Normalizing Prosthetics: The Rise of the Hackmods

(Hackmods, you say? What the heck are those? Well, hang on. I’ll get to it.)

0984-FieldsRuns200.jpg: U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program Paralympic sprinter hopeful Sgt. Jerrod Fields works out at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif. A below-the-knee amputee, Fields won a gold medal in the 100 meters with a time of 12.15 seconds at the Endeavor Games in Edmond, Okla., on June 13. Photo by Tim Hipps, FMWRC Public Affairs

Sgt. Jerrod Fields works out at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif. 
Photo by Tim Hipps, FMWRC Public Affairs

My friend M had one leg amputated last year. I’m not going to go into a lot of detail. While removing the leg was the best choice, and everyone, even M, thought so, making the decision and implementing the decision was a difficult, deeply emotional choice that tested M’s optimism, faith and courage deeply, then kept on testing his optimism, faith and courage through months of adjustment, therapy, fittings and recovery.

Flash forward nearly a year. M is doing great. He got a promotion at work; he’s healthy, he’s adjusted to his prosthetic. He and his family are taking a well-deserved family vacation to Disneyland.

It’s southern California. It’s June. California is having an early hot spell. M stands at the elevator in the hotel, having pushed the button, when a little boy charges out of one of the nearby rooms. (I don’t know the boy’s age). He barrels up to the elevator, looks at M, and wheels around, running back to the adults who are coming out of the room. He says something to them that M can’t hear – but he can guess. He can hear the woman’s response though, because she says it loudly enough. “People like him shouldn’t go out in public in shorts. They’re scaring children.”

No, YOU shut up. Angry woman pointing

No, YOU shut up.

Somebody shouldn’t go out in public, definitely. I think we all know who.

What a terrible story, right? Well, M has faith in people, and a great sense of humor, and he followed up that story with another incident that happened on the same vacation. M was using the lift chair at the pool to be lowered into the water. A boy swam up to him. “How come you’re in a chair in the water?”

M told him he’d lost part of his leg and needed the chair to get in. The boy’s eyes got wider. “Can I see?” He dove under the water, looked at M’s amputation site, then surfaced and began peppering him with questions. M is, at heart, a teacher, and he answered questions for several minutes. When the boy had his questions answered, he said, “Cool! Have a good day,” and swam away.

When I was growing up I saw almost no one with a prosthetic. I rarely saw people in wheelchairs. When my father had a serious accident my freshman year of high school and was in a wheelchair for three months, it was a production to get him anywhere; basically, he went to church, and to the doctor’s office. Places weren’t set up for people in wheelchairs or with prosthetic limbs. There were few, or no, ramps; counters were at the wrong height, toilets were unreachable.

My dad had one friend who had what we called an artificial leg. He didn’t wear it at home because it chafed and hurt, and his wife was always treating sores on his leg where it rubbed, so they wouldn’t get infected. As a kid, I thought that was what having a artificial leg meant. Looking back, I can see how primitive the technology of fitting a prosthesis was.

That was then. Some things have changed, and they are still changing, and the rude woman in the hotel notwithstanding, they are getting better, I think.

I have some ideas about why. Some are rooted in anti-discrimination laws, some in improved technology and some in popular culture.

The ADA and Greed:

I know it’s popular for businesses to whine about the Americans with Disabilities Act, and subsequent laws that improve access to people with mobility issues, but the ADA made a huge difference. I am confident that good old-fashioned capitalist greed will step in and begin helping the ADA along here in the next few years. With baby-boomers aging and using more mobility devices, and an endless war bringing back plenty of veterans with prosthetics, businesses are eventually going to realize that it is a reasonable cost of doing business to widen those aisles, remodel that bathroom, or lower that counter. People don’t need to come to your store now; they can do nearly everything online. Why would they come to a store they can’t navigate, where they feel unwelcome, different, inconvenient? If you want them spending money in your shop, business person, you better make it welcoming. The ADA and Greed are the new Odd Couple but ultimately they will keep the normalization going.

Technology:

Luke Skywalker's Prosthetic Hand.

Luke Skywalker’s Prosthetic Hand.

Prosthetics are made better; lighter, stronger and sleeker, and miniaturization is helping make a prosthetic useful and moveable. There are prosthetic hands now that can have moving fingers (although I think the progress in this area has been overstated by the articles). The entire industry around creating and fitting prosthetics has gotten better. Fifteen years of war have created some of this… but one sad fact about war is that, historically, it drives technological innovation. I don’t know how heavy a prosthetic leg is now, but they certainly aren’t just clunky wooden or metal cylinders. They are sleeker, and tend to be made of strong but light materials like composite or aluminum, and some prosthetics have knee or elbow joints to allow for improved mobility.

At least in the USA, this ties in with the fact that we are a gadget crazy society, and this is the Era of the Geek. Geeks like tech. The tech around a prosthetic hand is as cool as that of a robot – in fact, it practically is a robot.

I talked to M a little more while I was writing this, and he expressed “ankle envy” (his term, and it’s a great one) for the higher-end prosthetics these days. If you can afford it, you can have a bendable-joint, lightweight, sturdy prosthesis that is also dirt-and-water resistant. It’ll probably cost you about $180K and it’s likely your health insurance won’t cover it.  The system uses a K1- K5 rating system for amputees to determine what type of prosthesis you need: K-1 is a person who does some standing and walking, short distances, on level terrain. I’d guess an office worker who doesn’t also coach a sport, hike, do search and rescue or run marathons would be a K1. K5s are your active athletes. Cost is definitely a bigger driver than manufacturing is.

Popular Culture:

Whether it’s commercials, sports, movies or television, there are more and more positive images of prosthetics these days. Luke Skywalker, the original Star Wars hero, has a prosthetic hand. There’s a commercial for dog food where a veteran amputee adopts a dog that, the shelter guide says, has “been through a lot.” The images are becoming more positive and, more importantly, ubiquitous.

I’m going to shift focus slightly here and talk about a SyFy show called Killjoys. Killjoys is high-action, high-humor, high-fashion, sexy fun with a kickass woman lead and two handsome, smart and funny male sidekicks; a talking starship, and lots of comments to make about patriarchy, capitalism, autonomy and enslavement. This leads me to a group of people they introduced in the second season, and devoted some time to early in Season Three, the hackmods.

(I know. Finally.)

Clara and her hackmod arm Alice share a quiet moment with Johnnie

Clara and her hackmod arm Alice share a quiet moment with Johnnie

Hackmods have been physically and/or cellularly modified, and as you’d expect because it’s television, most of the hacks we see are physical. The hackmods usually did not choose this life for themselves; many were sold to the Hack Factory; some were abducted; some are indentured. Hackmods are created for particular purposes; a biological arm might be replaced with a multi-use weapon/tool; eyes may be repurposed as camera feeds, and so on. The hackmods we see have escaped from the factory and some have escaped from slavery. They embrace their differences and even enhance them, but the hackmods know they are different from the faddists who add a hack for style. As one hackmod character says, they may love their mods; they don’t love the fact that they didn’t have a choice.

I think that statement might be true for every human with a prosthetic or a mobility device.

Most of the point of the hackmods echoes the show’s themes of economic injustice, enslavement and the oligarchy; but in the third season, hackmods are briefly given the limelight. They aren’t creatures who inspire pity, ridicule or horror; they are strong and smart; they have their own agenda; some are villains, some are heroic. They normalize prosthetics.

