Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Dawn Treader Book Shop

I once again have the keys to The Dawn Treader Book Shop.  After a fourteen year hiatus, I have returned to work at the best used book shop I have ever known.  The name, of course, comes from C.S. Lewis's The Voyage of the Dawn Treader in the Narnia series.  One room is dedicated to speculative fiction alone.  It is a maze, with 70,000 books to its name.  Smelling of crackling old book paper and dust, it is the scent of my dreams.  I have been frequenting The Dawn Treader Book Shop since I was too young to look over the counter.

The first time I applied there I was given a dauntingly long book test, which I failed in humiliation.  The owner, Bill Gilmore, called out my mistakes--books I should know the authors to, authors who I should know what they had written, only for the other employees to fire back correct answers without stopping working.  I just laughed and shook my head at my mistakes, and at the end of it, Bill told me that if I could get through that grilling still laughing, I had a job.

My main job them was to stock the floor.  I shelved new arrivals, restocked the books we had sold, and organized most of the time, though I also worked the front desk.  The back stock room that holds popular books we buy more than one copy of so we will have them at the ready when one is sold is more of a labyrinth than the store itself.  Sliding sideways through a cornucopia of books, it has the entrancing effect that you expect at any time to come to a magic grimore or a portal to another world around the next corner.

By the time I left, I could reel off authors and books with the best of them.  As one of the main floor workers, I not only knew titles and authors, I often knew what shelf I had put them on.

There I am among my own kind--book people.  The other workers stay for the love of books, often having other jobs, but unable to give up this one as a second home.  Of course, part of that is the undeniable lure of having an employee discount, though that makes it even more likely you spend your paycheck before ever leaving the store.

When I came back to Ann Arbor, I craved working there again.  I stopped by on a regular basis to bug Corby Gilmore (His name means "crow".  How cool is that?) for a job.  Finally a few hours opened up.  And while I will need a second job to fill my time card, I won't be able to leave this one.

I have moved from organizing and culling the children's and young adult section back to spending the time at the front desk.  Yesterday I earned my key to open and close again.

In the rare book room's glassed in, locked cases, you find everything from hand illuminated texts to uncorrected trade paperbacks by Stephen King.  There customers run their fingers over books reverently, and speak of them as "pieces".

There are never enough shelves, and books line the isles and stack the floors.  Leading lost customers to the section they seek is one of the employees' main jobs.

To contribute to the other worldliness, Bill buys a variety of items besides books when going to people's houses to look at their collections.  In the process of walking through the store, you are confronted with pictures of ships and nineteen twenty damsels on the walls, never leaving a space bare.  You may turn the corner to meet an African wooden statue as tall as you are.  The Millennium Falcon flies overhead the speculative fiction section.  Corby lovingly sets a stout leather pig in a new isle every morning.  In theory, everything in the store is for sale, but I don't think anyone will ever offer enough for that pig.

Corby is Bill's son, and I envy him the experience of having grown up in a world of books.

In the Internet age, the store lists books on line.  Manning the phone, I encounter breathless customers asking if the book is really there.  Of course, we have to go check and get it off the shelf before promising to ship it to them.  The grad school students have their own type of desperation, often asking if the book is there over and over again as you promise you are looking for it on the shelf.

Customers arrive to ask if you have that one book--you know.  The one where the cat talks and there is a magical Bed and Breakfast.  I find a magic in itself when I am able to answer, "Summon the Keeper by Tayna Huff?  Let me show you where we keep it."  And, always, the customer who asks if we by any chance stock C.S. Lewis.

Bill is an ex jar head who spent time in Viet Nam and grad school as well.

I marvel at the fact Corby has settled in to being a manager, and I can now hear him when he speaks.  The last time I worked there, he had only been a manager for a short time.  My training consisted of following him around as he mumbled ahead of me.  "What?"  I would ask, trying to sound competent.  After the third or fourth "What?" I would feel I sounded stupid, and answer "Yeah, I get it," only to flee and ask another employee what I was supposed to be doing.

Last time I worked there I met some of the best friends I have had in my life--Lauren Herckis and Rebbecca Biber.  Lauren lured me into their world of trivia nights at the local Irish pub Conner O'Niell's and long lunches at the Raja Rani's buffet.

Bill is irascibly inappropriate at times--to many people's minds.  To me his off the wall and sometimes off color comments feel like home.  Corby is a puzzle that I can never quite figure out.  In other words, they are archetypes of used bookstore owners.

The intoxicating word of The Dawn Treader Book Shop leaves me hungry to go home and write a book that one day, I pray, may grace it's shelves.

Monday, April 27, 2015


For the third time, I examine the story of Beauty and the Beast in Robin McKinley's Beauty:  A retelling of Beauty and the Beast.  As I've said before, this fairy tale is near and dear to my heart.  A large part of it is that the decision, the movement in the fairy tale belongs the the girl.  My other fondness comes from the fact the story involves no violence but the Beast's initial threat that if the father doesn't send one of his daughters in his place, he will be killed.

Beauty follows the original story closely, once it gets to the Beast.  The first two sections of the book follow Beauty's story before she ever reaches the Beast.  Notable and a nice twist--Beauty isn't beautiful.  Her name is Honor.  When she was young and learned her and her sister's names meant something, her father succeeded in explaining Grace and Hope, but had trouble with Honor, leading her to comment she would rather be called Beauty, which stuck.  However her youthful beauty did not, and as she grew older she grew into an awkward, undersized, sallow creature while her sisters grew beautiful.

She still is the youngest of three sisters of a wealthy merchant.  However, her two sisters are far from bratty, and are well rounded, likable characters, as are all of the characters.  The first part of the book introduces you to her world when her father is rich and she is the youngest, bookworm child.  At the end of that section, his fortunes take a turn for the worse, and they become poor.  They follow Hope's fiancé to the wild north country, where magic is said to still exist.

It is here, in a cottage at the edge of town, that she first comes into contact with the enchanted forest, and is told to stay out because there is a monster within.

