Greenwood/Elk Village

Elk is a hamlet on Highway One, between Point Arena and Mendocino. For several years when I’d driven through the hamlet on a weekday, the visitors center had been closed. This trip, it was open, because the State Parks Department has stationed a park employee there during the week. Before, volunteer  docents covered the center, and were mostly available on weekends.

Greenwood/Elk Visitor Center

The staffer was friendly and well versed on the history of Elk, or Greenwood/Elk as it’s sometimes known. The center is on the ocean side of the highway, in the former mill  building, next to the historic post office. The active post office is across the street.

Elk was founded in the 1890s and was a thriving lumber mill town. In 1916 the White Goodyear Company built the mill and the office, which included a vault and a safe (it’s still there, on display), shipping lumber to Seattle and San Francisco; until the 1930s when the Depression took its toll. Mills farther inland, like Willits and Ukiah, fared better because of access to transportation.

The museum has some family items from the Ross family, the last family to run the mill, a Boy Scout display and some groovy artifacts from the time the building hosted a commune in the 1970s.

The narrative of the Pomo display.

The center has located a display about the area’s first human settlers, the Pomo, right by the door. The Pomo were there before the redwoods grew.

The town has two names, Greenwood/Elk. One of the founding families had come from El Dorado County, which had a town named Greenwood. They brought the name with them. When it came time to formally name the town, the US Postal Service had an opinion; they did not want two towns with the same name in the state. The townsfolk chose Elk, but many of them still called in Greenwood, or Greenwood Elk.

The vault and the old safe.

The town has a gallery, a deli-diner, a general store and a post office. The fancy Greenwood Pier Inn, part of a refurbished Victorian, has a trendy boutique and a cool garden shop. There are two paths out to the ocean; one to a beach and one out to the great wharf rock.

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John Scalzi, Alexandra Erin and That Guy Who Hates John Scalzi

That Guy Who Hates John Scalzi had a diabolically clever plan to use the Great Hugo Kerfluffle of 2015 as a launching pad for a book he wrote about how Social Justice Warriors Always Lie. His book is about 200 pages long. I’m sure he spent a couple of weeks, in his spare time, working on it, and it seems to be selling nicely. It did have two chapters labeled Chapter Five. Apparently That Guy, who was nominated for Best Editor on the Hugo shortlist by the splinter groups, didn’t edit the book very well. I’ve heard that you should never edit your own work. Maybe he needs to consider that.

SF writer Alexandra Erin decided to write a parody of That Guy’s book. She is also very busy, but she wrote hers in a one day. It’s also not 200 pages (more like 20) but I think she captured the gist. Having read That Guy’s blog and various pronouncements in various comment streams, I can tell you she captured That Guy’s style flawlessly. Of special interest, I think, are the appendices.

Clearly, to write the parody, Erin had to read the source material, so… you know. condolences.

You can find John Scalzi is Not a Very Popular Author While I Myself am Very Popular on Amazon and also on Sellfy, which is where I got it as a pdf. It’s only an e-book (and the source material is also only available as an e-book).

In a desperate attempt to drum up attention for himself, the not-very popular writer and blogger of the title is currently running a fundraiser. If people donate to Con or Bust, an organization that helps people of color attend science fiction conventions and events, he’ll create an audio book of Erin’s book read by him. That goal has already been met and in fact, he’s into stretch goals now. It seems odd that he could have raised nearly $10,000 in the first 48 hours, since he isn’t very popular, but, well, life is strange.

There seems to be a legitimate question about Con of Bust’s 501(c)3 status, which means that your donation might not be tax deductable, if that matters to you. If you don’t want to donate until that’s cleared up you can always wait and donate later.

Other than the writing itself, this work is only going to be really funny to people who have followed That Guy’s obsession with Scalzi, but I know you’re out there.

Not only is this hilarious, but thanks to the fundraiser, I discovered Alexandra Erin’s blog, which I will be visiting more frequently.

That Guy Who Hates John Scalzi’s hatred and vitriol has now been channeled to help raise over $5,000 for RAINN, a non-profit that offers protection and advocacy for victims of domestic abuse, and over $10,000 to send people of color and ethnic non-whites to event in the science fiction field. I call that good work. I’d like to act all virtuous, but really, Erin’s book is just funny.




