Monday, December 31, 2012

Happy New Year!

Okay, this day snuck up on me.  I just posted yesterday and here I am needing to say something pithy and profound and summative about the year that is rapidly heading toward extinction.  And I need to say it quickly, because I went for a lovely ride on this cold, crisp afternoon and now I can't stay awake.  I'll be lucky to make it to midnight East Coast time, and I live several times zones west of that one. . . (Guaranteed insomnia cure: exercise until you're frozen, come in and thaw out and eat a large dinner and then just TRY to stay awake!).

Okay, wise cracks out of the way, I do want to look back over the year.  At the beginning of 2012, my writing was just about where it is now. . . except it was the first Ninja Librarian book I was trying to polish up, and now it's the second.  Over the course of the year, I've seen my book in print, done author readings, and been recognized in the grocery store as a writer

I have developed as a writer, doing a much better job of believing that it's a real job, and therefore should take precedent over many other things, including sweeping the floor.  Not always there, but getting better.  I've learned more about marketing than I ever guessed I would ever need to, and just enough to tell me that I've only scratched the surface.  I've also learned that nothing about my new published status has made me any more eager to sit down with a flawed MS and do the hard work of turning it into a publishable book, but that having people waiting for the new book can inspire me to do even that.  I think that's part of what it means to be a professional.

I have also learned that I can write short stories just for fun, and share them so that others can have fun too.

In my personal life, I have watched my boys get another year older, and seen my Eldest Son putting me to shame for his ability to write under nearly any conditions.  While I want to crawl off alone, he sat in the middle of the family Xmas bash with his computer in front of him, and added page after page to his first novel.  It's pretty good, too.  I don't know whether to be a proud parent, or just chagrined that he manages to write, and well, under circumstances that made me give up (twelve people in our dinky house over the holidays, for example).

I have also done some great trips, including my first visit to Hawaii and a seven-day backpack trip in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming (here and here).  That was one of the most scenic I've done, and the longest single backpack since I was 27 and hiked 200 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail.  It was a lot more fun doing it with my family than alone, as I did back then.  

What do I wish for 2013?  Aside, that is, from peace and love and general good stuff for all humanity.  Let's stick with the personal here.  Mostly, let's stick with what the writer wants.

1.  Make writing a featured part of every day.  Write like a professional.  Except on Zero days.
2.  Bring out the sequel to the Ninja Librarian (still mostly on track for Feb., though we are looking at the end of the month, not the beginning).
3.  Either finish and publish my "PTA Murder" novel, or decide it has no future and start a new one.
4.  Sell more books each month, find more followers for this blog, and discover more great reads for myself.  Which I'll share if you are good.
5.  Go for another backpack trip as glorious as last summer's.  Swim even more, ride even more, and--the gods willing--become a runner again when my about-to-be-operated-on toe heals.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Take a Zero

I've been catching up on some through-hikers I was following last summer.  For those of you who aren't backpackers (in the US sense, not the European sense), through-hikers are people who hike an entire long trail (Pacific Crest Trail, Appalachian Trail, etc.) in a single season (well, more like 3 seasons, starting very early in spring and continuing until they arrive at the end or snow gets too deep to manage, whichever comes first).  I'd been following a couple of PCT hikers, and got distracted, so I went back yesterday and read the blogs all the way through, since they were all off the trail by late October. I don't know if this sort of thing is meant satisfy my desire to do a long hike, or feed it, but that's a post for another day.

What I wanted to talk about was the concept of a "Zero" or "Zero Day".  A day in town or camp when you don't hike anywhere.  Zero mileage.  When you are trying to cover 2660 miles between late March and first snow in the North Cascades, you think a lot about miles (you also think a lot about miles between food drops, since taking a day too long could mean a day without dinner, not something you want to consider when hiking 20-25 miles/day).  Spending a whole day without gaining any miles can be hard.

What I got to thinking about this afternoon is how hard it is for me to take a Zero, to stop doing all the things I'm supposed to be doing.  Now, granted that on those "Zero Days" the hikers usually kept plenty busy--laundry and shopping and eating as many meals as they could jam in--in a sense they didn't do any of what they were there to do, i.e., hike.  That's the beauty of a Zero.  Just don't do it.

Maybe that's behind the old religious prohibition on doing any work on Sunday.  If we humans don't know enough to take a rest day when we need it, maybe we need an outside force telling us to, before we burn ourselves out.  Around here in the U.S. we've pretty much forgotten about that whole Day of Rest thing, but I'm old enough to remember when very very few stores were open on Sundays, and most people (except ministers) took the day off.  Everyone took a Zero and was the better for it (eventually my Mom stopped cooking on Sundays, too, though not for religious reasons.  She just needed a day off).

So today I really haven't done much.  I finished two books last night, and read another clear through today.  It was past time for me to do that, and it meant, as much as anything, getting the heck off the internet (where I'd been all yesterday afternoon, reading about through-hikers. . . ) and just reading a book.  But I was also feeling pretty guilty.  Not doing any writing, not cleaning up the post-holiday mess, just indulging myself.  Like I did when I was a kid--curled up with a book for hours.

But here's the thing: on my "Zero", when I'm kind of beating myself up for not doing anything productive, I have puttered at a number of minor kitchen chores, baked a batch of bread, done a load of laundry, finally pulled out my dead and dying tomato plants and spaded compost into the beds to rot the rest of the winter in preparation for the spring planting, and cleaned up the mud I tracked into the house afterward.

See what I mean?  I'm not too good at taking a Zero.  Okay, yeah, I can take a day off from writing, especially the revisions I'm supposedly working on right now, all too easily.  But the rest of my job is that of chief housekeeper and I can't seem to let it go.  But the thing is: if the hikers don't take a Zero now and then, they break down.  The body just won't keep it up, the mind wears down.  Next thing you know, you've left the trail for permanent, not just for a day.