And, ultimately, we can normalize prosthetics. We can celebrate the boy in the pool, who got curious and asked questions. We can work on our own vocabulary. For me, it’s been a lesson to stop calling a prosthetic an “artificial arm/leg.” It isn’t artificial; it’s a genuine limb. It’s just not bone and flesh.

We can practice being courteous.

And yes, we can see a man in southern California in shorts when it’s 90 degrees outside and not freak out because one leg is made of metal and composite.

I think that rude woman in M’s hotel should watch Season Three of Killjoys. Then she should re-watch the original Star Wars trilogy. Then she should get a life. Prosthetics aren’t scary; they aren’t pitiful. They’re normal. Get used to it.

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Will: Shakespeare in a 1970s-1580s London

 See what I mean? Marlowe (l) and Shakespeare (r) glam rock it up for the groundlings.

See what I mean? Marlowe (l) and Shakespeare (r) glam rock it up for the groundlings.

TNT has a new show on Monday nights at 9:00 pm, called Will. It’s allegedly about young William Shakespeare coming to crazy London in the 1580s to make his way as a playwright. The show conjures up a time shrouded in the mists of history; a time of war and poetry, anarchy and repression. The arts are exploding in a fantasia of experiment and imagination while the wealthy and powerful shore up their property and privilege at the expense of working people.

The time period it conjures is not the 1580s; it’s the late 1960s/early 70s. Think glam-rockers. Think Mick Jagger in Performance. Think Zeffirelli with a lot more gore and nudity.

The show’s design and sensibility is purely a 1970s take on the late Tudor era. Will gazes down its aquiline nose at mere historical fact, choosing to create a neon palette, a frenetic, colorful acid-trip rush of an extravaganza. It’s a festival of beautiful bodies, face-paint, glitter, gleaming fabrics, wild costumes, exuberant poetry. It’s The Merry Pranksters do Shakespeare. Historical details lose their grip, fall away, and drift in the wake of this joyous, bloody, arrogant story like iridescent dandelion seeds in a light summer breeze.

Seriously, a warning; if you like your Tudor period fiction or your Shakespeare fiction accurate, do not even tune in. It’ll be like going on a tasting tour at a gourmet cheesemonger’s when you’re lactose intolerant.

Also a warning: If you didn’t love the 1998 movie Shakespeare in Love, you probably won’t like this either.

Will, Alice and Richard Burgage (back right) Prepare for an epic poetry slam.

Will, Alice and Richard Burbage (back right) prepare for an epic poetry slam.

Will has created a dark and gory plotline with which to build suspense, and that plotline makes the playwright poet a practicing Catholic. In the opening episode, as Will bails on his wife and three kids to go make his fortune, his father gives him a letter to deliver to Will’s cousin, a secret priest in London. Performing the Catholic mass at this time in England was illegal; cousin Suttle is effectively a traitor. If case we somehow didn’t get it, Will’s mom hands him a rosary on his way out the door.

(I know, right? You’re Will Shakespeare, a player and a writer. Wouldn’t you dump the rosary in the first stream you came to, memorize the letter, and then burn it? But if you did that, there’d be no danger of discovery, so that’s not happening.)

There is evidence that John Shakespeare, Will’s father, was a recusant; a Catholic who refused to attend Church of England services (which was required by law). I have no trouble accepting William as a crypto-Catholic; I have a lot of trouble accepting him as a full-blown practicing one, especially one who is on his way to the royal capital, when he knows that one of the penalties for practicing his religion is death. Sure enough, when the street kid Presto picks Will’s pocket, the first thing he reaches for is not Will’s purse but the packet with the letter and the rosary. Will chases him down and gets it back, but Presto slashes Will’s hand. In short order, the creepy local Catholic-hunter, Topcliffe, is on the trail of a playwright with a cut on his hand.

The show diverts from the character development of Will and the group of players he’s met to linger over not one, but three long, graphic torture scenes. (If I count the execution, it’s four. Oh, wait, there are the flashbacks…) Topcliffe, probably meant to be Richard Topcliffe, an historical character, works for Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s chief spymaster. In the first two episodes three things become apparent; Topcliffe doesn’t like Catholics; Topcliffe really likes torture; Will wants to challenge premium cable shows for gore content.

I think this is the nod to “realism;” see, life was cheap back then! They were brutal! All true, but a show that puts women on the stage in Britain in 1580 has left itself no space to crow about realism.

London playhouses during Elizabeth's reign.

London playhouses during Elizabeth’s reign.

For all that, the rowdy hijinks of the players is not only good fun, I could imagine the Burbage troupe being the very group of players who performed the first live Shakespeare I ever saw, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in 1973. I saw it outside, at night, in a redwood grove. Robin Goodfellow wore a Speedo and a bunch of tree-and-vine body paint. He was so drunk he fell off the stage once. He got back up on stage and delivered his next line without a blink. The fictional players in Will could be those guys. It was pure nostalgia.

Laurie Davidson, who plays Will, is handsome and hot. The character of Alice, Burbage’s daughter, who is, as she says, “That most useless of things, an educated woman,” acts as the troupe’s copyist and props master. Alice (Olivia DeJonge) is unlikely but right on the border of plausible, especially since women often ran businesses and trades in this time period. Early in the show Alice says to Will that there are three choices for a woman, “to be a whore, to rule a nation, or to have children,” and she hasn’t decided which one is for her. I liked the nod to the Virgin Queen. DeJonge has great screen charisma and beautiful, if totally inaccurate, costumes, including a gorgeous royal blue thing that I hope we see again.

Presto (Lukas Rolfe) is already developing as a psychologically interesting character even if it’s 2017 psychology. Clearly his story will parallel Will’s in some way. I’m wondering if something Will whispered to Presto, in a moment of desperation (it was a lie) will come back to bite Will in some way. I certainly hope so. Or, what if it wasn’t a lie? That would be a plot twist.

Really? She thinks I could be a fallen angel? That's ridiculous.

Really? She thinks I could be a fallen angel? That’s ridiculous.

And now, the main reason to watch this show; Christopher Marlowe. Marlowe, rock-star playwright, professional bad-boy and government spy, gets drawn into the intrigue surrounding the “playwright with the cut hand” and is a major player, at least in the first two episodes. He is tempter, offering Shakespeare a Faustian bargain (see what I did there? Because Marlowe wrote… oh, never mind); if Shakespeare wants money, power and fame, he should inform on his cousin. Jamie Campbell Bower plays Marlowe, and he is so beautiful that it’s almost a distraction. He’s also plunged into the role headfirst, playing Marlowe as practically a fallen angel… one who feels he has he the right to decide who is worthy of living and who isn’t. I think defiant atheist Marlowe would like this depiction. I look forward to seeing the mentor/rival relationship progress. Since the show isn’t following history, maybe Marlowe will escape the historical character’s fate and there will be a spinoff.

I bet I could write a play.

I bet I could write a play.

So… Will is an active Catholic; women are allowed to perform on stage; Anne Hathaway is about the same age as Will Shakespeare; Robert Greene spouted his famous “upstart crow” comment in a tavern rather than writing it in a pamphlet; clothing is completely inconsistent for the period.

And… Will, jotting down words and phrases as he sees and hears things; Alice, staking out proto-feminist territory under a queen who turned her nation into an empire; Shakespeare and Robert Greene engaging in a poetry-slam duel in a tavern; the costumes; Marlowe; backstage, which is not Elizabethan at all, but evokes a real backstage; Richard Burbage, the leading man who can’t act; the half-dozen vulgar and hilarious puns on the name Shake-spear. If they keep delivering this, I’ll keep watching.

Uneasy lies the hand that holds the crown. Wait, that's not right.

