Friday, December 30, 2011

Random Thoughts in the Day of an Organization Woman

This used to be my life ... a random page from a journal of my peon days ... it's definitely nice to have moved up in the hierarchy ....

What the hell? I went to three restrooms on two different floors and every one of them was out of sanitary supplies. If this was something men needed you had better believe they wouldn't always be out. Yet, when you go into the restrooms in any gas station or quickie mart you always can find condoms in the machines. They're never sold out of those. What does this mean, that the average man or woman has sex less often than once a month?

Today I was going into the elevator as our division vice-president was coming out. He gave me a quick look like, "I think I am supposed to pretend to know you."

I did meet him during my orientation week where they take you around to meet all of the top brass so they can act like they care that you're there. I've never spoken to him since.

I really need to learn to keep my mouth shut more. I think that is the biggest key to success in this organization. I am very well-qualified for my job and no one has ever complained about me. On the contrary, people write my boss and say what a great job I do on a pretty regular basis. I've been asked to address a few industry meetings as an expert in my field. Still, I am regarded a little suspiciously as having a bad attitude. Sometimes I can't control myself. A manager wanted to call a meeting of six people from three different departments so they could talk about having a meeting. I thought only in Dilbert did people have a meeting to discuss a pre-meeting. I asked why they didn't just have the meeting and get it over with and everyone looked at me as if I had suggested building a nuclear reactor out of discarded chewing gum wrappers.

We have not had enough people promoted in my area during the time I have been here to really have figured out what the determining factor is in getting promoted. I suspect that it is sucking up.

Like most organizations this size, there are many people who are hired as contractors. I am one of the lucky ones to be a full-time employee with benefits, 401 k and all the rest. While contractors come and go at whim full-time employees are difficult to dislodge with anything short of a sledgehammer and a subpoena.

From my reading of other blogs, it seems that there are certain pathological types that are endemic to large organizations. I thought it was only here but then I read blogs describing someone and I would think to myself,
"That's Joe the Parrot! How can he work there, too?"


"They have a Mary the Psycho, too!"

I'll have to write about those next time, since it's late and I have to get up and go to work in the morning.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Sylvie's Story

I started my own National Novel Writing Month and three days into it, I decided I did not like the way it was going. Since I already broke "the rules" by not doing it in November I didn't see any reason why I couldn't start over if I felt like it.

My motivation came in part from this post on Kay Kenyon's blog, arguing that good writing is really telling a story. There are a lot of stories in Calhoun, Missouri. If I ever write that novel, it will be titled "Some of this is true."

The story I want to tell, though, is about a child who didn't grow like everyone else. Think about this for a moment ... what would you do if you knew you were going to live for four lifetimes? This is Sylvie's story. (I wrote the first page months ago and I thought I would finish it for my very own national novel writing month.)

Gram is Dead

It was precisely because she was not the rebellious type that Mamie had run off with a gypsy. Gram herself had been a strong woman, but somehow that blood never made it into her daughter. Mamie had always been scared of her own shadow, going along with whatever the loudest,pushiest person in the room told her, whether she agreed with it or not. So, it was no real surprise when the gypsy insisted that she come with him when the band left town that she packed her meager possessions and went right along.

Fifteen years went by, years of traveling from town to town, doing as the gypsy bid her, before Mamie came through again, bringing her children, a girl of fifteen, a boy of ten and a toddler. Her mother welcomed her without much comment, hugged the children, and sat up evenings rocking and talking, catching up on their now separate lives. She hadn't bothered to remonstrate Mamie. She was what she was, and no amount of lectures, well-meaning as they might be, would turn a rabbit into a wolverine. A few weeks later, the gypsy came back for Mamie and she left, as she had before, in the middle of the night, taking two of the children with her.

The next morning, the grandmother had been sitting in her rocking chair, stirring her tea with a cinnamon stick, while she waited for the toddler to awake. Sylvie was sure now that wherever she went, the smell of cinnamon that filled the cottage would always remind her of her childhood.

“Well,” Gram had said dryly, “your mother seems to have forgotten something.”

She had been a bit taken aback when the child did not carry on or cry, did not even seem surprised, really. “She didn't forget me. She left me here on purpose.”

It had started to rain and a chill was settling over the small cottage. The grandmother walked slowly over to where the logs were laid in the fireplace, sprinkled something from her right hand and the wood burst into cheery flames.
“Hmm. Did your mother ever tell you that I'm a witch ?”
“No. Did she ever tell you that I'm thirteen years old?”

The grandmother had looked at the child in front of her, black hair carelessly cut short and ragged, head not reaching the table top, chubby legs far above the floor. She put on her spectacles and looked again. She fiddled with her gold medallion of the Divine Princess that she always wore around her neck, although that might as well as been a nervous habit as any magic. Then, she had taken a small blue bottle out of her pocket, shook it, looked inside and put it back again. Finally, she said “You're not a dwarf. You're not lyin'. There isn't any spell on you, and yet you're not getting' any older.”

“I'm getting' older,” the tiny girl had insisted, in a baby voice, “if'n I wasn't I'd still be an infant. I'm just not gettin' older as fast as everybody else.”

That morning, the whole story tumbled out, while Gram drank numerous cups of tea and Sylvie ate enough bread smothered in butter and jam for her grandmother to mutter, “I can see it's not lack of eatin' that's stoppin' your growth.”

No one noticed a gypsy child at all, and even if they had, with the band traveling from town to town, if anyone had remembered there had been a baby with this crew three years ago, they'd just think this baby was a new one. That made a lot more sense than thinking it was the same baby that refused to grow older at a respectable rate. No one did remember, though, because no one cared about a gypsy child. As for the gypsies themselves, they were outcasts and a child who was lame in one leg or blind was not only accepted but welcome. Such a one could be set out to beg by the temple and more than earn her keep. After a time, even the gypsies' tolerance had worn thin. A small child who looked like a small child was of no particular use. When Cyndee, who had been born just a year before her had a child herself, the whispering became a little louder. Sylvie suspected that Cyndee had started it to throw the attention from herself. Even for the gypsies having a baby at fourteen was a bit off. It was not nearly as off, though, as having a 'baby' around who was nearly the same age as the mother.

As for the gypsy man himself – his name was Toff, not that Sylvie or Gram cared to remember it – he'd started  to push and shout at Mamie about her 'crazy child' and how it was all her fault that the band was talking about throwing them out. One day when he was more drunk than usual he had threatened that if she didn't do something about 'her freak child', he would. That was the day they had set out for the small cottage in Missop, waiting until after he had drunk himself safely into a stupor, of course.

When she had finished this story, Sylvie had half-expected that Gram would call her a freak, push her and tell her she could not stay here and that she had enough to do taking care of herself. It's what everyone else had been doing these past several years. Instead, the old woman had simply pulled another cinnamon stick out of her apron pocket, and stirred her tea for a while in quiet reflection. Finally, pushing herself away from the table she stood and said,
“You're here with me and here you'll stay. I can teach you a bit about being a witch because a bit is all I know. I wanted to be a proper witch myself, you know, but it didn't work out. I met that man o' mine and witch isn't a living for a married woman and mother, so I gave it up. We'll tell the neighbors you're two. I'm not out much except for going to temple and all the people there are old and most o' them half-blind. In a few years, when people might start to wondering, we'll find you a place as an apprentice far north o' here. Does that sound fair to you? Well, there it is then. “

It was then that Sylvie had fallen in love with her Gram and decided she would do anything not to let the old woman down. Of course, over the years, as does any child, she had broken that promise many times, starting with the day that Shorty had called her a freak and she had punched him so hard she broke his nose. That was the day she and Gram had taken the trip to her first apprenticeship, at the hunting lodge in the northern woods. It was not, as Gram explained, a punishment for hitting Shorty, who certainly had it coming, but a sign that soon even adults would notice the child who wasn't getting older. In a small town, 'different' is never good, and there was reason that Gram had kept her knowledge of witchcraft secret. While burning witches was no longer within the law, that didn't mean it never happened, especially this far from the capital where laws were made.

Even though she was signed on as a cook's helper, Sylvie had learned much in that first apprenticeship, how to set a trap, skin a rabbit (though it made her sick to her stomach), stitch up a dog hurt in the hunt, throw a knife, and, of course, cook. It was a good choice of a place for a girl who did not want to be noticed. There were no neighbors, the guests were lords with their lady friends their wives pretended not to know about. No one was going to pay attention to a girl in the kitchen, especially since the 'older' girls all came and went, often going with a child from one of the lords in their bellies.

