Story Walk

These brightly colored pedestals are my tax dollars at work, and I’m proud and happy that my money’s being spent this way. This is the Story Walk that curves around the High Street entrance of the Sebastopol Library now.



The walk has several stations. On each stand is a page from an Early Readers’ children’s book in English and Spanish, a comment about trees and a suggested activity. Activities include, “Put your fingers in the earth and feel how it is,” “Reach high above your head like a tree. Now look around and see how many trees are nearby,” and so on.



The activities are also in both languages.



If I had a criticism to make — and I guess I do, because here I am about to do it — it would be that I wish the walk could be a bit longer and actually have a few more trees nearby. On the other hand, this is aimed at young children, and it isn’t a nature path in a park. It is right at the corner of Bodega Ave (Highway 12) and High Street. And with youngsters, probably seven and under, a longer distance between stations would probably result in a loss of interest. There are several kinds of tree to see in the immediate vicinity.

I love the book they chose. The colors are vibrant and the artwork is vivid and welcoming.

I went to every single station, of course. I’m not six years old, but the story walk inspired my interest in trees as I continued my amble home.

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Living Room to Library

We started a process to change our outdated living room into a library. It was never a living room. We live, to all intents and purposes in the space called the family room. The step-down room right off the front door became the room where I stacked books on the floor, piled up my crafts stuff, displayed some artwork and put furniture we weren’t using. There was a rickety sofa used only by our friend Jim’s dog, Tizzy, when they came to visit.

Spouse wanted the old “cottage cheese” texturing removed from the ceiling, and to repaint. I said, if we were going to repaint I wanted something other than white and since we’d be pulling everything out of the room, I wanted new carpet. Spouse said if we were going to do that, then we needed more bookshelves. Thus, a library.

We do have different definitions of “library,” though. Spouse views it as a room lined with shelves, with books on them. Pretty much full stop. I discovered this when I said that maybe, budget permitting, I would add a couple of chairs. “Why chairs?” he said.

I said, “Because it’s a library.”

Negotiations continue.


Phase One, ceiling and paint, is complete. I chose two shades of dusty blue, intending to have an accent wall. I’m pleased with both colors, but because of the way the natural light hits that room, you can only really tell it’s an accent wall certain times of the day. Well, now I know.

Phase Two was carpet and blinds. This got a little more complicated. We are splitting the costs of the project and I’m taking on: carpet, blinds and bookshelves (which is why I will prevail on the chairs; I still have dollars left in my budget). This should have been easy, but somehow it wasn’t. I started at Home Depot but could not find a single carpet sample that I liked. I also checked a sole-proprietor shop in Rohnert Park, same problem. I ended up checking with World of Carpet One, where I found exactly what I wanted. Yes it was more expensive, but the entire process from choice to installation went without a hitch. “More expensive,” in this case, is a relative term; this is a fairly small room, so while the price per square foot was higher than Home Depot, the overall cost came in under my top estimate.

For the window coverings I went back to Home Depot. I had to special-order for that window because of its length, but this was the least expensive aspect of my part of the project. We added the dining room and substituted the tired curtains for another set of blinds.

I’m picturing two comfy, upholstered chairs around the table. No sofa, and we intend to keep it that way. One of the wooden chairs may go to a new home. I haven’t made up my mind yet. The not-so-clearly-an-accent-wall will hold three of the four new cases. The fourth will probably go on the north wall.

It’s coming along!

An important note. We are temporarily holding onto the cushions from the old sofa, because Jim and Tizzy are coming for a visit later this month. Tizzy will still have a comfy sleeping-place.

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Trail of Lightning

Last year Rebecca Roanhorse won both the Hugo and the Nebula Awards for her short story “Welcome to your Authentic Indian ExperienceTM.” Her first novel, Trail of Lightning, is out, published by Saga Press. I loved the book’s action, its definitely out-of-the-ordinary setting, and Roanhorse’s vivid physical descriptions.