Uneasy lies the hand that holds the crown. Wait, that’s not right.

 

 

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In Search of Irene Adler

Warning: Spoilers for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s story “A Scandal in Bohemia.”

Last Sunday BBC America ran a Sherlock marathon. Even though the character Benedict Cumberbatch portrays is not Sherlock Holmes, I sometimes like the show, mostly for the banter and for Martin Freeman’s deadpan delivery as Watson. And I love the musical theme. The marathon meant that I was going to have to watch “A Scandal in Belgravia” again, though. I suffered through it, because you do, but then I went and hunted up a .pdf of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “A Scandal in Bohemia,” as a palate cleanser, so I could read about the real Irene Adler.

I don’t know why it is that no modern retelling of Sherlock Holmes can handle Adler. I don’t know why it is that writers and showrunners like Michael Robert Johnson and Steven Moffat actually create Adler characters who are weaker and less feminist than the one created in 1892 by a Victorian male. Something is seriously wrong here.

The “Irene Adler” of the Robert Downey Jr movies may be a possible stretch from the original character. It appears she left her husband, the love of her life, because he was “boring.” Anyway, what is a retired opera singer to do after that but become an international criminal? Right? What is bad about the movie Adler is that she becomes a “refrigerated” woman in the second film. The second film has no need of her, or the actor wouldn’t sign for a second film, so the writers kill her off. (Lestrade has no role in the second film, but he isn’t killed. Only the woman is, because there is a new woman character, and women, as we all know, exist only to gaze adoringly at men, and meet their plot needs… and they are disposable.)

Rachel McAdams’s Adler, though, isn’t as bad as the woman Sherlock tries to convince us is The Woman.

This is not a knock on Lara Pulver, who plays “Irene Adler” in Sherlock. Whatever role she is playing there, she does it to perfection; it just isn’t Adler. This character, whose name is Irene Adler, is a villain. She works with Moriarty. She falls in love with Sherlock Holmes. She is bested by him and still later has to be rescued by him. There is nothing wrong with this character necessarily, or even the story, which is twisty and even fun in some places. The only thing wrong with her is her name. If this character had been called Willa Gotobed or Gemma Greengages, I’d have been fine.

In Conan Doyle’s story “A Scandal in Bohemia” the king of a small Bohemian nation hires Holmes to recover a damning photograph. The king admits that he had an affair with an “adventuress,” American born Irene Adler, an opera singer and great beauty. They carried on while he was the crown prince. Once he became king he put her aside. Now he is betrothed, and Adler has threatened to make public their letters and a photograph of the two of them together. She does not want payment; plainly this threat is about revenge. The King has had her houses broken into several times, had her abducted (they call it “waylaid’) and searched twice, but they cannot find the photo. Plainly, Adler is smarter than the king.  In desperation, the king turns to Holmes.

Adler is living in London. In disguise, Holmes goes to her house. To his surprise, her one regular male visitor, a barrister, hurries off to a nearby church. Moments later, so does Adler. When Homes, disguised as a horse groom, follows them, the barrister grabs him off the street and asks him to be a witness at their wedding; the barrister and Adler get married. Overcoming his shock, Holmes continues with his commission to recover the photograph. He uses a clever trick to get Adler to reveal the location of the photo, but she sees through him. When Watson, Holmes and the king come to the house to retrieve the photo, it, Adler and Adler’s new husband are gone, and all that’s left is a letter to Holmes and a photo of Adler herself, alone. Plainly, Adler is smarter than Holmes.

This Adler is the invention of a Victorian era male doctor. When we see Adler through the eyes of the king, we see a beautiful, vindictive “adventuress.” Adler’s moral code is not that of the time; at least in Britain. Royal men do have mistresses, but it is plain in the story that Adler is not a socially-approved mistress (who would most likely be of Bohemian aristocracy). She performs on stage. The old-fashioned phrase “no better than she should be” comes to mind. As the story progresses, though, we see that something has changed in Adler’s life. Possibly it’s love. Whatever has happened, Adler is interested in returning to the conventional fold of customary morality. Her desire to wreak vengeance on her former lover has faded away. The Adler that Watson and Holmes see is kind and helpful.

In her letter at the end, Adler tells Holmes that she is keeping the royal photo only for protection, and that with her lawyer husband she has found a man much better than the king could ever be. When the king ruminates on what a queen she would make if only she were at his level, Holmes quips that indeed, yes, Adler is on a much different level than the king. And he keeps the photo.

You don’t have to stay faithful to the story to do this character justice. Mostly, modern showrunners don’t seem interested in doing this character justice though. I’m going to turn again to the “Adler” character on Sherlock. This female character, working with Sherlock’s nemesis Moriarty, works best as a trickster. She is a wealthy dominatrix who gets state and military secrets out of her powerful male clients. Why this would even be allowed to happen is not explained. She keeps everything on a password-protected cell phone. Sherlock is roped into the case by his bother Mycroft. He’s told there are compromising photos of a low-level royal on the phone but this is a lie. Well, it’s not a lie, the photos are on there, they just don’t matter. The Woman (her work name) has a scrap of code from a top secret project, and she needs it deciphered. She begins a convoluted game with Holmes to get it.

So much here is just wrong. First of all, a dominatrix is not a powerful woman. A dominatrix is a sex worker. She may make good money; she’s not a power-broker or an information-broker. Men who pay women to role-play as dominant are not confused about this. They don’t think they’re interacting with a powerful woman. The “power” so-called madams have (and it isn’t much) comes from the names on their client list and the fear of exposure, and many high profile madams still end up on trial and in jail. The Woman has no power. The Woman might pick up and put together lots of juicy political information or stock market information; it beggars belief that she would get ultra-top-secret computer code.

Secondly, the story tells us that The Woman is a lesbian. Certainly her female assistant is in love with her, and secondly, The Woman point-blank tells Watson that she’s gay.

Watson: For the record, if anybody out there still cares, I’m not actually gay.
Adler:  Well, I am.

She’s attracted to women, but somehow falls in love with Sherlock, and this leads to her downfall, which is really the biggest way she isn’t Adler; Adler is the only woman (and one of very few people, period) to ever best Sherlock Holmes.

The Woman also fakes her own death, even to providing a body. Whether she lets another person get killed in her place, or kills the other woman herself and disfigures the face, we’re not told. As a trickster, she works very well, especially following the tradition that say tricksters often accidentally trick themselves.

She’s simply not Adler, and I’m getting tired of it, the same way the woman who called herself Irene Adler in Elementary wasn’t Adler. It’s frustrating.

The best depiction of the real Adler was given by Gayle Hunnicutt in 1984, opposite Jeremy Brett as Holmes. This was Grenada television’s Holmes series, and it stayed faithful to the story. And I think there are some mystery novels out there with Adler, her loyal barrister husband and a vicar’s wife as a friend, that are pretty good representation. I haven’t read them; I’m afraid to.

Why can’t modern storytellers create a genuinely strong woman to go up against Holmes? Why do they have to undercut her? I just don’t know.

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The Infamous “Brief Description”

“Please include no more than 10 pages of your work, pt 12 font, double-spaced, with one-inch margins, and a separate cover page with a brief description of your work.”

Those are words than make emerging writers shudder.  Not the manuscript part; that’s standard format and most of us are using it already. Not, it’s those so-harmless-sounding words, “a brief description of your work.”

This is not for an agent’s package. I signed up for a consultation with writer Michael David Lukas at the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference and this is what he’s requesting. Lukas wrote one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read. I’d like to make a good impression.