It was there, too, that she first killed a man. A band of outlaws had come to the lodge seeking easy loot, lined up all of the lords and taken their pick of the gold and jewels. Then they started in on the kitchen girls. Sylvie had slipped out the back door but a rogue had broken away from his fellows and followed her. She was nigh on to twenty but looked to be, at most, a smallish seven-year-old. When the outlaw climbed up the tree after her, she had thrown her knife as hard as she could. His death was more luck than anything else. He was coming up, the knife was going down and the two met in the middle, it piercing his eye. Automatically, he let go with both hands and reached to pull the blade from his eye socket. The fall did the rest.

It took her three weeks to find her way home through the woods, always remembering that the sun set in the west. If the sun was going down on her left, home was in front of her. It was rather convenient that everyone believed her killed by the outlaws, more convenient than explaining how the daughter Mamie birthed twenty years past was still a small child.

When Sylvie came home from the lodge, Gram had bustled her off with a new name and a new master, east this time, to another apprenticeship, this time with a real witch.

The girl knew it was nearing time to leave when she would catch the witch watching her speculatively out of the corner of her eye. She knew the day had come when her mistress had asked curiously, “You know, child, I don't believe your grandmother ever told me, how old are you exactly?”

Sylvie had mumbled some excuse about how she wasn't sure exactly, they never were much for celebrating birthdays not having parents around and all. Her answer clearly did not satisfy the witch. Before the mistress had time to ask more, Sylvie announced she had received a letter from home saying her grandmother needed her to come home, producing as proof the letter she had written weeks earlier in preparation for this moment.

So it had gone for the past thirty years, from one apprenticeship to another, from one town to another. For a time she had even visited her brother and then her sister, both had married and settled down in a town with their in-laws, raising families of their own. She had helped care for their children, who looked to be no younger than Sylvie herself.  Then, two years ago she really had received a letter saying Gram needed her at home. Without a second's hesitation, she had gone.

Apprenticed to a witch, a midwife and a healer, she had learned a great deal about cures for sickness, but, sadly, there is no cure for old age. Sylvie was wise enough to resign herself to making the old woman as comfortable as possible. She cooked meals that smelled delicious, even when Gram could not eat them. She made endless pots of tea, stirred with cinnamon sticks. She helped the old woman hobble slowly to the temple, leaning on her granddaughter on one side and her cane on the other.

Gram had introduced her as “Sylvie”, the daughter of the grandchild who had been left behind years before. No one questioned the story. After all, who would believe that this was the same child who had been a toddler back when today's selectmen and masters were not yet born?

On the day that Gram had breathed her last, Sylvie dressed her for burial, called at the temple and sent notice to  the few elderly churchgoers, friends and neighbors who her grandmother had not outlived. She walked back from the temple with an even more elderly neighbor than Gram leaning on her arm. The two old women had often took hobbled back and forth to temple together. Now, the neighbor was left alone, awaiting her own soon-to-be fate. The entire walk she asked the girl about her family, her “mother” that had been left with the grandmother years before. Sylvie answered easily, telling about the farm, the husband, the other children. The old woman was satisfied, it had all the details and the ring of truth, which it should because it was all true, except for one tiny lie. The woman in the story was Sylvie's older sister. It was a much more believable story than the truth, that the youngster from long ago was this same child walking beside the old woman now.

When they reached the house, the neighbor paused and said, “Here I am getting' on in my dotage. Your grandmother gave me these things when she first took ill. I was to give them to you if you didn't make it back in time. You were so taken up with carin' for her when you came back, and she was so sick, we both clear forgot, and here I am almost forgettin' again. Wear this for protection. Don't ever take it off. And, this, I believe it is a letter to where you should be goin' next.”

With that surprising pronouncement, she had dropped a chain with the gold medallion of the Divine Princess into the girl's right hand, shoved a letter in her left, turned and shuffled into her own dusty cottage, shutting  the door tightly behind her.

Gram had not been in her grave two days when the magistrate strode importantly down the dusty street and knocked at the small white cottage. Even though she was sore with grief, Sylvie greeted him as politely as she knew Gram would have wanted.

“I'm sorry if you've come to speak to my grandmother, sir, but she has gone to heaven with the Divine Princess, not so many hours passed.”

“Uh-hum. Yes, of course I know that. Not much escapes my attention in this town, you should know. I am, after all, the magistrate. It is about precisely regarding this matter that I have come calling.”


“Well, you are but a child and obviously cannot live her alone.”

“Beggin' your pardon, sir, but I've been here takin' care of my Gram just fine. So, I appreciate your thoughtfulness but - “

The magistrate waved his hand, interrupting her, “It is just not proper for a child to live alone. The town, that is, I, will administer this dwelling, collecting fair rent as the town sees fit, and you will be apprenticed in a proper place -”

“Thank you just the same, but I'd rather not.”

At this challenge to his authority, the magistrate frowned in what he thought was his most intimidating manner, the same frown he gave to defendants just before pronouncing them guilty. Not only did the girl not quail before his authority, she didn't even seem to notice.

“Uh-hum, well, you see, being a minor this is not up to your discretion - “

This time the girl seemed to actually pay attention to him,

“You mean that you would take the cottage that was left by my Gram, take the money that was earned, keep it for yourself, have me work for little or no pay and then maybe some day, I would receive some gold when I am old enough or married to some lout of a blacksmith? Thank you for your concern, but all the same, I'd rather not.”

“We'll see about that - , “ said the magistrate,  reaching for her, but the look in the girl's eyes gave him pause.

“Don't touch me.”

He pulled his hand back, “Well, we'll see about that.”

“Indeed, we shall.”

Offended, the magistrate turned on his heel and stalked from the clean but humble cottage. Immediately, Sylvie began to stuff her few belongings into a pack, set to leave as her mother had those many years before. At least she would be exiting through the door instead of the bedroom window. On the other hand, her mother had someone she was leaving with, even if she didn't know where she was going. Sylvie had neither, but she was damned if at forty-four years old she was going to be apprenticed to the village baker.

“Well, there it is then,” she muttered to herself as, for the last time, the cottage door slammed behind her.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Mom Shows the Way Out

Darlene lived at the end of our block. She dressed like Daisy Hazzard, but wasn't one-tenth as good-looking. She made up for her big nose, tiny breasts and straggly hair with skimpy shorts, going bra-less under a tank top and a willingness to "give it up" for any boy who didn't talk about it too much afterward. Her family being in the group everyone in town called "white trash", her mother didn't even blink an eye when Darlene dropped out of high school and started applying herself seriously to drinking and whoring.

The third time she was in jail over the weekend for some minor offense - I think this one was public drunkenness - a fight broke out. In the end, a young woman was dead, beaten and stomped to death for some trivial reason no one could recall. Darlene was sentenced to a year in prison and faded from view.

Priscilla and Cathy came from two other "white trash" families that lived up the street from Darlene. We all walked home from school together. It might be exaggerating it to say we were friends. We lived in the same direction and a group of girls was less likely than one walking home alone to have grown men in cars slow down and offer them a ride or a group of black kids from the other side of the tracks try to pick a fight. Yes, there really were railroad tracks running through town and yes, the whites really did live on one side and the blacks on the other. Unless you were really white trash, then you lived on the black side.

Cathy and I attended St. Anselm's School together right up through the eighth grade. She wasn't any more attractive than Darlene but could she ever sing. Cathy had the voice of an angel and with some encouragement and luck she could have run off to Hollywood and become a superstar. Of course, her family was having none of that.  She married right after high school. He was a boy two years older, who worked in the factory. They had four kids in half a dozen years and she stayed home, cleaned house, cooked meals and got fat. It was a very respectable marriage for Calhoun, Missouri. Unfortunately, after ten years, her husband was killed in an accident at the factory. Perhaps a big city lawyer could have gotten her a multi-million dollar settlement. Maybe not, though. It was rumored that the accident was at least partially his fault and, since he was dumber than a stump, I could believe it. There wasn't any big city lawyer anyway, so all Cathy got was a widow's pension and a letter approved by  the factory's legal department saying how sorry they all were.

There is an almost irresistible temptation when someone escapes a place like Calhoun and becomes successful to rewrite history and claim that person was special even as a child. Steven Hawking was brilliant. Serena Williams was a great tennis player. Ask anyone now and they'll tell you that I shone like a star next to Darlene, Cathy and Priscilla, that I was brighter, better-looking and more likable. That is why I escaped and they did not. I can't speak for the others but I can definitely state in my case that almost all those stories told about me are lies.