What I love most about this book is that very little happens.  Other than the threat of violence in the enchanted forest before she goes to the Beast's, and a suggestion the castle might be dangerous to her at night, the book is a quiet, every day affair.  Beauty is a strong willed, eccentric character.  The Beast is a gentle creature, most haunting not by his claws or fangs, but for the fact his eyes look human.

McKinley sticks close to the original fairy tale.  Instead of needing to proclaim her love to the Beast, a common change in the story, Beauty must agree to marry the Beast.  As in the original fairy tale, he asks her every day after dinner.

In the enchanted castle, Beauty is attended by two "breezes" who bring her food and clothes and take care of her.  The castle has its own way of moving around, making it difficult for her to find her way at first.  When she arrives, no animals live on the entire estate.  The Beast worries that she has brought her horse, who will be terrified of him.

Changes to their lives happen slowly.  Beauty goes from fear of the Beast to acceptance, to friendship, to a realization of love.

The true beauty of the book is that it is a character study, mostly based in every day life--in small details and changes.  We get to know Beauty in her every day circumstances in the first two sections of the book, and how she grows to be strong.  In the section with the Beast, we see a strong and open minded young woman, who is willing to adapt.  It is a fantasy book where much of the book follows every day circumstances of getting to know a small community.  Of coming to terms with having to wash her own floor and clothes.  Of moving from avoiding the Beast to actively search him out for their afternoon walks.  Magic changes in the moment she gets sparrows to come eat seeds off her window sill.

I first read this book when I was eleven.  I come back to it often.  I was early in my own experiments writing a novel then.  It taught me that my characters did not have to be thrown from one extreme circumstances to others to keep the tension up.  Beauty helped teach me the character driven novel.

Monday, April 13, 2015

cleaning up

I have finished another draft of Will-o-the-wisps Warp.  Now I just wait two weeks to get a proof and start all over again.  Sigh.  The life of a writer.  No, really.  I enjoy this stage of editing.  I've gotten through most of the crazy of making it make sense.  Now is the time to go through and make it pretty.  To work on the quality of the writing instead of just the big picture.  Both of them are exciting in their own way.  But this one was a real mess to clean up to this point, so I am hoping this next time through will be more fun.

Of course, even if I wasn't waiting for a new proof, I would set aside a version for a couple of weeks before starting over again.  The mind needs to lie fallow so that when I go back to it I can see it with as fresh eyes as possible.

That, and finishing a draft comes with an incredible crash.  That first draft is the worst, but every time I get through with a draft I have this adrenaline let down of having worked so long for so hard and really pushing it as I get near then end.  I feel wasted tired and washed out.  I usually get sick.  This time I watched three X men movies in one day.

Of course, there is the other side of finishing a draft and that is that I return to my own world.  It is a family joke that I am a slob.  My sister-and-law Evette once asked me when did I ever clean.  I told her, "when I'm not writing."  She took that in for a second and then laughed, "Bets, you are always writing!"

And I am most of the time.  But when that crash comes I come back to this reality and there are some things that just need to be dealt with.  The deeper into a writing project I am, the worse it gets.  I will wash the same set of dishes over and over rather than fill the dish washer.  The laundry has gone undone.  Most of all, my project has spread all over my house.  Scraps of paper with notes.  Piles of journals with different ideas in them.  Flurries of scenes with corrections on them have made it all the way through the house, from piling on chairs to falling on the floor and getting stepped on.  Reference materials pile in teetering masses.

And it is time to clean up.

It is time to return to other normal things as well.  Such as watching movies, reading, beading or drawing.  For a few short weeks, I work from other parts of my brain.

Other than the fact that at this stage of the editing game, there isn't much creation going on anymore.  It is all refinement.  Which is dandy by itself, but I can't last very long without creating.  Which means by this stage of the game I am already at least mentally and sometimes somewhat guiltily on paper racing on to the next project.

So by now I have Wooden Weft pretty much mapped out.  The next step would be to actually start writing scenes, but I hesitate there as I don't want a new project to take time away from getting Will-o-the-wisps Warp done as soon as possible.  I don't want to begin a new book that I will then want to continue working on when I should be editing my little behind off.

At this point my brain is still a little too taxed to get into anything new and creative anyway.  Finishing that beading project or starting that picture I've been setting up for still sound a little ambitious.

So I am off to do the laundry, and the novel idea of getting to wear clothing that isn't my back up, back up, back up wardrobe.  Hell, I might even fold some of it.

Monday, March 16, 2015

writing partners

There is nothing as valuable as a good writing partner.  I've had a few stand outs and a lot of mediocre mistakes.  Being a great critiquer is, of course, a valuable asset in any writing partner.

However, I find what is more valuable, as I talked about a couple of blogs ago, is the idea of being able to feed off each others' ideas.  The writing partners who have truly inspired me, gotten me through the rough spots and the discouraged points, have been those who had the kind of imagination that allowed them to enter my world as I entered their world.

It is a particular skill.  It doesn't mean that we have to be each other's audience.  It may be that we would never read each other's books if we weren't working together.  But a partner that can see what you are trying to do with a book, rather than what they would do with your book, is invaluable.

Michael, my current writing partner, and I have seen little to nothing of each other's work.  What we do do is talk about our books together.  I will start in on what is going on in my book or what I am stuck on in my book, and Michael will go off the top of his head on his impressions.  Once instance, working on this current book, Will-o-the-wisps Warp, I was stuck on a scene between Laurel and Jamie--my vampire work partners who own the organization Death Watch.

In Death Watch, they have made a pact that if they must damage humans, they will do it where it does the most good.  They started out freeing slaves in Africa, sinking slave ships, and killing off slavers.  In this current scene, they are going after the New Orleans mob, which was one of the oldest mobs in the country.  It was eventually hounded out of existence, supposedly, but rumors persist it has gone underground.  I use that in my book to show the mob as still functioning, mostly off drug sales.

This is all slightly beside the point.  What matters in the scene is that Jamie is angry with Laurel.  Originally, I had them arguing as they pulled the job.  They are so used to their positions in their partnership and their work that they do talk through jobs.  However, in this case it just wasn't working.  The job and the conversation clashed and clunked together in an ungainly mess.  All Michael suggested was that Jamie be a little more of a guy and refuse to talk about his anger until he explodes after the job.  I was dubious as Jamie has lived a long time and pretty much gotten over himself, but I rewrote the scene the way Michael suggested, and it ran smoothly.

