Educated by Tara Westover

I thought Tara Westover’s memoir Educated would be the uplifting story of a plucky backwoods home-schooled girl who got a PhD in history from Cambridge. That story is in there, but Educated is more about a woman who clawed her way out of an abusive “apocalypse prepper” family, losing most of that family in the process. In spite of some emotionally difficult subject matter, I recommend Educated. Westover’s narrative voice balances the bleakness of this story.

There are so many themes explored here, but patriarchy, abuse and dysfunctional family systems stood out for me. I used to work in Child Protective Services, so that may be why. Certainly there is a positive message gleaned from this book. The strength of will Tara and her two brothers (of seven children total) needed to survive in this household helped them persevere to get an education. It’s a steep price to pay, though.

Tara’s family lives in Idaho. They are seriously isolated. Her father is a survivalist-type.  Tara begins to lose faith in him when the world does not end on New Year’s Day, 2000. All of the children are “home-schooled” but it’s hard to see what kind of an education they do get. The father runs a scrapyard and does construction; the mother makes herbal tinctures and acts as a midwife. Tara and two of her brothers all suffer near-fatal accidents working with the scrap. It’s not because the father is cruel or sinister. It’s because he is neglectful of and ignorant of his own equipment (he nearly kills himself); and “…[b]ecause Dad always put faith ahead of safety. Because he believed himself right, and he kept on believing himself right – after the first car crash, after the second, after the bin, the fire, the pallet. And it was us who paid.”

The father’s religion is personal and idiosyncratic, ranging far beyond the beliefs of the organized church that he identifies with.  Certainly the family developed a system that devalued the female children even more than it devalued all the children, which seems like a recurrent theme in patriarchal religions. When Tara and her sister are bullied and terrorized by a violent brother, the parents do nothing, even when the abuse escalates to broken bones and choking. Years later, when Tara is attending college and returning on holidays, she breaks her silence and talks to her father about her brother’s violence. Her parents’ reaction is blood-chillingly terrifying, and very familiar to anyone who has worked with families where violence or sexual abuse is occurring.

Westover makes some points about memory via asterisked comments and footnotes. She compares her memories of traumatic events with the family members with whom she still has contact, and no one remembers any incident the same way. That also came as no surprise. Living in a state of trauma affects memory development and storage, and in this case the two adults present had a vested interest in making sure what actually happened was not revealed or discussed.

The book also depicts Tara coming out of this prison of a life into the world, and she does that beautifully and unsentimentally. Westover does not take it easy on herself her. In fact, if anything, some of the messages inculcated from infancy still come through, and Westover seems unable to give herself any credit for what she’s achieved and how far she’s come.

Educated is difficult to read in spots, but worth it. Westover sees clearly where she has come from, and how far she has come. She knows she has lost a family she still loves and she mourns that loss, but she doesn’t regret it, because she gained the world.

UPDATE:

Speaking of crazy-making families, and distorting things, here is a response from the lawyers of Westover’s family. I’d like to note a couple of things from my reading of the book. Westover never, to my recollection, says her father has schizophrenia. When she talks to people at college about his behavior, one of them says it sounds like   he might have schizophrenia.  Tara describes seeing her mother’s untreated head injury and the resulting behavior changes, and her mother’s gradual improvement over the years. She also discusses a “muscle knowledge” technique her mother uses. I don’t recall her saying her mother lost motor skills.

Apparently the people who left comments on this article agree with me more than they agree with the lawyer quoted.

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Update on a Writing Project

I got edits and rewrite requests back from one editor the day before yesterday. She’s so smooth. She’s got that classic good editor thing going on. It goes like this, “I love this! It’s really good, just what I wanted. I have a few small changes to suggest…” and then you open the document and it’s like WHAAAAAAAAAA….

Not really. In her email she made two suggestions. I can do both of them easily and pretty quickly if I decide they serve the story. And, to be honest, I haven’t opened the document yet because I’m working on another longer project that I wanted to get to the ending of, and I didn’t want to split my focus just yet. I have reached the ending of the that project– I did it today, on what I would call a zero draft of a rewrite. It gets my attention for the rest of this week. Then I will tackle the revisions.

The editor asked if I could have the changes done by August 11. She was giving me a month. My first reaction was “EEEE! No! Not possible!  What do you want from me!” And once I got past that and calmed down, I decided a month was pretty reasonable… of course, I haven’t looked at her line-by-line edits yet. I may go back to screaming… or at least send her an email that I need an extension.

This must be what established writers do all the time.

Anyway, that’s my report.