I was an unrewarding child. Possibly, I was cute as a baby, nearly everyone is. Definitely, as a child, I was not particularly attractive. I was short and stocky and neither I nor anyone else ever made an effort to "fix me up". My hair was often uncombed, my clothes ill-fitting. Maybe I could have made up for it by being an obedient child, eager to please, but I was the opposite of all that. Other adults, my mother and teachers included, were inferior, ignorant, uneducated, undeserving of respect, or so my father always said.

Despite everything, my mother tried to salvage her children, in her own way. She didn't dare confront my father directly. He'd beaten her down years before I came along. She took two steps to set us in the right direction. Despite my father's mocking, she went to the priest at St. Anselm's parish and asked if she could enroll her children there, rather than in Incarnate Word, where the few Catholic children in our neighborhood were supposed to attend. If anyone asked, she told them it was because she drove by St. Anselm's on her way to work so it was easier for her to drop all of us off at school. Since it was considered a shameful failure for a married woman to have to work in those days, that was usually enough to get the subject dropped.

At St. Anselm's we received the same education as the children of the grocery store owners, physicians, lawyers and other town elite. It was a college preparatory curriculum, given that children of a certain social class are expected to go to college. In Calhoun, most would end up attended the same third-rate university where my father had failed out of graduate school, but that was beside the point. By the end of eighth grade, the children at St. Anselm's were a year or two ahead of Incarnate Word kids in every subject. Of course, that was because kids barely on the white side the tracks were not very bright and had no work ethic. Everyone knew that, including all the teachers.

The second thing my mother did for each of her children was get a library card. The public library would not give a card to anyone who could not print his or her own name to sign for it. By kindergarten, when we were still in the university town, I had managed to block out M-E-L in just barely legible letters. In one of the few fibs she ever told in her life, my mother informed the librarian that it was my nickname, short for Melanie. The kindly librarian agreed it was close enough and I was issued my ticket to the world there and then. Every Saturday morning, before my father woke up, we slipped out to the library, dropped off the books from the week before and came back home with as many as we each could carry.

 The library was one of our first stops when we moved to Calhoun and the weekend routine never varied.
By fourth grade, I was through my armful of books in the middle of the week. The limit to check out was eight books at a time and with no TV, no friends and no money for movies, that was not enough entertainment to last me for a whole week, especially not in the summer.

The children of the poor are not protected like middle class children.  While more well-off families than mine would have never considered the thought of letting a nine-year-old child walk a mile each way all alone, through some of the rougher neighborhoods, when I asked my mother if I might walk to the library during the week she merely shrugged and said she couldn't see any harm in it.

 I quickly learned the least hazardous route - leave early in the morning when the tough guys were still sleeping off the night before,go the shortest distance possible to get to a "good" neighborhood and walk the rest of the way to the library at my leisure. I'd usually spend all day at the library. That way, I could read two or three books while I was there and still have eight to take home. Besides, it had air conditioning.

Mom did two things for her children; got us into a good school and introduced us to the library. For me, it was enough. It didn't keep me out of trouble, out of juvenile hall or out of the foster care system, but it did, in the end, provide an escape route from Calhoun.

When that route opened, I took it at a dead run and never looked back.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

This isn't my life

I was eight years old when I realized that I'd been dealt a bad hand in life.

When I was very young, my father was in the military. I don't know if his mental illness came and went or it was just that he came and went so we didn't see evidence of it that often. Regardless, life was good, as children's lives tend to be. My brothers and I did what kids do - played, fought, ate three meals a day and fell into bed at the end of it without a care in the world, ready to wake up and do it all over again tomorrow. On occasion, this strange man would appear, be around for a few days and then leave again. He said a few words to us, but on the whole, he took no more interest in his children than we did in him.

Nothing is permanent in the military. The three of us, (a fourth was added, nine months after one of those short visits from the stranger)  would come home from school and our mother would say, "Pack up kids. We're moving to _____."

It didn't matter what was in the blank. It wasn't like we had any choice. We even lived in a third world country for a while, with a maid, gardener,  a couple of horses and even a camel.When war broke out, we were shipped back home to the United States. To us, it was an adventure, a chance to meet new friends, explore new vacant lots, get in new trouble and run like the devil when our mother caught us at it. It wasn't until many years later that I heard my mother's perspective on it all. She hated it. She hated having servants - "strangers in the house all of the time, no privacy, never any time to herself". She hated the moving, the never being able to make friends or have nice things.

So, we stopped moving. She certainly didn't have to be bothered with servants after that, although the nice things and friends never materialized, either.

My father went to college on the GI bill and for a few years we lived in a neighborhood full of students.   Lots of mothers were working as secretaries to put the fathers through medical school, graduate school, law school. There was an air of superiority despite the fact that everyone was barely getting by. These were people in a top university and when they graduated they were going to go somewhere and be somebody. Everyone around us was anticipating a better life.

 Of course I was too young to even know the word "anticipating", but I can tell you this, there is a difference living in a hopeful atmosphere. It's almost as if you can breathe it in, the belief that the future will be better than today. When you are in that other world, where everyone knows that we are stuck here in an endless, hopeless, mindless repetition where tomorrow is just like today, it is just the opposite, it's as if there is not enough air in the room. I should know.

University ended. My father, who had always pretended to believe he was brilliant beyond all others, could only get accepted at a third-rate graduate school in the middle of nowhere. We moved into the house with the leaky roof and blood-stained basement. After a year or two, my father took his comprehensive exams, bragging that he hadn't bother to study for them, he was so superior to those state university students. He failed. My mother chided him that he should study for the exams and re-take them. Even at eight years old, I could tell you that would mean, if he failed again, admitting that he couldn't do it even if he tried, that maybe he wasn't better than everybody. So, he never went back to Mediocre State U.

He got a low level job at a huge corporation, mom kept working as a secretary because by now there were seven mouths to feed. That was that. Fifty years later, he died, still in Calhoun, Missouri.

We were the poorest family in a lower-middle class neighborhood. Our neighbors looked down on us because we lived in a run-down house, wore second-hand clothes, drove beat up cars and had a tribe of ill-mannered children.

Not that my parents wanted to associate with the neighbors. They were uneducated, ignorant and untraveled. My family looked down on the people looking down on us. Hence, the ill manners. If you were told on a daily basis that everyone around you was too stupid for a conversation, there was no point in trying to speak civilly to them, now was there? Not that any of us would have had any idea where to begin.

Dropped out of graduate school, low man on the totem pool at work and not on speaking terms with the neighbors, my father had no one to lord it over but us. Speech in our house was a constant stream of insults and one-upsmanship.

In normal families, a child learning stuck learning multiplication tables would ask a parent for help. That only worked if my father was not around. Otherwise, it went like this;

"Mom, what's 8 times 7?"
"Can you believe that? The kid doesn't know what 8 times 7 is. So much for intelligence being genetic."
"Bob, that's really not necessary."
"What? You think the kid knows what 'genetic' means? She doesn't even know 8 times 7. Hey, you! What's 'genetic' mean? Your mother thinks you're so smart. See, what did I tell you? She must take after your side of the family."

We had no money, no friends, no manners, in a town with nothing happening and were told every day that we were worthless. That made us exactly no different than millions of other kids growing up in America. Generations with no hopes, no dreams, no chance. I'd just finished the third grade but it was obvious that most of the people I saw every day would end up in jail, on welfare or, if they were really lucky, married to some man working at the local factory who didn't come home drunk too often.

I remember the moment exactly like it was yesterday, sitting out in the front lawn under a shade tree, trying to avoid both the heat and the people in the house. Hidden by the trunk of the tree, I could watch the whole neighborhood. There was 17-year-old Darlene, in short- shorts and tank top, "dressed like a whore", my father would say, flirting with Leo from next door, who was in my oldest brother's grade although he was three years old. Across the street, a babysitter minded the Madison boys while their father was away and their mother was "visiting" the man who lived next to them. Two doors down, Mrs. Donnelly sat on her porch, silently rocking her fourth baby in as many years.

A psychologist might say that it had its roots in all of those years of hearing my father say how much better our family was. Maybe. To my not-quite-nine-year-old self, it seemed to hit like a bolt out of the blue, the sudden insight that came into my brain and never, ever left from that point on.

"This is not going to be my life. These people were born here and they're going to die here, not ever even really imagining being anywhere, anything else. This isn't my life."

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Truth Is This ...

I grew up poor. 

I am sure my mother would be appalled to hear me say that. Our family was big on not speaking the truth, for a whole host of reasons, all of them beginning with fear. There was the fear of getting hit with a belt, fear of hurting someone's feelings, fear of what the neighbors, the priest, or Child Protection Services might think, say or do.

