Thursday, December 22, 2011

In the Spirit

"There are some upon this earth of yours," returned the Spirit, "who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and all out kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us." - Charles Dickens, "A Christmas Carol."

Someone asked today if Christmas was cancelled. I'm not sure the impetus behind the question, only that it echoed a fair amount of anti-Christmas sentiment I've seen bandied about in the past week or so. Now, while I understand some of that, and sympathize and even agree - seeing as when I was in Walmart the week after Halloween, when they had already started playing Christmas music, I made the comment to myself that it was way too early, and made the comment out loud, no less - it's never struck me as a legitimate reason to get down on the holiday.

I'm not sure there is a legitimate reason to dislike Christmas, unless you have one of those Phoebe Cates in Gremlins kind of stories. Then it's understandable. Barring that, no matter how drunk and disagreeable Grandma gets off the eggnog, I don't think you should let anyone get in the way of holiday spirit. You are responsible for being your own Ghosts of Christmas, and while I disdain the rest of the Dickensian oeuvre, he had things right with that one. You should celebrate, and make the best of it, regardless of circumstance.

This is not a pollyanna, as is well with the world kind of response. This has been a hard year on my end, and I'm not under any illusions Santa's going to gift me with everything I want. I'll settle for another hooded sweatshirt. Others have it worse, and there have been past Christmases where I've had it worse, certainly financially if not in terms of family. But for all that, it's a time to remember that you've gotten through another year, whatever the challenges, and celebrate that if nothing else.

So yes, it's been over-commercialized, and yes, you've probably heard the Carol of the Bells or Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer at least one time too many. And yes, every year someone breaks out the tired religious arguments, whether they are for the holiday or against it, which makes the rest of us who are sane want to beat them senseless with a yule log. (Okay, that last part may just be me.)

But you know what? The holidays are not about them, the ad execs or religious fanatics, or the just plain greedy. It's about the rest of us, who once a year rise to the better angels of our nature, and manage to set aside something for someone else, even if it's just saving up for that one present for a child who otherwise might not have much else to look forward to. Sure, it would be nice if the spirit filled everyone all year round, as it is said to do with Scrooge at the end. But that's asking more of human nature than we're capable of, if you ask me, at least for right now.

As Dickens' says, elsewhere in the book, "But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round [...] as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys."

So never fear. There shall be no cancellation. Christmas is better than the Post Office (and in less danger of being shut down). It has survived wars, disasters, cheesy Hallmark movies of the week, and other sundry difficulties and horrors.

As long as there is someone willing to wander about in a Santa hat, sing a few carols (however badly), and wish all their fellow travelers upon the globe a Merry Christmas (or Happy Holidays if you aren't Christian) in the true, full spirit of the season, Christmas will exist.

And I, for one, have a Santa hat, and intend to proudly wear it.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Ghosts of Libraries Past

I was wandering downtown a couple of months ago when I found myself walking past the old library. That statement implies that there is a new library, which there is, and which I have been in recently. The new library is nice, certainly, and this is not going to be a blog post in which I rail against the shiny and the new. I'm not that old, yet, even if some days I think I'm getting there faster than I'd like.

Then again, the shiny and new had a pretty dismal science fiction section. But that's not the point.

The new library is a good library (lack of genre fiction aside), but there is a certain something that the old one had that the new one lacks. Of course, the old one lacked things, too. Like computers and windows and light. What it had though, was charm and aesthetics. The old library looked exactly the way old libraries looked, and I kind of miss that.

It had large Roman columns out front. They might have been Doric or Ionic, but frankly I don't remember the columns - or the classifications - well enough to really say after all these years. You walked up the big stone steps outside, and then there were more steps inside until you got to the central atrium. A dark atrium, because there was no window overhead (which, come to think on it, does it still count as an atrium then?). The center circle of the circulation desk sat in the middle, and there were stairs leading off to one side, along with half a dozen entrances to half a dozen different rooms scattered around.

Including what I remember being a pretty decent genre fiction section, in a room of its own towards the front.