With both my old writing partner RoseAnna and with Michael, one of the most valuable assets was to keep inspiration fired up.  I can describe a scene I am currently working on and how it fits into the series, and Michael will question me and go off on his own thoughts on things that don't happen for books ahead of what I am doing now, and the course of my series will take on a slight shift.

For instance he has helped me work a lot with the character Other that comes into the fourth book.  Other is a vampire wolf.  When his mother was in heat a male vampire taking the form of a wolf got a little distracted.  Usually this would come to nothing as vampires are sterile.  But the trickster pookah Charlie, who runs through all of the books, changes the game a little so that Other is conceived.  His name comes from the fact that wolves know that he is not of them, but do not know what he is, so they simply call him Other.

Charlie twists Other's fate even more as he describes my band of good guys to Other, and suggests it is his mission in life to join them.

Originally, I hadn't thought much beyond the fact Other would be a more cognizant character than the wolves generally were.  He would be able to communicate thoughts and ideas to the vampires.  But Michael became fascinated with the idea and dug.  His digging made my mind go a thousand different places as to where I could take Other, and what kind of arc Other himself would have.  Without Michael's interest, Other would have gone on being a severely underdeveloped character for a much longer time.

RoseAnna and my book styles didn't always mesh, but our imaginations did.  We could spend hours on one or another of our books.  One comment on how I might write Alex, the protagonist in Sheep that Stray, as the popular girl who was nice, which was her original character, would lead to hours of spewed imagination as we took every avenue on how to build Alex into a deeper character.  This is what RoseAnna and I spent our junior high and high school years doing together, and many years since.

Essentially, the good writing partner asks the essential question of speculative fiction:  "What if?"  What makes speculative fiction speculative fiction is that speculation of "what if?"  Fantasy, horror, science fiction--the genres all bleed into each other in a way that makes these sub classes almost meaningless, but they all ask the essential question.  "What if all the myths of the world were real, and they formed a society underground to our own, now exploding in a rebellion to no longer hide, and teach the humans where they really stood in the pyramid of species success?", for instance, is the question of my current series.

What a good writing partner does, is ask you over and over again the question, "what if", while you develop and write the book.  This is what has made the stand out partners to me.  The fellow writers who looked at my writing, looked at what I was working on and what I was going to make the book into farther along the line, and ask me "what if?"  What if I changed Alex's character to start off not quite so nice?  What does the difference in Other mean to Laurel in their relationship?  What if I took a character in another direction?  If I have created the Recess in Sheep that Stray, a place where teens congregate in an old school that Robin, the secondary protagonist in the book, created when he was younger, how does that change the course of his life up until that point?  How does it change the way the other characters view him from there on out?  What if?

Of course, the other part of being a good writing partner is knowing when to praise.  We all need a little ego stroking, and the ability to get excited about how a character is developing with you helps you stay invested in that character's development.  Michael's excitement about Other helped me get excited enough to spend that extra energy on him.  RoseAnna's fascination with the Recess shaped Robin's character and that section of the book for drafts to come.  Comments like this let me know I am going in the right direction.

These two qualities, knowing when to praise what someone has created in their lives so far, and knowing how to ask "what if?" in any given situation are not segregated to the writing world.  These qualities create a supportive and challenging relationship in area of life.

Monday, March 9, 2015

The Art of Asking

On the recommendation of my friends Kim and Marci, I have been reading The Art of Asking: or how I learned to stop wording and let people help by Amanda Palmer who up until this point I have willfully believed did not exist because I should have married Neil Gaiman.

The book is obviously, how to ask.  It begins by examining how artists don't know how to ask for help with their projects.  She raised millions of dollars for her album after leaving her major label by using Kickstarter.  Kickstarter, and programs like it, are for people to raise money on creative endeavors from music to films to inventions.  She was wildly successful in her attempt, but she already had a following and had just publicly broken away from her major producer.  She also knew how to ask for help.

She watched too many artists on programs like Kickstarter in their fifteen minute pitches apologizing for wanting help as if they didn't deserve it.  It made her cringe.  A career everything, from living statue to stripper to rock star, Palmer always knew how to ask.  She asked not apologizing for herself, which engenders shame on both ends.  She didn't ask with arrogance.  She asked with gratitude.  Asking requires being able to be vulnerable.  It creates a moment of connection between the asker and the askee in a moment of humanity that does them both good.

Her later chapters cover other asking situations such as how to ask for emotional help.

By the time I got into the first chapter, I began to ask myself, how do I ask?  The answer is, until recently, I didn't.

I have received the patronage of my parents my entire life, and I have always been grateful for it.  They have always been proud to give so that I can work on my creative projects.  They consider themselves to be something that Palmer talks about--patrons.  Until fairly recently, artists had patrons in order to be able to focus on their art.  Patrons were people with money to support these artists and pride in being able to further an artist's career.

Part of the reason my parents have always supported me has nothing to do with art.  To put it bluntly, until recently I have not been functional enough to support myself reliably.  At first I was unstably bipolar--manic depressive.  I stabilized long enough to decide to get my Master of Fine Arts in creative writing, which doesn't sound like the most practical thing for someone with the ambition to become self sufficient.  But of course, I was sure I would publish a book and then be hired by a university as a creative writing instructor.

As it turned out, I fell apart at Mills College.  I still consider it to be one of the most amazing and challenging experiences of my life.  I only wish I had been in a better position to take advantage of it.  After stubbornly staying through trauma, a bad theraputical team, and a serious down spiral after I graduated, I finally returned home to my parents until I was well enough to get a Masters for my next career.

There I stayed stable and excelled, but rolled my car in the final days of the program and had to once again rely on my parents' generosity to stay off assistance.

By that time I had learned to do some asking.  I asked to be put on disability at school to take my two weeks extra to finish my work at Mills College if necessary, but I despised using it.