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The Conference, Day Three; But So…

A rainbow smile

Corbett is clear that a work of fiction needs tension to rise until the climax, and that “tension” is not necessarily action. Again, it’s not the dump truck. Stories and novels that have characters reacting to one random event after another have a scattered feel rather than a unifying one, and usually they just don’t grab the reader. The exception is the picaresque novel, which is a sub-genre itself. The picaresque is a collection of episodes as the main character drifts from one event to another. Usually, though, we want that rising tension, the feeling of the stakes getting higher and higher for our Main Character, before we reach the climax and denouement.

We talk about raising stakes, but they don’t have to be global stakes for a book to hold our interest or be suspenseful. A successful presentation at work, a dinner party coming off, a first date, can be major stakes if we know what is driving the character who wants those things.

Rising tension doesn’t only occur across the work as a whole, Corbett says. Each scene should follow the same pattern of rising tension; the MC needs something, there is an obstacle, and the outcome raises the stakes for the MC in some way, even if the MC succeeds in meeting the need.

Corbett credited Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park and Book of Mormon fame with this handy test for how well you are matching the graph of rising tension. (I’ve seen it other places as well.) He mentioned using a ‘beat board,” a cartoonists’ tool a little like a storyboard, but the mechanism isn’t important. List out each scene (one or two sentences) of your story. Then decide which of these three words best fits between the ending of each scene and leads into the next one:

  • So,
  • But,
  • Then.

“But, so… “

“So,” means that action is flowing organically out of the previous scene. “But” implies another obstacle, an obstacle created in the previous scene. Since we have an MC who is dealing with a flaw, lack or wound, probably the obstacle is created by the MC’s desire not to face something she has to face. Or the obstacle can be external; the MC’s rival has the information the MC needs.

“Then” tells you that there is no rising tension. The story is becoming episodic; the following scene is merely a thing that happens with no connection to the previous one.

In Dashiell Hammet’s The Maltese Falcon, Spade and Archer think Miss Wonderly has money, so they accept her case. Archer offers to protect her, but he ends up dead in an alley, so Spade begins to investigate. (In fact, speaking of MCs, Spade has to investigate, even though he didn’t like Archer and didn’t trust him. It’s part of his code. Spade is an anti-hero; he is no knight in shining armor and the book makes it clear he’s skated pretty close to the edge of the law more than once, but he does have rules and “you avenge your partner” is one of them.)

I cheated and added the word “meanwhile” to the mix, because some of us write in multiple points of view, and “meanwhile” represents what’s happening in other parts of the story. I think I need to be careful that “meanwhile” doesn’t become a stand-in for “then.”


(A science fiction novel called The Dark Between the Stars gives an example. The book has about twenty-seven viewpoint characters. For the first two-thirds, every connecting word would be “meanwhile.” Tension? Non-existent.)

I would like to hear Corbett fine-tune this model a bit; I think scenes can exist solely to provide information (although I think they can be short) and I’d like a discussion of passages versus scenes.

Still, it’s a good technique. Employing it helps spot the places where the tension flattens, and opens up opportunities to gain greater depth with your characters.

(Once again, the pictures have nothing to do with the column. I just like them.)

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The Hugos, Chapter 8: Well, Someone Learned a Lesson, and I Hope It’s Us

The Hugo awards were presented Saturday, August 22, in Spokane, Washington. After four months of hyperbole and uproar the splinter groups achieved very little. They did not take a single award for original work. One thing they nominated, the film Guardians of the Galaxy, did win best dramatic form. Since nearly everyone loved Guardians of the Galaxy, that was no surprise, but I think we could put that down as a splinter group “win.”

In five categories, the fans voted No Award. This is an option that the Hugos have that most awards do not – so that fans aren’t forced to vote a meaningless “best” of a collection of bad choices.

The categories that received No Award were: Novella, Short Story, Related Works, Best Editor Short Form (stories/story collections) and Best Editor Long Form.

Xichin Cixin Liu’s hard science fiction novel The Three Body Problem won for best novel. This is a work translated from Chinese by Ken Liu (no relation). The other work of fiction that won, a novelette by Thomas Olde Heuvelt called “The Day the World Turned Upside Down,” was also a translated work. Before we all go haring off crying “trend! Trend!” let’s remember that there were relatively few (two) awards given for fiction this year.