Now, I've a hunch that "trail fatigue" might happen to writers, too.  Take a break or get the boot.  I'm not so sure about housework, but I do know that a) it will never go away, and b) it will never go away.  It'll still be there tomorrow.  Take a Zero.  Read a book and let the dust bunnies thrive one more day.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Wishing Everyone. . .


  The Joyous midwinter celebration of your choice

--From all of us in Skunk Corners.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Book Review: Homer Price

Homer Price, by Robert McCloskey, c. 1943, 160 p., middle-grade fiction

I don't usually review books that are 70 years old, but as I was comparing my own book to it, I realized that few kids today may know about Homer.  A check of the library records for our county confirm that, while the book is available in most of the branches, it only goes out about once a year.  And that's a shame, because not only are the stories delightful and fun (as well as slightly absurd. . . if you have read The Ninja Librarian, you see where I'm coming from. . . ) but they are illustrated in the same style as his classic picture books (Make Way for Ducklings, One Morning in Maine, etc.), which means they are worthwhile just for the pictures.

Each of the six chapters is a free-standing story of some event in the life of Homer Price and his little town of Centerburg.  In the first, Homer deals with a foursome of robbers by a creative trick and with a little help from his friends.  As in each successive chapter, the set-up is engaging, and the story ends with a twist that shows some real creative problem-solving on Homer's part.

[I hadn't read the book for years until I picked it up last month, looking for something soothing.  I was surprised to find the degree to which McCloskey's approach paralleled my own in the NL.  Clearly early childhood influences are strong!]

In each story, underlying the elements of silliness and adventure that appeal to the children, there is a certain amount of social commentary that can appeal to the adult reader, particularly with reference to modern "progress."  If only McCloskey had known!

The six chapters are:
The Case of the Sensational Scent
The Case of the Cosmic Comic
The Doughnuts
Mystery Yarn
Nothing New Under the Sun (Hardly)
Wheels of Progress

If you or your children haven't read this, get a copy now!  While you're at it, pick up the sequel, Centerburg Tales.

Five stars.  I can't think what I'd improve.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Who are you like?

I had intended today to post a discussion of editing one's work (since I'm busy procrastinating on just that task), but a post on Rachel Abbott's blog about writing blurbs got me thinking.  Not just thinking that there's one more thing I should probably revise (again), but about one particular bit that hit a nerve.

Guest blogger Mark Edwards, writing about writing blurbs, encourages us to use the names of known authors (he calls it namechecking).  You know the thing: "if so-and-so wrote such-and-such. . . ".  Now, I can certainly see the power of this in advertising.  Associating your unknown name and book with a name everyone (or everyone interested in your genre) will recognize is a great way to get some attention, maybe draw in some readers.

And yet.  I have seen this done so much, and so clumsily.  "This book has been compared to 'Harry Potter' and 'The Lord of the Rings'!"  "It's like Steinbeck and Shakespeare met for a few drinks and wrote a novel together!"  Things that sound both boastful and stupid.  I guess if the reviewer for the NYT compares your book (in a positive way) to the work of a best-selling author, you should grab hold and go with that--and give the attribution and the link.  But if your Mom says "oh, honey, you write even better than Danielle Steele" (NB: my mother doesn't read Danielle Steele and would never say such an insulting thing to me, especially as I don't write romances), you might want to rethink the comparison.

Of course, everyone wants to know what your book is like, and comparing it to something they know is the fast and easy way to get there.  But it's a fine line between useful and reasonable name-dropping and something that sounds like a playground boast. 

So here's what I think: I have no idea where the balance lies.

My inclination is to use words like "reminiscent of" and "in the spirit of" or even "inspired by the likes of."  Actually, so far my inclination has been to avoid any such comparisons.  But now I'm thinking about it, and thinking about a little revision of my blurbs to include some.

"The Ninja Librarian is a tall tale in the (slightly outrageous) spirit of Mark Twain and Robert McCloskey's Homer Price."  (This might at least attract the attention of the parents and grandparents of my juvenile readers, though I'm not sure how many 4th graders will recognize either name, more's the pity).  Or maybe "Hank the Cowdog would feel right at home in Skunk Corners."  (Adult readers without children may, in their turn, need to look up who Hank is.  Great fun for family read-alouds.  Sort of like the NL.  Check it out).

Is that too weird?

What do you think about "namechecking" in blurbs by unknown authors?

Friday, December 14, 2012

Book Review: The Winged Watchman

The Winged Watchman, by Hilda van Stockum, 1962.  Juvenile Historical Fiction.

Not long ago a friend who teaches grade school tipped me off to a grand book, called 1001 Children's Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up.  I've been happily browsing the sections for kids about age 8 and up (juvvy fiction, not picture books or easy-readers; this is the stuff I like).  Not surprisingly, especially given how small our library was when I was actually a child, I've missed a lot of the books (even the ones that were written before I allegedly grew up, and many post-date my gradeschool years, which were a lot longer ago than I think).

The Winged Watchman is one of those I missed along the way.  Set in Holland during WWII, it is the story of the Verhagen family, who live in and tend a windmill--the Winged Watchman.  As a note, it was a bit before I processed the obvious (well, maybe not!) fact that these windmills were not for grinding flour or to pump up water (as windmills in the American West are), but to pump the water out of the polders, the stretches of farmland that lie below sea level.

So there was a fair bit of history and lore to learn, but never to the detriment of the story.  And the story is that of the Dutch Resistance, of everyday people who did what needed doing to save a downed aviator or hide a Resistance fighter or a Jewish child, working against the German occupiers without letting on that they were.