But I grew up not asking.  Palmer begins the book by using the example that she will loudly ask for a tampon if she needs it in any situation in any company.  She always has had the experience of having women shuffle in their purses until someone comes up triumphant and gives it to her in a moment of connection with the women in the room.  She cannot imagine there are actually women who make do with wadded up toilet paper because they are afraid of asking.

I didn't grow up being too ashamed to ask.  I grew up being the girl who always had tampons in her purse so that if this situation came up, I would have that tampon to lend.  I carried pain killers, safety pins--anything someone might suddenly need.  In my relationships I was always the one there to lend emotional support, but didn't ask for it.

I haven't had great luck asking for help.  Too much of my help has involved asking if someone will help me emotionally when I am depressed or manic.  The situation is overwhelming, and the majority of people I have asked back away from the situation.  Of course, I have also asked while apologizing for asking, which for Palmer brings about shame.

Since I have learned to ask I have had some amazing friends help me along the way from everything from learning to be a girl in high school to my manic depression to a trauma I experienced as well.  And I love and respect them for it.  I am grateful.  I succeeded there because I often didn't ask for help.  I asked for connection, and help came along the way.

But to get around to talking about being an artist asking for help, I have certainly done my share of asking in clever and respectful queries and book proposals.  I have had more trouble asking for help in my indie career.

According to Palmer, there are three parts of the creative process, collection information and impressions from the world, then making these connect into a work, and then sharing the work.  I get stuck on sharing with my writing.  I have had no trouble asking people to come to shows I am in, but it gets a little more complicated when you are asking someone to read a book.  It is a time consuming process.  Most of the time I get brushed off.  The longer I ask for help in my indie career, the more apologetic I get.

I get shame faced about asking someone to join my blog, much less read it or comment on it on a regular basis.  I do recommend my own books to people I think would like them, and do so with every understanding the answer may be no.  But I have had little luck in getting people interested in helping me publicize.

I don't see me using a program like Kickstarter to finance a book.  Certainly not mid series.  Though I am considering taking a break after this, and I could see myself asking for money to put out and publicize, even more, the memoir I would like to return to.  The thing is, I want to work.  I like the extra collection.  I don't want to not be able to collect enough information.

Plus, being bipolar sort of ended my dreams of being a starving artist or joint the Peace Corps.  I need insurance.  I need therapy.  These things cost money.  I am stuck finding something that is reliable and has insurance.

I started writing because I love collecting and connecting images and emotions into metaphors and stories.  But now that I have been doing it for a long time, I find myself wanting to share.  I want people to experience my writing.  I ask with gratitude.  I am a good writer.  I think many people will find it a different and fun activity, but I accept no.

I ask people to join and comment on this blog with gratitude.  I love getting comments.  I am grateful for each one.  It means you have found a moment of connection in my writing, and that means I have found a moment of connection with you.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Walking Ideas

Sorry I'm late again.  I had another deadline yesterday.

I went to a new writing group last week.  They function almost solely on writing exercises.  You know, get the prompt:  "Why is he leaving?"  and then have three to fifteen minutes--somewhere in there--to write off the top off your head a situation where some guy is leaving somewhere for some reason.

I haven't written a writing prompt since I left school.  And I can think of few times during any college experience where I wrote a writing prompt.

Free writes are more common.  That's an exercise where you spend about five minutes either writing on anything or writing on a specified subject, which is a bit like a prompt.  However in the case of a free write, you are supposed to write whatever comes off the top of you head as fast as you can.  The idea is for your pen to never pause.  It's free association.  It isn't a story.  Or usually coherent.  Or sentences. It isn't to craft a very short scene, or a cohesive beginning to a scene.

This group obviously were well honed in the process.  They were good writers in general, but they were also scary good at crafting a tiny something.  Of course, I didn't find out till afterwards that people use characters and other parts of a writing piece that they are already using sometimes.  In that case, they are further exploring character's relationships in novel situations, for instance.  Which makes a little more sense to me.

We went out to dinner afterwards.  They were a largely speculative fiction crowd.  Among average dinner topics like travel, I asked them why they did it.  Some answered that sometimes they got ideas for short stories or flash fiction that way.  Or even novels or the like. They become inspired to write something else when they get home.  Or that they have learned how to close up a scene that way.

I'm trying to come up with how I come up with my ideas.  Three of my novels came from the kernels of dreams, although one in the end only very, very vaguely.  I used to jive with my old writing partner  RoseAnna.   She's the same one the My Little Pony book came from. We would take these long walks and toss around ideas.  Usually it would start with a character, or a couple of characters.  Sometimes we would lend characters to each other, though they usually changed almost beyond recognition in another writer's voice.  We created the same way.  Characters first.  Then worlds.  Then plot.  We would steal characteristics from people we knew.

When we were teenagers we would so intermingle our ideas to create a book concept that we would own it together.  Originally we were co authors, but our styles varied too much.  But we would actually assign a book to one or the other of us.  At one point we both had five books ahead of the one we were writing.  I wrote three of the books we used to walk around and talk about.  Shining in Darkness, the ex My Little Pony book, of course.  Sheep that Stray and Incarnate both came from dreams, but we certainly spent enough time walking around and talking about them.  Especially Incarnate.  If I had my preference, I would like to walk book ideas with someone.

Right now my massage therapist, Michael, is also my writing partner, so we talk out ideas while I get a massage.  Which is always a little weird because I am not looking at him.

These days, I still get ideas from characters that get stuck in my head.  Then they collect things to them like other magnets.  Other characters.  The world forms from how it has effected my characters. Eventually I start working on the world by itself.  Somewhere in there the plot appears out of things I want my characters to do.  The character scenes usually come first.  The battle scenes come towards the end.

Developing characters I use my crazy sick comprehensive character worksheet I got from Leonard Chang at Mills College in his novel writing class.  Inspired by it, my old writing partner Anne created a crazy sick comprehensive world worksheet, but I use that less.  However, I use those once the process is well underway.

Sometimes I will have a scene stuck in my head.  Usually it is the beginning or end scene of the book, though in Incarnate one of the foundation blocks comes in the middle, and does not exactly include any of the main characters.