Maggie Hoskie is Navajo, a monster-hunter whose clan powers give her great speed and great killing power. They also, in her mind and in the minds of others, make her a monster herself. Maggie lives in the land of the Dinetah, the former Navajo reservation, which is now sealed off and protected from the rest of the former USA by a magical wall, while the nation-states that remain beyond the wall deal with much larger oceans and the depletion of nearly every resource. This is merely backstory, not part of Maggie’s quest; Maggie is in search of a monster that stole a little girl… and the witch who created that monster. Along the way, Maggie faces a familiar trickster, and her former mentor, a folkloric monster hunter himself, who abandoned her with no explanation or warning nearly a year ago. On her side is Kai, a movie-star handsome man who may be trustworthy, and a few others who reluctantly give Maggie their support.

The book has plenty of action and just enough quiet moments. The descriptions range from the austere beauty of the desert to the groundedness of a hogan; from the laugh-out-loud funny image of Maggie dressed in a Hot-Slayer getup in order to get into a nightclub to the realistic feel of the do-it-yourself businesses and bars and the repurposed vehicles that run, not on fossil fuel, but on moonshine (the distilled kind).

Maggie herself is a difficult, prickly character, shaped not only by PTSD and loss but to some extent by the impact of her clan powers. While she may not be immediately likeable, she is certainly interesting, and I was curious about her from the first few pages.

There is grit and gore throughout the story, but Trail of Lightning reaches back and embraces historic tropes, while speaking in a refreshingly original voice.


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Why I Love the Internet; Reason 701

I wanted to check and make sure that flashlights were in common use in 1930, for a scene in a story. I thought they probably were because I think they are mentioned in some of Dashiell Hammett’s fiction, but you never know, do you? And flashlights were used in World War I. I needed to see what a flashlight from 1930 looked like, though, so I headed on over to Google.

And I found pictures. Lots of pictures. Yes, a couple of these shapes are… well, suggestive might be the polite word.


More than pictures, I found links. There is a flashlight museum. I’m torn between, “Who knew?” and, “Well, of course there is.” And I learned that there are people who collect flashlights.

I learned that flashlights have been around since 1896 (although they weren’t in common use back then).

I found a perfect late-1920’s camp flashlight that really does look like a thing someone might keep in the trunk of their car.

This is Reason 701 why, in spite of all the kvetching I do about the internet, I love the internet.

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The Scandalous Poet’s Daughter

Sometimes a well-written book fails to satisfy simply because it isn’t what the reader wanted or expected. This was largely, but not entirely, the case for me with Jennifer Chiaverini’s book Enchantress of Numbers.

I bought the book at Book Passage in Corte Madera. The book was on a display of biographies. Ada Lovelace’s name appeared on the cover, so I grabbed it. I think Ada Byron King, Countess of Lovelace, is one of the most interesting women of early nineteenth-century Britain, and I thought I was getting a biography. If I had looked more closely, I would have seen the word “novel” both on the front and the back of the book.

Chiaverini is known for historical novels, and if I read a lot of historical novels I would have recognized the name. Ultimately, though, I picked this up expecting a biography, and found out it was a novel.

I got over my disappointment and continued to read. The novel disappointed me again, though, by choosing to emphasize the parts of Ada Byron King’s life that are least interesting to me: mostly, her famous, scandalous parentage, and her inherited fame. Ada was the daughter of George Gordon, Lord Byron. She was his only legitimate child, although her parents divorced in a high-profile divorce shortly after she was born.

Ada Byron King was fascinated by mathematics, was a friend of Charles Babbage, and may have invented the first computer program. (That’s disputable, but even the disputes are interesting.) She was fascinated by Babbage’s Analytical Engine, and suggested ways to improve it. She translated and then expanded upon a treatise written by a French scientist; Byron King’s notes and additions made the concept of the engine vastly more accessible and understandable.

Most of that is in Enchantress of Numbers, but it’s touched on lightly. It might make up fifteen percent of the book. Chiaverini doesn’t bother to imagine what thinking about mathematics might be like. She writes sentences, in Ada’s first-person voice, like, “I worked on the algorithm.”