Let me provide a bit more background to the outcome. To vote for a Hugo, you must become a member of the World Science Fiction Convention, the loose affiliation of fan groups which puts on WorldCon each year (skip this paragraph if you know this or you’re just bored). There are two memberships; Supporting and Participating. A Supporting membership costs $40 US. A Participating membership is your registration for that year’s WorldCon and gets you in the door. It’s quite a bit more, closer to $200-ish. Either type of member can vote (and nominate, that’s important).

This year’s membership broke all previous records. 11,330 people signed up. More than 6,000 of them chose to be Supporting members, like me.

5,950 members voted, the largest voter turnout in the history of the award.

Back in January thru March, 2015 the counts of people nominated looked somewhat different. The Sasquan committee got 2,122 valid nominating ballots. Only about 20% of the people who became the voting pool actually nominated work. Think of the difference in turnouts between a primary election and a general one.

Oh, but that’s not it! They saw the short list, they were appalled, and immediately registered so they could stop the splinter groups! Right? Maybe. And all of them can nominate work in 2016.

Let me take a moment to review the purpose of the Hugos, from the FAQs on the Hugos website:

“The Hugo Awards, to give them their full title, are awards for excellence in the field of science fiction and fantasy. They were first awarded in 1953, and have been awarded every year since 1955. The awards are run by and voted on by fans.”

The word in there is excellence, defined as containing the trait of being excellent: “outstanding quality or superior merit; remarkably good.” (Thanks,

What happened this year is that a small group of people, knowing the usual process of nominating versus voting, put together a list of work and got friends and like-minded people to nominate it. This pushed out all the other works. When some writers who were on the list withdrew their work, those vacanies let other works to move up onto the ballot. The winning novel was one of those.

The splinter groups counted on ignorance and apathy to let them pad the nominations, and they were right.

Where they miscalculated, I think, was in what they chose to nominate. If they had created a list of works that demonstrated excellence, they would not have seen the shut-out they got on Saturday night. One of the splinter group leaders has been yelling about the people he doesn’t like taking a “scorched earth policy to the Hugos,” which, he says, somehow, just proves his point. It wasn’t a scorched earth policy operating on Saturday. It was much simpler.

If you looked at categories like Best Novella, and asked yourself, “Is one of these the best novella I read in 2014?” the answer was no. If you asked yourself, “Do these novellas demonstrate outstanding quality? Are they remarkably good?” the answer was still no. One novella was good. Since the Hugos allow for No Award, voters actually tried to apply the principles of Hugo voting to the process, and the process worked correctly.

In the Best Short Story category, there was at least one good story. Again, it was good. It had a real character and was emotionally touching. The premise wasn’t necessarily new, but the writing was good. Was it excellent? Was it the best short story you read in 2014? Honestly, probably not. Hence, No Award.

So, I hoped someone learned a valuable lesson here. It won’t be the splinter groups. They aren’t interested in learning. I’m not sure what they’re interested in. It seems like some of them are really interested in acquiring a Hugo by any means possible. It seems like some of them have different desires. (“‘I wanted to leave a big smoking hole where the Hugo Awards were,’” he told me before the winners were announced.”)

If they had swept the awards on Saturday, they would double-down next year, slating up another list of poor work. Since they were shut out, they will… double-down next year, slating up another list of poor work.

No, it’s the rest of us, the people who just love to read fiction, talk about fiction, debate fiction, compare fiction, geek out about how well something is done, nitpick when things aren’t quite right… just, basically, us, who have learned a lesson. And that lesson is; if you want the works you loved in 2015 to have a shot at the ballot in 2016, you damn well better nominate them.

You do not have to nominate in every category. If you feel that you didn’t read enough short fiction in 2015, you don’t have to nominate in the short story category. But if you loved a couple of novels, and there’s a great podcast you like, or there’s a fanzine or review site, you can nominate in those categories. You can nominate your favorite science fiction or fantasy movie.

A couple of math geeks have already come up with “conclusive proof” that 6,000 people nominating is not a guaranteed vaccination against slateitis. Okay, but it’s got to help. The Hugo website provides lots of data about the nominations and the votes. Look at the nomination page and see what books you could have been voting for in 2015.

Some other things would be nice too; I think more and more novellas are becoming available in ways other than in the periodical that first publishes them. I know that Lightspeed has shared some. If you blog or have a podcast, share the ones you love, so other people can nominate them too. I think one of the good things that will come out of the Great Hugo Debate of 2015 is that the marketplace will be more conscious, more thoughtful and more talky about good work.