Music matters a lot.  Sometimes I will come up with a character from a person a song makes me think of.  Sometimes a song becomes emblematic of a scene or theme for a character.  Occasionally the song is a scene.  Back in the RoseAnna days we used to listen to music for hours on end.  When we were younger we were obsessed with the sixties.  But as we got older we became somewhat more contemporary.  We would listen to a song and ask each other, "Who does this song belong to?"  The song wouldn't have to represent something that happened to the character, but how the character or characters in the song would react if they were put into that situation.  I still do that, listening to the radio.  Listening to new music.  Especially when I have new characters.

I can spend hours jotting notes to myself, or playing with Inspiration software, or often just staring vaguely and imagining.  I am ashamed to admit this, but I may be busy imagining a scene or character while talking to friends.  Sometimes I'm even rude enough to get out one of the little notebooks I carry around and write down notes.

But writing exercises puzzle me.  There is no time to delve.  I may go back, though, to experiment.  I have never been able to write speculative fiction short pieces.  I write literary fiction short pieces.  I write memoir short pieces, which you think would be harder, because you have to separate out and encapsulate something from the stream of life, but I create my life out of stories and themes.  But I suck at speculative fiction short pieces.  They always end up as novels.  Or, lately, series.

So perhaps I can learn something from writing exercises.  If nothing else, I will enjoy good company in an extremely cold coffee house basement.

But I'm in holding for someone who will raid the quarter jar with me so that we can go buy candy down at the party store.  And then walk, often wearing holes in the sidewalks on the same paths, or letting it get too dark on some trail up north.  And talk a book.  Until then I listen to musician's ideas and the dogs put up with hearing mine.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Living in the Woods

I grew up in the woods.  Not the real woods.  The woods of Into the Woods.  My post before last discussed some of the differences between the movie and the play of Into the Woods.  One of the things I missed from the movie and loved about the play was the sense of the woods not just as a fairy tale world, but of a place of liminality--it is the place of the in betweens in life and the place to change.  It exists outside our world but heightens our lives.  It is a place of moments.

I grew up in a liberal, artistic household in a city renown for great parks, the world's largest man made waterfall, and symphony and a community college the largest walled prison in the world, and currently the growth economic industries are pot and happy ending massage parlors.  It was a conservative place in the real world.  But I didn't live there.

My parents created a world where we had school chalkboards on the walls and dry ice for our games.  I had a trapeze swing inside.  My mother wrote novels and poetry.  I went to art classes.  The world breathed creativity, intellectualism, and good natured debates.  My father worked at and eventually became the regional bank president all while running around town in a flannel shirt and a pink bandana on weekends.  We had pets from dogs and cats to birds to a four foot long monitor lizard with mouth rot.  We brought home stray animals.  We brought home strays.

When I went out in the world, my mother and father had taught me etiquette and how to work the school system so that I functioned.  I was bright, and never aware there was a box to think outside of in the first place.  I collected the odd friends.  The ones who didn't quite fit.  Maybe they read too much.  Maybe they played elaborate pretend games at lunch.  Maybe they were the ones who had to eat alone at lunch.  I enticed them home.  Most of them never really left.

My parents made our house a haven for neighborhood kids as children to all my brother and my friends as we grew into our teen years.  They talked to us like we were adults.  Unlike the outside world, gayness didn't matter and masturbation was a positive concept.  My mother spooled worlds of feminism.  The world was at once a haven for childhood and experimentation for adulthood.  My parents left us alone in the evenings as we grew older, retreating to their room so we could "have our space".  We ran our own world in that house.  It was a place to change.  It was a place to come to in times of trouble.  We were generations of local theater brats.  We experimented with drugs and alcohol.  Those who ended up with problems found them in reality.  We experimented we sexuality like Little Red Riding Hood.  We learned ourselves.  So many comings-of-age happened there.

The difference between the woods and The Davies House was that the woods were dangerous.  And yes, what we worked through there was dangerous.  But the Davies House supported us.  My parents were accepting and generous to a fault.

Once they went to bed, I became the overseer of the House.  You want food?  Go find it for yourself.  I'll guide you through the kitchen the first time.  You lost your hat?  Here is the lost clothing basket.  You get a little too forceful when drunk.  I smash the tension if I have to.  I take care of you in all of your problems.  I might not be good, but I was nice, and right, whether or not I was listened to.  I picked up.  I stayed sober so that I could stand between my friends and drunk driving.  My parents didn't want anyone driving home drunk, though anyone was welcome to stay anytime.   I mothered so much I felt like a den mother instead of a friend sometimes.

But of course I fought my own demons as I came into my bipolar disorder.  My depressions I felt so guilty about.  How could I be unhappy when I had the perfect family?  The manias I did not have the vocabulary to explain to anyone, including myself.  I kept my pain to myself but felt safe that when I needed it, people would return the favor and help me out too.

Eventually, a friend helped me fuck picking up and taking care of everyone else.  I had a summer of mania and tequila and pot and a friend who listened to me talk of depression.  I talked of wanting to kill myself.  He talked of how his father killing himself had effected his life.  I swore no matter how bad it got, I would never do that to the people I left behind.  I lived in a summer of moments.  I fell in love.  Too bad he was gay.

The Baker's wife sings in Into the Woods "If life were made of moments / even now and then a bad one / But if life were made of moments / Then you would never know you had one."  I grew up in moments.  The only reason I knew anything different was because I had to visit the outside world.

The Davies House wasn't just a place to party.  My parents challenged our thoughts.  We dissected plays and music and movies together.  Though everyone was welcomed into the Davies House, my friends were discerning about who they brought over, whether they lived up to Davies people standards.  They appreciated and respected my parents.

No one ever wanted to hang out anywhere but at our house.  That group of friends still holds onto each other today, though we are spread as far away as Italy.  Late night conversations still return to the Davies House (it was not me or my brother that our friends visited.  They visited the whole house, as a concept).  They use it as changes in their own lives.  They remember the changes it wrought then.  Some of them even use some Davies House concepts to raise their own children, as their own children visit, on occasion, the Davies House.