I also remember the children's section was downstairs, and without question the new children's room is better.

As I said it was dark, especially in comparison with a modern library, but somehow that just added to the appeal. As a kid, this was the closet thing to what I imagined a castle to be like that I got to visit. It was the oldest building, or at least the building that felt the oldest, out of any I knew. I spent a fair amount of time there, too, even if it was rather inconveniently located downtown in a city with poor public transit. I loved the way everything echoed in the main chamber, and the narrowness of the research stacks, and the odd hallways that didn't seem to go anywhere (which probably led to the library offices), and even the various artworks scattered along the hallways and in dark corners.

It was a building with personality, and character, and history. A building that could have ghosts, though as far as I know it did not. A building that could leave its own ghost, create its own afterimage in the environment.

It still stands, obviously, but is now used for federal offices. I've heard you can still go in and look around, but I don't think I want to do that. I'd rather live with the old memories.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A Convert on the Stairs to Damascus

Okay, the stairs weren't anywhere near Damascus. Instead they were to my new apartment. Which has many things I like about it, starting with the affordability of it. It also has one thing I really don't like, which is the eighteen stairs it takes to get up to my deck and my front door. It's a nice deck, and the steps are necessary because it's a second floor apartment... but they are somewhat steep, and there are eighteen of them.

I counted.

Which is just something I do with steps, not specifically just for the Mount Everest that leads up to my apartment. It's a habit that has come in handy any time I need to know how many steps there are supposed to be under my feet. Like, say, for example, when I am moving boxes of books up the steps.

Many, many boxes of books. Heavy books. In heavy boxes. Up the steps. Many times.

Not each box, many times, of course. Just one time each. But they had to come down the steps in the old place - from the third floor.

Somewhere around box number five (out of how many? I'm not sure, but it was less than last time. Last time I moved I wound up donating seven boxes of books to the library, and selling two more to a local store. What I have now is mostly what I am left with) I came to the conclusion that the switch to e-books is a good thing.

I love my books, I truly do. However, one of my biggest complaints against e-books was how they looked. Having seen the new generation of them.... well, they look like they were printed on paper. Hard to argue with that. My other complaints against them was their non-bookness. They lacked heft, they lacked smell, they lacked feel. All of which remains true.

I've just realized that lack of heft, when you have only an apartment that you will eventually move from, is not a bad thing.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011


It's been a rough year here. Granted, there are two and a half months to go, but even so. I'm not going to tempt fate and say "it can't get worse" because, as I discovered last week, it can. Very suddenly so, in fact. I'm not going to into details, because this has never been that kind of blog, and also because for all the problems I've been through, many out there had it worse, and I won't pretend otherwise.

Even so, I'm having a hard time of late sorting through all of it, and expect that's going to be a long process. Motivation, for a great many things, has been in precious short supply, as has any sense of determination to go with it.

Yet the part of it all that intrigues me is the fact that, for all that went horribly wrong this past year, had that stuff not happened, this would have been a pretty good year. Even the summer, which is when things well and truly imploded, there were plenty of positive things I did that under other circumstances would have had me feeling great. I got accomplished just about all the things I wanted to, and had a good time doing them. I suspect without those things I'd be a wreck by now, or living with my parents again. (Been there, done that already and not looking forward to doing it again unless I absolutely have to. Which I still might before the year is out. One never knows.)

So what do I make of it all? How do I put this year into the grand scheme of things? Do I wait and see how things turn out? Do I judge it in the short term, or the long term? Do I seize it as an opportunity, however unwanted, to make changes - some of which I'll even admit are needed?

The truth is, I don't. Not just yet. Even for the short term there is still too much in flux. I'm trying to, of course. Certain changes have to be made, others, like writing here again, are more voluntary. So ask me again at the end of the year, then at the end of the year after that, and after that. Life is cumulative, and I'm not done adding it up just yet.

And at the end of things, if the worst I can say is that the good things balanced out the bad things, I think I'll be forced to say that's not such a bad thing after all.