The Verhagens are just such people.  Not giant heroes, but little ones, people who shared what they had, and took their chances with the Germans.  We follow them through the last year of the war, when things are at their worst, and their most exciting.  Events move along at a brisk clip, keeping the reader engaged, with just enough tension to make it exciting.  The story is told from the perspective  of the two sons of the family, primarily Joris, who is 10, but also Dirk Jan who at 14 plays a more active and dangerous role.

And how is it to read?  Being written in 1962, certain aspects of the book are dated, though the language and style are modern enough (though I suspect a writer tackling the scene in 2012 would make life and death seem more real to the reader).  I hit a couple of brief rough patches where religious sentiments were presented in a manner that felt somewhat preachy, but they quickly passed, and the overall tone was acceptable to people of any or no faith.  That sense was a bit dampened by the ending, where the author makes it clear she believes that religion--Christian or otherwise--is a powerful support in difficult times, as it undoubtedly is for those who believe.  To me, it made the ending feel a little preachy, not in keeping with the adventure story, but it by no means ruined the book.

I am not sure that, aside from the historical context, I would consider this a "must read," but The Winged Watchman was a worthwhile read, and kept my attention from start to end with no desire to wander off.  Three and a half stars.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Short Story--An Elegant Apocalypse

  Sunrise on Planet X-4732B is one of the most stunning and beautiful events in the Universe.  This is a well-established fact, determined by a complex algorithm developed by the Ultra-Computer housed on the 4th Moon of Planet G-7512, known to locals as Home.  The lunar location was originally meant to isolate it and prevent the most powerful computer in the universe from running amok.
  Naturally, by the time the Ultra-Computer was completed, there were six more computers being built on six asteroids, each one an order of magnitude more powerful than the Ultra.  That is not germane to the issue, but does explain why the Ultra was free to spend its time determining the nature and location of the most stunningly beautiful sights in the universe.
  So the morning of the last day of the world began with the last most beautiful sunrise.  If anything, the approach of the disaster gave the sunrise a more vivid coloration.  It was not, however, beautiful in the eyes of the beholder.  There were no beholders, for the same reason that X-4732B has no local name: there are no higher order inhabitants on X-4732B.  Lower-order organisms abound, or did before the world ended, but they had failed to evolve to create pollution, disrupt the perfect order of the landscape, or anticipate the apocalypse.
  The absence of human or human-like observers is, of course, central to the elegance of the X-4732B apocalypse (for every apocalypse is local, until the final event, the end of the universe so eloquently documented by Douglas Adams).  Besides a failure to muck up the view, lower-order organisms tend to lack the necessary glands to panic.  Had the planet evolved so much as a muskrat, the day would have taken a different turn, and the Ultra Computer would have had to recalculate the event’s standing in its ranking of events approaching perfection.
  Naturally, just when it seemed safe to assume that the apocalypse would proceed with dignity and quiet splendor, everything changed.  A lone, tiny, and definitely lost space capsule spiraled down through the oddly Earth-like atmosphere.
  In the best of all possible worlds, the man who emerged, dazed, from the erring and now disabled spacecraft would have been Arthur Dent.
  It wasn’t.
  His name was Johnson Bob, and he’d been in transit between two planets far from X-4732B when his flight path took him a hair too close to a concert by the intergalactic band Disaster Area.  The cosmic disruption of the loudest band in the universe had put an end to his tedious business trip and landed Johnson on X-4732B in time to witness the end of that world, and potentially to disrupt its tranquil order.
  The event was saved from the contamination of panic, despite the intrusion of a more-or-less higher life form, by the simple fact that Johnson Bob never left his ship.  He was sleeping off the disconcerting effects of the Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster he’d had in the space port bar before leaving, a task that requires the full concentration of all bodily forces for a full day.  In fact, in an act of incredible bravado, or idiocy, he had consumed two of the Gargle Blasters, and would be fortunate to wake up at all.
  Johnson Bob therefore slept through the end of the world.  He failed to observe as the sky turned from its usual chartreuse to an odd shade of puce and finally a perfect shade of red-orange.  Nor was he aware when the atmosphere boiled away, as his ship maintained the ideal balance of gasses for the continuation of human life.
  Johnson Bob likewise missed the exquisite moment when all factors coalesced into the perfect, nearly silent yet symphonic finality.  It was this perfect coordination of elements that led the Ultra Computer to designate the X-4732B Apocalypse as the most elegant apocalypse of all time.
Millennia of constipated volcanism beneath the immense chain of volcanoes that ringed the planet burst through the plug in every peak simultaneously, exactly at the instant the asteroid that had boiled away the atmosphere struck precisely at the southern pole, and the sun went nova at the same moment.
  Johnson Bob should have been boiled away with the atmosphere, of course, but the Ultra Computer considered the final touch that perfected the X-4732B Apocalypse to be the manner in which the volcanic cataclysm ejected the one bit of alien matter from the planet in time to make it a purely local event. When Johnson Bob eventually awoke, he had a nasty hangover but no awareness of where he’d been or what he’d done.  The blast had flung him back onto his orignal trajectory, and he landed without incident and went to the nearest bar for another Gargle-Blaster, in hopes of clearing his head.
To a human observer, the tiny space capsule as it exited would have looked like a watermelon pip spat contemptuously at the remainder of the universe as the planet exploded into a nearly infinite number of identical fragments.
  But of course since Johnson Bob was unconscious the whole time, there was no human, or even sentient, observer.  That, the computer decided as the final rays of the perfectly symmetrical pattern of dissolution faded into empty space, was perhaps the most elegant feature.  Perfection could only unfold unobserved.