As soon as humanly possible, I moved away, changed my name and never went back. It's been many years since I was afraid of anything or anyone, so I guess there's that good that came out of it all. As for everyone else, well, by now they're mostly dead, senile, in prison or too beaten down by their own lives to have time for reading anything I might write. The few exceptions are like me, trying to forget the past, thanking their lucky stars as they go forward in life, with the mantra, "What's important isn't where you started out in life, but where you ended up."

The truth is this ....

I grew up in a small Midwestern town in a house my parents bought for $9,000. Even back then, even living east of nowhere, that amount of money didn't buy you much. In fact, when it rained, water leaked through the roof, into the attic, made holes in the bedroom ceiling and dripped right down into the pans at the foot of my bed. Mentioning it would just cause a new round of screaming about how demanding, lazy and ungrateful we children were and more bitter recriminations between my parents about whose fault it was that we couldn't afford a house where the water didn't come in during every thunderstorm. By the end of our first summer there, when I was nine, I'd learned to just go downstairs, haul a pan out from under the sink and stick it in the right spot in the room to catch the water as it fell.

The other reason our house was so cheap, besides the holes in the roof, lack of air conditioning that made it over 100 degrees in the summer and undesirable location is that someone had died in it. The previous owner had committed suicide, shot himself to death in the basement. When we moved in there were still bloodstains on the floor and they stayed there for years.  I think no one ever got the energy or the motivation to try to clean them up. After a while, like so many other things, we got used to them.

We didn't just scrimp when it came to housing. Finding enough to feed a growing family was always a challenge. Years after we had moved in, when Child Protection Services finally entered the picture, the social worker of the month described it well. He said,
"I could see your father giving your mother $30 and telling her to go to the store and buy a week's worth of groceries when he knew damn well that it cost $50 for enough groceries to feed a family that size, and telling her not to come home without them."
Every week we went to the Wonder store - yes, Wonder Bread, builds strong bodies twelve ways. We'd buy day-old bread, Hostess cupcakes near their expiration date and anything else that was half price. If the bread was really stale, my sister and I got the task of tearing it into little pieces so that my mother could mix it up with milk, sugar, raisins and cinnamon for bread pudding. Actually, my mother's bread pudding was fabulous. I've had bread pudding twice this month, in restaurants where my work took me around the country, neither could hold a candle to my mom's, so it wasn't a completely dismal picture growing up. The truth is, though, that the bright spots were far out-shadowed by everything else.

There aren't many good parts about growing up in poverty. Most of my clothes came from Goodwill. Anything new, whether it was a toy, a shirt or even a loaf of bread, it was almost always out of reach.

I hear politicians and ministers preach about the poverty of spirit. I'm not sure what that is supposed to mean, but I can tell you what was hardest on our spirit, and that was being told on a daily, hourly and sometimes minute by minute basis that the reason we could not have that shirt or toy or juice is because it was STUPID and we were  STUPID to want it.  Kool-Aid was just as good as the Hawaiian Punch advertised on TV and cost one-tenth as much and we only wanted the latter because we were too stupid to see that we were pawns of the advertisers and sheep that followed what our friends wanted. THEIR parents were either stupid themselves or just weak and gave in to their children's whining.

WE didn't drink Hawaiian Punch or pay for new Levi's jeans when perfectly good ones were for sale for $3 at Goodwill because we were smarter. We didn't waste money ordering books from the book order at school because books were available for free at the public library. We didn't buy new clothes, we ate old bread and produce because we were superior, smarter, less susceptible to brainwashing from Madison Avenue. We were better.

My father said that and he may even have believed it himself, but I knew the truth.

We were poor.

Friday, November 4, 2011

I'm doing my own novel writing month

I know that National Novel Writing Month is this month, but I just can't do it. I have two business trips this month and, on top of that - drum roll please - completely by surprise a publisher is interested in a NON-FICTION book I am writing with a friend. So, interested, in fact, that when a friend of a friend casually mentioned the book to an editor at the firm, they contacted us. It appears that we may need to finish this book sooner rather than later. A bit of a shock, but a pleasant one.

Yes, I know I was going to take the month of September off, but I had the chance to do enough overtime to pay off a lot of my bills. For the first time in my adult life, I will owe under $10,000 for EVERYTHING - car, student loan, credit cards - EVERYTHING. I had the chance to do some more extra work in November, too, so my goal of being completely debt-free is getting closer and closer.

Maybe owing $0 is a Philistine goal when one could be writing the Great American Novel, but

  1. I never said I was writing the Great American Novel in the first place, what I do hope is to write a good story people will enjoy reading, and
  2. Who said National Novel Writing Month has to be in November anyway? (If you are tempted to Google the answer and fire away in the comments that it was Writers' Digest, or whoever, please do be aware this is a rhetorical question.
So,  I am declaring December my own novel writing month. Anyone else who is busy in November and/or who gets a long Christmas vacation is hereby invited to join JuNoWrMo -- Julia Novel Writing Month.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Why I Write: Because at one time I was a child

October 20th was the National Day on Writing Project (who knew?) which explains the number of posts on twitter with the hashtag #whyIwrite . 

The fact that I did not discover this until October 23rd perhaps reveals more than I would like about my dedication to writing. When I read tweets like, "Because I would suffocate if I didn't" , "To nudge the world in a different direction"  I feel like a weekend runner at the Olympic marathon event.

I don't write thinking I will make millions of dollars and become the next J.K. Rowlings. I'm fascinated and encouraged by the fact that writers of classics like Ivanhoe, Little Women and Huck Finn unabashedly said they did it for the money. Encouraged because it means you do not have to have a muse on your shoulder or a compulsion to write before you can tell a good story. Fascinated because I look at writing fiction as the last thing I would do to make money. I have a job I like that pays well and for me to make the same amount as a writer, I'd need to be in the top .1% I think.  It's not that I make such an incredible amount of money, but rather that most writers make little from their work. Those that do earn a lot spend hours every day in self-promotion  -  I can tell by their twitter stream, blogs and Facebook. There's nothing wrong with that, but I don't have any desire to do it. It bores me just thinking about it.

Why do I write then? A tweet by Steampunk said it well,
"I write because there are stories I want to read that haven't been written yet."

This morning, I was thinking about Lad: A dog - a book I read when I was probably eight or nine years old. If I had ever taken a course in children's literature, I would have learned that this was not a very well-written book. Since I was just a kid, I liked it. I liked all of the Oz books, too, and hundreds of other books I read in grade school. Let's just white-wash over it by saying that my childhood was less than idyllic. Nearly all of the happy memories I have are of me curled up in an attic, sitting cross-legged in a basement, laying in the grass in the park - reading a book.

For a child, adolescent or young adult with a difficult life, the best book doesn't have more horrors and graphic violence.  They see enough of that in real life. All of my books, in the end, evil dies and good endures. In between, there are challenges overcome, magic happens and some close calls but nothing irreparably terrible happens to any character you have come to care about. It's good for a young person to get lost for an hour in a world like that, and come out of it thinking that perhaps real life could be this way.

When I grew up, I found that, in fact, it can. I think that was an idea I got from the books I read. So that is why I write.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Cover Art: The Ex-apprentices - Going all professional now

There is a story behind this cover art. Someone near and dear to my heart saw my book on Amazon and bought it (becoming even more dear to my heart!) His comment was that more people would buy it if I had a better cover. My argument was that I have zero artistic talent and less time. His argument was that I have no time because I am working and that I should take the money I am making and pay a graphic artist. So, I did.

Here is the new cover. Yes, it looks far better than anything I could have ever done. I haven't yet decided if I like it or I love it.

 I'm going to re-post my book on Amazon and Smashwords this weekend, when I have time (sigh).

(Scratch that! In an amazing feat of tearing myself away from work I took 30 seconds and changed the cover on Smashwords. I also uploaded it on Amazon CreateSpace so I may actually have a print copy available by Christmas. That's what I'm giving all of my nieces and nephews for Christmas presents !)

The cover art was done by  J. Flores Productions, by the way. They do great work at a really reasonable price.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

What I learned from reading bad books: Publishers aren't evil

I have nothing personal against self-published authors. I have my own book, Wizard and Spy, The Ex-Apprentices published on Kindle and also on Smashwords. Currently, I'm working on the second volume in the series. I was hoping to have it done by the end of September, but October is looking more likely.

I say this just to establish up front that I am not a shill for the publishing industry. Before self-publishing my book, I had read a number of articles and blog posts. Self-publishing makes perfect sense for people writing books with a regional focus, say on the history of Naperville, Illinois. That's not me, though. I wrote a general fantasy book for young adults and immature not-as-young adults (like me).