Start a “best of” list for yourself now! Look back (the year’s nearly over) and write down what stood out for you. Then add to it through the fall, so you’re set when January comes around.

Purchase a membership if you haven’t already.

The splinter groups will not change their tactics or moderate their yelling, because they are getting what they want; attention. Set them aside for a moment. What do we want? Well, probably, we want good fiction and related works of the Hugo shortlist. We can’t count on some nameless “other” to nominate the works we want to vote for. Speaking only for myself, I don’t want a minority of poor losers shaping my choices for me.

So get out the vote, but before that, get out the nominations!

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The Conference, Day Two; Open Mike

Staff try to fix the microphone. (Karen Lewis, the director, in green)

This will be a strange post in many ways, because I didn’t ask people about using their photos or their names. This means that most photos won’t be identified and several of my friends are not included here because I didn’t want to violate their privacy.

The conference holds a writing contest as one of its events; there are cash prizes for first and second place, and there are several categories. This year a couple of categories added Honorable Mention. It’s a great contest.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner.

The people who place get a certificate and a check, and that award is made at Open Mike. They also get to read for five minutes. After the contest winners read, anyone who signed up for Open Mike gets to read, for about three minutes. Conference staff are appropriately stern about tracking time, and they yell out, “Time!” when you hit your limit, even if it’s in mid-sentence.

This year there was a glitch with Open Mike Night. At opening remarks on Thursday, we were told that contest winners were already signed up for Open Mike. I took this to mean that I didn’t need to sign up. So did everyone else. On Friday morning, Fran, the volunteer who staffed our room, issued a clarification. Prize winners were already on the list, but we needed to sign the list to confirm that we planned to read. In other words, we needed to sign up.  Our workshop got this word, but a few others didn’t. This meant winners who planned to read weren’t on the list, and didn’t get to until very late in the event (after the break).  At least one of them got cut off at three minutes, when she should have had five.

Prehistory, with an innocent-narrator POV.

I’m sure staff will make sure this doesn’t happen next year.

Over forty people signed up to read. As is always the case with any microphone I’ve seen anywhere, there were technical nits with the sound system, but those were taken care of and we were on our way.

The conference provided a “performance coach”session for readers, which was probably pretty

Part of the Five Under Twenty-Five group waiting to read.

good (I didn’t attend it). I think this is a great idea, especially for people who are new enough to be nervous about reading out loud in front of 50 people.

A couple of tips about reading out loud, especially at this conference. As I’ve stated, they will hold you firmly to your time and they didn’t give anybody a one-minute warning. You should read your chosen excerpt to yourself at least once and time it. Include your introduction. Try to come in a few seconds short of 3 minutes if you can.  Reading it out loud to yourself lets you know how long it is; it also lets you practice breathing and figuring out where the pauses should go and so on. It seems obvious. When you’re really, really nervous, it’s not. A couple of rehearsals really help with that.

Here are some examples of what we heard at Open Mike:

  • Three poems about the mother goddess.
  • An excerpt from a work of fiction about a young southern woman in an institution in the 1970s.
  • A section from an historical novel set in 12th century Europe, and one set in prehistoric times.
  • A poem about ending an abusive relationship, and one about time.
  • A passage from a speculative fiction novel set in 17th century London.
  • Memoir, about a woman who worked at a galactic-themed pizza joint in the 1980s.
  • A shivery ghost story, flash fiction.


    I love Open Mike. It reminds me that reading aloud, even your own work, is a separate skill from writing. Some great writers are poor readers. Some adequate writers are brilliant performers. Many people read too quickly. Eye contact with the audience is nice, even if it’s risky.

    Open Mike, one of the fun events I always look forward too.





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The Conference, Day Two: The Art of Making it Worse

Scrutinizing Raven (c) Marion Deeds 2015

The photos I’ve used have nothing to do with the text. I just like them.

One of our workshop members had a point in her story where the main character sees a person on a bridge, getting ready to jump. It’s a crucial scene to the rest of the story. It had some logistical issues. I imagined the writer was feeling the way I do when I confront logistics – frustrated. Finally she set her pen on the desk and said, “Okay, maybe it’s not a jumper, it’s just someone wh–”

“No,” David said. He didn’t wave his arms, and he didn’t raise his voice, exactly. “No. Don’t take it easy on your Main Character. Don’t let them off the hook. Make it worse. Always make it worse.”


