across the strait, the Amtrak train rolled by, its whistle hooting mournfully.

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On the way back to the car we stopped at Benicia Bookshop. It was close to closing but he kept it opened while we browsed, about fifteen minutes past closing time. I found a book I’ve been wanting to read but Linda was frustrated in her attempt to find something for her grandson, who started kindergarten the next day.

We left about six-thirty, which had been part of our plan as a way to avoid commute traffic. The plan was an unqualified success and traffic on the way back was light. It was a lot of driving and I was tired, but it was a fun day.

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Shining Like a National Guitar

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Here is Doug Adamz playing National Steel at The Last Record Store on Saturday, August 16. He is playing from his new CD called… well, you get it.

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Doug is family friend of my longtime friend Linda Kane who was in town.

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Doug is a great guitarist and a wonderful songwriter, with lyrics that are soulful, sad, clever and often funny.

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Here is his website.

Here is a page to Light Rain, his American belly dance music group.

Here is a You Tube video.

The Last Record Store is still here, selling vinyl and CDs, new and used. They have rock, hip/hop, pop, soul, blues, world music, soundtracks, reggae and a fine selection of classical. While Doug and Linda were visiting I took the opportunity to feed my Beethoven stash.

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This is Doug (the other Doug) one of the owners.

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Doug A played for about an hour. He has a rosewood guitar he bought at Sonoma County’s Guitar Festival, a luthier gathering, but he didn’t have time to play it.

The Last Record Store in on Mendocino Avenue in Santa Rosa, due north of the Santa Rosa Junior College, in the long green building that houses the Community Market, Gaia’s Garden and the record store, like a long green time capsule with parking in the back.

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Lamborghini

A strange looking car pulled out in front of me on Highway 128, making me brake more sharply than I wanted to. It was white, with black trim, so low it looked kind of flat from the back, a top-down convertible. It looked a little bit like a high-performance speedboat, and the name in gleaming chrome script across the back was long. It started with an L. The loud engine roared as I drifted up behind it close enough that I could read it.

Lamborghini.

Along the highway from Napa to St. Helena, the driver of the L engaged in antics that would have qualified him for “dumbass” status if he had been driving a Camry, things like using a left-turn storage lane as a passing lane, illegally, and passing on the right. For a few moments, the car found its mate, a black Lamborghini. I felt like I was watching an automotive version of Spy vs Spy. Soon, though, the black L turned off and the growling white car was alone with the more docile herd animals, Camrys, Lexii, SUVs and Civics.

Eventually it caught up with two more Lamborghinis, one black, again, and one guacamole green. They sat at a red light, three in a row, looking like the Lamborghini club or a trio of vehicular cool kids. Then the driver of the white Lamborghini, whose white car had largely inoculated him from judgment of his rudeness and his bad decisions – because, dude! It’s a Lamborghini! – lost his credibility in one minute. The light turned green. The green and black cars advanced, snarling their dominance, but not the white car. The white car waited, and we, behind him, waited too, because he couldn’t get it into gear. How sudden, and ignominious, is the fall from grace.

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Doubletake; Fun Adventure, Just Not For Me [Update: 8/15/14]

[UPDATE: Those of you who already read this; remember my testosterone comments? I stand by those, but I want to note that Rob Thurman is female. I didn't know that! I guess this proves women can write annoyingly gritty as well as men, at least to my unobservant mind.]

After my discount, I paid $2.40 for Doubletake, the seventh Cal Leandros urban fantasy adventure by Rob Thurman.

Without my discount, I would have paid $4.00, Mockingbird’s sticker price. While I enjoyed it for $2.40, at $4.00 I would have been disappointed in this testosterone-laced supernatural adventure.

To be fair, this is Book Seven. I might have been more engaged and slightly less irritated if I had shared earlier adventures with the half-human half-monster Cal and his half-brother (you’re seeing a pattern emerge) Niko. Not that Thurman’s character doesn’t name-check his previous adventures all the way through the book.

A lot happens in Doubletake; there’s even a plot. It’s just at the end, nothing is resolved. Based on one book, I would say this series devotes its primary attention to the overarching storyline – what in TV they call the “mythology”—rather than the individual story in each book.  Here is a spoiler-free summation:

Cal and Nikos fight beasties and banter/ Cal is half-monster/ flashback to evil sociopathic mom/ “What’s that big metal thing up there?”/ gaybaiting/brothers before others/ “It’s a giant killer robot!”/ Evil-other/ bro-stuff/Desert Eagle/mom was evil/more gaybaiting/mom was slutty/bros before foes!/Niko’s adversarial dad shows up/bro-stuff/monster stuff/first adventure fails/ another Desert Eagle! They’re given’ ‘em away!/ monster stuff/ bro stuff/evil-other broods and monologues/Beasties!/ Killer Robot!/mom was evil and slutty/ Twist ending/Scary fight scene!/Bro stuff!/ ending/happily ever after for right now/ Or is it?