But back to those delicate, undulating, sea-anemone words, “a brief description of your work,” those words with sharpened steel teeth lurking just below their surface.

Because, dude, if I could give a brief description, I probably wouldn’t have written 430 pages.

I could act all haughty, like, “Well, obviously this work is so rich and complex, with deep, nuanced characters, plot elements that explore the unquestioned assumptions that run like hidden fault-lines through our culture; it deconstructs and subverts the tropes of popular fiction and it…” blah blah blah, “… and so obviously a brief description is out the question.”

I could, except that’s not it.

It’s that when I try to formulate a brief description my brain acts like Microsoft Windows experiencing the blue screen of death. There’s just nothing there, or nothing I can access at any rate.

Attempts to briefly describe the work to friends, along the lines of the toxic “elevator pitch” we are all told to practice, tend to go like this:

“Well, there are these portals. They’re quantum-physics portals, only not really because it’s fantasy so they aren’t really about quantum physics, I just say that, but there are millions of other dimensions out there and some people from other dimensions can come through them to here and a bunch of them have. There is a government in exile because a usurper took over a ruler’s nation, but that’s not what the book’s about though. There is a human main character with PTSD, and did I mention it’s set in Vallejo, CA? And parts of it take place on the decommissioned Naval shipyard Mare Island? Have you been to Vallejo ever?” (Natters on about Vallejo for several seconds.) “And it’s not really just PTSD because she thinks she’s delusional. And the visitors from the other dimension are magical and they wear disguises. Are you okay? It looks like your eyes are glazing over. The human woman is a magician, not a magical magician though, although who can say what’s really magical and what isn’t? She’s a stage magician and she hangs out with human artists at an artists collective, and there’s a steampunk theme and a cosplay theme and hey! Hey, where are you going?”

This does not qualify as a brief description.

Please understand that I am, actually, pretty darned good at summarizing the plot of a book or a story. I write reviews. A review has to have a “brief description” of the plot. It’s not that I don’t have the skill set. It’s that the skills turn to quivering jellified  lumps when I direct them to my own work.

I suspect I’m not alone in this.

Realistically, having to create a brief description of your own work is going to be necessary when you start marketing it. It is also a disciplined exercise that makes you think of your own work in a different way. I’m not sure how to learn to do it. I would seriously suggest taking books you like and practice writing descriptions of them. You’ll start noticing what stands out for you, in a book, and how you summarize a story.

Then for your own piece, work with your first reader, someone who’s read the thing and knows what you want to do. Brainstorm with them to make sure you’re hitting the high points.

And, I think, stop worrying about the nuance, beauty, texture and depth of the work because you aren’t going to display that in your description.

And what kind of a word count are we talking about? Well, because mine was for a consultation, I let myself get a little sloppy. Including a paragraph about me, and an ending paragraph with some questions for Michael, mine ended up being 400 words. I think 250-300 is probably the ballpark.

Here’s what I ended up sending (excluding the opening and ending paragraphs):

Two years before the story opens, Miranda Keane, a performing arts student and aspiring stage magician, survived a terrorist attack in a local shopping mall. Her efforts to help others during the attack made her a minor celebrity, but she is immobilized by PTSD and believes she is delusional, because ever since the event at the mall she has been hearing voices and seeing beings who do not look human. After a brief stay in a mental health ward, Miranda learns that a small group of non-human exiles has taken refuge in Vallejo. She is not delusional; she is one of the few people who can see them in their true form.

The visitors, as they call themselves, are from another dimension. They have fled the long reach of a brutal usurper in their home world, and their community centers around an upscale local bar. The visitors are adept at the manipulation of electrical fields (magic). Just as Miranda is adjusting to all this, she learns that the attack on the shopping mall was not random, and the deaths of several other mall-attack survivors are not random either.

Ian Early, the visitor who approaches Miranda, enlists her help to identify other visitors. He tells her that the leader of the exile group, a woman named Mirth, is the rightful ruler of her nation, but there are factions of refugees, and Miranda has already been approached by another visitor, a rebel, whose description of Mirth is less flattering. Soon, the usurper’s lieutenant learns about Miranda and begins hunting her. Now her life and that of her artist friends are at risk, and Early’s unswerving loyalty to Mirth may mean that he will sacrifice them to keep his ruler safe.

As the usurper prepares for another attack, this time at Mare Island, Miranda must decide who she can trust, how she can help, and whether she can get her life back on track.

That clocks in at 321 words and I think if I leaned on it harder I could bring it in at under 300. Does it cover everything that happens in the book? Not even. You don’t even see the powerful friendships and the political infighting and the white supremacists who are being manipulated… and on second thought, if I ever send this thing out, the white supremacists should be in there, front and center. It also occurs to me that the gay cross-dressing cosplaying Vikings should be somewhere in my “brief description,” because who can resist gay cross-dressing cosplaying Vikings?

So, anyway, I bit the bullet and sent that out. We’ll see what Michael David Lukas thinks, and maybe I’ll have a better synopsis, or “brief description” next time out.

Posted in Thoughts about Writing | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Writing is Rewriting; Revision

Jane Austen revised (as portrayed by Anne Hathaway)

Even Jane Austen revised (as portrayed by Anne Hathaway)

If I have a strength as a writer, it’s as a rewriter. Revision is often where the “real” writing is, for me; where I’m able to see the opportunities to deepen the characters, to make the world around them more sensuous and three-dimensional, where I plug plot holes or trace glitches back to their sources and fix them.

At least that’s what I tell myself.

A while back I posted a short story called “Protected by Unicorns.” I had never made any effort to market the story; the story wasn’t much out of first draft when I pulled it up to look at it. That meant certain things didn’t happen that would normally happen in revision; like deepening the character of Tyler. In an earlier version I had more about Tyler, but it made the story too long –I’m aiming for 1500-word territory, and while I’m over that, it’s close. Also, I had to put in some mysterious stuff about store-owner Denise in order to make the ending work.

While I was posting it I noticed that I had several paragraphs in a row that ended with a sentence that started with “Maybe.” It didn’t flow like a deliberate style choice, because of course it wasn’t. I did a quick fix as I posted it, by deleting one of the sentences. This left two in a row, in a short collection of words. It reads as clunky.

Then I got to thinking, that with one more strategically placed “Maybe” sentence, I could show a little more of Tyler’s character. We should get that he is angry (he likes smashing things), and contemptuous of women – contemptuous of people in general. That’s in there already.

What about, though… what about something like this? Once he’s in the store, Tyler thinks, “Maybe, if Uncle Todd had given him the loan he’d asked for, this space wouldn’t be a stupid comic book store. It would be Tyler’s gaming store. But no, Todd got all superior and ‘show me your business plan,’ instead of helping.”

That’s not deep characterization, but it gives a genesis for some of the anger. It is a stereotype but this is, to some extent, a story of stereotypes. I think my take on unicorns might be outside of the mold, but that’s the only thing.

I’m going to revise the story and see what I think. And then, maybe, I’ll revise it some more. Because that’s just how I roll.

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I’m on a Train! I’m on a Train!

The southbound SMART train.

The southbound SMART train.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this train will be departing in two minutes, on our way to the Marin County Civic Center.”

I know my non-California friends are thinking, “Wow, a commuter train. Walk on the wild side, Marion, take a muni bus someday,” but, seriously, I am jazzed to be on the SMART train. Northern California doesn’t do mass transit well outside of metropolitan areas like the San Francisco Bay Area, and SMART may just be… a start. Rhyme intended.

The Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit offered free rides over the Fourth of July weekend, and I drove down to the Rohnert Park station to catch one.