“Make it worse,” is not new advice. Any aspiring writer has seen the graph of “rising action leading to the climax and denouement.” David disagrees with the word “action.” He prefers “tension.” And he wanted us to understand that the “worsening” that happens must spring from the MC’s own actions.

As a reviewer, I read a lot of books where the author basically drives a dump-truck into the MC’s driveway and pours out a bunch of problems. The problems are often unrelated; one crisis after another flying at the brilliant hero, creating the feeling of a collection of short stories rather than a novel. It goes like this:

Ocean and Fog (c) Marion Deeds 2015

“It was good to be back in atmosphere. I took off my helmet and only then saw Sarge standing by the airlock, tapping his foot.

‘Don’t get too comfy,’ he growled.

‘What’s up? I figured out the secret to the maze and brought back the antidote,’ I said, ‘and nobody even got killed.’

‘Yeah, where there’s an armada heading our way,’ he said, ‘and it looks like they’re from the Angry Monster System. Suit up. You’re on point.’”

In other words, this is a new adventure, not a problem that springs directly from braving the maze and grabbing the antidote. Yes, it’s making things worse, but in a completely random way. Usually the next thing that would happen is that a space rock would breach the hull. No reason, it just makes things more dangerous.

This can work really well in the hands of a gifted and devious writer who shows us at the end how all these random disasters were connected. All too often, though, they aren’t. They just happened. The word I tend to use in reviews is “episodic.” No matter how brilliantly written each discrete conflict is, I am always left feeling unsatisfied by these kinds of books.

“It was good to be back in atmosphere. I took off my helmet and turned to help the prince with his. I noticed he was staring over my shoulder. I turned. Sarge stood by the airlock, tapping his foot.

‘We’ve got an imperial armada headed our way, from the Angry Monster System,’ he said. ‘They say we’ve abducted the prince and heir to the empire. Would you know anything about that?’

‘You said if I helped you I’d have sanctuary,’ the prince said, staring at me. ‘You promised.

Same stakes, but now they spring from the character’s actions.

In David’s book The Mercy of the Night, the private detective who wants to help Jacqui is being followed by some bad men. He figures out that they’ve put a tracker on his car. He pulls off the tracker and holds it up, waving it at the two men who are in a nearby car. He’s taunting them, basically. Without creating spoilers, let me just say that this action, which springs organically from the character, his psychology and characteristics, (“Geez, dudes, do you think I’m stupid?”) makes things worse for him – and it’s at least in part his own doing.

Often “make it worse” comes from the character’s defense mechanisms as she tries to avoid facing the weakness, wound, lack or failing (WWLF). I’m reading a Tara French book right now, Broken Harbor. She writes dark atmospheric mysteries set in the Dublin, Ireland, murder squad. If the philosopher said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger,” I think both Tara French and David Corbett might say, “What which you do not confront will destroy you.” In Broken Harbor, the smart, snarky and tenacious detective who is our MC and a first person narrator will not face the truth of his own past, the wounds he has not tended while he was trying to tend to everyone else. He doesn’t see why his identification with one of the murder victims flies in the face of his own belief system about victims, why it’s so strange and so passionate. He doesn’t understand what his mentally ill sister is trying to tell him.  But we do. And we see how and why he has stopped short of confronting his partner, asking the questions that normally he wouldn’t wait the length of a breath to ask. I haven’t finished the book yet, but I have to say, I’m not optimistic about the outcome for our MC. In this case, the smart, successful, tough main character, desperately trying to ignore his own pain, makes one small mistake after another. And they are small. But they roll down the hill like rocks, bringing the boulders down with them.

Negative Space Cat, Panache Gallery, Mendocino, 2015

So do not give in to the desire to take it easy on your characters. I find that when don’t want to make it worse, it’s usually not my MC I’m “taking it easy” on. It’s me. Making it worse, truly worse for the MC will open plot doors I don’t want to go through. It might make the character have to do something I think is unsavory, or raise moral questions I don’t want to go into, or just… geez, I had her run out of money, but now she’s stuck in Bakersfield, and I have to get her to that pier in Long Beach! What is she going to do? Maybe she’ll have to hock something of value to her, like that ring that was the last thing her ex-boyfriend gave her. Only, she doesn’t know the ring is on a Want List from a murder scene (well, he’s an ex for a reason, right?) and now the police are on her trail. Maybe she steals. Maybe she goes into a bar and talks her way onto the stage and sings for tips. I dunno, but I bet I’m going to find out something interesting about her, if I make her deal with having no money, instead of pausing at a nearby ATM.