I wanted so much more.

And I wanted so much less of the Cinderella-style take on Ada’s childhood. Ada’s mother, Anabella Milbanke, was both neglectful and controlling of her daughter. Her fear that Ada would somehow inherit Lord Byron’s crazy and selfish behavior made her ban poetry and fairy tales from her daughter’s life, instead having her tutored in natural science and mathematics. Young Ada grew up with no children her own age. The book portrays her in youth as lonely, somewhat introverted and very sheltered.

Milbanke was an educated woman in her own right. She was very interested in a system of public education in a country that didn’t have that, and she funded several schools for working-class children. It’s clear from history that right or wrong she believed the worst of her former husband, while still managing to admire his poetry. Her fear that Ada had inherited “bad blood” was plausible for her time, although it does not explain or imagine explanations for some of the choices Milbanke makes once Ada is a adult and married.

In the novel, we see Annabelle, who believes she has weak health, frequently decamping to various spa towns, leaving Ada with a trio of her unmarried women friends, who Ada calls The Three Furies. One disappointment in this book is that the Furies are presented basically as an aggregate character, the Wicked Stepmother function in a story with no fairy godmother. According to Ada’s first-person narration, they dislike her, and always tattle on her, casting everything she does in the worst light as they write their reports to her mother. This may have been true; it would have been nice to see the motivations of the Furies, if only later in the book, perhaps through Ada’s adult eyes. Maybe one of them was truly envious of Ada’s place, or maybe they were genuinely worried that she’d go the way of her father. Maybe they were just sour, unhappy women. We never know.

Annabella and Ada are both smart, passionate, complicated (and often inconsistent) women. Since mathematics and the working of Ada Byron’s excellent mind weren’t going to be the focus after all, more depth in the fraught relationship between these two women would have been nice. Instead, somewhat ironically, we get the very thing Ada says repeatedly that she does not want; we get the story of Scandalous Lord Byron and His Daughter. Chiaverini can’t tear herself away from the marriage and subsequent Separation; from the rumor (which Annabelle believed whole-heartedly) of Byron’s incestuous relationship with his half-sister and the possibility that they had a child together. While Ada Byron King, like her mother, ultimately helped support the other woman who claimed Lord Bryon as her father, this story was not Ada’s at all. The book shifts away from the interesting stuff about Ada time and time again, however, to dwell on the old scandal.

Chiaverini spends more time describing Ada’s dress for her first Season in London than she does on any of the mathematics. Most disappointingly, she talks about young Ada’s fascination with flying and the time she spends as a child in a DaVinci-like pursuit of a flying apparatus. Ada tells us she “worked on the formula,” but we never see, through her eyes, a sketch, or a model made of paper (we’re told there are some in her room) or, well, anything. I would have loved to have seen this keen young mind imagining a device that allowed her to fly.

If you want to read about a nineteenth-century thinker, scientist and influencer overcoming the sexism of her time, don’t read Enchantress of Numbers. On the other hand, if you want to read a pretty interesting story of two strong women of the British aristocracy during the early days of the Victorian period, Enchantress of Numbers might be for you.




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Notes From the Bookstore

Wednesday was a slow day at the bookstore. First of all, it rained off and on all day. Secondly, it was a work day for most people, so while there was a small flurry of activity from around 11:45 to 1:00, and a pick-up in browsers after 4:30, for long stretches of time there was no one in the store.

Shortly after 10:00 (we open at 10:30) a nun came to the door. She was an old-fashioned nun, in a black habit that came down to her ankles, her wimple completely covering her hair. I have not seen such a traditional nun in… I don’t know when I last saw someone in this type of habit. Maybe fifteen years ago when I went to an event at Angela Center?  I told her, through the door, that we opened at 10:30, but I was already thinking I could let her in because the cash register was set up. She asked if I knew where there was another public restroom, because the ones on the plaza were locked.

I let her in to use ours.