With reverent apologies to Douglas Adams

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Drowning in words

Dorothy Sayers said it, and I heartily agree: "The rereading of one's own works is usually a dismal matter" (Gaudy Night).  Even the bits that you can see are really pretty good have a great deal less shine to them than they did when they were new.

And why, you ask, this spirit of disheartened eloquence?  Because, like thousands who "won" NaNoWriMo, I am struggling with the revision of a novel that isn't quite there yet.  Unlike the NaNers, mine isn't fresh, but rather a book abandoned about five years back when I couldn't interest an agent in it.  Now, it's better than five-year-old fish--the book doesn't stink--but five years is long enough to let me see it as an editor might, which is rather harsher than the casual reader, I suspect.

Thus the "dismal matter."  But here's the thing: if I don't push through the dismalness (did I just make that word up?  The spell-checker thinks so), my book will never be more than mediocre.  So I'm rereading, outlining, making notes of what works and what doesn't, all preparatory to heavily revising a manuscript that I have already revised two or three times.  And, of course, getting some distance and reading it like an editor will make for a better book.

Does this make me happy?  Frankly, no.  This is the work side of writing, and not much fun. Oh, there are occasions when the realization that you've figured out how to make something that was just okay into something good is as exciting as was composing the crappy first draft.  But most of the time, it hurts a little.  "Dang," you think.  "I loved that scene.  But it really doesn't work.  Not unless I figure out a way to get the dog out of there, and I already made such a big deal about the dog never leaving the girl's side."  So out goes the scene.  Or days are spent in dealing with the dog, only to decide that your changes ruin something else, and the scene gets the chuck after all. (I made that up, so when the book comes out, please don't go looking for a girl and a dog and writing me snippy letters when you can't find them.)

This painful reality explains the sudden burst of short-story writing I've indulged in.  I can only edit for so long before I need a creative booster shot, and have to write something.  So, coming up next week: "An Elegant Apocalypse," just in time for the end of the world on December 21st.  You know, just in case.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Free Story!

I'm moving a little slowly, but picked up at last on a challenge put out by fellow-lunatic, I mean writer, Gus Sanchez back in September.

Now that I'm waiting on feedback on the Ninja Librarian, I thought I'd keep my chops in shape with some short stories, and a writing prompt is a nice starter.  So I followed Gus's link to and clicked the random phrase generator until I got something I liked (I did notice a certain tendency to reuse a few phrases.  Lots of stories about avoiding arguments!).  I settled on the prompt,
The veteran kindergartener threw a feather within the space ship to avoid the argument.

Here's my story:

Feathers in Space 

"Class! Class!  Please line up for roll-call!"  The teacher sounded weary, even at the start of the day, as all adults did in the gravitational sector of the ship.  Children were allowed to spend at most two hours a day in zero G, but to save power--the artificial gravity field took a lot of power--most of the ship had little or no gravity, and adults spent little time under gravitational pull.  So even the teacher, who was in the Field more than most, moved and spoke slowly and with fatigue.

Max knew that.  He'd been in he kindergarten class for as long as he could remember--at least two sets of children had come and gone while he stayed on.  He couldn't believe that only he had figured out that graduating from kindergarten was for chumps.  He'd talked to older kids--they could have been his brothers; who knew?  No one knew their family on the ship.  Families were a luxury, like gravity.  Everything was communal, and the population was strictly managed to maintain the exact number of inhabitants desired.

Anyway, those older kids had told him the sad truth: after kindergarten there was no more nap time, which was a good thing, but there were no more snacks, either.  And you had to learn strange things called grammar and algebra, and the history of the Earth, which seemed stupid even to a little kid.

Earth might as well be a myth, for all the good it would do them.  The colony ship was never going back, and wherever they were going, it would be different.  Even the youngest kindergarteners, who were a lot younger than Max, could figure that out.  Besides, the teen who had taught him the skills needed to survive in the Ship said that they wouldn't even get there in Max's lifetime.  He would spend his life on the Ship, which was fine with Max.

So Max decided early on that he'd just stay in kindergarten, with the toys and snacks.  The teachers never seemed to notice--they had to rotate teachers in and out every few weeks.  Max thought it was because the gravity took such a toll on them.  Or maybe it was the children.  Karl, his teenaged friend, said it was so that all the adults could spend enough time in the gravity field to stay healthy.  The actual teaching was done by computers, anyway, so the teacher didn't matter much.

Whatever.  The rotating teachers meant that no one really kept track of things.  Including Max.

He was starting to get taller, though, and soon someone was going to ask the question he didn't want to answer: how old was he, anyway?

In fact, the teacher, having gotten them all to  line up--the last teacher had insisted they sit in their desk-pods for roll, so it was a change and took them by surprise--was calling down the list of names.  Of their full names, which gave Max a jolt.

"Suzy TenSevenTwelve.  Johann FourTwentytwoTwelve."  Since no one knew his--or her, needless to say--parents, children were surnamed by their hatchdate.  First names came from a random name generator in the Ship's computer.  Later, they would get surnames to match their work specialties.

"Maxwell SevenForuteenTen."  The teacher halted.  She looked around for the child who matched the name.  "Maxwell?  Is this correct?  Are you a Ten child?

Max pretended he didn't know who she was talking to.  It didn't work.  He stood a head taller than any other child in the class.

"Maxwell," the teacher asked, confused but trying to be kind.  "Have you had a problem with kindergarten?"

Max shook his head.  No, he had no problem with kindergarten at all.  That was why he was staying.  But that didn't seem to be what the woman meant.

"It looks as though they haven't moved you on to first grade.  Or," she looked at him dubiously, "have they misprinted your hatchdate?"