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Naming Conventions; What They Are, What They Signal

I was thinking about fantasy naming conventions this morning because I just finished a second-world fantasy that didn’t have one. One group of people had a certain style of name. (Mostly the writer stuck a random letter Y into various words.) Otherwise, names were vaguely familiar and ranged all over the linguistic map. This was an isolated society with little to no contact with other groups of humans, and some names included:

  • Persephone – a name of Roman/Greek origin
  • Maeve – a Celtic name
  • Suri – a version of an ancient name from the people of Apple, meaning “she who voices your iPhone”
  • Malcolm – probably Scottish

The book was entertaining, and the lack of a naming convention sent the reader a signal. That signal was; this is a book that wants to have tricks, sword fights, magical battles, chase scenes and snappy banter and it really doesn’t care about the world those things are set within.

My insight today was that this is not a failing of a writer, because the writer doesn’t care. It’s a signal, the way the cover illustration is a signal. It’s a choice. And as with the cover, the wrong choice, or a mistake, sends the wrong signal.

As a basis of comparison, I couldn’t help but think about Katherine Addison’s book The Goblin Emperor, where a naive young heir comes to power (through a fluke, almost) in a stratified, hierarchical and rigid society. Names mattered in Maia’s world. They mattered so much that the writer had to include an appendix that explained the conventions and he honorifics. For some readers, that rigid naming convention was an impediment. One thing, though, no one was confused about the type of world they were in. I sure wasn’t. I knew early on that no character who inhabited Maia’s world was going to deliver a Buffy-the-Vampire-Slayer quip, or say, “Swipe Left,” to a suggestion.

In a completely different flavor, Ada Palmer’s TERRA IGNOTA tetralogy uses names to a very specific purpose as well. It’s a world in which almost any name can and does exist, but who has those names is what’s important. Once again, even during those long stretches where you’re clinging onto this philosophical roller-coaster of a story by your fingernails, you understand what kind of a world you’re in.

I think you have to decide early in your work whether you think names matter. It has to be a decision. If you want to write a fun, splashy, actiony adventure with snappy modern banter and plenty of popular culture references set again a generalized sword-and-sorcery background, go for it! Just please don’t pretend that you invested hours of work in conceiving an organic, layered, detailed world, because you didn’t. If you are going to spend days on the geography of your world, on the weapon-making, on the political system(s), the religious systems, the geology and so on, you have to spend time on the names. And the names should not upend what you’ve told us about the rest of your world.

If the tiny mountain-bound kingdom of Metalmorium has a queen named Platinuma, whose counselor is called Ferris and whose man-at-arms is Cupric, and some guy named Skippy bounds onto the stage, you’d better have a reason, that’s all I’m saying.

As a reader, here’s why I react to these generalized names. You’ve given me a world with no gunpowder-and-projectile weapons, no harnessed electricity and so on. And I want to believe you, but if you can have someone named Skippy, why can’t you have pulse weapons? If the ruling family of your slightly-Roman city-state has names like Aestur, Callox, Aluria and Josephine, why don’t they have harquebuses at least? And who the hell is Josephine?

America is a great place to live but it’s not a good place to learn about naming conventions, because we are a nation of immigrants and we’ve got names from all over. And that’s something you need to consider in your world. An isolated society probably won’t have a lot of different-sounding names. A society that lives in a robust trading center, or has major ports, should see real diversity in names.

To look at the functions names serve culturally, you could look at some specific earth-based naming conventions. Here are some easy ones. Look at Icelandic names. Iceland is opening up to more people but it is a small county and was genetically homogeneous for a long time. Read up on how the surname suffixes of -dottir or -sson work. Check out Spanish names, where among the aristocratic classes the family names of both parents were brought in. Think about your own last name. Did it come from your father? Imagine our world, only with your last name including the names of your father and mother. Would we be a different society if Alex Jones was Alex Brown- Jones? How would we be different? What if a last name included the state you were born in? What kind of a world would Alex North Dakota Brown-Jones live in? How would you fit that on a driver’s license?

Look at societies where the surname or family name comes first. Does that tell you something about the values of that society? Can you use that to depict a value in your world?

Do characters in your world have only one name? What does that signify?

And after all that, you decide that you really do want Skippy the Awesome-thewed Barbarian Warrior to bound into the throne room and fight for Queen Platinuma against the evil wizard Tin-Tin, then you go. Have a great time. Just be sure you’re doing it deliberately.

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Westworld; I’m Swiping Left

I watched the entire first season of HBO’S Westworld, plus the second season opener, just to give it a thorough chance. This show is not for me. It’s not only not for me, I don’t see why the fans who love it find so compelling. I know that nothing pleases everyone, but geez, you guys. Really?