Without violating the good sister’s privacy, I will say she took a while in the restroom. A while… long enough that I wondered if I should tap on the door ask if she was okay. Long enough that I began to wonder if she were 1) a ghost or 2) a hallucination. (Okay, I didn’t seriously consider either of those two possibilities. Or at least, not too seriously.) Eventually, though, she came out and began to browse the store. She stopped at the counter to say the store was lovely, and to ask if we accepted donations of books. I said we did. She told me that her community was in Calistoga, and they had lots of children’s books because they worked with children. Usually they donated to the Calistoga library. She had come to Sebastopol for a doctor’s appointment. Then she thanked me for my kindness and said she wanted to leave a tip. I told her it wasn’t necessary, but she left five dollars. That is generous.

I said to spouse last night, “In thirty-six years working at the county I never had a nun leave me a tip, and today I did. It’s a career first.”

*

A boy and his dad came in. The boy was recovering from a dental procedure that involved both numbing and gas. He went right to the book he wanted and sat in one of the chairs with it while his father looked around. He told me about the dentist. He said for a while he saw two of everything. “That went away, though.” He also said after they were done, “Everything looked funny and I said to my dad, ‘how come the car looks funny inside?’ and then later it didn’t look funny anymore.” One of the better descriptions of coming out of anesthesia.

*

A young woman, maybe thirteen, came in with her mother. She also found a specific book she had been looking for. It’s the second book in a series and she had already read the first. I asked her about them so I could give a good recommendation of it for other customers. She said the author includes her two daughters in the writing process, asking them to check for realism. She acknowledges them in every book.

Her mom bought “The End of the Pursuit of Happiness; a Zen Guide.” The daughter took one look at the title, wrinkled her nose and said, “Well, that’s uplifting.”

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The Cover Design Survey

Falstaff Books purchased a novella from me back in early 2018. A few months ago they advised me that my work was with the copy-editor and I would be hearing from them at some time in the future. Last week they sent me a cover survey.

I’d never seen a cover survey before. I’d never heard of such a thing and when I googled “cover survey” of course I got a bunch of hits for surveys of effective cover letters for a variety of types. I did find a “cover design questionnaire” site which I think is the more familiar term.

The cover design site markets towards self-published writers. Falstaff is a small independent publisher and they do not have a standing art department as far as I know. Much of their cover work comes from stock images. Their survey to me said that. I don’t mind. I was delighted to even be asked.

The questionnaire is fairly in-depth, and reviewing it, I didn’t assume that it was going to be sent to anyone who had already read the story. It asks for a 250-word synopsis of the story; it asks for the genre and whether this is part of a series. If it is, what number in the series is it? I think this novella is part of a new line Falstaff is bringing out, but I don’t have any idea how many are in line before it. It asks for the subgenre, and whether there are key elements that should show on the cover.

They also asked about color preferences, and that the writer provide thumbnails of covers they like or think would be appropriate.

That sent me on a search of alternate world fantasy covers. Most of the covers I love are the fancy ones that some traditional publisher’s art department spent a lot of time on, and that’s right out. I ended up selecting one for an example of a font, one for the overall composition and one that had human figures composed in a way I liked relative to the background. 

The novella is called “Aluminum Leaves,” and those leaves are not the leaves of a tree; they’re the leaves in a book. While I was filling it out, I realized that I actually had a picture in my head of a nearly-perfect cover and it’s from a Kate Wilhelm novel, Juniper Time. If we tweaked those 1970s colors a bit and added a buy wearing the same kind of hat, it’d be perfect.

I didn’t send that one, and I doubt that’s going to happen.

I also realized that in the final third of the story there is a parasitic creature pulling energy from people via copper skullcaps, which would probably make a great cover but would shift the story away from fantasy into a horror look. And that might be the direction Falstaff will choose; I don’t know.

I don’t assume that I’m going to get everything I want on the cover. Input isn’t influence, and input isn’t choice. Still, I was delighted to just have input. And I’m waiting, now, to see what happens next.