Monday, May 2, 2011

New and Buzzworthy

A shameless plug for a fellow writer, and something to satisfy your inner cool sci-fi geek.

From the official blurb:

"2042. Bay City, California Free State.

Kat and Mouse are ronin--street mercenaries--who like cake runs. Simple jobs with quick and large payouts.

That's what these were supposed to be. Cake runs.

But when the Duo sign on, they suddenly find themselves targeted by a biker gang, a team of corporate commandos, a cybernetically-enhanced special ops agent, a stalker, a band of kidnappers, and a Japanese crime syndicate.

And they all want the Duo out of the way. Permanently.

Now these sassy sisters-in-arms must survive the onslaught and still get the jobs done. Because in the Biz, it's get paid or get dead.

As usual, Kat and Mouse are going to do things their way.

Heaven help Bay City."

And the official site:

Friday, April 29, 2011

Cooking Up a Good Story

I was going to title this one "The Muse Wears an Apron" but realized that while that would be a cool concept for an ongoing blog, this one already has a title. Which I happen to like very much. And those kind of blogs where every title starts the same way start to feel a little gimmicky after a while. Also, and probably most importantly, this one had nothing to do with a muse or inspiration anyway.

As I was in the kitchen the other day, pursuing one of my other passions (no, not opening a bottle of wine), I was struck by the similarities between the two separate creative processes - that is, making a meal, and writing a novel. While the former takes a great deal less time, being able to prepare a meal inside the span of an afternoon, and I've yet to write a novel inside the span of three months (more like six) - they nonetheless undergo a similar arc from beginning to end.

Like a novel, a meal takes preparation and planning. You have to have some idea where you're going. At times, this can be quite clear, particularly if you're working from a set of recipes or planning a menu. When writing, this is akin to those times when you know where the story is going. You have your plot laid out, more or less, and know what you want when you sit to write. Other times, however, you find yourself staring into your pantry and wondering what the heck you're going to make for dinner that night. A full pantry makes that easier, just as a full stock of story ideas or brainstorming techniques makes it easier when you have the same experience when writing.

And then, just as the various elements of the plot come together, so too does the meal. You assemble it bit by bit, following a set process. Unlike writing, where you can (and I do) write the ending first, cooking forces you to go from beginning to end. However, plenty of times I've written an ending as a starting point, so if you view the end product as the finished novel, it still holds.

(Hey, it's not the first time I've put a metaphor up on the rack in this blog. Won't be the last either.)

Subplots are like the appetizers of the side dishes. Satisfying and delicious, they help round out the meal, making it a more thoroughly enjoyable experience. The more ambitious the meal, the more prep, the more that has to come together, and, in my case, the greater the satisfaction at the end.

And of course, at the end, you have to present it to your audience. You ultimately hope they like it, and can be reasonably confident in your skills, but still you know in the back of your mind that no matter how many meals you've pulled off flawlessly, every once in a while something goes wrong. Then, you shelve the recipe until you're willing to take it out and tweak it later.

Though, unlike making a meal, when you finish a novel there are no dishes to wash.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Muse Also Moos

(Try not to think about this week's entry too much in conjunction with the last one. Cows in scuba gear is a subject best left for a Far Side cartoon. Though, having said that, I am picturing a Gary Larson-esque cow in a swim cap.)

I was reminded the other day that I live in the country. This is not something I generally forget, especially as the local grocery store closed and the next nearest place for a half gallon of good ice cream is ten minutes away by car. Yet there are times when it is less prevalent in the forefront of my mind, made easier by my home being in a small community where I do actually have neighbors that I can see out of my own windows. Well, their homes, anyway, lest someone think I am spying on my neighbors. Which if you'd seen my neighbors you'd understand is a scary concept. Real life is not Hollywood, and my neighbors have never, ever been the kind of people I'd want to even catch a glimpse of running around in their underwear.