Ultimately, I think, a big problem with Westworld, for me, at least, came down to one or two crucial characters.  Particularly,  I believe that you have to engage with Dolores in order to accept everything else that happens in Westworld, and she was least engaging character. I said this on Twitter and several people leaped in to say, “Well, you don’t have to like a character…” etc. The question is not likability. It’s engagement. Dolores was not compelling.

Because I wasn’t compelled by Dolores, and because the story of William was so predictable and cliched from Episode Two, that gave me time to look around and notice all  the stuff that wasn’t clear, that was inconsistent, that was lazy world-building. As Season One progressed things started seeming strangely familiar, and not in a good way. The show started reminding me of a TV show I had loved that completely fell apart over the course of five seasons. Westworld is everything that went wrong with Lost, only with robots. To Lost’s credit, it’s going wrong with Westworld much faster. There was at least one good season of Lost.

Before I get to Dolores, Bernard and William, let’s talk about a few other tiny problems that make Westworld implausible from in-world. First, a summary of the overarching storyline.

Westworld is one of six super-high-end theme parks, “peopled” with nearly-human robots called Hosts. Hosts are programmed with narratives, backstories and little personality quirks, and programmed not to kill people their code reads as human. They can be killed, though. They can be killed, tortured, raped, disfigured and so on, and of course that’s what many billionaire humans come to Westworld to do. (It’s a metaphor!) The Hosts are rebuilt and their memories wiped after each “narrative;” but somehow, some of them are beginning to remember.

There were two scientists who created the Hosts; Robert Ford (an infamous Western name) and his partner Arnold. Arnold is dead* in a not-mysterious way, but Ford is still around, tinkering with his creations and “improving them,” although members of the Board of Directors of the Delos Corporation who own the parks are uneasy with his improvements. And those improvements are resulting in the anomalous behavior that is disturbing some of the Guests.

Hosts can be killed, and the guns the Guests are given are real guns with real bullets but they are also programmed not to kill “humans.” Rocks, knives, clubs and garrots are not so easy to program, however, and it seems like human-on-human violence/murder would be a big deal at this park. Who would ever insure this place? No one cares, however, because Ford’s tweaking with the Hosts has awakened a number of them to their “true nature.” We should all be getting a bad feeling about this.

(In case you missed it; the slaves are uprising, and they have guns. Guns whose programming can be changed. Ooooooh! Look out, rich people. The Hosts are coming, and they are pissed.)

What didn’t work in Season One:

No Surprises: In Episode One we meet Bernard, the head of Behavioralism. In Ep Two, something about Bernard is billboarded to the audience. At least, it seemed like a billboard to me. I assumed that everyone in the park knew this thing about him, except him. In fact, I thought the fact that he didn’t know was the Plot Twist. But no… in Episode Eight the perfectly obvious thing is framed as a Reveal. To my credit, I didn’t yawn. Another not-surprise; the identify of the dreaded (human) Man in Black. Once you realized where William’s story was going, and that was obvious pretty quickly, it became pretty clear who the Man in Black would be (and it’s not Johnny Cash).

Non-Linear Storytelling: The only way they can make Dolores’s story work is to tell it in a non-linear fashion without us realizing it was non-linear. To some extent, that worked for me, except by about Ep Seven I was going, “Well, when did this happen? Is this another one of her fugues/flashbacks?” So not completely successful. Once again, the Dreadful Secret of Dolores (she did a thing Hosts can’t do!) was increasingly obvious and thus fell flat.

The Not So Secret Project: Nobody would ever insure this train wreck of a theme park, but the Delos Corporation doesn’t care because it’s really using the Hosts and the Guests to gather data for A Secret Project! Uber-wealthy humans! Programmable robots who are indestructible (or at least rebuilt); capable of human interactions and emotions! And memories! I wonder what the secret project could possibly be.

Bad Writing: Look no further than William’s guide through Westworld Park, Delos scion Logan. Logan exists solely to render into text any possible subtext the tale might have. “Of course you can rape her! She’s a robot! It’s what she’s here for!” and, “You can do whatever you want here, that’s the fun!” or, “Oh, dude, you’re falling for her. She doesn’t love you, she’s just programmed that way.” You know, in case we missed any of that.

Or, look at the two lab-nerds who agree to help another host, Maeve, and how paper-thin their motivations are. Or better yet, don’t look. Look away.

And then, Dolores. Dolores is the oldest Host in the park, the first one built, the brainchild (like Athena) of dead Secret God Arnold. You wouldn’t know it because she looks about twenty-four and is the Rancher’s Virginal Daughter. We know she’s Virginal because half the time she wears Virgin Mary blue. I was talking about the show and my friend Margaret said, “Is she the one who’s raped all the time?” and I had to think about it. “I think she’s only raped on screen a couple of times, but they keep showing it over and over,” I said. We do know she’s raped off-screen. All the time. Because, you know, she’s pure and virginal.