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The Missing

Starz has two seasons of a limited run show called The Missing. Each series or season, about 8 episodes, tells a complete story. I won’t say there aren’t cliffhangers (there’s a hell of one at the end of Series 2) but the story of “the missing” in each series is resolved.

And already I want to hedge and say “maybe not so resolved in Series 1.”

The consistent character is a French detective, later a retired detective, named Julien Baptiste, who investigates missing persons cases. In each series, the story followed two storylines, a “present tense” storyline on a cold case, and the past tense story of that cold case itself. Actually Series 2 may have had 3 timelines since we get one scene of the original abduction.

I watched Series 2 first for no real reason (except I knew each season was a standalone) and I am so glad I did, because I liked it a lot better than Series 1. While I think Series 1 is good, with a high quality of production, writing, casting and acting, I might not have watched the second series, which would have been too bad since it resonated much more deeply with me.

Season 1 takes place in France, where a vacationing British family – mom, dad and six year old son Oliver – get stranded in a town during the World Cup Week in 2006 when their rental car breaks. The dad and the boy go out for a day of fun at the municipal swimming pool. They decide to get beverages after, so they walk over to the refreshment stand, which is jammed with people watching a cup match. In the jostling, cheering, drunken crowd, the father lets go of the Oliver’s hand for a minute, trying to get the counter person’s attention. When he looks down, the little boy has vanished.

In the present tense, the father, Tony thinks he’s discovered a new lead in the present day. Baptiste shows up to help him. We learn that the couple has divorced and the mother is remarrying. We learn through flashbacks that a prominent man in the town’s community in 2006, someone very rich, was part of a child-molester ring. He disappeared in 2006. The evidence continues to mount that Oliver was taken by a trafficking ring. At the end, the writers give us a twist, which is satisfying but emotionally open-ended, because the father, Tony, does not believe the resolution. At the end he is still searching.

It’s well written and nicely filmed, and the story was topical. The stories of various characters, not just the parents and the detective, were quite good. There were just enough red herrings. All that said, it was a male-centric show and the portrayal of the father as a man who solves his problems with his fists (although he’s never been violent toward his wife or child, apparently) got to be old-hat for me.

The showrunners introduced a character I thought was daring and thoughtful; a young man who is a pedophile but not a child-molester. He struggles against his desires all the time. Of course, early on he is brought in as a suspect. He is beaten up by the father not once but twice. His arc was one of the more interesting, as he tries to fit into a society that rejects him. The actor playing him is convincing and brave. His story ending made me think I’d fallen in to a mid-Victorian fallen-woman novel. I understand why Vincent might choose to do what he did, and I think the writers are making a point… but I wish we were advanced enough that this character could have had a resolution that rewarded his courage.

So, it was solid, well-written, thoughtful television that I admired but did not love.

Series 2 goes in a very different direction. Set on a British military base in Germany, it starts when a young woman who was abducted as a girl eleven years earlier returns to her home town, wearing pajamas and nearly dead from a ruptured appendix. Her family is shocked, thrilled, unbelieving and then completely believing. Alice Webster recovers from emergency surgery and returns to their home, after mentioning in a delirious state the name of another young woman, Sophie Giroux, a French girl who was abducted before she was and never found. And yet she will say very little (or nothing) about what happened to her.

Gabriel Baptiste, now retired, comes to the German town to interview her about the missing French girl. This starts him on a quest that will lead him from Germany to the Iraqi border. In the meantime, Alice identifies a local butcher as the man who abducted her. The butcher is a hobbyist birder, often gone for an entire day or weekend, with no alibi for eleven years earlier, and every time he produces a fact that should exonerate him, another bit of damaging evidence appears.


Gemma, Alice’s mother, begins to doubt that the young woman is who she says she is.

Alice insists on sleeping in a storage shed on the property. She says it’s the only place she feels safe, and begs her brother to lock her in each night. It’s easy to see this as a reaction to nearly a decade of imprisonment… and it’s not hard to see where this is going.