Nonetheless, it was brought home to me when as I was making the commute into work, there were cows alongside the road. They were on their side of the fence, thankfully, but they were as close to the road as they can get. Now, within a ten minute radius of my house (and each other) there are cows, sheep, alpacas, and buffalo. It's quite an eclectic mix of grazing livestock. Certainly not the kind of assortment you'd expect to find in an urban environment.

As I drove past the cows, I mused to myself about the bucolic environs, and how conducive it is to easing stress and such. In short, the usual cliches. Which was going to be what this post was about. Only I realized that not only did I not want to do that, but that it wasn't accurate. While I like being out in the country, with the flowers (to which I am not allergic, or my reactions would be very different) and the green and the cows and yes, even the sheep and the alpacas and the buffalo, I have been equally inspired in any number of places in the city. There is an overpass in downtown Chicago, towards the waterfront, for example, where as a pedestrian once I stopped and watched the traffic humming back and forth in the evening gloaming. Not to mention the half dozen other places in Chicago, or Boston, or even Pittsburgh, where I have done much the same.

It occurred to me that this is what it is to be an artist. My medium is words, of course, so I call myself a writer not an artist, but that is what writers and poets are, just as surely as anyone who works with paints and brushes or a camera and a lens. And as such, our muses tend to take on a myriad of forms. We have the gift of looking at the world in such a way that many things inspire us. Some more so than others, to be sure, but we retain some of that childlike sense of wonder at the world that allows us to appreciate not only the joy of chasing fireflies, but the firefly-like blinking of road construction signs along a road. (Provided we aren't stuck in traffic because of them.)

And so, while we tend to speak of a single muse, this is perhaps misleading. Possibly even incorrect. We have multiple muses, who inspire us in a multitude of ways, providing that we are willing to listen to them when we do.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to reread my Far Side collection.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Muse Wore Neoprene

I find myself thinking about my writing in places where I'm often least able to actually write things down. You'd think, if I was being smart about this, I'd set aside some time before I write to plan things, plot things, brainstorm about things, and all the sort of things that come before the actual moment of typing. That would be the smart thing to do, when I'm at the keyboard, or at least within easy each of pens and paper.

Now, I know, inspiration can strike anywhere. I carry a notebook. Have carried the same notebook for over a decade now. (I know this because the very first thing I wrote in it had to do with the smell of cows in the parking lot of an Illinois Barnes and Nobles.) It is slowly but surely getting filled with ideas, some used, some not, that have mostly come to me when I wasn't deliberately musing.

And I have had enough ideas in the shower that I am tempted to buy a package of bath crayons - yes, there are such things - just to be able to write them down as they hit instead of having to wait until I'm dried off and won't drip all over the paper, causing the ink to run and smear.

But, as I have resumed swimming these past few months, I have discovered that it makes an excellent place to think about my writing. Unlike jogging, or any other exercise activity that's dry, I can't plug in headphones and listen to my NPR podcasts or other inspiring music. (I will confess that, long ago, I did in fact jog to the various themes and montages from Rocky.) I don't really have a choice but to be alone in my head. And while this is not always advantageous to the workout, particularly when I lose track of whether that was 150 or 200 yards at that last turn, there isn't much else to concentrate on.

There is something about being able to achieve that disconnect that I can't manage anywhere else, where I can put my body on autopilot - mostly - and let my mind roam where it will, that I find conducive to the idea process. I won't claim I'm spending all the time thinking about writing. It's a good time to think about other things, too, especially anything I might need to ponder over or decompress about. But I can think about such things as the direction of my subplots, the motivations of my characters, and take them in directions for a duration I don't normally have the time to do. And I can do so without feeling like I'm neglecting something else, like my taxes, for example, or those worksheets I'm supposed to be looking up for my students.

It's a time strictly for thinking, for musing, for indulging in purely academic thought exercises even as my arms cycle and my legs kick. Each train of thought interrupted only by the approach of the wall, and then resumed again as soon as I push off.