However, Dolores is… awakening. (Cue the dun-dun DUUUUUUN music.)

It might be the actress, but Dolores is wooden to me. I know she’s a robot, but she isn’t supposed to be robotic. When she starts to Awaken, or whatever, she intersperses her boringness with moments of passionate… something. Questions, I guess. Existential angst. Whatever.

Maeve, another character, who occupies the role of (wait for it…) whorehouse madam, is also awakening. It may just be Thandie Newton, but for some reason Maeve’s awakening is more compelling. With Maeve, I’m with her when she is sitting on a train looking at a human mother and her child. Is Maeve a product of her programming? Are we all just projects of our programming, even our biological programming?

(And what kind of a parent brings their child to a “park” where people kill people for fun?)

What worked in Season One:

Sets and scenery: I had lots of time to admire the scenery. It’s mostly filmed in Utah, and the sweeping vistas and red rock formations are lovely as always. The mesa –Park Central– is clever.

Elsie: For the five minutes she was around, I liked Elsie. I hear she’s back though.

Costumes: Wow, those dirt-cheap frontier prostitutes rock some pretty nice gladrags, and great jewelry! And strangely-spiritual bandit Hector Escaton (notice how close that is to “eschaton?”) has the world’s best hat. I’d love to cosplay him just for that hat.

The music:  Hands down, the music is great. I love the various themes.

Acting: Anthony Hopkins and Thandie Newton can’t save the show, but hey, points for trying.

The show claims it is trying to answer, or maybe just ask, the question “who is a person?” They’re trying to do something different, maybe. For me, their effort results in a epic fail. For me, it’s not “What makes a person?” It’s “If these guys are people, why should I care?”

If you want a piece of fiction that explores “who is a person?” much more thoroughly, read Annalee Newitz’s novel Autonomous, and skip Westworld.

 

*Or is he?

 

 

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To Outline or Not to Outline

Some of us work without a net.

Some of us work without a net.

Outline versus discover. Execute versus imagine. Planner versus “pantser” (short for “seat of the pants”); all of these are ways of saying that some writers diligently outline their work before they write it down, and some plunge into prose on the page and see where the story leads them.

I have to be different, so I do both.

(“Whaaat?”)

I usually know the ending before I start writing. Until very recently I would have said I always knew the ending before I started, but I just submitted something where, for the early parts of the story, I had no idea how it was going to resolve. I had something in my head like “Working together, they beat the bad guy.” (Newsflash; that’s not “knowing the ending.”)

"Discovery" sounds much more romantic than "I don't have clue what I'm doing."

“Discovery” sounds much more romantic than “I don’t have clue what I’m doing.”

Usually I write what I call a “discovery draft” when I want to be fancy, or a “zero draft” (as in, “so rudimentary it’s not even a first draft”) if I’m being honest. I (almost) always have a character in mind, and as I said, the ending. Or a reasonable facsimile thereof. I write it to see what happens.Then I have to turn that morass of scenes and ideas into a coherent story, preferably with a plot. I still don’t turn to anything resembling an outline at this point to begin with, but while I’m working on this point I start to realize that I need a way to maintain the shape of the story at a basic level. How long are the chapters? Is the story broken up into parts of sections that are larger than chapters? This is when I make an outline, and it’s a chapter outline.

I create a table that has the chapter number, starting and ending page numbers and a brief statement of what happens in the chapter. This tells me some things right away. In the piece I’m working on now, I have one chapter that is disproportionately short. That will need to get fixed.

The one or two-liner about what happens is helpful too, although it can be misleading. If, however, I have a fifteen-page chapter and my one-sentence summary is “We meet the cook and the housemaid,” then I may have a problem. (I may not, if the cook and the housemaid are vital characters, but you get the drift.) If my eight-page chapter has seven things worthy of note, then probably things are rushed there.

Outlining-- how hard can it be?

Outlining– how hard can it be?

My friend Margaret has a novel that takes place over a middle-school academic year. She did a variation of this. She made a “day runner” for her main character. She used the in-story-timeline. For example, the page marked September 10 might say, “Jamie goes to the new school and is introduced to her teachers.” September 13th might say, “Jamie meets Brad the bully.” This works roughly the same way my outline works, especially when she has to plot jumps in time. “Jamie goes to class. Jamie goes to dance class. Jamie does homework,” might tell the writer that this can be summarized into “Over the next few weeks Jamie settled in. She got used to doing homework again and she loved her dance class.” Or, if Bully Brad is dogging Jamie’s steps at every turn, then drawing out those activities may be useful.