This story focuses on the returned girl, the mother, a woman military police detective, and the military detective’s father who is a brigadier. The Iraq connection is (intentionally) baffling at first but becomes clearer and clearer. The army police officer, Eve, is a complicated character who does things that are good and things that are bad, and we do begin to understand her.

One of the best performances in the series is given by Roger Allam, who plays Brigadier Adrian Stone. Allam is an actor of vast experience, and the layers this character slows us are a perfect fit. He can deliver a whole soliloquy with one look. Gemma (Keeley Hawes) and Eve (Laura Fraser) interact and intersect in fascinating ways. A great deal of the suspense of this story rests on the shoulders of Alice, and Abigail Hardingham convinces.

The common thread in both series is Baptiste, played by the Polish action Tcheky Karyo. (The first name is apparently pronounced roughly like “Jacky”). Karyo is capable of playing a man of great quiet; a man who listens, who can draw on a deep well of compassion. At the same time, in Series 2 he grows increasingly urgent, and when the reason is revealed, we share that urgency.

In both series, the showrunners make an interesting choice to remove Baptiste from his official position as a detective. This means that he has little or no legitimate authority; he must rely on other means to get information. (In Series 1, Oliver’s parents, now separated, buy information from an informant in one scene.) Baptiste can manipulate or cajole local law enforcement into helping him based on his formidable reputation, but really, not much more than that. This is where Baptiste’s ability to listen comes in. He knows that most people want to tell their story, want to be heard.

The resolution of Series 2 seems, at first glance, less “realistic” than Series 1 – on second glance, in the past few years we’ve had several news stories that support the plot wrap-up the writers chose. I rolled my eyes at the somewhat sexist element that “a mother will always know her child,” and Gemma’s almost mystical insistence, in the face of all the facts (including DNA) that Alice might not really be Alice. These are quibbles. The extremes these characters went to, good and bad, on the strength of their motivations, was compelling and believable in the moment. Whether it’s love of family, revenge, solidarity during wartime, or self-protection, people are often driven by impulses they don’t even consciously acknowledge, and that was well delineated here.

I hope there is a Series 3 because I want to watch it.


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Public Readings.

In early March I attended FOGCon in Walnut Creek California. One thing I always attend at FOGCon are author readings.

In one session, I heard a writer named Matt Maxwell read from his independently published novel Queen of No Tomorrows. I hadn’t seen the book in the dealers room (because it wasn’t there). I was intrigued by the section he read. I bought a signed book from him after the reading.

Matt Maxwell made a sale he would not otherwise have made, because he participated in a public reading.

I’m a big fan of public readings.

You’re probably not, because if you love writing and reading, you are probably an introvert. You probably love to attend other folks’ readings, but the thought of reading out loud to a group of strangers gets your mouth dry, your heart racketing around in your chest like a bird trapped in a closet, and your neck muscles tight. And that’s perfectly normal.

And you can get over it.

I recommend reading your work in public when you can.

See Paragraph Three above. Maxwell sold me a book. He would not otherwise have sold me a book, because I hadn’t seen it, and I would not necessarily have found it on Amazon because I wouldn’t have gone looking.

We may be introverts, but these days any creative act contains a growing element of performance. The public expects more than a wonderful story from you; they expect to see a bit of your process, to know what you think about things. They may not have the right to those things, but it’s what they expect. A public reading gives them a bit of that.

You get a perspective on your work that you don’t normally have. (Frankly, reading parts of your work out loud to yourself is a great idea, just to hear how it flows. Or doesn’t flow.)

Readers and potentials buyers of your work can now put a face with the name, and they have probably decided that they like you. This means they are predisposed to buy your work.

You’ll meet other writers and make friends.

Where to read?

Any writers workshop, conference or convention that offers “open mike” readings for emerging writers is a good place to start. You want a place with an audience who wants to hear you. Writers conferences have the benefit of being filled with other writers who are as nervous as you are. Unless you already like performance and are competitive, things like poetry slams are probably not a good starting places, although they are fun events in themselves.