My main reason was well-stated in the lazyway blog and 100 other places. Basically, for a new author, getting accepted by a publisher requires finding an agent, then getting a publisher to talk to your agent - and just those steps alone each require sending out dozens of query letters.

Well it is a lot of work and time doing things I don't want to do. To paraphrase Ogden Nash, no one ever said,

"Woo-hoo, boys and girls, this round of query letters is on me!"

Since I like writing fantasy novels and I don't like writing query letters, I decided that I would just go ahead and self-publish on Smashwords and Amazon. I posted about my Smashwords experience earlier. It took me four hours. What could be easier?

Because I think I'm a fairly good writer and my book is only $2.99, I thought there are probably plenty of other writers out there like me who also have good books available at a low cost. Why pay $6.99 for a book or $20 for a hardback copy when you can get it for $2.99?

This is where things started to fall apart. In the past couple of months, I must have read at least 20 books that were self-published and another dozen that were from traditional publishers. Half the traditional books were technical books for work, so maybe that is not a fair comparison. Even discounting those, I have to say the difference in quality was disheartening to me as a self-published author.

It's easy to find articles on all the famous authors whose work was rejected. The take-away message is supposed to be that publishers don't know anything and if Ursula LeGuin and Madeleine L'Engle got rejected, then your book is quite possibly just as good and you should go ahead, self-publish it and make millions from your adoring public.

Probably not.

Let me establish up front that I have relatively low-brow tastes. I work at a very technical, demanding job for excessive hours and when I come home I want junk food for the brain. It's what I do instead of watch TV and most of the books I read are quite forgettable. I read a few self-published books that I thought were fine.

With all of that said, most of the self-published books I read scored a 1 or 2 on my very lax 1-5 scale. A couple were just horribly incorrectly labeled as far as genre. I'm not a porn fan. If you have lots of graphic sex and call it erotica, I'm still not a fan. I'd like my sex personally and not vicariously, thank you very much. If people are getting killed graphically, I think it belongs in horror and not fantasy. That isn't to say that those particular books were bad books if you like that kind of thing. I don't like Stephen King's books, either. My point is that a publisher would not make the mistake of having Stephen King classified with Lord of the Rings.

Some of the books that were actually fantasy were just plain not very good. I understand that I am reading a book about witches, wizards, unicorns and griffins. That does not mean that coincidentally every person you meet in Europe turns out to be a long-lost relative.  There was one book where every time the main character needed assistance her cousin, best friend from elementary school or some other random person just happened to be the sword-bearer of an ancient race or have the power to dissolve hedgehogs or some damn thing. Even if you are writing a book about a mythical place, there should be some logical order to it.

There is more to writing than a good story, but a good story is important. If I am going to continue reading self-published books, I need to get out of the habit of finishing every book I start. Some of the books had a good story that I wanted to follow but the writing had little more description than the Dick and Jane readers.
"See Jane fall off the cliff screaming."

Actually, I might enjoy a book like that.

Other books kind of petered out in the middle as the author ran out of ideas, it seems. After a hundred pages of character development where the author has really piqued the reader's interest in whether the ancient race of pixies, led by Susie Lou will rise up against their evil wizard overlords, they all settle their differences over tea. The End.

As I said, I am not hating on self-publishing books but I am coming to grips with the reality that a lot of these flaws would never have made it to the light of day because an editor at a traditional publishing house would have sent the book back for revision or turned it down out of hand.

The only exception to that, from my reading experience, is authors who have sold a lot of books in the past. I have been disappointed in a couple of books where it seemed the author has lost interest in writing about the characters in the series but not lost interest in being paid. These authors seem to get a pass from the editors because they have a sales track record and they will get suckers like me to buy their latest book because I liked their previous books. I won't buy their next one, though.

So, yes, there are good books from self-published authors and bad books from traditional publishers, but I have to admit that from what I have read in the past couple of months, the mix of good versus bad is higher on the traditional publisher side.

I'll have some thoughts on what the reader can do about that in my next post.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Denae Engages in Diplomacy with a Small Demon

Another random page from book 1 of the Wizard and Spy series

Musca buzzed up a couple of feet higher in dismay. Now he was flying overhead instead of regarding her face to face.
“No, bad idea, very bad idea. He’s a growing boy. That one will eat you. Or even worse, he’ll eat me. Or, he’ll eat you for dinner and then he’ll eat me for dessert. Or, he’ll tie my wings together, and save me for later and then eat me as a snack. No, very bad one, that. Very bad idea. I am not going to do it.”
The young woman regarded this display of cowardice with disgust, “Well, you gave me your boon and now you have to do it.”
The imp rolled over laughing nastily, “Listen, girlie, I just came here out of curiosity. You know why you never hear anyone say, ‘A demon’s word is his bond’? Because it’s not!”
Denae had learned early on in life that two things a spy should always have and be able to use well were a knife and a rope. She had learned to use both of them very, very well. Musca’s laugh was cut short as a noose seemed to leap through the air and tightened around his neck. The soldier yanked hard on the rope pulling him toward her. He stopped with his eyeballs a hairs-breadth away from her knife. She was definitely not amused.
“Now listen to me you little pile of pond-scum. You are going to take me to Andalon and if you don’t, I am going to cut out both of your eyes and have them for lunch, since they seem to be the part on you least likely to make me throw up. Then, I am going to cut off that nose, mouth, whatever that thing is of yours dripping mucous just because it disgusts me. Finally, I am going to pin you down by your wings and let the ants devour you.”
Musca gulped.
 “There aren’t any ants around here,” he corrected.
The young woman was floating a couple of inches off the ground now. Under cover of shaking her fist (with knife in it) at the imp, she had swallowed a small amount of Lucia’s levitation powder. Denae was fairly sure that it was only possible to hold an imp by magical means, and she did not want Musca to begin to suspect the truth that she had no magical ability whatsoever. The imp, who had begun to suspect exactly that, and begun to fade out, faded back into complete substance as the young soldier’s feet rose off the ground. “All right, all right, I’ll take you within sight of Andalon, and after that I am out of here!”
“Coward,” Denae muttered under her breath.
“Stupid,” Musca muttered under his.

or, for Nook, Sony ereader, Kindle and iPad you can buy it on Smashwords

Monday, September 5, 2011

Random page from my second book

“Um-hm,” Flagon cleared his throat and stood up in what Denae privately termed his ‘assuming-command’ pose. “Yes, well, madam, speaking of the academy, I think we should assess what were our enemy’s expectation and intents here and perhaps that would provide us greater ability to determine his identity.”

            His officious attitude was punctured somewhat by Aunt Lott’s nodding encouragingly, “Yes, that’s very good dear,” in the same tone used to Kole when he was saying his letters, “but, of course it was Ravidan. As for the rest of it, though, that is a very good idea, so maybe we should just start with Ravidan and work backwards with your plan. Yes, I think that will work very nicely.”

She settled back in her chair and waited for the platoon leader to continue.
“Well, uh-hm, madam, uh-hm,” stammered Flagon, finally coming out with, “How do you know it was this Ravidan? You see,” he added self-righteously, “we were taught at the academy never to judge without evidence.”
He was startled by a high-pitched laugh that seemed to come from a green-glowing bottle on a shelf near the ceiling. In the bottle next to it, a blue shape seemed to be moving. He would have sworn they were laughing and talking about him. Flagon rubbed his eyes and stared at them. Now they seemed just like two brightly-colored bottles.

The witch herself made no comment but merely continued rocking for a while. Finally she answered him, ticking the points off on her fingers as she spoke.
“The evidence is this. One, someone tried to kill me by magical means. Now, who would want to kill me? I get along well with most magical folk, it’s the non-magic witch-burning type that usually seem to want to kill me, through no fault of my own. I once told Azura that she was a self-important windbag, but she just sniffed and tossed her silly veils at me. So, I would say, two, the most likely magical person to commit murder would be the one who recently cut off one wizard’s hands, burned another’s apprentices and tried to have demons kill a third. Three, that would be Ravidan. So, there it is then.”
She sat up, brushing off her immaculately clean skirt that she had just put on, and held out her arms to Kole who, having napped through all of the excitement, was just waking up. The little boy looked at Bron in wide-eyed curiosity and asked, “Is he going to have a baby?”
Lott laughed, “No, love, he is just not feeling well today. Let’s get you some juice and crackers, shall we.”
By the time Aunt Lott had returned from settling the little one with his snack and toy animals, the platoon leader was pacing the floor. Denae was sound asleep in her chair in front of the fire, snoring softly.