This is all about giving the writer a way to see the work and a way to plan the work.

I say I don’t outline, but that doesn’t mean I don’t write about the work in ways that will never show up in the prose. I’m the first one to sit down at a writing session and start with, “Why wouldn’t the villain just call Mortimer and ask him what happened? How does Narcissa know about the illicit drug trade when she’s clear across town? Wait– what if she used to date Mortimer? Eww, no. Narcissa used to babysit Mortimer’s kids, and that’s how she knows!” I do hope my actual plotting is better than that.

The chapter outline helps in other ways too. Specifically, it helps me get the chapter numbers right. I’m great for having three Chapter Threes and no Chapter Nine. Embarrassing as this is, I forget things about my characters, too, like what color eyes they have. In the portal fantasy I worked on last year, a secondary character was restoring an antique car. He painted it specific color, and that color was either a dark teal green or burgundy. I changed it along the way and now I never remember. I put that in the chapter notes for the chapter where see him working on the car. (It’s teal.)

I’m of the “whatever works” school of writing, but when it comes to Outline vs Discover, I think I’d call myself a pantser with a backup plan.

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Cover me! I’m Goin’ In!

I’m starting to query agents.

Of course, we all know that I shouldn’t have to search for agents. They should be flocking to me. In a just world, they’d be filling up my email, bringing me coffee drinks and flowers, trying to win my signature on a contract. Or, wait… maybe that’s publishers. Yeah, that’s what publishers should be doing.

(We end this pleasant fantasy and return to our original post already in progress.)

I started by looking in the Acknowledgments and Afterwords sections of books by writers I admire. Many of them thank their agents. Where I didn’t have a book where they’d done that (like, Book Three of a trilogy) I did an internet search. About 90% of the time I found the agent.

Then I went to the agency’s website and made of a list of agents who represented the writers I liked. I also made a list of other agents at that agency who repped speculative fiction, making a note of who was open to submissions. I also bookmarked the pages, of course, and took notes of what kind of query they wanted. Even within the same agency, agents don’t want to see the same things.

Then I hit the library for a review of the Literary Market Place to add in a few more agencies. This was not as helpful as I’d thought it would be. I started off with fifteen total and after I’d looked on the websites I’d narrowed that to ten I will query.

Since then I’ve found a couple other databases that might yield some more names. Poets and Writers has a database on their site here. It seems to be alphabetical by name only, with very little detail, but it’s a good starting point.

Some agents I’m interested in are closed to new clients right now but might be opening up for submissions later in the summer. I’ve added them to the list.

*

Then I made a table in Word. (Why a table? Because Excel is hard for me and it feels like an obstacle to everything I want to do.)

The three agents who represent three of my favorite writers work at one agency. I sent my first query out today, to one of them, because it seemed like bad form to query them all at once. I certainly do plan to query the other two.

I queried two other agents at different agencies, and I told them I was reaching out to other agents.

The whole process is like a puzzle game in the style of movie or television shows like American Treasure or The Librarians. There are mazes and puzzles and one misstep will get you evicted, the gates slammed shut against you. I could take that as a challenge. I guess I should take that as a challenge.

Wish me luck!

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Lily, is That You?

While I was in Cassadaga Microsoft, with the respect for the biological end user that is a hallmark of its brand, informed me that no, I was not going to use my baby laptop, because Microsoft was going to install an upgrade. Right then. I left it plugged in and went downstairs to Arthur’s Bar in the hotel, and listened to the two singer-musicians of Dueling Pianos. My evening, therefore, was actually more fun than if I’d written a blog post right then.

The upgrade, to all intents and purposes, went fine, although it did not fix the problem I had with photos. The laptop got powered down and put away and I didn’t use it again while I was in the camp.

My room at the St Francis Inn was on the third floor. The third floor was not original to the building which was built during the first Spanish period. Sometime much later, in the 1800s, an owner added the third floor. The stairs were a workout, especially my first night there when I was hauling my luggage up them.

The name of my room was Lily’s room. It was beautiful and comfortable, with a view overlooking the courtyard (where I spent nearly every other evening I was there) and a view of St George Street and the house across the street which was part of the St. Francis Inn. There was a quilt the color of unbleached muslin with green embroidery on the bed. About ten thirty, Florida time, I pulled out the laptop, powered it up and checked email. All was quiet on the home front. I closed the laptop, leaving it on and plugged in, and put it on the built-in shelf that was next to the bed. My email program was open to the In Box page.