Some conventions, like FOGCon, have three people read during one session. This gives you benefit of reading with other writers. That way you’re not up there all alone.

Some NaNoWriMo local groups host readings, in December, to celebrate people’s November achievements. Clubs like the California Writers Club host readings, usually limited to members for obvious reasons. NaNoWriMo readings are usually not limited.

If your local independent bookstore has a writing group, they may also offer reading events. It’s worth a call or a visit to their website.

Preparing:

Find out if the place has a time-limit (most do). If they do, honor it. First of all, that’s just respectful. Secondly, some places are strict to the point of meanness in enforcing the time limit, and you don’t want to get gonged off the stage. Lastly, and probably most important, you won’t like it when another participant hogs the mic and cuts into your time, so don’t do that to someone else.

Practice your work at home. I practice in front of a mirror and with a timer. This allows me to look up from the work now and then to make eye contact with audience members. It lets me decide where the pauses and inflections go, and it drains away some of the nervousness.

You can also practice on your writers group, which should be about the safest place to practice after your bathroom mirror.

Decide on your media in advance. If you’re reading from your phone, let your text-happy friends know the date and time, so they don’t text you in the midst of your performance. True story: N.K. Jemisin was reading her acceptance speech for her second Best Novel Hugo from her phone and finally she looked up and said, “Stop texting me!” If you are reading from paper, and you are at all near-sighted, print it out in a larger font. Give yourself a break, in other words.

Know your equipment. (Easier said than done, sometimes.) If you are expected to use a microphone, make sure you can turn it on/off and hold it easily while holding reading media in the other hand. Juggling a microphone and a tablet, swiping down when you need to, isn’t that easy. Does the venue have a table or a podium?  Do a mini sound-check if you can. The others reading with you will probably appreciate this too.

If you know who you will be reading with, reach out to them and introduce yourself in advance. You’ll all feel more comfortable. If you are all inclined, you can even do some planning and decide who’s reading first and other nuts-and-bolts details.

Some Stray Thoughts:

Here’s a weird one; you don’t have to read every word on the page. I don’t recommend wholesale editing while reading, but for example, I write a lot of dialogue. On the page, I’m very comfortable with “said” because the human eye slips over it. Read aloud, it’s brutally monotonous. Reading aloud, I can skip those, and you can too.

Do you need to create different voices and accents for your characters if there is dialogue? I don’t think so. If the writer is good at that, it can be fun. If the writer is not as good at that as they think they are, it is terribly distracting. Ask your friends who’ve heard you tell stories what they think. Here’s a tip. Do not say, “Do you think I’m good at accents?” Instead ask, “What do you think about me doing a French accent for Gigi in my reading?” This allows them to be honest without possibly hurting your feelings.

I have a friend who grew up in North Carolina. She’s been in California for decades and in regular speech her accent is a mere wisp. When she shifts into storytelling mode, it glides back into her words. It is great. I would love to hear her read from her fiction with that honeyed accent.

If you know the people you’re reading with, avoid (if you can) those rare souls who are cutthroat competitive. Do not choose to read with the person who makes jokes at the expense of their co-readers, or who takes it upon themselves to offer a critique after another person has read. That’s not the purpose of a public reading.

You probably can’t do anything about that person in the audience who feels compelled to give unsolicited feedback, but that’s the way it goes.

What if no one shows up? That happens to big-name, established writers at bookstore events sometimes. Things happen. Weather, outside events, or location confusion all have an impact. It’s not personal.

If you have one person in the room, you have a chance to make a new friend and a new fan. If there are three of you reading and three audience members, you’ve achieved parity. Congratulations!

On the other hand, pack the reading with friends and supporters if you can, just as you will go to their readings to support them. My first time reading at FOGCon, one writer asked to go first. After she finished about six people politely, quietly stood up and left. We, the readers, all knew why. They had come to hear her, but there was a panel they wanted to attend at the same time. That’s completely fair.

Don’t worry about being nervous. These audiences understand that.

Have a good time.