I got here at 9:30 to catch the 10 o’clock train. I was gratified to see lots of people already. At a small pavilion, SMART employees handed out information sheets, bike reflectors, SMART train squeeze toys/stress toys, and a thing that goes on the back of your cell phone for some reason. They answered questions. On the platform we had a few more employees and several more volunteers, called “SMART Ambassadors.”

Waiting on the platform for the train.

Busted flat in Rohnert Park, waitin for a train…

Safety tip; the train is not tilted; the camera was.

Safety tip; the train is not tilted; the camera was.

 

I asked several questions of a helpful man in a SMART hat before he told me he was neither an employee nor an ambassador, just someone who had followed the project.

A SMART train comprises two self-powered diesel cars. Between the two cars a train will hold about 340 people if you include standing room. Each train has a restroom and a “snack bar” although I think that might be the term they are using for vending machines.

There is an electrical outlet at each seat, (I couldn’t see ours, but I assume two outlets) and the trains have Wifi. Everything you could want.

“First Stop, Cotati.”

Cows and pastureland on the way to Cotati.

Cows and pastureland on the way to Cotati.

The Cotati terminal is off of East Cotati Avenue, close to the California State University of Sonoma campus.

My seat mate, Sean, has assertive ginger-orange hair and beard (he could definitely qualify for membership in the Weasley family,) light, bright blue eyes and a lime green backpack. He is here with a group, a class, and his teacher stops by our seat to explain how the restrooms work and where the vending machines are. Sean isn’t worried because he has a big bottle of soda and a carton of Goldfish crackers. He is set. I can’t tell how old he is… in his twenties? Later conversation gives me a data-point and I extrapolate that he might be twenty-six or twenty-seven.

At the bottom off-center toward the left you can see Sean's hair.

At the bottom off-center toward the left you can see Sean’s hair.

After Cotati, the track speeds along acres of pasture land broken by shallow rolling hills. We see cows. We see sheep.

Sometimes we go under the freeway. Under the freeway! It’s just an overpass, but, still.

Downtown Petaluma Stop, and the Petaluma Center for the Arts

Downtown Petaluma Stop, and the Petaluma Center for the Arts

“Next stop, Petaluma downtown.”

The downtown Petaluma stop is on Lakeville Street. It is either next to the Petaluma Center for the Arts, or it is the Petaluma Center for the Arts. Either way it’s good. In terms of walking, this might be the most convenient station. It is a long but feasible walk to what Petaluma calls the Theater District, and a still-feasible walk to downtown. If you bought a lot of stuff, it might be a bit of a slog back.

SMART is very bike-friendly, with room on the train for bikes and bike lockers at each station. Since the trains aren’t running yet, I didn’t see some of the other necessary things, like feeder buses. And for a system which prides itself on its accessibility within the traincar (it meets or exceeds ADA requirements, the material says) it doesn’t seem very helpful to people with mobility issues once they’re off the train. You’re pretty much in the middle of nowhere.

Bike Locker

Here is a typical bike locker.

If you work at Clover Stornetta in Petaluma, or Minuteman Press, and you live north of town, the train might be a dream come true for you.

Barn and Pasture south of Cotati.

Barn and Pasture south of Cotati.

Landscape with trees, south of Petaluma

Landscape just south of Petaluma.

“Next stop, Novato San Marin”

Sean tells me he writes fantasy stories. I tell him I do too. He reacts to this statement by showing me a passage from one of his stories, which features a woman wizard named Viola and her rabbit companion Beola. Sean does not use Wattpad or any internet site; he keeps his stories on his phone.

Sean draws cartoons in a manga-inspired style, and prefers graphic novels, so I suspect that is the direction in which the saga of Viola and Beola is headed. He also writes poems that double as song lyrics, and since he sings in a choir, he sings me one of the “spell” songs and it is delightful. We actually bond, not over writing, but over photography.

I am excited about the Novato stop for two reasons. One, for the first time ever I will be traveling alongside the wetlands area between Petaluma and Novato (and later, between Novato and San Rafael). They are the ones I can see from Highway 101 when I’m headed north, and can never photograph, because, of course, I’m on the freeway. Two, I’m imagining that somehow, the Novato stations will make it possible for me to ride the train down and visit the shopping Mecca of Grant Street. (This fond imagining turns out to have no basis in reality.)

Then I realize that for the Novato San Marin stop, I’m on the wrong side of the freeway for the wetlands, but there are plenty of other photo opportunities.

There are many old folks on the train. There are many kids on the train. There are many old folks with kids on the train, and I make a guess that these are grandparents. There are several large groups of kids that I assume are part of a class or a summer program.

Elderly man in straw hat

This man seemed to be having a good time and he was a great photo subject.

The San Marin stop is at 7700 Redwood Boulevard. It looks like, from southbound 101, you’d need to take the Atherton Avenue exit.

“Next Stop, Novato Hamilton.”

“My name is Alexander Hamilton…” Oh, no. Sorry.

Novato Hamilton is at 10 Gates Road, near the Hamilton Community Center. Marin Transit and Golden Gate Transit both have nearby stops, which may explain this location.

At one of the tables directly ahead of us (seats for four around a small table, perfect for snacking, playing cards, setting up laptops/tablets, or, here’s a thought, writing), a silver-haired woman says, “They need to make a Starbucks stop.” Her companion laughs and says, “They should build that in.”

Okay, not quite everything you need. You will need to bring your own specialty coffee.

Why does Novato have two stops, neither one in downtown, while Petaluma has only one? There are answers; one is, the difficulty in planning a long-range project and the other is, politics. Novato is getting a downtown station (so it will have three). Novato and the SMART board argued over who would pay for the downtown station but they finally came to some kind of an agreement.

Okay, so why the Novato San Marin station, then? Well, because Fireman’s Fund used to be right near there. After the plans were finalized and construction begun, they moved north, but maybe Google is going to move into their space, so it’s all okay? Maybe? All this is from a man I talked to from Novato, and I haven’t vetted any of it, but there’s this.

“Next stop, Marin Civic Center.”

Wetlands

Wetlands

More wetlands

More Wetlands

Now we’re alongside those wetlands. It’s the wrong time of year, or day, to see a lot of waterbirds; I do spy a heron and several egrets but I can’t get pictures. Sean likes pictures of rolling hills, so he and I are both pretty happy. I can’t wait to get a window seat on this train during flyover season.

Sean thinks the one SMART Police officer on the train is cute. “I’m hampered in my ability to flirt,” he says, because we’re in a seat ten feet away from her, with about fifteen people between us. I finally get a picture of her and send it to his email.

SMART Police

SMART police.

It is possible to see the famous Marin County Civic Center building from the train, but since there is a set of controls at each end of the train, it isn’t like I can walk to the back and get a good picture. The address is 3801 Civic Center Drive, and it looks like it would be a healthy walk, in good weather, to the center itself. And it looks like there were a few bus stops around.

The Civic Center really is in this picture.

The Civic Center really is in this picture.

Since I didn’t get a great picture of the center, I settle for a picture of the Ferris wheel in the carnival setting up nearby.

Ferris Wheel

Ferris Wheel

Currently, the stations (and the functional track) end at the transit mall in San Rafael, 630 3rd Street. At the point, since this is a single track system, the train merely reverses (controls at each end, remember) and returns the way it came.