The room was comfortable but in one area it was not conveniently set up. There was no actual bedside table or space. My glasses and phone were on a little circular table by the window, not easily reachable from the bed, and the built-in shelf was more than an arm’s length from the bed. This configuration had a lot to do with the shape of the space and the desire to add a full bath to the space itself. I’m just saying. I wrote in my travel journal for a bit, turned out the light, and after a while I went to sleep.

At 11:50 pm I woke up because a computer voice was talking to me. I floundered up toward wakefulness. At first I thought it was my phone, but by the time I was fully awake I knew it wasn’t. It wasn’t an alert or an alarm. It was a spam e-mail, being read to me by a computer voice.

I crawled across the bed and swung my feet over the side, banging my toe into the wall. That hurt. It didn’t change my state of consciousness. I didn’t “wake up” when I hit my toe, and now it was even more obvious that the voice was coming from the laptop and was reading me an email begging for money, courtesy of the Democratic Campaign Committee. That was the most annoying part of the whole story.

I grabbed the laptop and opened it up. Sure enough, it opened right up to a DCC email, and each word was being highlighted as the annoying voice droned on. I clicked on it to shut it down. I clapped the computer shut and tossed it back on the shelf. I went back to bed and lay awake, looking at the ceiling, waiting the bloody thing out in case it decided to start up again, but it didn’t and finally I fell asleep.

In the morning my toe still hurt. I looked on the PC to see if I’d dreamed the whole incident (except the toe seemed evidence against that theory) and there was the offending email. I also noticed, then, a new choice on my menu bar; “Read Aloud Speech.”

I noted down this weird incident in my journal, powered down the laptop and set out to do Fun and Educational Things. As the days went by I forgot about the near-midnight read-aloud session.

My last night there I thought I’d leave a nice review on TripAdvisor. I wanted to check a few things, so I went to the inn’s website. At home, I’d been to the inn’s website at least three times. This time when I opened it on the little laptop, the page that came up was not the home page. The page I got said, “Inn’s Ghosts.” The very first example was the ghost of a young woman named… Lily. I was staying in Lily’s room.

*

When I went on the spirit photography tour in Cassadaga, Dawn, our guide, gave a long talk about the nature of spirits as the Church of Spiritualism sees it. “Energy is never destroyed; it is transformed,” she said. They believe the current personality, as well as our electrical energy, continues after our biological body dies. Energy, Dawn said, – who was pretty darned energetic herself, pacing around the room, shifting from side to side as she talked – is drawn to energy, so spirits are drawn to other electrical energy. They like cell phones and flashlights, radios, televisions and electric lights. This is why lights often flicker in haunted places, or radios will come on with no one near them, or will change stations apparently on their own.

Or, maybe, a laptop computer will start reading an email out loud for no reason.

*

When I saw the page I rolled my eyes, but even then I didn’t connect it with that first night event. I think I said, out loud, “Thank you for the nice room, Lily,” just to be polite. It wasn’t until the next morning, heading home, when I was rereading parts of my travel journal while my plane sat on the tarmac at O’Hare, that I saw my notes about the email. And I said under my breath, “Damn it, Lily!”

*

Here are three theories that would explain the middle-of-the-night Read Aloud session.

 — Theory One: I was dreaming and/or sleepwalking and I opened the laptop and played the email myself. I think I have had one sleepwalking incident in my life. One time while friends were visiting, I woke up in the middle of the night because the phone was ringing. I walked down the hall to answer it. I thought I was awake. I picked up the ringing phone to hear a dial tone. Then I woke up and realized I hadn’t really been awake before that. I woke up Spouse coming back to bed, and he said he hadn’t heard the phone. Our friends, sleeping in the room right next to the phone, didn’t hear it either.I think I was awake in St Augustine, though, and the reason was the stubbing the toe incident. Nothing changed in my awareness after I stubbed my toe except that it hurt.

— Theory Two:
Lily is a ghost and she likes to play with computers. To accept this, you have to accept the possibility of ghosts. The inn’s page about “Lily” is disappointingly vague. In fact, as the story reads now, it should be the unnamed nephew, who killed himself for love, who haunts the room, not Lily. Nothing is said about how Lily died. In fact, she was sent away and it’s unlikely she died in the house. In ghost literature, Lily is a traditional “woman in white.”

But she –or someone– did turn off the TV that one time. Theory Two works better if the ghost who visits that room is someone other than Lily.

— Theory Three: Microsoft is a jerk. Something in the upgrade triggered a spontaneous activation of the Read Aloud Speech option. That might be it. When I got home I powered up the PC, plugged it in and left it on for a day and a night, and no one read me any more emails. The event has never been replicated.