I just wish I had a place to write down the really good ideas that come to me in the water. ... Maybe they'll let me bring my crayons next time.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Whatever Happend to Mayor McCheese?

I was in McDonald's the other day (and lest ye judge me, I was there with my daughter as a reward for her being very good during a day of necessary shopping) when I noticed something. It wasn't the expanding waistlines that make for a nice physical model of the expansion of the universe and/or demonstration of how the bigger the object the bigger the gravity it has. It wasn't the secretly addictive power of the Shamrock shake. Nor was it the woman who looked entirely too much like she would have been at home on the cast of Jersey Shore. Which no, I don't watch, but I'm not completely ignorant. This woman belonged to the tribe of Snooki, and it was far, far scarier to observe in real life.

This isn't about any of that. No, this is about something far, far more sinister. This is about missing people. Missing, important people, and how despite their conspicuous absence no one acts like they are missing, and no one's mounted an investigation or anything else. It's almost a conspiracy of silence, and its victim is Mayor McCheese.

I don't remember the last time I saw him, or some of the other McDonald's anthropomorphic menu items that have also slipped away along the wayside. (Talking chicken McNuggets, anyone?) For that matter, I don't remember the last time I saw any of the McD's crew, other than their eternal leader, in any television commercial. I could be rational here, and point to the changes overall in advertising, particularly children's advertising, that has become necessary as the Saturday morning bloc of cartoons broke up and the target demographic scattered across the cable channels, many to networks that run limited - if any - commercials during their programming for the younger set. Or how changing ideas on proper diet and exercise have also taken their toll, and a visible symbol of greasy caloric consumption probably sends the wrong kind of message.

I could, but that would be less fun. And absent an official announcement from the Powers That Be, I'm going to go with the more nefarious explanation.

Mind you, not all of the mascots have vanished. Grimace, Birdie, even the Hamburglar can still be seen painted on the walls of the various Playplaces, or they turn up on the in-house items. They may not get their moment on the television screen anymore, but they are still around. Contractually bound to silence, or perhaps threatened with the same fate as the Mayor should they attempt to break ranks.

Maybe this, then, is the story of the lone dissident, the one who would not go quietly. A mayor of a land whose silence would not be bought (obviously not a Chicago mayor), who refused to be intimidated when others came to shush him, and who paid the ultimate price for it, being buried unceremoniously in an unmarked grave in some landfill, forever preserved in a giant version of those styrofoam containers McD's used to package all their products in. Maybe Mayor McCheese paid the ultimate price for his integrity by being tossed, piece by piece, to a flock of ravenous seagulls or park pigeons.

If so, I'm willing to bet his fate was meant to serve as an example to the rest of them: cooperate, tow the corporate line, OR ELSE. Hence the Fry Guys went quietly, and Hamburglar hasn't stolen a thing in years. Grimace keeps his politically incorrect overweight self well out of the spotlight, and Birdie has been encouraged to fly south and stay there, except for the occasional public appearance or photo op.

And the orchestrator of all this? The person behind this scheme, so callously disposing of once beloved icons behind the scenes? Well, ask yourself? Who has the spotlight all to himself now?

Oh sure, it can't be him, you say. To which I reply: he is a clown, after all. And we all know, when clowns go bad, they go really, really bad.

So, I say we should observe a moment of silence for Mayor McCheese, to take a brief pause and remember a man/food item of integrity, who paid the ultimate price for his principles.

And then I'll take mine with extra pickles, please.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

In Like a Lion

I hate March.

Okay, "hate" is a little strong. Truth is, I don't have anything against the month other than the weather. It can't quite seem to make up it's mind, at least in my neck of the woods, whether it wants to be a spring month or a winter month. (And why can't I ever remember if seasons get capitalized? One of these days I will break down and invest in the Chicago manual of style, but for right now my little tiny style manual is woefully silent on this.) Even if the day starts off with "It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood," it will often end with "It was a dark and stormy night."

It's the old "In like a lion, out like a lamb" proverb.