SMART cameraman

SMART cameraman

The rides are free this weekend only. We went thru three “zones.” The regular fee will be $7.50 one way regular fare for three zones, or $15.00 round trip. (The ferry is $19.) For people over 65, disabled people and youth, the cost is half that. A monthly pass costs $200 and covers unlimited rides for the first consecutive 31 days from the date of first use. Again, seniors, youth and disabled adults qualify for a $100 monthly pass. These costs don’t include the cost of any connecting transit. To ride the whole line costs $23 dollars and paying $23 allows unlimited rides that day, so for people who want to, I don’t know, have a meeting, this would be something to consider.

The Info and giveaway kiosk

The Info and giveaway kiosk

If you live in Sonoma County and work south of it, this seems like a better deal than driving, when you factor in wear and tear on a vehicle and the increasing risk of fender-benders or another accident. And, the train gives you time to talk on the phone, work, read, watch a show, listen to music… or take pictures of birds, all things that are not encouraged while you are driving.

I think SMART has its work cut out for it; there is an education curve to deal with, and right now the schedule doesn’t seem convenient for many working people. That’s going to have to be addressed.

In the meantime, I will ride this train. I am seriously planning a ride to San Rafael, a jaunt along 4th street (perhaps a visit to Copperfields and Riley Street Art Supply) and then a trip back. Plenty of time to get some writing in, or some photographs. And I want to explore the north leg of the existing track too.

Rohnert Park Station

Rohnert Park Station

SMART plans to have track extended to Larkspur Landing sometime in 2018, which means, best case scenario, 2019, or maybe later since funding is dependent upon a vicious federal government whose administration doesn’t like California. When it reaches the ferry landing, though, the SMART train will be transformed in something truly awesome.

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The Geographer’s Library; Half Delight, Half Disappointment, and Still I Recommend It

Jon Fasman published The Geographer’s Library in 2005. Fasman now is the editor on the Asian desk at the magazine The Economist. He spent several years in Russia and neighboring countries; when it comes to the east, it’s probably fair to say he knows his stuff.

Half of The Geographer’s Library disappointed me. The other half was a delight. That is not the most common experience for me to have when I’m reading. I’m recommending it, but I am going to talk about the problems.

The book, which is general fiction, is twelve years old and it’s probable that some of my problems stem directly from that; in many ways it’s dated. The “present tense” story involves Paul, a twenty-three-year-old reporter who has recently graduated from a tiny liberal arts college in upstate New York. Paul has drifted into a small town where he writes for the local weekly, expertly guided by the first of several male mentors, Art. Art was a big noise back in the day. Now he’s retired, kicking back, but keeping his hand in with the local weekly, and prepared to use all his still-considerable connections to smooth the way for Paul.

Paul is assigned to cover the obituary of an eccentric town resident who died in his home under unusual circumstances. It looks like Jaan Puhapaev died of natural causes, or maybe by accident, in his home. It’s odd, though that there was an anonymous 911 call made about his death. Puhapaev was a scholar and a professor of Baltic history at the very college Paul attended, and when Paul interviews people at the college, Pahapaev’s life, he uncovers mysteries and inconsistencies. And then the medical examiner assigned to the autopsy is killed in a hit and run accident.

The present tense story is leisurely, with Paul occasionally going out to ask a few questions or investigate something. He blunders into a strange and vaguely sinister drinking club, for instance, that the dead professor used to frequent. Mostly, though, Fasman uses this part of the book to give us detailed portraits of whimsical characters like the other writer on the Lincoln Clarion, or to introduce another one of Paul’s mentors, Professor Jadid. Then, of course, Paul meets Hannah Rowe, the beautiful, shy, innocent music teacher who was Pahapaev’s only friend in town. Hannah is sweet and likes music and she’s beautiful. She’s tall and beautiful. Did I mention she is beautiful?

No one would mistake this book for a mystery or a thriller because the pacing and structure aren’t right. The clues are tantalizing; the history of the Soviet Union and its collapse are interesting, and the prose shines now and then with beautiful bits of description. Paul’s passivity is a problem, but it seems that’s it’s his defining characteristic, so I guess I can’t complain.

Oh, wait a minute. Yes, I can. Paul’s passivity is his defining characteristic. He is hiding out from his overbearing father who is a high-powered lawyer. Paul attracts male mentors right and left, and my problem with the story is not this, or not only this, but that they do the work of the story for him. Art and Jadid, between them (there is another male mentor, Jadid’s nephew who is a police detective) do all the work and periodically loop Paul in to provide interactive lectures while he nods and says things like, “Oh, I get it.” Reading this, I realized how very tired I am of “literary” works that offer up passive male characters.

At the end of the Paul tells us that “I finally felt as if I were something other than an observer in my own life.” That’s good, but his final actions in the book don’t support that insight. Maybe that’s the point. I don’t know.

The other problem is the way women characters are treated. Art’s wife comes in to do a one-act skit that shows how in love she and Art still are. Paul’s ex-girlfriend Mia shows up to talk about Paul. And there’s Hannah, the Designated Femme Fatale; who is quite femme but not very successful at being fatale.  Women do nothing important; except for the Designated Femme Fatale, they aren’t important. And if we might have missed that point, Fasman underscores it for us by offering up Art’s daughter as a conciliation prize to Paul at the end of the book; a woman we have never seen and who is given two sentences in a summation paragraph. Dana isn’t a person; she doesn’t matter, and what’s most noteworthy about her is how much she looks like her father. She’s like a feudal European princess married off to cement an alliance, because what matters is Paul’s relationship with Art.

So, what did I like about the book? What I liked, what I loved, about The Geographer’s Library is the whole second story, the secret Pahapaev was carrying; a tale about a collection of alchemical artifacts, some dating from the eleventh century, and the secret society of (male) alchemists who are attempting to gather them all together. This part of the book brings us to what Fasman does extremely well; travel writing. The quest takes place during and after the collapse of the USSR. We follow a ruthless factotum as he tracks down and “liberates” each of the items. Through his eyes, mostly, we see marketplaces and hotels, landscapes and cityscapes in regions that were formerly the USSR: now technically independent, they exist in a power vacuum. We see tribalism and bad Soviet architecture. I held my breath sometimes as I hoped a character would survive, or as I feared they would. Fortunately, this was about half the book, and it kept me going.

I liked the conceit of the collection and the quest for immortality these men are pursuing. It tipped the balance of the book for me. Actually, Fasman’s line-by-prose tipped the balance. I’m going to quote a couple of lines I loved, and then end with one that made my snort and roll my eyes because it’s so bad.

“Jadid sat still, attentive and feline, while the smoke from his cigarette glittered with dust as it poured upward through the sunbeams.”  That’s just gorgeous.

This is my favorite passage in the book: “Storytellers and spice-sellers, he reflected, had an unnatural power over the memory and should be avoided.”

And here’s the passage that is so wrong it’s bad-movie-funny. This is Mia dissecting Paul as a boyfriend: “Sometimes I felt you were like a sponge, you know, just sitting quietly listening to me talk or vent, without giving anything back. I guess that quality would make you a good reporter. A rotten boyfriend, but a good reporter.”

Yes, because what women really hate in a boyfriend is someone who listens without interrupting, advising, or telling you what you should have done. Of course what Mia probably means is that Paul wasn’t present in the relationship. That isn’t what it says, though. The story sees Mia as a woman who cannot define herself without checking her reflection in the mirror of her boyfriend’s opinion.

In spite of my irritation, the balance tips towards “recommended.” I hope that with his first novel under his belt, Fasman got all that Golden Boy, I-can-afford-to-be-passive-because-everything-is-handed-to-me crap out of his system. He published a second novel, The Unpossessed City, set mostly in Moscow, and I liked this one enough that I plan to hunt it up and read it.