I’d love to end with something snarky. I’d love to be hyper-rational and explain how this was a glitch of modern technology rendered strange by glamorous surroundings – or go the other way and argue passionately about how it was Lily. If I’ m going to be an open-minded skeptic, isn’t it reasonable to question the idea that a PC would behave weirdly only one time, in a specific way, and then never replicate the weird behavior again? I don’t know, though. I’m still mulling it over. What do you think?

 

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Between the Lines: A Thought Exercise

Scene One: The bulrushes along the banks of a wide, placid river. The land beyond it is flat and green.

Egyptian Princess: (Falls back, panting. She is sweating.) By all the gods!

Body Slave: (Holds a newborn infant.) It’s a boy, highness.

[Princess holds out her arms and the body slave places the fussy baby in them.]

Princess: It is going to make noises like that all the time?

Body Slave: For a while, highness.

Princess: Now what’ll I do? Father will kill me. (Pause.) Literally.

Body Slave: The river’s right…

Princess: No!

Body Slave: Well, you can send it to the slave barracks to be raised. After all, that’s where the father came from, right?

Princess: Shut up, you.

Body Slave: I’m not judging, highness. I’m just saying.

Princess: Well, he’s not going to the slave barracks. Have you seen how my father treats them? They die like flies in the rainy season.

[She looks at the Body Slave and narrows her eyes.]

Body Slave: [backs away] Oh, no, highness. Not a good idea. I don’t know anything about raising any babies.

[With an effort the Princess levers herself upright.]

Princess: Why isn’t there an old wise woman in a hut, or a hermit in a cave, who could raise him? There’s never one of those when you need them.

[She stares into the distance. Slowly, her spine straightens and her shoulders square up. She lifts her head.]

Princess: No. He will be raised in the palace. I am a daughter of the royal line, and he is my son.

Body Slave: How will you get that past your father?

Princess: I’ll say….  I’ll say I found him. In the river. Where I was making a sacrifice to Sobek.

Body Slave: You don’t sacrifice to Sobek.

Princess: Shut up. I do now. You, go find me a gathering basket.

Body Slave: May I make a suggestion? Tell your father you stopped at the temple of Hathor on your way back with this… foundling, and the goddess ordered you to raise him.

Princess: Good one! (Pause.) Well?

Body Slave: (Bows) Off to find a basket, highness.

*

Scene Two: The royal palace. The baby is squalling and the Body Slave bounces it gently but a little desperately. Before them, on a vast chair covered in gold, sits the Pharaoh. At his left, two steps down, stands his trusted adviser. 

Princess: … and then I heard the voice of Hathor, goddess of motherhood and the hearth, saying, “This child will be raised by the royal family and will have a great destiny.”

Pharaoh: Really.

Princess: Yes, Father.

Pharaoh: You. Slave. Is this true?

Body Slave. Ow. That’s my ear. (Bows low.) I did not hear the voice, oh Great One. The gods to not speak to the lowly like me. But I saw the basket floating on the waters of the Nile, and at my lady’s bidding I waded out and drew it to shore.

Pharaoh: This inspiration wouldn’t be connected your recent weight gain, and its sudden loss, would it, daughter?

Princess: I don’t know what you mean, Father.

[Pharaoh stands and comes down the steps, waving a hand at his advisor, who follows. They step stage right.]

Pharaoh: Well, this is just great.

Adviser: If I may, oh Great One; allow her to have the child with her. I guarantee within a year she’ll ship it off to the slave barracks where it belongs.

Pharaoh: You think so?

Adviser: No offense, oh Great One, but she’s never had much of an attention span.

Pharaoh. Well, that’s true. But that story!

Adviser: It’s not a wonderful story, oh Great One, but it’ll do.

Pharaoh: It will have to. (He turns.) I am the ruler of all Egypt, but I honor the will of the gods. The child will be raised in the royal household, and he will be your responsibility, daughter. Not the royal nurses’ or the concubines’. Yours.

Princess: [Bows low.] Thank you, father. Oh Great One, Hathor smiles upon you.

[She reaches for the baby, who stops squalling and begins to coo.]

Pharaoh: And what will you name this child?

Princess: I… um… Moses, I think.

[She bows again and begins to back out of the royal presence. The Body Slave follows.]

Pharaoh: And, daughter?

Princess: Yes, father?

Pharaoh: I hope you don’t think I’m stupid.

Princess: (Pause.) No, Father. I’d never think that.

[She bows again.]

END

 

 

 

 

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Three Travel Accessories

These three travel accessories made my Florida trip easy. Two of them are variations on the same theme, and each one fulfilled its function admirably.