Max didn't like the direction this was taking.  Desperately, he looked around for a distraction.  Suzy was playing with a large feather, collected from some bird in the farm area--another place where they had to keep the gravitational field on.  Max reached over, snatched the feather, and threw it toward Rommel.  It wasn't much of a missile, but Rommel could always be counted on to raise a distracting fuss.

Suzy yelled, but the feather never reached Rommel.  Caught by the steady suction from the air duct, it moved further upward, and disappeared into the opening, where there should have been a grate.  That morning, there wasn't.

As everyone stared at the place where the feather no longer drifted, an alarm began to sound.

Max had a very bad feeling about this.  He'd been in kindergarten along enough to know.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Book Review: The Bartender's Tale

The Bartender's Tale, by Ivan Doig.  Fiction; coming-of-age novel for adults.

I've reviewed Doig's work before, and confessed that I consider him to be one of the best.  I have always focused on Mr. Doig's use of language--which remains masterful.  But this book struck me, as well, with his ability to create twists of events which strike the reader, as they do the characters, as both utterly unexpected and yet somehow inevitable.  As I read, I think I see the unraveling coming from far back on the left, yet when it arrives it is sudden and around the corner on the right.  In fact, early on I thought Doig was going to disappoint me with a book that was too inevitable.

The Bartender's Tale, like many of Doig's books, is the first-person narrative of an adult recalling the pivotal time of his childhood--in this case, the summer when Rusty Harry, son of the legendary owner of the Medicine Wheel, the best bar in Montana, or certainly in Gros Ventre, is twelve.  The year is 1960 (a year which I am forced, however reluctantly, to admit makes this an historical novel), though 1960 in Gros Ventre, Montana, looks little like 1960 in New York or San Francisco.  Or even, as Rusty's new-found 21-year-old half-sister finds, like Reno.  The hippie era has not reached Montana.

Rusty and his father have worked out their own way of living from the time Rusty was six, and Tom Harry came and collected him from the aunt who had been raising him (in Phoenix; and the one really hard thing for me was figuring her as Tom's sister.  But there might be those who look at my brothers and me and wonder if we are really kin.  Lives take different tracks by middle age).  But into their peaceful existence come no end of disruptions: a friend for Rusty, a collector of "lost voices" from the Smithsonian, and above all a never-known daughter for Tom.

How it all works out, and Rusty and his father manage to come out sane, alive, and mostly on an even keel, is the result of the quiet brilliance of Doig's plotting.  That I can't pass the halfway point without becoming hopelessly hooked and unable to stop reading is the result of his even more brilliant twists of the language.

Del Robertson comes from the Smithsonian to try to capture the language of rural Montana before it is lost.  Ivan Doig has done the job for him, smoothly, convincingly, and without apparent effort.  I never know when I finish one of his books if I should be inspired to be a better writer, or should quietly pack away my pens, because I can never equal his mastery.

I found The Bartender's Tale excellent reading, but I'm in a dilemma--I didn't think it was quite as good as The Whistling Season.  That should mean a lower rating, but I think it still deserves five stars.  Call it 4.5, though it might be more reasonable to up WS to 5.5 and leave this its five stars.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Next Big Thing--Blog Hop

Thanks to Gus Sanchez at Out Where the Buses Don't Run for tagging me for this one!  He's answered the questions, and now it's my turn.  Then I'm supposed to tag five more writers to participate--so if you write and read this, brace yourself, as you may be next!

Mention the person who tagged you at the beginning of your post (check).
Answer the ten questions about your current WIP (work in progress) and/or new release on your blog (check).
Tag five other writers/bloggers and add their links so we can hop over and meet them.  They're supposed to answer the questions next Wednesday, as I understand it. (See bottom of page).

The Questions:
1. What is the working title of your book?
Not very exciting here, and one of the things I am, um, working on. For now, The Ninja Librarian Returns.

2.  Where did the idea come from for the book?
Since this one is a sequel, it would be cheating to just say that the idea came from the first book.  So I'll explain that the original idea for the Ninja Librarian came from a smart-alec comment ("I don't get mugged.  I'm trained to kill") made by a librarian I was working with at the time.  As he was near retirement, it was clear that a Ninja Librarian didn't need to be young--and the idea of a white-haired librarian who could literally kick the rowdies out of the library appealed.  The rest just tumbled out in the form of the first story in The Ninja Librarian, and I had my main characters, setting, etc.

3. What genre does your book fall under?
Juvenile historical humorous fiction.  Though the "juvenile" part is under some dispute.  Probably best to just leave it as pseudo-historical fictional humor?

4. Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
I truly can't answer this, as I don't follow movies enough to know any of the actors.

5. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
The Ninja Librarian returns to Skunk Corners and further absurdity ensues, with clever solutions to many problems and occasional bouts of Ninja-fighting.

6.  If you plan to publish, will your book be self-published or published traditionally?
I intend to go on as I've begun.  The Ninja Librarian Returns will be self-published, sometime in February.

7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of your MS?
Let's see. . . I started almost immediately on publishing the first volume in Feb. 2012, and sent my revised draft to my editors in mid-October.  I think the draft was done sometime in late September (you didn't really think we kept that close track of stuff like this, did you?).  That would make it (counts on fingers) 6 1/2 or 7 months.  Far and away my fastest, the result of a combination of practice and setting a solid goal for myself.

8.  What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Hard to do this without sounding totally conceited, but I see flavors of Richard Peck, Mark Twain, and Robert McCloskey's Homer Price.  Though I'm more a pigeon pecking around the feet of the greats than anything like comparable to them.