 

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Protected by Unicorns

This is a silly little story that isn’t very strong. I didn’t spend too much time on it, but I had fun writing it. Brian’s Comics in Petaluma was the inspiration, because of it’s location and unusual floor space. (I’m sure Brian will cringe at the thought of being associated with this.)  Anyway.

UPDATE: Revised 7/4/17

#

The sign had finally decided him: “This Space Protected by Unicorns.” How stupid was that? D’s Comics deserved to get ripped off. He might not only take the Cyberella #1 and New Adventure Comics #10 she had in the locked case behind the counter, he might break up the place too, just to show her how good her “unicorns” were.

Tyler paused by the steps down to the arcade and casually adjusted his ball cap, flicking on the lights that edged the brim. His soft-soled shoes whispered on the treads as he stepped off the dark street level and headed down. He stopped, heart pounding, as a sentinel figure appeared out of the shadow. It was only a curve of gas pipe. He brushed past it and reached for the door.

The door into this low-rent space was locked but not alarmed, and Tyler broke the lock quickly. What would the fat-ass grannies at the call center think, he wondered, if they saw him now. Nobody at his stupid job knew about this side of him. He sidled in. He felt strong. His senses seemed sharper. He loved the adrenaline rush illegal entry gave him.

This subterranean space that paralleled B Street held only two businesses right now. The Hole Thing, Piercing and Tattoos, faced the boulevard. It was locked up tight, and there was nothing in there that Tyler wanted. He walked past the alcove where Wendell the Bratwurst Guy stored his cart, to the oddly-shaped shop on the left, D’s Comics.

Tyler had first seen the wooden A-frame sign three weeks ago. What kind of loser opened a brick-and-mortar comic shop now? Paper was dead and everyone knew it. The woman who ran it was named Denise. She was too old for him. At first he had thought she was fat, but after spending a few minutes with her he decided he would totally tap that. She had a nice narrow waist and big hips, soft brown eyes. She was friendly and knew a lot about comics for a woman. He studied the locked case behind the counter and asked to see Cyberella #1. She unlocked the case, look out the plastic-sleeved comic, and carefully put the key back under the counter. When she put the zine back, she did the same thing. Amateur. As he was leaving with his copy of Ironman he noticed the sign in the window.

Okay, then. She deserved it. It was the kind of stupid thing the fat-ass grannies at work had in their cubicles next the screensaver shots of bug-eyed grandchildren; Don’t Drive Any Faster Than Your Angel Can Fly and that sort of crap. He hated that and the way they narked on him constantly. Another smoke break, Tyler? and Tyler, you’ve had a call in the queue for forty-seven seconds, do you need help? Like he needed help to upsell more useless “features” to every idiot who called to order basic service.

There were rumors about Denise, though. She had moved down from Oregon, and she had money. One story was that she had sold three patents to a black-box pharma-tech firm called Praxis. Tyler figured the patent story was bullshit. She might have grown some really good dope in Oregon. Or maybe her husband had invented something and was letting Wifey have a hobby.

He stopped in front of the glass door. The inner wall of the space curved, so when you opened the door you stepped into a short corridor. Four steps and the space opened out, with the counter and the locked cabinet directly ahead. The shelves that displayed the carefully sleeved single comics issues hugged the wall to the left.

He knelt and pulled the duct tape from his pack. He stuck four strips on the glass door, next to the thumb-turn dead bolt, then smacked the tape hard with the small punch he carried. The glass crazed. He pulled the glass-coated tape free, reached in with his gloved hand and opened the lock. Why didn’t she get a keyed dead bolt? That would have taken him a bit longer. Maybe the unicorns could help her with that.

He crouched for a minute by the broken door, waiting,listening. Outside, one car rolled down the street. Otherwise, all was silent. He walked in, heading for the counter. His foot hit something metal that grated on the cement floor. He looked down. Water lapped back and forth inside a good-sized metal water dish. Maybe she kept a cat in here.

He took another couple of steps toward the counter. His heart was pounding, and he felt like he was straining his ears to hear anything, like his skin was extra sensitive. It was almost as good as sex, and sometimes, when he crashed his hammer through glass and sent pieces flying, or felt pages rend between his fists as he tore books apart, sometimes it was better than sex.

Maybe, if his Uncle Todd had given him he loan he’d asked for, this wouldn’t be a comic book store. It would be Tyler’s Game Den. But no, Todd just acted all superior and “show me your business plan,” instead of helping. Todd was a stupid, stick-up-his-butt jerk.

Across the room, something made a soft noise, like a sneeze. He turned his head slowly, scanning the floor. Maybe she did keep a cat. He couldn’t see anything moving. He could hear something though, a soft clicking. It might be a rat. The back of his neck crawled. He stopped by the  collectibles case and tried the handle, just to see. It was locked.

Movement caught the corner of his gaze, and he turned. The bluish light from the cap lit up the creature that stood next to the shelves. Tyler’s mind struggled to make sense of the input his brain was giving him.

It wasn’t big, maybe the size of the nasty Jack Russell terrier his mom had. Its neck curved gracefully and a dark, liquid eye studied him as it tossed its head. One hoof pawed the floor. The light irradiated it; it looked silver. It had powerful, muscular haunches. From between its eyes a spiral horn sparkled with light. A shiver ran through him.

The animal danced toward him, sideways, curvetting, its head lowered. A hologram, he thought, but he still backed away. Something moved in the shadows pooled at the bottom of the counter. Another one came out. Tyler stepped away without thinking, even though he knew he could drop-kick either one of them into the wall with no trouble. He shifted his weight to his left leg to do just that, when the one by the shelves charged him. He yelped, off-balance, and fell against the wall. Something jabbed his right ankle, just above his sock. The point of the horn pierced denim and sank into his flesh. He yelped again and it was closer to a scream.

He kicked at it and the first unicorn stuck him in the other ankle, dancing away, shaking its gossamer mane, before he could move. Both animals retreated into the shadows.

“Where are you?” he whispered, advancing into the store. His ankles stung. They were going to die, whatever they were. Genetically engineered pygmy goats, maybe? It didn’t matter. They were dead.

Warmth surged up his legs from the burning wounds. The darkness rippled in front of his eyes, and the muscles in his face suddenly stretched his mouth into a wide grin. He fell into soft fragrant grass and rolled over onto his back, laughing. A silvery horse creature nudged him and snorted. He laughed again. Above him, the sky was an impossible blue and a soft breeze flowed over his body. The other horse creature stood on his chest, nudging open his jacket. And then she came. He saw her feet first, bare, a ring with a twinkling blue stone encircling one toe, blades of grass bowing at her touch. She crouched beside him, smiling, and he smiled back.

“It’s you,” she said. “What’s your name again?”

“Tyler.”

“Tyler. You know stealing is wrong, don’t you?”

He smiled so widely his face ached, just at the joy of hearing her voice. “I know, Denise.” She smelled like ripe peaches. He could spend eternity staring into her welcoming brown eyes.

The horse thing lipped the cord on his hoodie, then chewed on it thoughtfully. Denise picked up the animal and set it beside him. “Don’t eat that,” she said. “You don’t know where it’s been.”

He rolled his head sideways and looked down at her bare feet. They were the color of honey, with perfectly jointed toes, and the blue stone winked at him. Beyond her, he could see tall trees, and two dark figures like wolves.

“He’ll be like this for about three hours,” she said. “You want to make sure he’s secured; they get despondent sometimes when the euphoria wears off.”