Always make it worse.


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The Conference, Day One; Mapping the Interior

Inside, Outside

Inside, Outside

I attended  Lisa Locascio’s afternoon presentation, “Mapping the Interior; Portraying the Internal Landscape in Prose,” on Thursday.

First, a confession: while I often stay for the faculty readings, I rarely attend the afternoon sessions. I always have good intentions about attending… then I wander off to check out the coastline, get coffee, take pictures of ravens or drift down to the harbor. I go into town. Sometimes I go back to my room and fall asleep, or write something, or sit on my balcony and watch the harbor.

Mendocino Headland

Mendocino Headland

I thought Lisa’s presentation would be about ways to use internal landscape as a metaphor for a character’s thought processes or psychology. It wasn’t exactly that. If I’m pressed to say what it exactly was, I’ll be in trouble, because I don’t really know. There are some things I do know after the session, though. Here’s a list.

  • Lisa Locascio is brilliant.
  • Lisa Locascio is funny.
  • MacArthur Park, by Jimmy Webb is not a good song. It isn’t even a good song ironically.
  • Nella Larsen is someone I have to read.
  • I think about landscape and interiors differently now.

Locascio talked briefly about the concept of “object permanence;” that if we sit in a room and close our eyes, we believe that the room is still there; the chairs, the walls, the ratty carpet. Object permanence is a developmental phase and it’s not as obvious as you might think. If you doubt that, the next time you are visiting with a friend who has an infant that has become fascinated with your car keys, put them where the baby can’t see them. Then try that same trick with a two-year-old. That’s “object permanence,” the knowledge that things still exist in the world even if we can’t observe them.

She shifted from this into the concept of space. We create space – rooms — in our heads, basically. (By the way, if I’m getting this wrong, the fault lies with me, not Lisa Locascio. Lisa has given this topic a lot of thought and a lot of work.) She used quotes from various works to demonstrate how interiors, mostly, are used to inform a work. She talked about her own internal version of The Annex, from the Diary of Anne Frank. Lisa had a pretty good idea of what the hidden area where Frank and her family hid looked like, even though parts of it looked like her own grandparents’ house in the Midwest. This doesn’t make her mental image any less powerful or accurate, because when she enters that internal room, it brings the correct combination of feeling and mood.

Stories about the Holocaust, and people hiding from the Nazis evoke hidden rooms and secret rooms; we imagine our own version of the hidden room and tap into the feeling and mood. That is also what our writing can do, and should do.

Lisa had us do three writing exercises, the first two about our own personal “inner rooms.”

Probably the gold nugget I took away from Lisa’s session was the introduction of Nella Larsen, who wrote Quicksand and Passing. Larsen was of African American and Danish descent, a voice in the Harlem Renaissance, and I had never heard of her. Lisa introduced her by reading a description of an interior in Larsen’s Quicksand. The description is beautiful and precise, simply by describing the light, the table, the flowers and the chair Larsen shows us how this room is a refuge, a sanctuary for the character.

Taking us from the sublime to the somewhat ridiculous, Lisa then walked us through the history of that 1960s classic, MacArthur Park. No, really. I mean, it is about a landscape… right? Then she played the Richard Harris version, and had us write to it. For seven and a half minutes. Yes, she did.

I don’t want you to feel left out, so here is a link to Richard Harris singing about cakes melting in the rain and old men playing checkers. Go ahead, do a timed writing to it. You know you want to!

Grounds, an interior

The Grind, an interior

Before we did that she took questions. As you might expect many of the participants were in her workshop. I was impressed with the intelligence and generosity of her answers. I would guess her workshoppers felt very encouraged and supported in her workshop space.


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The Conference, Day One: What Does the Character Want?

IMG_2782The best writing workshops give me a model against which I can compare my work. David Corbett’s master class, Character is the Engine of Story, gave me that model and took me back to those basics I tend to forget.