Posted in Thoughts about Writing | 2 Comments

About the Barlow

Tuesday, February 26, 2019, the Barlow, a relatively new shopping district in Sebastopol, flooded badly, closing businesses for several days, some maybe permanently. Many other parts of the west county flooded too, like Guerneville and Rio Nido. It was a reminder that, in a wet cycle, many of us live in the lowlands, close to sources of water, and those are areas that flood.

The Barlow is largely reopened, with merchants springing back, showing the kind of resiliency we’re getting used to seeing in Sonoma County. But what happened there was pretty dramatic. How did it happen? I’m not an expert, but I have some thoughts about the contributing factors.

Slow moving storm.  The storm that caused the flooding hovered over Sonoma and Mendocino counties for several hours, dropping tons of water. With a faster-moving storm, possibly some of the volume would have run off or been absorbed. With it parked, the water could not sink in faster than it was falling from the sky.

A silted-up laguna. The Laguna de Santa Rosa is a meandering waterway and wetlands system that provides drainage for a large area. Over the past several years, natural silting has taken place. The fires of 2017 meant more runoff in the winter of 2017/2018, accelerating the silting process. And it’s possible that the proliferation of vineyards dumped more dirt into the waterway.

The fires. Fires took trees whose roots usually hold only soil and water during the wet season. Those trees are gone; nothing holds the water or the dirt in place.

The Barlow was built in a flood plain. The Barlow was built in a lowland area bordering the laguna. Many years ago, the Army Corps of Engineers built up the west bank of the laguna along Morris Street to Bodega Highway, and, a bit farther north, they built up the other side of the street. The area where the Community Center is, and the eastern approach to the Barlow, was left at the original low level. Basically, this creates a broad channel for the water to follow. That low spot, that channel, leads right into the Barlow.

Several original buildings in the Barlow district did not flood. This is because they are built up higher than the newer buildings. Back when these were cannery and warehouse spaces, the locals all knew the flood risk and took steps to mitigate it. The developer who created the Barlow either could not afford or did not care to build up the foundations for the new buildings and the City Council did not require it.

The flood doors weren’t accessible. The City Council approved a plan that involved merchants attaching waterproof “flood doors” to their own doors if flooding was likely. According to the Press Democrat, the Council approved a plan that took 50 people 12 hours to fully “flood-proof” the complex. This is a completely non-scientific calculation; I think that means it would take two people 12 hours to correctly install the doors on one storefront.

During last month’s flood, by the time some merchants realized they needed to be installing flood doors, the area where their doors were stored was already inaccessible because of flooding. You will notice I said “their doors.” With these flood doors, one size does not fit all. Merchants had to be able to identify, retrieve and install their specific doors, and this was not possible. In a couple of cases, the particular merchant could get into the storage room, but their doors were blocked behind several other sets of doors.

We’ve forgotten about floods. I think this is an actual factor. We had six years of drought. Many folks just forgot how frequently certain areas in Sonoma County flood. When the Barlow was being built, I had a man in a local store tell me that area “had never flooded,” so clearly he wasn’t here in, for example, 1986, when the water rose all the way onto Main Street. But, to be fair, 1986 was a long time ago.

I never liked the Barlow project. I thought it was ill-conceived and badly located, and while it was being pushed through, the city council was fighting tooth and nail to stop another project across the street because it was owned by a Bad Corporation Nobody Likes. Watching the “You Shall Not Pass” struggle in contrast to the red carpet, champagne and flowers approach to the project being built in a flood plain was a chance to watch the very worst of small-town politics, all the hypocrisy and favoritism we hope our hometowns can rise above. All that said, I have nothing against the merchants in the Barlow, and I like many of the shops. And good project or bad project, those merchants are part of the community now.

And many of them are back. If you live in the west county, check them out. Check out some of the really good restaurants if they’re open. There are a couple of micro-breweries, a cheese-monger and some ice cream places. There’s a toy store. Spend your money there. And let’s watch closely to see what the absentee landlords and the city council decide to do to improve the safety of that area before the next rainy season.

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