Not to say we didn't have our bad moments.  One of my friends used to joke that to hang with us, you had to be fucked up somehow.  Together we dealt with substance abuse issues, grown men dating teenagers.  Love, and loss of love.  On more than one occasion someone truly came to live at our house for a while after their parents had kicked them out for being gay or were being abusive.  On one occasion when one of us swallowed a bottle of pills in a suicide attempt, all she wanted to do was come the the Davies when our friends found her.  It was our bad moment to talk her into going to the hospital.

Leaving for college is supposed to be a liberating experience, but I was horrified.  All of the freedoms the dorm bequeathed on newly freed youth, I had already had at home, and I didn't live in a cell.  I have never gotten used to reality.  I always will belong in the woods.  Perhaps that is why I write.     

Monday, February 2, 2015

battle scene antipathy

I hate battle scenes.  All right.  That last scene where you bring together every thread in the book can be cool.  But your average battle scene is boring as hell.  You would think they would be exciting, right?  I know writers who live for them.  Short of those scenes where you are trying to set up a lot of shit and not sound like the exposition queen, battle scenes suck.

When I lived in Oakland, Ca, a writer in one of my one of my writing groups lived for them.  She had crazy battle plans where flanks moved in at strategic points and the other side responded to this maneuver with its own.  In fact, I may be in the minority of fantasy writers here.

But I'm the character girl.  And battle scenes have limited options for character meat.  The scene has to move quickly.  I can't slow it down with a lot of emotions.  The characters have to react quickly to a fast moving situation.  They have time for a line or so of emotion before the next act of violence hits them  I keep in straight limited third person as well.  That means that the reader only experiences what the point of view character experiences.  That means I have to know everything happening around them.  I have to plan out who moves where when and who does what to whom.  But the character has little chance to look around and see what is going on beyond their immediate conflict.  That's a fine line to walk.  You want to give the reader some sense of what else is going on, but it makes no sense for your point of view character to be standing around and checking people out during a battle.

I must say there are also only so many ways you can kill people.  I suppose I could go all James Bond with hats that slice your head off, but in a remotely realistic fight, every death is not going to be as spectacular as a decapitation.  So that is another reason it gets a little dull.  Even in fantasy where I can use trees that's branches turn into nooses and things like that.

My fights also don't contain much in the way of Robin Hood daring-do.  Nobody prances about and kills people in expert and dashing ways.  Even the people who know how to kill don't do it with a gleam in their eye and a twirl of their mustache.

So that pretty much limits me to harried and gross.  That's where I want to be anyway.  Some of my characters, like Jamie in the sequel to Weaver's Web, Will-o-the-Wisps Warp, are expert fighters and do so with little fear or horror.  There are even occasional scenes with Laurel and he, especially when feeding, where I can take a slight comedic twist.  But most of the time my characters don't know that much about fighting, and are freaked out and disgusted by what is going on around them.

I am a fan of the after battle fights.  Especially the first few battles someone is involved in.  Then lots of character development happens fast.  How do they handle the fact they have just killed someone?  That people were trying to kill them?  That their friends or themselves might be hurt?  How do they deal with the smell of blood and half digested food and shit that will accompany many battle scenes? These things are more interesting to me.

I also like, as I said, my climatic fight at the end of the book.  Except in series, I am finding, where this fight may not resolve everything.  The cool thing about those last fights is that yes, I usually do a lot of character wrap ups before and afterwards, but to me the point of those final fights is to bring together the themes and character arcs that I have been building towards the entire book.  That is fun. It takes pacing so that your point of view character can register actions and have emotional build up.  It takes, in my experience, some sort of conversation with your Big Bad in order to get these last threads tied up, and because it would be quite anticlimactic if the Big Bad never got to have their moment, but just got shot with an arrow and that was that.  However, you really have to watch that pacing, because no one likes a James Bond evil monologue.

As Dr. Evil's son, Scott, points out in Austin Powers:  International Man of Mystery, just shoot him.  Boom.  No prolonged gloating.  No lasers that will split him up the crotch.  All of these things make your piece unwieldy and your villain look like an idiot.  Okay.  I have one villain who gloats.  But I set up that he is the gloating type way in advance.  And havoc is still happening while he maniacally gloats.

Lead ups to fights can be quite interesting.  Scenes directly after a battle can carry a lot of development.  But except in the case of those final, theme uniting scenes, battle scenes are dull.  You have to plan out a sequence of events ahead of time so that your chaos will be orchestrated, and then there is nothing left to do but plod through it.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Into the Woods

Into the Woods (the movie)

Okay, Stephen Sondhiem's (lyricist and composer) masterpiece musical here still relates to me personally.  This play got me through being eighteen.  The themes in it kept me going.  Nobody is alone.  The difference between good and bad, right and wrong, nice.  Of how we listen to those we love, but not to the things they think they are telling us, but what we see of them.   If you go back far enough in my blogs, you will find a post about the play.

In Into the Woods fairy tale characters such as (cast as in movie) Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) and Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) from "Jack and the Beanstalk" must enter the woods in order to complete their stories.  The stories are woven together by the tale of the Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt).  In order to get the Witch (Meryl Streep) to reverse a curse making it impossible for them to have children, they must gather items associated with various fairy tales, such as one of Cinderella's shoes.  The witch uses these items in a spell.  The fairy tales closely follow grim Grimm brothers, and even taints of the stories before the brothers got a hold of them.

Screenplay and musical by James Lapine and directer by Rob Marshall, I expected this Disney interpretation to fall down.  This is a complex and rich play.  I have to say it was fun to watch.  I'm not going to tell you not to go see it, but I was right about the let down.

Disney's movie lost all the themes.  It was a movie with the occasional song as an afterthought, not a musical.  Songs were cut in favor of an obsession with explaining what was going on rather than letting it happen.  Disney's movie was a fun mish mash of fairy tales, but lost the finer points.

The woods became fraught with large, twisted trees as the characters moved farther in.  It did invoke an idea of differentness than the village.  For some reason the director was obsessed with mud.  The entire place was wet.  The characters came from a very average village in peasant's or king's clothing as was fit.