The wolves drew closer; men in black leggings, with gray jackets, huntsmen’s caps and dark sunglasses. On second thought, Tyler decided they weren’t wearing dark sunglasses. They just looked like they should be. They came up to Denise and stood on either side of her.

“He’ll stay obedient, though?”

“Oh, yes,” she said.

“Thanks for the call, D,” the one on her left said. “I didn’t think we’d hear from you again.”

“Well, an opportunity presented itself.”

The one on the right said, “What made you think he’d break in?”

“His aura read ‘thief’ in flashing neon letters,” she said.

“Literally?” one of the men said, and Denise snorted. Or maybe it was a unicorn.

“Tyler, this is Agent Corso. And this is Agent Marshall. You will do whatever they tell you.”

“Yes, Denise,” he said, pleased to be able to offer her something. He got up slowly. The two little animals pranced over and stood next to Denise, pawing the grass.

Agent Marshall said, “What about the delivery system? Can we borrow one?”

“They aren’t a delivery system. They’re my partners. I agreed to provide you with the venom, nothing more.”

Agent Marshall shrugged. “Can’t hurt to ask, right?” he said. “Tyler, come with us.”

Tyler walked over to stand between the two men. One touched his shoulder and guided him toward the door.  As they turned away from Denise, the blue sky faded and the smells of summer dwindled.

“I still think you should get a regular alarm system,” Agent Corso said. “This is really not fair.”

“You’re right,” Denise said. “The unicorns deserve better.”

 

Posted in Stories | 4 Comments

In Which I Get Grammar-Snobby and Reality Immediately Smacks Me

I’m not an expert on English grammar but that doesn’t stop me from being a grammar snob. I cluck and tsk and roll my eyes as I  observe punctuation errors and other grammar errors, not just in the comments section where I tend to be less concerned, but in the published content online and in print. In the old, old days — like the 1980s– there used to be people called line editors who fixed these things, but that occupation seems to have vanished or at least dwindled. Some badly constructed sentences that get through show a lack of understanding of the fundamental structure of English.

One thing I see more and more of is subject-verb disagreement. I know there is a technical name for the specific problem I am seeing but I don’t know what it is. This isn’t  just the confusion over whether the verb should be singular or plural, although we see that a lot too. It’s a specific problem when the writer has attempted an inverted construction of the sentence, flipping two clauses in order to create some variety and interest in the prose, and then can’t figure out which noun, in which clause, the verb supports. I don’t know what it’s called, but like art or pornography, I know it when I encounter it.

A couple of months ago, I was watching a restaurant review show and the narrator read a sentence that went something like this:

“Carved of a single block of redwood, customers can sit at the bar and sip classic cocktails.”

Quiz question: Who or what is carved out of redwood? Based on that sentence, the customers are, although I think if your customers are carved out of a single block of redwood, you run a very odd business.

I think the sentence wants to mean that the bar is carved out of a single piece of redwood. You know, like, “Carved out of a single block of redwood, the bar offers customers a place to sip classic cocktails.”

You can also go simpler and just say, “Customers can sit at the bar, which is carved from a single block of redwood, and sip classic cocktails.”

The other day I was reading a local print weekly. There was a column about music venues. I’m changing the name of the venue and I’m not giving the name of the periodical, but I wrote this one down because it was so convoluted.

“Nestled in the Sonoma County hamlet of Kenwood, music-lovers can dance to great bands at Freaky’s stellar line-up.”

This one just set my teeth on edge.

What is the subject of this sentence, anyway? Is it music-lovers? Is it Freaky’s? It is Freaky’s stellar line-up?

If it’s music lovers, this is pretty easy. “Music lovers can dance to great bands at Freaky’s, in Kenwood, which has a stellar line-up.”

If it’s Freaky’s: “Freaky’s, nestled in the Sonoma County hamlet of Kenwood, offers a stellar line-up of bands,” or even, “… offers a stellar line-up of bands sure to please music lovers.”

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That second one really irritated me.  I mean, I wrote it down, that’s how much it irritated me. I indulged in a mental rant while I ran errands that morning. Come on, people! How hard can it be to keep track of subject, verb, object? This is what comes of not diagramming sentences anymore. You people need to pay attention when you are writing! I would never mangle the mother tongue this way. Never, never, never.

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In real life, unlike fiction, the world usually creates a lag of a day or two before delivering a reality slap. In this case, however, reality wanted to try some creative writing, so later that same day, the very day I ranted to myself in the car and indulged my grammarly superiority, I sat down to revise an older story. As I read along, I crashed face-first into this:

“From underneath the flapping green coat, Ragged hears Whitelick call.”

Ummm… okay, who is under the green coat? (Here’s a hint; it’s not supposed to be Ragged.)

“Ragged hears Whitelick call from under the flapping green coat,” doesn’t fix it, although it’s closer.

This is really a simple fix, and it goes like this: “From underneath the flapping green coat, Whitelick calls.” Ragged is watching. She knows there’s a green coat and she knows her brother Whitelick is under it. Problem solved.

But the tragic part is that I had already sent this story out a couple of times, with that sentence in there. It’s buried in a longer paragraph, and it is the only complete snarl-up of that kind — and believe me, there were plenty of other reasons to reject the story than just that sentence — but how did I let it get by me?

I wasn’t paying attention.

I workshopped this story and had another person read it after the workshop and no one picked out that sentence. This is not to spread around blame; the level of confusion is pretty mild, and what I guess happened is that people liked the story, were vaguely unsatisfied with it, and never identified that particular sentence as being one reason. I was trying to do a couple of things in this story, and one was to tell the tale from the POV of an innocent (and nonhuman) character. All that bad sentence did was create an impression that the writer just wasn’t as masterful with her prose, or as professional, as she thought she was. And that was an accurate impression.

Lessons learned, then? A couple, for me. One is to pay attention to the prose aspect a little more, probably in the work on later drafts, once the characters, the story, the motivations, the plot, the imagery and all those things are worked out.

And while I will still make fun of people who write bad sentences, I will be a little less haughty about it, at least for the next few days.

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Vacation Guide to the Solar System

Grab your travel guide and suit up! Front cover of Vacation Guide to the Solar System

Grab your travel guide and suit up!

There is a lot of exciting information out of space these days. We’re finding out all sorts of cool things from outside our star system, but the facts we’re finding about our own solar neighborhood grow more amazing every day. If you’re like me, you’re starting to discover that what you thought you knew, or remembered, about our star and its planets is either outdated or just wrong.

This is where Vacation Guide to the Solar System, by Olivia Koski and Jana Grcevich comes in so handy! It contains a lot of useful information about our star system, perfectly written in the form of a Travel Guide. Weather and Climate, When to Go, Arriving, and Seeing the Sights… all there are very familiar headings to any Lonely Planet book, only this one presumes access to a working space suit and a space ship. The book is augmented with lovely poster-style art that has a delicious 1960s flavor.

I consider this a vacation or “summer” book. It’s technically nonfiction (or science fiction…) with a lot of good data; but set up to be browsed and read in bits; at the pool, in the park, in the hammock. At the family picnic or while you’re waiting for the fireworks to start,  you can amaze friends and family with tidbits; the moon is drifting out of earth’s orbit at the rate of one and a half inches per year. Mercury takes 88 Earth days to rotate the sun, and its average surface temperature is 333 degrees Fahrenheit with highs reaching to 880. Bring sunscreen. Jupiter takes 12 Earth years to orbit the sun. Startle your friends and enjoy the whimsy!  Locals can find it at Copperfields (in the Sebastopol store, it was on their Travel display.) Recommended.

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