Writing a story or novel can be like that, too, especially if you're not sure where it's going when you begin. (If you are one of those writers who outlines everything before they start and then actually stick to that outline all the way through the process, I have but one thing to say to you: go away. I'm not talking to you.) You get a certain idea in your head, and you charge in, ready to get it down on paper. So you roar, figuratively speaking I hope, and then tear into it. Only to get maybe halfway through and realize things aren't going entirely in the direction you expected them to. You slow down, you sputter a bit, you back up, you rewrite. And maybe you recapture that initial thrust, and maybe you don't, but eventually you skip across the field and leap the fence of the finish line.

(Yes, I am aware I have just badly tortured that metaphor. I'm not done yet.)

Conversely, a story may start slow, grazing about in the field of ideas, and then at the end it turns into the snarling, ravenous beast that seizes the ending of the story in it's jaws and devours it until it's finished.

There are times in writing when it never changes. Times when either the entire story goes slow and gentle. Here I'm talking strictly about the process, mind you. The page can be strewn with blood and guts but behind the scenes there was more bleating at the keyboard than roaring. Or, the ones I really like, when it's all charging ahead from start to finish, committed to the chase once the idea has been properly stalked.

For the most part, though, it seems to be one or the other. Not just with myself, but among the other writers I have talked to. Even the more workmanlike amongst us, the ones who sit down and churn out five pages a day, have their stories that they find themselves varying on in terms of their enthusiasm, their ideas, their ability to sit down and really churn. Some days those five pages come easy, after all, and some days they barely come at all.

Do I have a preference in my writing, which I'd prefer to start with? While I'd like my month to go out nice and gentle and preferably warm, I tend to find the stories that write best are the ones that end the most aggressively. The ones that are slower towards the end - again, in terms of the process, not plot or pacing - are a little bit more like work, a little bit less like fun.

I suppose the only thing that really matters is that, like on the calendar, eventually it comes to an end.

And in case anyone is worried, I shall not compare rewrites to April showers.

Maybe taxes, though.

Sunday, January 2, 2011


It's that time of year again. Time to reflect on all you accomplished last year and congratulate yourself for having done so well. Time to reflect on all you meant to accomplish but didn't and berate yourself for not doing better while pledging to improve (again). Time to reflect on all you didn't accomplish and wring your hands over all the self-improvement tasks you failed out.

Or alternatively, a time not to worry about any of that and realize that if you're really going to improve upon yourself, it takes more than one night's promises and it helps to set realistic goals. This last bit can be especially tricky as a writer. Even if you don't belong to some sort of writer's group or website, you have probably walked into a bookstore in the past year and picked up something that prompted a jealous reaction. A "why has she/he made it when I haven't yet?" kind of thing. Even when you know why, and know full well it's mostly about persistence and a small smattering of talent.

For the most part, I don't begrudge anyone their success. My failing lies more along the line of somehow charting my own success alongside theirs. This, I have come to realize, is unfair. I don't work at the same pace as other people. I do not have the same amount of drive and ambition as other people. I have enough, I think, so long as I do not put myself on some sort of artificial and unrealistic schedule just because someone else did it in that amount of time.

And looking back on 2010, I did pretty well. Not as well as I would have liked, perhaps, but well enough. I finished another book. I started querying the one before that, even if there's been no acceptances yet. (I even got a partial request. That's all I've gotten so far, other than fodder for the lament of common courtesy. How hard is it to just send a simple form email, after all?) I subbed out some things, again, no acceptances, but they went out. Did I do as much as I could have? Honestly, probably not. Did I do as much as some other people? Definitely not.

Did I do more than I did the year before? Absolutely.

Is that enough of a benchmark? Absolutely.

Can I do better? Sure I can. (Yes, I could have said "absolutely" there. But you were expecting that.)

But on the other hand, if I match those goals this year, then I think 2011 will have been a pretty good year. There are other things going on in my life besides writing (heresy though that may seem to some people I know) and all in all, 2010 was a good year. Not great, but good.

And that's good enough for me.