However the movie lost the true magic of the play and the woods in particular.  The world in the play is a stylized one.  The world is one of fairy tales.  Mud, depressing homes, dreary clothes--reality in general plays no part.  The idea was to have this world change as they entered the woods, but as the woods were also dreary, it gave the movie a dank, dark quality completely inappropriate to a movie made of fairy tales and their undoing.

I had heard that Johnny Depp made for an annoying wolf, but I have to say he was one of my favorite parts.  I used to be a huge Depp fan from the era of such as Ed Wood.  Even the first Pirates of the Caribbean:  Curse of the Black Pearl--he stole the film with a character of his own brilliant creation.  Unfortunately after that it was as if he got stuck on Jack Sparrow.  His usually impeccable taste in choosing roles went down hill.  Every character was some reiteration of Jack Sparrow.

But as the Wolf, Depp echoed his old days working with Tim Burton.  His stylized hungry and sexualized wolf in anachronistic clothing represented the outlandish and stylized world that should have represented the woods.  Little Red Riding Hood is not a central character, but her story has always been one of my favorites.  The direction, though not Depp, underplayed the fact the story is about the loss of virginity.  Marshall made a poor choice in representing Little Red Riding Hood as young as he did.  In all versions I have seen, Little Red Riding Hood and Jack are teenagers.  Here they were children.  This was problematic for Riding Hood's story as an already mixed set of feelings for the metaphor of a loss of virginity became disturbing due to her age.

Of course, Disney undercut the sexy quality beneath all aspects of the play.

The woods are more than a place were magic happens.  They are the liminal space.  A place of borders crossed.  A place were lives could change.  Where the subconscious became conscious.  The concept of the woods as a world of metaphors and archetypes, only to become broken archetypes--this was one of the things I always loved about this piece.  I sorely missed it here.

The play is a complicated one, I will give you that, and the need to simplify must have been strong.  The choice to nix songs for explanations to beat the plot into the audience's head did not work.  The songs that were left out, the screen time given to the Baker, the hero of the piece, sidelined him as a plot device to keep all the stories intertwined.  Two choices had an especially bad effect.

The first was to remove the Baker's father as a character.  I can see how he might have been thought of as a complication, but without him, the Baker does not sing his duet with his father.  That song is the pivotal piece in the Baker's character at the end.  Without it, his arc clunked.

The other was to have the narrator as a voice over instead of a character.  It must have felt natural to make the narrator narration, but he plays a critical role in the play.  Without him, the devolution of the fabric of the fairy tales in the second half makes no sense.

The Witch's two heartbreaking songs--"Lament" and  "Children Will Listen " were undercut by the change of Rapunzel's (Mackenzie Mauzy) role and the fact the second song was done as a soaring voice over instead of giving Meryl Streep the chance to go all out on her acting.  Also, I love Meryl Streep, but Bernadette Peters created the role, and in my mind it still belongs to her.  Meryl Streep comes in second class.

Most of the problems were not due to the actors, but to the rewrite of the script and especially Marshall's direction.  Again, if you want to go see a show about fairy tales going wild, this is a fun fluff piece for the most part.  You'll probably have fun.

But if you want to understand Sondheim's vision, go watch the play.  Barring chances to do that,  the TV show American Playhouse, which shows tapings of plays, has a great version directed by Lapine.

In the meantime, I hope to see you in the in-betweens.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Tortured Artists

There is little that I hate more than the myth of the tortured artist.  It nearly killed me.  When I descended into depression and soared into addictive mania, I took them as my goddesses.  They were part and parcel to me being an artist.  The drugs I did trying to unsuccessfully control my moods were just part of being an artist.  I didn't invest in my recovery even when I knew what was wrong.  I was afraid if I lost my "eloquent" depressions and "productive" manias that I would lose my creativity.  Artists were supposed to be crazy, right?

Okay, most of us are eccentric but the myth that self destructing is artistic destroys people.  It can kill people.  It is bullshit it.

Scientists have found a genetic correlation between mood disorders and creativity.  That is correlation not causation.  I got a tattoo and wrote the story that got me into Mills to remind myself of the difference.

Here's the tattoo.  People call salamanders fire lizards.  In fact, they are delicate and beautiful amphibians.  But in medieval times, people thought salamanders were born of fire.  In fact, salamanders like to hibernate in damp logs.  People would light up a log in the winter.  The salamander would wake up, the heat making it think spring had come.  So it would crawl out of the log and onto the hearth.  Shocked people would see a salamander crawl out of a fire.  They thought the salamanders were born because of fire.

In fact, there's no causation there.  Salamanders aren't born out of fires.  They hibernate in logs.  It is a correlation that salamanders quit hibernating when it gets warm in the spring, and that they quit hibernating when a fire warms them up to make them think it is spring.

My tattoo is of a salamander crawling out of an old school medieval wood cut.

See the thing is, even if there is a link between mood and creativity, it is only a correlation.  That means I know lots of people who are creative and have no mental illnesses, and people with mental illnesses who are completely uncreative.

There is nothing creative about a mood disorder in and of itself.

When you are depressed the world is like decaying plastic.  Your mind descends in a glue of failing cognition.  I'd get lost in my own dorm.  All I wanted to do was sleep.  I hurt like hell.  The only thing stopping me from killing myself was that I was too depressed to figure out how to do with it.  Depression is static.  Depression descends your brain into a tar of emotional hell.

I will give you that there is this perfect hypomania (small, not very high mania) where the whole world interconnects and your brain dances and you can create like hell.  Mania is the most seductive drug I have ever met.  It is the pure neurotransmitter form that drugs attempt to replicate.  In comparison to a good mania, a euphoric mania makes ecstasy look like a rainy, Monday morning when you have a cold and there is too much paperwork.

Treatment for bipolar disorder is fairly advanced.  The illness can be deadly because people become addicted to the manias.

The problem is like every drug addiction, you can't control it.  You can't keep that perfect mania, even if you force it by losing sleep on purpose or doing other drugs or any of the ways you can push yourself into a mania.  That perfect mania speeds up.  All of the sudden you can't sit still.  The thoughts that raced through your brain with such synchronicity now speed so fast they break apart into fractions of of images and words.  Your thoughts jump so fast you start out saying or writing something in one paragraph, and finish the sentence with half a thought from paragraphs later.  You can't sit still.    Like the little girl in the red shoes, you feel like you are now dancing till you die.  You try everything to slow down, but without the proper medication, the only thing beyond a mania is a drop into depression.