“So, what have you figured out?” the witch asked, setting herself comfortably back into her rocker.

“Why would this wizard want to kill you?” burst out Flagon.

“Because he is a madman bent on taking over the world,” Lott answered calmly, then smiled at his annoyed expression, “Believe me young man, I take this threat quite as seriously as you do, perhaps more so. After all, I am the one Ravidan deliberately set out to kill, you merely happened to be in the neighborhood. However, I don’t believe jumping up and down and waving a sword is going to help any. And if you keep it up, those imps are going to roll around laughing so hard, they will knock those bottles off the shelf and break, which would quite disturb my plans, since I am not ready to use them yet.”

Flagon jumped, quite startled, and he could see that there were definitely human-like, or imp-like, shapes in the bottles, and they were plainly holding their sides and rolling around laughing. He slumped back in his chair sulking for a while. Aunt Lott merely drank her tea, looked speculative and rocked.
Finally, she explained gently, “It’s like this, dear. Ravidan did not just want me dead.”
Denae opened one eye, as it seemed something interesting might be about to be said. 

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Fleeing the voice, she ran up the mountain, climbed over rocks and at last

.. . escaped only by hiding in a cave

There must be a way I can include this woman as a character in my next novel, if only to get revenge...

I've gone hiking in Temescal Canyon twice lately. The first time was all right. I needed a break from work and it is really close to the city.  The trails were really easy and really crowded. I filed this away as a good place to take my mother the next time she comes to visit.

Today, I drove to the last place that vehicles are allowed, at the entrance to Topanga State Park. I figured, correctly, few people walk more than a mile in total, so once I hit the half-mile mark on the trail, there wouldn't be too much company.

I hiked up about a half-mile or so and I heard a woman behind me. "Heard" is the key word in that last sentence. She was going on and on in a high-pitched voice. I don't really know about what but it was annoying since, for me, the sounds of the mountain are almost as much of an allure as the sights. After spending days in an office, it's wonderful to hear the wind, the birds, the rustle of squirrels and rabbits in the bushes.

For miles, this woman whined on and on behind me. She was walking with a man. I hope he is her boyfriend because I can't imagine what anyone could have done so horrible to be sentenced to a life accompanied by constant monologue. Seriously, she was descended from harpies, I'm sure of it.

She was in good shape, I'll hand her that. See these mountains below?

We hiked to the top of the mountain on the right, me, Ms. Motor Mouth and Mr. Silent. Even though I was out of sight of them most of the way, there was not a minute all of the way to the top when I could not here her yammering behind me. I'll give her this, she's got a good set of lungs, because it was a 45 degree angle a lot of the way. I picked the most difficult trail, hoping I would lose her. I sped up, trying to get away from the sound of her voice. I would, for a while, but as soon as I dropped to anything under a run, she'd catch up again.

After an hour of hearing that whining drone behind me, I couldn't stand it any longer. I left the trail and went from this:

To this, climbing up dry creek beds off the trail, pulling myself along by grabbing tree roots and saplings to scale the mountain.

Incredibly, I could still hear her. We were almost at the top when I left the trail, so they were above me with I-cant-shut-up still talking, this time about the view. By this point, we had been hiking for an hour, much of it at a steep incline up a mountain and there had not been 10 seconds when I could not hear her voice. She literally had not stopped talking.I finally escaped by finishing the hike going down the mountain climbing over five-foot boulders, like this.

I found a couple of different caves I stopped in for a while. I waited until her voice faded, then I waited a while longer, for good measure.

I really, honestly, after this understood where the Greek myth of harpies came from. I don't think I'm a terrible anti-social person for wondering what the hell is wrong with you that when you go out into nature you don't have the desire to hear anything but your own voice?

Monday, August 29, 2011

Random page from my second book in which Denae is visiting hell

Andalon slammed his fist in the ground so hard that he buried his arm up to the elbow.
”We are in hell! We do not whistle, we do not play tag, and, whatever you are thinking of doing next, we don’t do that, either!”
“Must be rotten to be you,” Denae commented unrepentantly, turning three cartwheels, sprinting ahead, turning on her heel and running back to grab Andalon playfully by the tail.
“STOP THAT!” he shouted, and then, in a lower voice, added, “You’ll ruin my reputation.”
Denae went back to quick-marching in step with the demon. Her feelings about forced marches, past, present and future, fit in quite well with hell.
“Okay,” she offered, “I’ll look miserable, moan and even try to stab you every once in a while, if it will make you feel better. I’m going with you, though, whether you like it or not. You’re a lot better than the last traveling companion I had, anyway.”
“Oh, yes, the stick,” responded the demon.
She smiled, “Some might actually call him handsome, in my world.”
Andalon snorted, causing little puffs of smoke from each nostril, “And some might bash him on the head, in my world. I take it you two had a little lovers’ quarrel. What did you do to him?”
The demon leered suggestively.
“I didn’t kill him and eat him, if that’s what you’re thinking. I just broke a few ribs, stole his horse, and left him on the edge of the desert without any water.”
The demon smiled, showing several fangs, “You might be the kind of girl to bring home to mother after all. Why are you so dead-set, and I use the term deliberately, on going to my father’s house? If you are going to try worshipping him, I will tell you that the last human who made it that far is buried under the stairs.”
Denae was dead serious, which pleased Andalon.
“That demon tried to kill my family. Then he tried to kill us again here, including you. Do you have a family? A mother, brothers and sisters.”
“At last count, I had 9,147 brothers and sisters, if you count the half-human ones. These women keep thinking a deal with the devil will make them queen of hell and they can live in a palace and all that. So, they have a baby or two, and my father makes another room for them. They are never satisfied here and just whine and moan all the time. My mother doesn’t like that at all. She is his only demon wife. It all bothers her, the women, the moaning, the nine thousand and some other children. Every now and then she gets really angry about it and bites off one of his ears. He just grows it back after a while, so I am not really sure what the point is.”
“Does it bother him, having his ears bitten off?”
“What do you think?”
“Well, that’s probably the point, I would guess.”

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Writing in the Shower

When I started writing the Wizard and Spy series,  it was my writing version of singing in the shower. I had to stick with writing because I cannot sing.

Imagine seeing nothing but this for the next 14 days. Think it would be great?

Try it and you will understand why the Chinese saying, "May you get what you want" really is a curse.

No Internet. No book stores. No library. No bars.

I'm reading a book on writing by Sol Stein who says that no one writes just for himself. Obviously, Mr. Stein has never spent much time in a place where there is absolutely nothing to read.

Yes, I wrote the entire first three novels of the Wizard and Spy series just for me. Publishing the first book wasn't a problem. It had been sitting on my computer for a few years. One day, I got motivated, put it up on Smashwords (it took me about 4 hours), put it on Amazon on the Kindle and done.

(It's still not in paperback yet because I need to re-take the photo for the cover art.)

Reviews have been positive. I've gotten several nice emails from readers.

I have people asking me when the next book will be available.

  If I could just leave the second book as if it was written just for me, the answer to that question would be "Four hours after I publish book 1"

Book two takes up where book 1 left off.

After all,  *I*  knew who all of the characters were and what had happened before this book. I wrote it. My challenge is to rewrite chapters so that new readers are not totally lost.

For example, the Captain's family all seem like nice, sympathetic characters, especially the middle children - Guillane, Jennat and Totten.

So, when you get to the chapter where they are keeping a gnome maid as a prisoner in their house you say, "Huh?"

Unless you read the first book, in which case it all makes sense that Mimi is locked up by this perfectly nice family and she doesn't even know the reason why.

I'm making the shift from writing for me to writing for people like me. This is taking some editing for the next two books in the series to make it work. The fourth book is going to be quite a bit different because I've been writing it with the intention of publishing it from the very beginning.


Incidentally, if you write fantasy and have not checked it out, I'd highly recommend as a good place to get feedback.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Publishing Wizard & Spy on Smashwords : Easy, peasey, lemon squeezee

I put off publishing on Smashwords because it sounded really intimidating. There is some software called "The Meatgrinder" that your book is put through. How much scarier can something sound than THAT? Finally, I girded my loins (figuratively, not literally), downloaded a copy of the Smashwords Style Guide by Mark Coker and went at it.

It really was as simple as 1 - 2 -3 and I was embarrassed I had been put off by the "technical challenge" from doing it before.

Assuming, like me, you already have a book written and that you did it in Microsoft Word, here is all you need to do.