9.  Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Well, the general source of the series I describe in question #2.  I was inspired to jump right into a sequel, however, by the very kind reception of the first book.  I have been equally inspired to continue by periodic queries from readers as to when I was coming out with more--nothing like an appreciative audience to make a writer want to write!  I don't even care if my biggest fan is my Mom's best friend.  When she demands more, I want to provide it.  Then there was this.

10.  What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?
 Skunk-fu.  Terror in the dentist's chair.    Errors of judgement made by every leading character.

Now to tag the other bloggers:
Dixie Goode
Bookworm Smith
Scott Roche
Will MacMillan Jones
Karen's Different Corners

Tag!  You're it!  Be sure to drop in on these folks in a week and see what they are up to.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Book Review: Between Shades of Gray

Between Shades of Gray, by Ruta Sepetys.  YA Historical Fiction.  Audio book, read by Emily Klein.

First things first: this has NOTHING to do with Fifty Shades of Grey (Gray?), and it's almost a shame that the books came out about the same time, because it does Sepetys' book no favors to create confusion with a story of that nature.

Between Shades of Gray is, in fact, an historical novel of the Soviet takeover and depopulation of Lithuania just as WWII was beginning.  In the horror of what Hitler did in so much of Europe, history has lost sight of what Stalin did--and did almost as horribly--in the Baltic states, another forgotten genocide.

The first-person narration by Lina, the teen-aged daughter of a university professor, manages to convey her tensions and fears effectively through a style that seems at first flat.  In fact, I restarted the story three times, distracted by other books (I keep a large selection on my MP3 at all times).  Part of my reluctance was knowing what I was getting into--a story of immense inhumanity and inevitable suffering.

What I forgot--and was brought powerfully back to me as the story progressed--was that all such stories are also stories of immense humanity.  As the political system, and the guards it created, unfolds as completely inhuman, focused on the destruction of a people, those people gradually move out of shock and self-focused fear and become, if anything, a stronger community than ever.

I appreciated that Sepetys did not sugar-coat humanity.  That is, while the political prisoners learned to stick together, and work together, they remain themselves.  The irritable and despairing Bald Man doesn't stop being either irritable or despairing--at least in his words.  But he does what needs to be done, including shutting up when Lina's mother insists.  People do desperate things to keep a family together, or protect a loved one, and Lina must move from condemnation to understanding--and does so, with a fairly convincingly adolescent reluctance.  The title, in fact, is an excellent reflection of the key thing she must learn--to move from the black-and-white world of childhood into a more nuanced understanding that can accept grey areas.

Perhaps my largest criticism is that the story ends rather abruptly, leaving me wondering how they survive the nine more years before being allowed to return to Lithuania.  However, the story ends at the point where, in essence, Lina grows up: when she becomes a leader and a major source of strength in their small band of survivors.  It is Lina's move from childhood to adulthood that makes this a story, not a history book, and not merely a recital of horrific events.

To return to the "flat" narrative style, because it has been criticized by a number of reviewers, I have to say that I found that flatness effective.  When telling of a traumatic event (which seems rather an inadequate description of ten years of penal servitude in Siberia), a person can either maintain an emotional distance, or dissolve into a pool of grief and loss, overwhelmed by what has happened.  Sepetys manages to convey Lina's feelings without overwhelming the reader.  It is a delicate balance which she manages pretty well.

I give Between Shades of Gray a just scant 4 stars, as I did feel a little dissatisfied with the ending.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Get on your backside and write. . . Thanks, Chuck Wendig!

Just read the best rant ever for motivating a writer.  Chuck Wendig writes a blog that is irreverent, and uses language I avoid since I write for kids. . . but he certainly knows how to remind me that the only way to write is to sit my backside down in the chair (or whatever) and do it.  And no excuses, failure is acceptable but quitting isn't.  He's very clear on the difference between the two.

My favorite bit (sorry, Chuck, I had to clean it up in case any of the kiddies find me):

What, you think you’re the first writer who doesn’t think [s]he can do it?
Uh, hello, please to meet every writer ever. We’re all . . .  headcases. We all hit a point in every piece of work where we hate it, hate ourselves, hate publishing, hate the very nature of words . . . We all bang our heads against our own presumed inadequacies and uncertainties. Writing and storytelling isn’t a math problem with a guaranteed solution. It’s threading a needle inside our heart with an invisible string strung with dreams and nightmares.  We are afforded zero guarantees.

I'll be hanging onto that image of an invisible string inside my heart for a long time.  Wish I'd thought of it!

Here's the whole rant.  Warning: Chuck is motivational, sometimes the way the drill sergeant from every movie you ever saw about Boot Camp is motivational.  Enter at your own risk.

And thanks to Gus Sanchez for tipping me off to Chuck in general and this rant in particular.  Gus isn't half bad at the motivational rant himself.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Free Story--The Librarian Speaks of Skunks

The Librarian Speaks of Skunks 

It has come to my attention that Miss Alice is writing another book about events in Skunk Corners since my return.  I think it only right, therefore, to share the following incident, the more so as it may have some bearing on certain events which unfolded in our town. Young Alice knows nothing of this tale, as it took place after my late-night departure from our town.
I acknowledge now, as I should have seen at the time, that my departure was a mistake. That fact was borne in upon me strongly by circumstances as I circled the town to make my quiet exit. For, as shall be seen, certain local residents made clear their dissatisfaction with me in every way. At the time, I took it as confirmation that I should be on my way. In retrospect, I was wrong in that as I have been on so many points. I see no need to explain that to Young Alice, however. 
 On that fateful night, I did leave the library near to midnight. I stopped at the school to slip in and leave my note for Alice. Though she is making excellent progress in learning to fight, she does not have the feather-light sleep of a Ninja, but rather the heavy sleep of the young. It was, perhaps, my strongest realization to date that she is yet little more than a child, and it pained me to leave her so. But at the time I thought that another, higher duty called. 
As I did not dare wait for the midnight train at the depot for fear of being seen and perhaps delayed by a late-roving local, I began a large circle around the town, meaning to pick up the train where it slows to a walking pace before crossing the high trestle over Mud Creek. Alas, my plans, though well-intentioned, were doomed. Perhaps a quarter mile from the town, I found myself confronted with a fearsome beast.