The Baggallini Travel Lanyard

The Baggallini Travel Lanyard

I love the Baggallini travel lanyard. It has a place for a passport, a long opening for your boarding passes, and a zippered pouch on the other side for cash for tipping drivers or even shelling out for that $8.00 bottle of water. (Of course I’m exaggerating. I never saw a bottle of water for more than $5.50.)

And a little cash for tips and whatever.

And a little cash for tips and whatever.

The lanyard may be overkill, but I’m usually traveling with an overloaded carry-on and a big ol’ purse, so I like the convenience. I did feel silly traipsing through Jacksonville International with it flapping around my neck, when there were no more than 30 other people in the terminal, but I did not feel silly fighting my way upstream against the throngs of people on the concourse at O’Hare. I didn’t feel silly at SFO either, for that matter. I can wear the lanyard under a jacket, making it less visible and more secure.

I see on their website that they offer a travel organizer and a passport purse crossbody too.

The floral pattern is a plus.

The floral pattern is a plus.

Margaret Speaker Yuan gave me this lovely mini-purse for my birthday last year when the writers group was in Hawaii. It is similar in design to the lanyard, but bigger and more attractive. There is room for ID, credit cards, cash, a tube of lip balm and a cell phone. (The Baggallini won’t hold a cell phone.) It’s one-twentieth as heavy as my purse (that’s a guess). And it’s pretty. This was the only purse I carried outside while I was in Cassadaga and St. Augustine. It was perfect.

Moleskine, the emperor of journals.

Moleskine, the emperor of journals.

I took a Moleskine journal as my travel journal. The dimensions are those of a trade paperback book, and it’s about half an inch thick. It’s Moleskine, so anything I say about the high quality will be obvious. It’s perfect bound. The spine is strong and flexible and I’m saying that as someone who abused it a time or two, bending it so I could write while standing, or shoving it in into my bag with a bunch of other stuff. The binding might be leather. It’s tough and flexible too, and seems to be moisture resistant. I wouldn’t want to drop it in a pool, but it weathered rain and spray like a champ. The cover is also not slick. A couple of times, when I reached into my tote bag and flailed around to find it by touch and drag it out, this was really handy. It also meant I didn’t drop it into the alligator enclosure, a definite plus.

The silken paper takes ink without smearing, even in high humidity.

The silken paper takes ink without smearing, even in high humidity.

I love the silken texture of the paper and the way it takes the ink – and holds it! No smearing. The journal has a fabric bookmark and an elastic loop, so you mark both the last place you wrote, and a page you want to refer to. It has a nice envelope in the back, a great place for receipts. It’s also a perfect place to put business cards that you collect so you will know where to find them, and then forget where you put them when you get home. Included is the Moleskine accordion fold-out pamphlet that tells you about Moleskine and should include a little card with a quality control number on it. I used the journal every day of the trip. I’ve used it since then, pulling out notes for my blog posts. It’s wonderful.

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I Met my Deadline

This morning around 8:30 I emailed off a 36,000 word novella to my editor. It’s a piece I have a contract for with Falstaff Books. I delivered it on the deadline.

Now we’ll have to see if Jaym Gates, who is the chief editor at Falstaff and who edited Strange California, likes it, and what she will want in the way of rewrites. The theme of this line of novels and novellas is “Shattered Cities.”

I said, “Yes” to this project when Jaym invited me mainly because it was an opportunity to work with her again. She asked me back in the fall of last year. I accepted the invitation, and then a little bit later got a request from her for an excerpt, up to 5,000 words, and a synopsis. Well, I had a little more than 5,000 words already written (I had about 8,000) so I sent those off. At this point I had no acceptance letter, no contract, nothing. It was just like submitting to any other market, except that I’d been asked.

And I waited.  And I didn’t hear anything.

While I was waiting, I worked on the project. The theme is “portal fantasy,” which is one of my favorites, and by a stroke of good luck, I had an alternate world already where metals conduct magic, and I was able to set my story there without a lot of development work, because I’d already done most of it.

You’d think that would make the story easy. It didn’t.

Several months later I got an email from the publisher, with a draft contract attached and some particulars, with Jaym copied. I hadn’t heard anything from Jaym herself.  I reviewed the contract and sent it back with changes, and got a signed one back in about ten days. And then I got serious because I was on a deadline.

The signed contract came back about a week before I left for Florida.

It wasn’t until last week that I heard from Jaym, and fortunately what she had to say was good news; she loved the excerpt and thought the synopsis was exactly the kind of story she was looking for  with Shattered Cities. I hope she likes the finished product. They can still reject it if she decides it isn’t right for them. I hope she doesn’t.

I’ll keep you informed. This will be my first experience with something like a real book, so I might have lots to share about editorial letters, rewrites, cover reveals and all that.

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