  1. Download the Smashwords style guide and read it.
  2. Make every single formatting change in your document that the book recommends.
  3. Click the "Publish" button on the Smashwords site and fill out the forms. 
That's it. There was a slight glitch when I first uploaded my book because Smashwords had run out of ISBN numbers, but when they did get more numbers, it took, literally, seconds, to update my book to assign one.

The first book in the Wizard and Spy series, The Ex-apprentices is now for sale.
Lucia's sad life improves after she's apprenticed to a witch. She makes her first friend, Denae, and even gets her first birthday present, a pegasus. All would be well if not for the king telling Denae she can't be a spy, a father determined to bring Lucia home, and that prophecy that she's doomed to commit murder by magic. 

It's a fun book to read, if I do say so myself, which I do.

I have sold some copies. There are a lot of options that Smashwords makes available for promoting your book that I have not used, simply because I've been really, really busy at my "day job".

Next on my list of things to do is read both the Smashwords marketing guide (which I have - hang head in shame - downloaded and started reading but not finished) and Michael Hicks book on marketing self-published books.

I would say the marketing is hard, but I don't know, since, before I published on Smashwords, I thought publishing would be hard, too. Instead, to steal a term from the little girl next door, it turned out to be easy, peasey, lemon squeezee.

Suddenly, for some reason, I have a craving for lemon meringue pie.

The Road (Much) Less Traveled

I've never been a major poetry fan. As a writer, I'm happy to be a hack. I write about wizards, spies, centaurs, gnomes and pegasi. Not only do I not want to write the Great American Novel, I'm certain I don't want to read it, either. None of that has stopped me from loving Robert Frost's poems, especially The Road Not Taken, which ends

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, 
 I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference

Definitely, I'm a road less traveled type of person, and when someone recently commented about people she knew that,

They don't do real camping. They go camping in places where the hiking trails are paved.

I thought she was joking. Yesterday,  thinking I would go crazy if I stayed at my desk one second longer, I took off for the closest regional park and it turns out there really are paved hiking trails!

Seems like an oxymoron doesn't it?  Fortunately for my sanity, there were also normal trails branching off from these sidewalks in the woods, and I took the first one I saw. One of the advantages of being a small person is I can crouch down easily and fit through a lot of openings made by wildlife. It is a false rumor spread by my best friend that I actually use rabbit trails on a regular basis. I'm not that little! Being still somewhat disturbed by the weirdness of paving the forest, I left the actual trail for the one above, which was really just a dry stream bed.

A few minutes climb up the stream bed, I made an interesting discovery. In this regional park, not a mile from multi-million dollar homes, someone had set up a homestead of his own. (I assumed it was a "his" although I didn't stay long enough to introduce myself.)

In one section of the "home" was the living room, with crates set up for sitting.

He seemed to mostly have a liquid diet, although not what you are thinking. A few yards away were bags, neatly tied, with empty bottles that held water, sports drinks and protein shakes. It made me wonder if he didn't have many teeth or it was just the lack of facilities for cooking and refrigeration.

A few dozen yards away, up on the hill, I could see his "bedroom", where a green sleeping bag was laid about in a cleared space under a canopy of leaves.
He had as much privacy as the average person with their mansions in the canyons, in fact, probably more. Not many people would fit beneath the branches lining the creek bed, and even fewer would think to leave first the paved "trails" and then the dirt path to walk on rocks just to see what was there.

I think if I was ever going to live in the woods, I'd want some place where I couldn't still hear the distant sounds of the freeway from my milk crate under the trees. I'm hardly an expert on homeless living, though, so maybe it is the optimal location for all I know. If you're searching for a place  to set up your home in the woods, don't go by my recommendations.

My deadline was looming back at the office and, besides, I felt like an interloper, as if I had just walked, uninvited into a neighbor's living room. I headed back down the trail, to my car and back to work.

The entire drive, I could not quit thinking of the contrast just a few hundred yards apart, between people who were too 'civilized' to walk on the forest floor and someone who lived on it.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

A Visit from Centaurs

Free time lately has been about as common as a visit from centaurs. Since I worked with someone who had a death in the family, I had to pick up some extra hours to help out this month, as anyone would, so that cut into any writing time for weeks. On the positive side, I will be taking a week off next month just to read, write and sleep.

My flight got into north of nowhere early, so I had the dilemma - do I work on getting my second book in the series ready for publication or do I try to get on Facebook, join the Independent Authors Network get on twitter and do other things to promote the book I have out already.