David devoted the first hour of the Thursday workshop to a discussion of character and story. He boiled it down. “What does your main character want? What is the obstacle to achieving it?” Then he added another layer, one that goes to backstory – what does your character yearn for?

This “yearning” is not the same as the thing/outcome the character wants. David used that great Hitchcock term “Maguffin” to address the wanted thing. In the Maltese Falcon, the “black bird” is the Maguffin. The list of compromised agents, the launch codes, the magical sword, the crown; all those are things a character can want. The character can want to get home (Cold Mountain), can want to start/keep a business, want the family home, want to bury a deceased loved one. “Yearning” is deeper; it’s related to the main character’s wound or lack. It is the thing the character images they would have if they led the life they really wanted. Who is the person the character, deep down, wants to be? That helps identify the yearning.

The yearning if often tied to the character’s Weakness/Wound/Limitation/Flaw, for which we used the acronym WWLF. In Corbett’s book The Mercy of the Night, Jacqi wants to earn $2,000 so she can leave town. What she yearns for is a life free of the labels the town has put on her, an attempt to be her own person, without baggage.

Basics, though:  What does the character want?

The story I brought to be workshopped had been through many revisions already. It’s a “caper” or a heist story with a scam artist main character. The first two-thirds of the story count on the reader not knowing exactly what was going on under the surface. At the two-thirds point, the “real story” is revealed. From then on the story goes flat.

Part of the reason for the flatness is that I also played, originally, with story structure in this one; and I counted on an unusual structure to provide suspense. It did, in a way, if making the story unreadable counts as “suspense.” When I re-ordered the story, I still had a flat ending. The other problem was that now I had a beginning that was pretty polished and well written. When I reread it, I knew that, vaguely, it stopped being interesting about ten pages from the end, but I pretended that didn’t matter, because I thought I couldn’t fix it.

I forgot to ask what the characters wanted.

There are several secondary characters, but mainly the story focuses on four; a wealthy patriarchal wizard in Prohibition-era Seattle, his magical son, his unmagicked daughter and the young woman he hires as a companion for the daughter. The daughter, Fiona, is about to be married off, and she’s gotten rebellious. What I had forgotten about Fiona, in all my tinkering with the mechanics of the story, was that she was in love with someone else. She is an energetic, rebellious woman in love with a forbidden lover. There is perhaps no greater chaos engine in fiction than that. Why wasn’t I using it?

This meant I had to think about what the brother wanted. In the first go-round, I was a partisan in this fictional family. All my sympathies were with Fiona and I thought the brother was spoiled and obnoxious. I still do, and he still is, but what he wants (to be respected the way his father is) suddenly meant that the last ten pages of the story wouldn’t go so smoothly, not if the brother sees his position threatened. Suddenly I had organic suspense up to the last page.

At least, I hope so.

Back to basics. It does work.

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Strange Beds

IMG_2547I spend Tuesday night at the Sea Cliff Motel in Gualala. From the balcony of our second-story room, Spouse and I watch a river otter swim the brackish water of the Gualala River, up close to its closed, sand-barred mouth. The otter climbs out of the water, lopes across the spit and slides into the Pacific ocean. We see its head out beyond the foam line before it vanishes from view.

Later a man stands on the flat rock along the path below us, holding up his phone to get a picture of the molten silver-and-gold sunset. Behind him, in a ragged trail down the path, seven other people stand, holding up their phones. It looks like one of those strange optical exercises, figures approaching a vanishing point.

When Spouse came down after work, I greeted him at the door. “You missed the party,” I said.

“What party?”

The party that answered the question, “How many women does it take to turn on the TV?” The answer is three. All three of us checked all of the connections twice, but it was the old-hand, experienced motel employee who checked them the third time, and the fourth, and finally just jammed on one that plugs into the back of the flat screen, one that seemed perfectly securely seated to me. “Stop, that’s it!” I shouted as the tiny red light on the screen lower right corner lit up.

The bed is a king, set in a large room that is mostly square. The bathroom is a narrow rectangle that shares the rest of the footprint with the balcony. The rooms have high-pitched ceilings that create a kind of cathedral feel. Even though the bed is a king, it feels narrower, and the red light from the television, and the green light from the DirecTV box, shine into our faces all night. The steady rush of the surf counters the light, soughing like a whispered lullaby.