Unless depression already entered the stew in a mixed mania.  In a mixed mania, your thoughts still race.  The world is unrelentingly barrages you with images and movement but instead of coming with euphoria, you are depressed and manic at the same time.  Every unrelenting emotion tells you the same awful thing about yourself that depression does, but instead of slowing you down till you can hardly move, you speed in your horror, and have more than enough energy to kill yourself.  Mixed manias are the most dangerous times.

Still, people want to keep all of this because they are afraid of losing their creativity, just like drug addicts justify their addictions by being "artists", and how artists justify their drug addictions.   Being stable has been the best thing for my creativity.  I have a steady supply of inspiration.  Instead of working when I am "inspired" and living in hell the rest of the time, I write like any working artist--on a regular. scheduled basis, and as a much happier healthier people.

This myth of the self destructing artist is insidious.  The salamander image originated in a memoir short piece about an experience I had with a group of intellectuals who worked at a used bookstore with me and one who ran pub trivia every week.  There we were, sitting around playing Risk.  I despise Risk, but I had only started working and the store.  I respected and liked this crowd and wanted to be friends with them.

I zoned out to the boredom of Risk, when I tuned into the conversation.  Philip K. Dick never would have written the way he did if he wasn't a drug addict.  Wasn't he brilliant?  I quickly lose small ability to small talk in this debate.

Maybe did never would have written the way he did if he weren't an addict, was it worth him being an addict?  What if he had written differently, but as well, and maintained a long career?  They don't think so.

Sylvia Plath.  Let's take the destructive and depressive goddess herself.  If Sylvia Path had never been depressed, she never would have written The Bell Jar.  Which was worth more, Sylvia Path, or  The Bell Jar?  Say she had never written that particular piece of novelized memoir about suicide attempts and depression.  Say she had written something different, on an even keel.  And since then she wouldn't have stuck her head in a fucking oven and killed herself, she would have had a lot more time to write splendorous things.  What if she never wrote at all?  What was the entire cannon of Sylvia Plath worth next to the games Sylvia never played with her children?

Some of them still said Sylvia's writing was worth more than Sylvia.

After a knock down drag out debate that left me shaking with anger, I had the sudden feeling of being alone in a room.  No.  I wasn't alone  I was hanging out with the myth that had almost killed me.  Surprisingly, I still became their friends.  I never did agree with them on Sylvia though.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Out of the Attic

So I disappeared.

When your brother tells you the last class he took for his law degree would be something you really could do and it wouldn't be that hard, he's lying.

All the same, I am glad I did it.  I took Intro to Mental Disability Law. at New York Law School online.  New York Law School is on the forefront of mental disability law and one of the few schools that offers a degree in it.  Mental Disability Law basically covers those in state run programs like institutions, out patient programs, and group homes, and those in the prison system, and discrimination issues.

In my undergrad years at the University of Michigan, I was devoted to a group, Mentality.  We were fighting stigma and promoting education and awareness of mental health and illness through creative expression.  We wrote skits.  Had dancers.  Singers.  Art.  We had open performances, but we also did workshops, the most gratifying of those being high school classes.  We always had a facilitated discussion afterwards.

Mentality was one of the most meaningful experiences in my entire life.  We only did work that we had direct experience with.  So, someone who had gone mental health issues could write about themselves.  Someone who had gone through someone they had known going through a mental health experience could write about that.  Someone with no direct experience could write from the angle of how mental illness was treated in the culture or be involved in one of the group improvs we used to form skits.  Anyone could perform anyone else's work with permission.

I wrote from all perspectives.

I'm bipolar--or manic depressive.  So you see, I came by Amber in Rebirth honestly.  I am still refining my memoir about growing up in a supportive and eccentric family, and how despite the fact I had all the advantages in the world, I still fell to pieces under the weight of an undiagnosed mental illness.  I am well under control now.

I wrote a testimonial.  I wrote skits about my experiences. I also ran the gamut of bad coping mechanisms from substance abuse to my drug of choice, self harm.

.  I wrote skits about interacting with people I knew.  My friends had been through suicide attempts, substance abuse, depression, anxiety, and eating disorders.

Going up on stage was a powerful and validating experience.  I had a woman tell me she had never known anyone else self harmed besides her before.  One woman told me she understood her sisters depression for the first time after hearing my testimonial.  Subsequently, she joined Mentality and did her own testimonial about dealing with her sister's depression.  I once had someone who had seen the show strike up a conversation with me in the grocery store line when I really just wanted to buy my tampons and go curl up in a little ball.

I made the decision some months back that I wanted to re-enter mental health education and advocacy.  My dream would be to start a new Mentality, hopefully as a job.  But in making this decision, I realized the mental illness I was most familiar with was that of the privileged.

Mental disability law is a new and not well represented form of law, despite the constitutional issues involved.  And it is really motherfucking depressing, scary, and infuriating.  The largest mental institutions in the entire world is the U.S. prison system.  It is not set up for and does not want mentally ill patients.  The entire system is severely underfunded.  The staff/patient or prisoner ratios are appalling and often mean medication versus therapy is the go to.  Violence towards the mentally ill is not uncommon.  To make this clear, the insanity defense takes up one percent of mental disability law.  A quarter of those who try it win.  That's .25%.  They, along with all other involuntarily committed, are then relegated to an institution without a maximum sentence.  They are there as long as the staff believes they need to be.

Some admirable group home and half way house situations exist.  However, they are underfunded, and do not represent near the population who could make use of one.

Never have I felt more privileged than when I took that class.

That said, I had never taken a law class, and it was not an introduction to law class.  It ate my life.

All the same, I finished another draft of Will-O-The-Wisp Warps, the sequel to Weaver's Web.  I still have to do some pretty-fying.  But the draft is solid.  Now that I am back in my natural element, you will hear more updates on how it is going along with my general blathering.