(Okay, this is really, really picky and I would probably know the answer if I’d read the earlier books: mom was evil and slutty and would sleep with anyone, I assume. But the race that Cal comes from were supernatural apex predators, the Auphe. They think themselves superior to everything, especially humans. So why would an Auphe have sex with a human woman? Did she get it drunk first or something?)

Did I mention the testosterone? It oozes out between the pages of this book is such thick globs that women who are nursing, pregnant or may become pregnant probably should not read this book without a doctor’s approval.

Cal and Niko are such seriously enmeshed siblings that they give the Winchester brothers on Supernatural a run for their money.

In some respects, Cal is like Richard Kadrey’s character James Stark from the Sandman Slim books. Doubletake gave me a chance to remember how much I like Sandman Slim. Stark is also a half-human badass and there are plenty of male hormones swirling around those books too, but somehow – and maybe it’s an east-coast/west-coast thing – there’s  more oxygen in Kadrey’s books. Cal’s endless mantras about brotherhood just suck all the air out of the story.

Now, the action sequences are brisk, and the otherworldly creatures inventive, even if the constant low-level sexual harassment of Niko by the male pansexual puck Robin Goodfellow is not as funny as it should be, and there is a nice touch of Simon R. Greene in the humor. There is an audience for Thurman’s series. It’s not me. I’m guessing it’s white, male and aged 18-34.

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After the Apocalypse: But Seriously…

I wrote about my internet-free experience on the Mendocino coast in a rather light-hearted manner. It was not a problem for me, except that it forced me to confront my a) internet addiction and, b) ability to distract myself from doing any real work.

That wasn’t the case for everyone, though. I mentioned, in one line, the problem for some businesses, whose credit card line was wireless. You can still charge a credit card manually; take down all the information and the person’s phone number, then enter the transaction when the system is live again. It’s a pain but feasible.

When I checked out of the Allegria Inn, Paulo brought up an issue I hadn’t considered. Paulo is a volunteer on the local fire department. The town was worried, he said, so worried they were planning a town meeting (next week, probably) with the fire chief. Many people east of Highway One, or in town for that matter, gave up land-lines and went to wi-fi phones (fusion service) because of the cost. Many of those people are geographically isolated. Some of them are graying. When the fiber optic line went down, they were without any way to call for help if they needed it.

Paulo and the man who runs the kaleidoscope shop both said that the agreement when AT&T brought in fiber optic was that they could create a fully redundant system. That may be true. Knowing a tiny bit about AT&T and its commitment to service, I find it unlikely. People believe it, though. Clearly, there is no redundant system.

AT&T has never been wild about the idea of providing a quality product that their competitors get to use to offer better service from, so there’s no real incentive for them to do anything that would just be good for folks. Perhaps they can be forced to install a redundant system, or put all the wires underground, as they contracted to do originally. If somehow AT&T get a regulatory order or a judgment to do this, the folks in Mendocino County can expect it to happen in about ten years. By then we’ll all have data jacks in our brain-stems that connect to the satellite network so it will be far less of a problem.

It raises some interesting questions, not just for the Mendocino Coast but for me, here at home, where we have fusion and our fiber optic cables are mostly underground. I need to consider that during the next big disaster (earthquake, flood, alien attack) I may not have phone service. I may have cell service.

If I lived back in a canyon on the coast range in Mendocino, I probably wouldn’t have either.  Maybe a battery-operated two-way radio would be a good investment.

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After the Apocalypse

My first clue came Sunday afternoon when instead of getting to Facebook, I got a spinning wheel. I checked my little icon in the lower right hand corner of my computer screen, and I had three bars. When I rolled my pointer over it, it said, “Connected.” And still, the wheel spun.

I pulled out my very-retro Verizon antenna and plugged it into the USB slot. The Verizon account initialized and connected. And still, no internet.

On my email, I kept getting a Send/Receive error.

Okay, plainly something was happening to limit my internet access. This was surprising. I’d stayed in this room in December and used the inn’s wifi connection; it ran perfectly. It didn’t really matter anyway. I wanted to post some pictures to Facebook and complete a blog posting, but that could wait. If there was anything serious I could use my smart phone.

And then, minutes later, I decided to wanted to look up the word tympani, to make sure I was using it correctly. I pulled out my phone, entered “dictionary.com” in the Internet spot and got… nothing.

It began to dawn on me that something was seriously wrong.

The hotel did not have wifi.

I’m a strong person, so I didn’t panic, yet.

I had other things I could do, and I did them. Like, go for a walk and take pictures. Like, read a book. Like… go to bed early.

The next morning… still no internet. No problem. I’d take my laptop to Moody’s Coffee or one of the restaurants that had wifi. I was resilient. After all, I’d just gone three whole days without television, hadn’t I? And there had been one in the room and everything… and I didn’t even turn it on. I could survive this.