Yes, the black beast with white stripes shining in the moonlight. 

I was in perhaps the stickiest situation of my life. I never had to deal with skunks in my early life in the city. 

That is neither here nor there. I knew I wanted as little as possible to do with mephistis mephistis, and began to retreat slowly away from the threat. Alas, the creature apparently had business with me. Nor was it alone. Subsequent research has shown this communal activity on the part of skunks to be distinctly unusual. At the time, however, I was insufficiently aware of the habits of the animals to recognize the danger I faced. 

So, as I backed away from the initial encounter, I heard a scuffling behind me, and turned to see another white stripe. Rotating slowly, I realized to my horror that I was surrounded. A total of six skunks faced me, and their looks, if I might be forgiven a moment’s anthropomorphism, were not friendly. 

So began the most bizarre battle of my life, and the one of which I can most definitively say that I emerged the worst off. In a way, it is a shame that Alice did not witness the fight. Being, as it were, a central figure in the battle, I lacked the perspective to take in all that transpired.

Further, I believe that Young Alice would bring to it a turn of phrase which would better capture the scene than any I might manage. Alas, however, only I can tell this tale. 

When the first animal turned its back on me and raised its tail, I moved swiftly into action. A toe beneath the creature and a rapid jerk skyward, and the animal’s spray dispersed harmlessly into the night sky. But as I turned to face the others, three at once moved to the attack, and I could only dodge.

A dive and a roll took me out of the range of the three, but was not, alas, well-planned. I rolled to a halt face to--well, not face—with the largest, and least friendly, of the striped animals. How an animal can be so beautiful to look on, for truly the skunk is a beautiful creature, and yet so dreadful in other ways, troubles me yet.  At the time, I was most troubled with an inability to alter my course sufficiently and swiftly enough to avoid my fate. 

I did not catch the train that night nor for many nights thereafter. Though I have never confessed this, and request you not inform Alice, I camped for a week near the stream. Through daily bathing of self and clothing, followed by drying over a smoky fire, I succeeded in reducing my personal aromas to a level that could go unnoticed in a Western train, though not, perhaps where I was headed. 

I would be forced to stop at a point far from Skunk Corners, yet equally far from my destination, and purchase new garments as well as engage in further personal grooming. For this reason, when I arrived whence I had been summoned, I was more than a week late, and bore about me still some faint air of Skunk Corners. Perhaps it was that unshakable sense of the place which encouraged me to throw in my lot with my new-found home, and turn my back on the Ruling Council of the Noble Order of Ninja Librarians. 

A skunk may be a powerful persuader, more so than lions or tigers or bears, still less any human authority.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Book Review: Sky Dragons

Sky Dragons, By Anne McCaffrey and Todd McCaffrey

I have been reading Anne McCaffrey's books about Pern since I was in Junior High (egads--that's a long writing career.  Never mind.), and knowing this was her last book, I really wanted to love it.

Alas, while I didn't hate it, I can't say I loved Sky Dragons, either.  Let's start with some clarity about some things: this was a collaboration with Anne McCaffrey's son, Todd McCaffrey, and it felt like his voice more than hers.  Unfortunately, I haven't cared that much for his treatment of Pern--his stories have a grittier edge, which some may like, and are more sexually explicit (there has always been a certain sexual element, brought on by the relationship between dragons and riders, and I need not say more), which isn't really what I go to Pern for. There was less physical drama (flying Thread, etc.) and more interpersonal drama.

It has been a couple of years since I read the preceding book, and the authors depended a little too much, especially in the opening chapters, on readers knowing the set-up.  This left me a bit at sea in the start, which isn't a good way to get buy-in.  I gradually picked up most of what I needed, but still felt like the series (I think it's four or five books set in one time period) needs to be read in a block.

I'm having trouble putting a finger on the problem, but the writing just didn't seem as polished as I'd hoped, the story as coherent (a couple of characters with very similar names didn't help--I kept having to check to see which was which).  I finished the book, and enjoyed it well enough--but it's a long way from the best of the Pern novels.

Two point five stars.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Off to the editor!

The Ninja Librarian Returns (or whatever the title ends up being) is off to my editors, and I'm looking around for something to entertain myself while I wait for their feedback.  Cover design is one thing, but expect some more short stories, and maybe some brainstorming about my next novel.  May be moving away from the NL for a time, but Skunk Corners is in my blood--no fear I'll be abandoning it entirely.

A little housework wouldn't go amiss, but that's no substitute for writing every day!

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Post-Election euphoria

It's probably dangerous to talk here about politics, and it's not really politics I want to talk about.  Yeah, there are lots of election results I feel good about, but that's not, or not wholly, the source of my euphoria.  I am of course delighted that the local education measure I have been immersed in passed--with flying colors.  Seems like folks are starting to agree that if we want decent schools, we'll have to fund them locally, because the state isn't managing very well (though not as badly as it looked like for a while Tuesday night.  What a scare!  I was ready to pack my bags so we could move to the Yukon and live off the land).