You can see which won

Chapter 2: The Centaurs Visit
            In the morning, Lucia was exuding an even greater air of self-righteous injury. After all, wasn’t she the one who saved Peggy from becoming food for the muledragoons? Wasn’t it she who had helped birth the baby? For that matter, weren’t mother and daughter at this very instant relaxing in the garden that she had created in this desolate, frozen wasteland. Her thoughts could have continued along that line for very much longer had the door to her room not slammed open.
            “Go wash those two,” growled Cysotte. “The Centaur Klath will be here soon, and one of the many unreasoning prejudices centaurs have is against anything that is not spotlessly clean.” He stepped close to Lucia and sniffed. Wash yourself, too, while you’re at it. How did you spend years with Lott and not pick up her habits? I always thought that witch, must be part centaur way back in her line somewhere. Cleanest apprentice I ever had. Annoying. But at least she never had half the Centaur Isle coming here pestering me.”
            Lucia considered some retort about the centaurs could stand her if they could put up with Cysotte, but thought better of it. While normally his bark was really much worse than his bite, today he was clearly not far from a biting mood. With a wizard of his stature, this could easily translate into taking the form of some large animal, real or imagined, and biting off a piece of whatever had caused that mood.  Since she was fairly certain that, justly or not, at least part of that mood had been caused by her actions the previous day, Lucia held her tongue and went out into the garden.
            Upon seeing the apprentice, Peggy merely nodded her head and went back to nuzzling and licking the newborn. Apparently she, too, still felt some grudge against Lucia. Deciding that this was a game that two could play, and going for the least effort, the young woman wordlessly stood next to mother and daughter and caused a warm rainshower to fall out of the air. Clouds would have made a better effect, but she just didn’t care at the moment.
            “Do you mind?” objected the pegasus, huffily.
            “Centaur Klath is coming,” explained Lucia shortly. “Cysotte said to do it. They like clean.”
            At this, Peggy began nervously pacing and pawing the ground. A warm breeze dried the three of them, the anxious mother, the placid baby and the angry, young apprentice. Cysotte came to join them, looking almost as agitated as the pegasus. Lucia noticed that he hadn’t followed his own injunction regarding cleanliness, wearing the same robes as the day before, and having groomed his sparse white hair only by repeatedly running his fingers through it.
The professor, too, walked back and forth for a while, and then, stopped suddenly, struck by a thought.
He pulled the pegasus’ head close to his and the unlikely pair had a hurried conversation. Not a moment too soon, either, as just then a loud knock sounded at the door. Of course, they could have materialized inside the room, but the greater their ire the more centaurs felt it necessary to observe the niceties of social convention. This was one of a few things about them that Lucia never did quite understand.
            Magically the door opened, and the five members of the Centaur Klath high-stepped in, single-file, followed by Jerome. The young father looked dazed. For a moment, he stood uncertainly behind the Klath, aware of the trouble he had caused, but then, catching sight of his daughter, he trotted over to her and lifted her in his arms. She snuggled close, fluttering her little wings and smiling a happy baby smile. The youngest of the Klath, a pinto female with auburn hair, watched the exchange carefully. Her stern visage melted as she saw father and daughter together. Lucia thought to herself, there is one for our side.
            The Klath fanned out and faced the little family. Not sure of their intentions, Cysotte and Lucia moved between the two groups. The eldest member stepped forward. He was silver-haired, with lines of age, deepened today by an expression of grave disapproval, “We have come today, Friend Cysotte, to discuss this unfortunate incident.”
            The professor spat on the ground between them, “Then you are all idiots with nothing better to do than waste my time. Isn’t there some maniac out there trying to take over the world? And you come prancing up to my cottage on the magic path just because some filly gave birth?”
            The old one was slightly taken aback by this description of events.
“It is more than that, professor. To the centaurs, uh, socialization, with dumb animals is seen as a grave error.”
            At this, the pegasus trotted forward, shaking her head and snorting. If the Klath were put off by such horse-like behavior, they were even more disturbed by what she said.
“Dumb animal? If your honorable selves mean by dumb that I can’t talk, then I would remind you this is the second time I have shown the error of your centaur thinking in that regard. If you mean to dis- “ she paused to find the right word, “disrespect my intellect, then I think the famed centaur manners are just a story made up, probably by the centaurs. If you intend to refer to me, in a situation that I think is really none of your business, I would thank you to have the courtesy of using my given name. It is Genatha.”
            Jerome’s master gasped, “That is an Old Earth name. It means – “
            “Mother of Destiny. I know full well what it means,” murmured the pegasus. “It is my name, after all.”
            “This is ridiculous!” interrupted the white one. “We are here to determine the facts of the situation regarding the improper behavior of the young one with a – uh, pegasus.”
            This time, Peggy/Genatha, reared several feet off the ground, she was so angry.
 “Situation? Are you calling my baby – our baby – a situation? If I wasn’t such a mare and a new mother, I would kick you in the head!”
At this, the other centaurs tried, with varying degrees of success, to hide the smiles that appeared unbidden on their faces. Coming back down to earth, both literally and emotionally, the pegasus fluttered her wings a bit and settled back to her normal, calm self.
“Jerome had your prejudices, too, when I first met him. I reasoned with him, though, until he saw my logic.”
            All of the Klath members were silent. The young father began to look less like he expected to be shot full of arrows at any moment. In fact, he cast a surreptitious glance of admiration at the pegasus. It was a very neat tactic. Centaurs pride themselves on their logic and look down on humans for their unreasoning prejudice against not only other species but even members of different races of humans. To be accused of the same sins, and rightfully so, was enough to give any centaur pause, and the Klath were certainly not just any centaurs. She had set them back on their heels, quite literally. All of them were studying the ground, the roof over their heads, any spot but looking Peggy straight in the eye.
            The youngest Klath member was the first to speak, perhaps because she had the least reason to be self-conscious.
 “Beg pardon, Friend Genatha, I mean no offense, but I had not thought the pegasi to be such as yourself, but rather beasts subservient to man. Have I been wrong in my thinking?”
            The pegasus responded gently, “No offense. The centaurs are famous for their interest in learning about everything. You have been both right and wrong. I am not a very usual pegasus. Neither are the pegasi beasts of burden. Mostly, a pegasus is an athlete, living to fly faster than anyone has flown before. Over the generations, it has become the whole reason to be alive.  Living with men freed a pegasus from any other need. They take care of our food and shelter. If they want to cast a bet or two on a race, that is a small price to pay. If they take the foals and sell them, what difference is that to the racers? The young ones will be cared for and fed, without the parents having to go to any trouble.”
            “Is that how you feel about it?” asked one of the members, who had been quiet until now.
            The mother’s eyes narrowed. One wingtip rested on the baby.
She looked straight at him and replied sweetly, “I told you I was not a very usual pegasus. If you take one step toward her, I will fly above you and tap dance on your head with all four hooves. Does that answer your question?”
            He swallowed nervously, Adam’s apple jiggling, “Yes, I think it does.”
            The old one, however, was not about to give up so easily.
”Just a minute, there. Perhaps we were a bit, uh, hasty, in our judgment of the pegasi in some respects. However, the child is a centaur, uh, at least in part, and that being the case, attention must be paid to the child’s naming. After that, of course, there is the issue of the child’s education. Surely, no one believes this is a fit venue for learning!”
            “Why not?” Peggy asked mildly, “After all, he is a professor.”
            The old centaur laughed derisively.
 “You can’t be serious!”
            The professor, who ten minutes earlier was infuriated by the fact that one more being seemed to have taken up residence in his home, without his permission no less, and a child, on top of all of that, immediately reversed his position. He advanced on the centaur, and, being a magician, he did not simply appear to be getting larger with every step he really was growing. By the time he reached the elder, Cysotte was towering over him.
“I am 111 years old. I have been studying magic for 92 years, and along the way have picked up a fair amount of history, science and mathematics to go along with it. Do you really mean to stand there, in my own house, and tell me that you think I am unfit to teach one mere infant?”
            Actually, Lucia thought to herself, Cysotte was probably a horrible person to teach an infant. He was cranky, sloppy, usually rude and frequently away for extended periods. When he was around, he hated to be bothered during his work, study or sleeping periods, which took up nearly all of the day. The child would pretty much be left to learn what her mother could teach her, what she could pick up on her own, and anything Lucia managed to explain to her. On the other hand, old white-tail didn’t seem to be any more of a prizewinner than Cysotte, and he had the huge drawback of being prejudiced against the little tyke. Every time he looked her way, he was unable to keep himself from staring at the tiny wings. Several times, Lucia noticed an involuntary shudder.
            Despite his prejudices, the elder was intent on having his way. He may not have wanted the young half-breed (as he thought of her), but he could not see leaving one of centaur blood to be raised anywhere but Centaur Isle. It just was not done. He folded his arms across his chest and, purposely avoiding Cysotte’s glare, looked straight ahead and declared, “There are centaur conventions that must be followed. We are wasting time. The child must be named and the naming must be done on the isle.”
            “Who says so?” asked the pegasus quietly, and then shook her head. “It doesn’t really matter who says so, anyway. She already has a name. Every pegasus child is named by her mother who can see what name will most fit the adult the child will become. The pegasi do not learn magic. We are magic. Her name is Elayatha.”
            “Child of Light and Fate? What kind of name is that?” the old centaur demanded. “It doesn’t make any kind of sense to me.”
            “Well, it does to me,” the pegasus replied. “And it will to her when she is old enough to understand. Since it’s not your name and you’re not her mother, it doesn’t really matter whether it makes sense to you or not, now does it?”
            The white centaur actually sputtered at this, leaving a few drops of spittle on Lucia, Cysotte and Peggy. The two humans brushed themselves off with exaggerated displays of distaste. Peggy (they still could not really think of her as Genatha) politely chose to ignore this faux pas.
“What about the young one?” the chief centaur asked. “Shouldn’t he suffer some consequences?”
            “He’s got a child,” Cysotte muttered. “How much more consequence do you want?”
            At this point, Hirsutz deemed it advisable to step in. The normally placid pegasus appeared on the verge of kicking someone in the head. The professor seemed inclined to stand by, watch and enjoy it. The young father was being pulled in so many directions at once by competing loyalties that it would surprise no one if he split in half and went galloping off in different directions.
“Ahem, “ the black centaur suggested politely but firmly, “I believe friend Cysotte has noted the right solution. Mine apprentice Jerome will stay here for a month- “ noticing the professor’s glare, he amended, “Ahem, two weeks. He will assist in tending the young one, which, as all who have cared for an infant know, is no small task. In this, he will pay some recompense to the fair Genatha who no doubt could benefit from the rest this assistance will afford. As his studies allow, and” nodding toward the glowering Cysotte, “the convenience of the household, he will return here to aid in the child’s education.”
            The old centaur was not satisfied, and it appeared that, except for Hirsutz, the others were accustomed to letting him speak for them. If it came to a vote, the reasonable view might well lose.
“You don’t understand!” the white one shouted.
He would have said more if he had not been rudely interrupted.
Cysotte scowled and shouted right over him, “What you don’t understand is that you have nothing we want. That means we don’t have to listen to you and we are tired of putting up with you. Go away!” 
He gave Lucia a meaningful look, while he indicated the four centaurs with one hand and made a disappearing motion with the other. No one was looking at the apprentice, and so they were quite surprised when, a moment later, they all found themselves back on Centaur Isle. The old one was so furious that he actually reared backward and kicked so hard into a tree that his hooves became stuck. The young pinto had to help him free himself. When she did so, he trotted away to his hut without so much as a thank you or a backward glance.
Back in the cottage, Hirsutz was a little stunned.
“Well,” asked Cysotte, “do you want us to send you back the same way, or are you taking the magic path?”
The centaur wizard smiled diffidently, “I think, friend Cysotte, I prefer the path. I’ll start out walking from here, and, with luck, it will take three or four days before the path is available to me. Orson may have lost some of his anger by then. First, perhaps, I will stay and give the young ones the benefit of my advice, for whatever it may be worth. I have raised a colt and a filly of my own in my time, and I believe I am the only one here with that experience.”
“Fine!” growled the professor, as he headed back toward his room. “Make yourself at home.”
This time Hirsutz grinned broadly, as he called toward the departing back, “I think not. I have more sense of self-preservation than that.”
Forgiven and forgotten, Lucia grumpily tramped off in the opposite direction, to her quarters. What Hirsutz told the new parents, therefore, remained unknown to all not directly involved. It is certain, though, that they appeared much relieved after that. Or, at least, Jerome was relieved, the pegasus having been pretty clear what she was about from the very beginning.

Here is the first book, if you were dying to read where this all came from