I went to the Gallery Bookstore in Mendocino and then I began to piece together the extent of the catastrophe. The two clerks explained that it wasn’t my hotel. It wasn’t just Main Street. It was the entire town. The entire town was cut off from wifi! From the internet!

I took cleansing breaths and pictured a safe and happy place. Then I asked how this could have happened.

It seemed that in two separate places, bad things happened to fiber optic lines. One was on Ukiah-Comptche Road, where some overhead lines had been snagged and pulled down. One was near Albion, where something else had happened; they didn’t know what.

(And by the way, if I ever, ever, in a piece of fiction, made up a scenario where two separate stretches of fiber optic cable got lunched in two separate situations, my critique group would never let me hear the end of it.)

What was I supposed to do? How was I supposed to look up “tympani” now? How was I going to post my raven pictures to Facebook? And what about the tourists? Those happy people from Germany I’d talked to on they way down to the store — how was their daughter going to post her selfie?

But I clawed myself back from the edge of that crumbling cliff of desperation. I had chocolate. I had books. It would be okay.

The San Francisco Chronicle came to my room each morning. I hastily scanned it for any stories about internet outages and ETA of repairs. Since, for the Chron, Petaluma is their idea of Northern Coastal California, and they probably think Mendocino is in Oregon, there was nothing.

I went for walks, I did some revision, I read. Then I packed up my laptop and drove north seven miles to the Botanical Gardens.

The gardens were beautiful, even more gorgeous than they had been the previous year. And… they had no internet. Fort Bragg had no internet as well. The contagion was spreading! I pictured myself driving resolutely north, until I got to… I don’t know, Fortuna or some place, parking in a Holiday Inn parking lot, trying password after password as I attempted to poach their wifi. If they even had any.

Was there some kind of coverup going on? Why weren’t black-helicopters throbbing overhead, dropping emergency… I don’t know, satellite dishes? Where was the mobilized response to this humanitarian crisis?

(In the bookstore, two enterprising clerks created a wifi hot spot with their phones so that they could look up something for a customer.)

(By the way, they have these things in the Gallery Bookstore. They’re called dictionaries. I slipped over and picked one up when no one was looking, and looked up “tympani.” Good thing I did, too, because it’s not just a drum, it’s a specific type of drum, and that wouldn’t have worked at all.)

The town was without wifi from 5:00ish Sunday afternoon until 5:00ish Tuesday afternoon. I had books, and chocolate. I was one of the lucky ones. Seriously, though, August is a big tourist month in Mendocino, and many businesses have given up landlines for less expensive cellular; not only for their phones but for credit card processing. This introduced a whole new level of difficulty for them. On Tuesday, neither the Chron nor the Press Democrat carried anything about the outage. I would have looked it up to see what the ETA was on repair… but that would have required the internet.

(And my revisions, they were good. It’s funny; I write better when I don’t decide in the middle of a sentence that I need to go to Youtube and listen to Til Tuesday’s “Voices Carry” all the way through just because I’m using the metaphor of carrying voices in my piece. It’s amazing.)

We pulled through. The town is better for it, stronger. We’re a team now. We know we’ve got each other and… wait, a Facebook Quiz? Which Brady Bunch Child Are You? Sorry. Gotta go.

 

[Update: The official story on Mendocino Community Network's (MCN, the local isp) site is that a vehicle accident on Ukiah-Comptche took out the lines; that AT&T is replacing 12,000 feet of fiber optic cable, not a mile's worth as I first heard. No mention of the second incident in Albion. MCN carefully cites AT&T for every statement in its update, so maybe AT&T doesn't use coincidence as a plot device either.]

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Day Three (Saturday)

Besides her smarts and her charming personality, there were several things to like about Pooja Menon, the agent at the conference this year. Pooja is from a west coast agency that actually represents some speculative fiction writers. She is familiar with fantasy, at least from the YA genre, having read Hunger Games and some early Cassandra Clare. Those are pluses.

I really enjoyed my consultation with her. Somehow, I never take the consultations at the conference seriously enough, and 2014 was no exception. I sent her the same 10 pages I submitted for the workshop and the contest. She thought it was a strong story with a good plot, an interesting world and enough character and conflict. Unfortunately, though, it’s a novella, which, as she pointed out, I can market on my own… and which I already knew.

She did give me her card and ask me to query her when I have something finished. I told her I have a completed adult SF novel completed. She’s willing to look at a query; if she thinks it’s viable she will pass it on to the agent who is dedicated to speculative fiction.

She had very few comments about the work I did submit; she wanted me to intimate a particular conflict earlier than page 10; she also disliked a couple of my expressions. One, in particular, intentionally made use of old vernacular, because I am trying to set a certain tone. I think she wasn’t familiar with the original expression I was toying with. She also said she didn’t like short sentences. I do. I use them. I won’t change that. That could be a conflict.

Generally, though, seriously, she was very complimentary about my writing.

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