During the conference, I always stay at the Harbor Lite Lodge. Yes, they do spell it that way. The Harbor Lite is a sport-person’s hotel, aimed directly at people who love to fish. It’s built up the side of a cliff, which means that it is probably not a good place to be when the big earthquake hits. It also means that if you want one, you can have a perfect view of the working harbor and the bridge. I love the harbor. I love the bridge.


The bed is a king-sized bed with three sets of pillow marching across its snowy expanse. The bed is high. I like this. I wonder if it’s an old-person’s bed… you know, taking care of creaky knees. The mattress is very firm. I wish I were eight years old so I could jump on the mattress. I think about doing it now… and trampolining off it, falling onto the floor with a crash, lying there unable to move (“Help! I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!”) until housekeeping comes… maybe not this trip.

The room’s sitting area has a small sofa facing the large flat-screen (which also faces the bed), and a desk and chair, perfect for setting up a laptop, or reading manuscripts. The balcony has a tiny table and two chairs.

At night, the glow from the TV light, the DirecTV box light, the microwave and my charging cell phone all beam at the bed. One of those I can control, and I do. I throw a towel over the cell phone. Take that, you needy but convenient device!

I don’t sleep well, or at least, don’t have uninterrupted sleep, any night I’m at the Harbor Lite except the last one. I never do during the conference. First of all, I’ve chosen a room that’s above a working harbor, during sport-fishing season. Second, I do all those bad “blue screen” things right before bed, like catching up on e-mail and loading photographs. Third, long after I’ve left the campus, thoughts about writing, about reading, about the food, about everything, are swirling around in my head. And then there are those little colored lights. Saturday night, after the conference has ended, I go to bed at eleven, wake up once at 3:30, and again at 7:30. The first round of conference percolation, or “processing” is complete.


The owners of the Alegria Inn have three guest properties they manage. The Inn itself is on the ocean side of Main Street. Raku House, where I stayed, is a remodeled Victorian house across the street. It has four suites; Fireplace, East Suite and West Suite, and the entire upstairs, called Aloft. The Aloft Suite has two daybeds and one queen-sized bed covered with a puffy white quilt, accented with green and yellow flowers. Two small windows face east, overlooking a Victorian building next door, and one of village’s two cemeteries. The sitting room area, with two larger windows, shows Main Street and the ocean. The Raku House is aimed at the more contemplative guest. There are no gleaming lights because the room has no TV. I charge my phone around the corner near one of the daybeds, where the flashing light can’t distract me, and I turn off my laptop. There is a microwave and a coffeemaker but they are tucked away in an armoire.


The first night I was there, the two suites downstairs were rented out to a family of four: Mom, Dad and two teenaged boys. I cringed a bit, but except for microwaving some lasagna at ten o’clock (the smell permeated my suite) they were quiet, unobtrusive guests. They are friendly and the boys are polite. At night, I can hear cars from the highway, but there aren’t that many. The two nights I am here, I can sleep as long as I want to, (practically speaking, I have to be out by 11:00 am on Tuesday) and “as long as I want to” seems to be about 7:30. Breakfast is delivered in a basket between 8:15 and 8:45, and usually by then I’ve had a cup of coffee and even gotten some writing done. Even if it’s only this post.

The Aloft bed also has a firm mattress, but it doesn’t tempt me to jumping the way the Harbor Lite bed does. It’s a more demure bed. I should be sitting up on propped pillows, sipping herbal tea and rereading Persuasion when I’m in the bed in Aloft.

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The Conference, Day Zero

Wednesday, August 5: I’m on my way the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference. For me, it’s part conference, part retreat and part vacation, located on a beautiful stretch of Northern California’s glorious coast.

I’m looking forward to another class with David Corbett, who is among other things an excellent teacher; I’m looking forward to seeing writing friends and making new ones.

The conference starts tomorrow, so today is technically Day Zero – or is that C minus 1? I came up yesterday and spent the night in Gualala. My big takeaway from yesterday was the discovery that river otters are perfectly happy swimming in the ocean. This guy came up out of the Gualala River, loped across the spit and went into the ocean without any hesitation. Since the mouth of the river is closed and has been for months, I’m guessing the food supply’s a bit thin; river otters will eat birds, but the pickings in general have to be better out there in the Pacific.

river otter 1


river otter 02


river otter 03



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