No, I'm euphoric because the elections are over!  No more campaign calls to make or receive!  No more trees slaughtered for mailings I dump in the recycle bin without even scanning.  Maybe soon something on the radio besides elections (right now it's still all post-election analysis, but this too shall pass).  I'll be out tomorrow collecting lawn signs from any supporters who haven't already gotten rid of them, so we don't have to look at that stuff.

Then we can all get back to what's important: reading and writing books.

And cooking good food, planning fun with friends and family, clearing months of clutter out of my house (anyone got a snow shovel I could borrow?), and maybe even getting a good night's sleep.

Here's to a return to real life!

Monday, November 5, 2012

Revisions proceeding according to plan. Mostly.

Pretty much what the title says.  My first-round revisions are done, but still need that final typing.  I'll do that tomorrow morning before I go do a little more precinct walking.  My writing has taken a back seat to trying to get a bond passed for our local schools.  It's a shame an economy the size of CA is so poorly run we can't seem to fund our schools. . . Tuesday will be really pivotal and I'm pretty stressed.

I'm working on the new book cover, too.  When the second book comes out, I'll reissue the original Ninja Librarian with a new and hopefully more catchy cover.  Something the kids will like as well as the adults do.  Though I'm not losing sight of the fact that this is an adult book masquerading as a kid's book.  Nothing in it that isn't fine for the kids (at least, upper elementary).  But grown-ups are seeing more in it than the kids do.

Meanwhile, since revisions aren't much fun and typing in the corrections is even less so, I've started a new story.  Watch this space--the Librarian himself will soon be heard from again.

P.S.  Just to prove that my brain is full, and then some. . . I went to work a half hour early today.  Just had a brain burp and was convinced my shift started at 12:30.  Sigh.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Random Absurd Theories

Revisions are on track!  I've finished the first rewrite, aside from some typing.  Bouncing between that and my activities aimed at getting a bond measure passed for our suffering local schools has me exhausted but feeling like I'm at least doing something.

So, for amusement, I'll offer some of the random thoughts that occupy my brain at off moments.  Sometimes, just for fun, I like to invent absurd theories to explain things.  Here we find a few:

Pay the Gravity Bill  There's an old Calvin and Hobbes comic strip in which Calvin discovers his Dad didn't pay the gravity bill, and he floats away.  Well, it turns out that after a certain age, if you forget to pay the gravity bill. . . they turn UP the gravity.  Way up.  This explains those days when working out is just torture.  You didn't pay the bill, you get to suffer.

Too Many Athletes in Colorado  The reason there isn't enough oxygen for a good run in Colorado is that there are too many athletes and they have sucked all the oxygen out of the air.

Kids' energy supplies  We figured this one out well over a decade back.  Kids have separate stores of energy for different things.  For hiking, one source, and not a very big one.  For playing: some other, nearly infinite, source.  You arrive in camp after a three-mile hike with your 8-year-old so exhausted he can't even set his pack down, has to drop it with a crash in the dirt.  Two minutes later he's running up a mountain in pursuit of whatever it is that kids run up mountains to pursue, and doesn't stop until you force him to.
Corollary:  Kids get their energy by sapping it directly from their parents.  Ask any mother of toddlers.

Today you're a dophin, tomorrow a sea slug  Okay, this one isn't a theory.  More of an observation.  It's based on my swimming workouts, but the same thing is true for any kind of workout.  When a swim goes really well, I say I'm a dolphin--swimming smoothly and easily and could go on forever (or at least for a mile).  But other days, I'm lucky if I'm a sea cow, ponderous but not ungraceful.  I'm just as apt to end up a developmentally-disabled sea slug, whose limbs (do sea slugs have limbs?  Never mind) pay no attention to commands from the brain (I don't think sea slugs have brains, either. This may be the problem).  Anyway, it's generally true that if on Wednesday I'm a dolphin, on Friday I'm nearly certain to be. . . something less desirable. 

For biking, I guess you could say that if on one ride I feel like the winner of the Tour (ha!), the next ride I could be ridden into the ground by an Edwardian spinster on a one-speed with a wicker basket and a giant hat.

All of this may, of course, be related to theory #1, about not paying the Gravity bill. 

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Furballs--a Halloween story


It should have been just another day.  Get up, get dressed, have breakfast and go to school.  Malkina ran into the first snag as soon as she tried to pull on her underwear.  Reaching behind herself, she felt the furry protuberance.  Mystified, she moved to the mirror--a full-length mirror her mother insisted she have in her room, but which Malkina mostly ignored.  Why should she even look, when she was so hopelessly ordinary?  The most ordinary girl in the fifth grade.
Kicking aside a modest pile of books and dirty laundry so she could stand in front of the mirror, Malkina twisted and turned until she saw herself.  Saw the long, striped, furry tail she held with her left hand.  The tip of the tail twitched and she dropped it, jumping away from the mirror.
“I think I’d better wear a skirt today,” she muttered, turning back to the closet.
The next shock came when she began to brush her hair.
“Ouch!”  The brush had hit something awfully sensitive.  Again she explored with her fingers first, afraid to look.  High up on the left side of her head, a furry wedge emerged from the tangled hair.  She didn’t even have to look in the mirror to know there was a match for it on the other side.
Ears.  Cat ears, and a cat’s tail.  Suddenly panicked, Malkina shook off a slipper and checked her foot.  Still reassuringly human.  Dashing across the room, brush forgotten in her hand, she inspected every inch of herself in the suddenly-useful full-length mirror.
Everything seemed to be, well, ordinary.  Everything except that tail, and the furry little ears.  Watching carefully in the mirror, Malkina finished brushing her hair, mounding it over the ears and holding a big wave in place with hair gel.

At the breakfast table, Mom didn’t notice anything.  She never did.  Half asleep, interested mostly in her coffee and getting everyone fed and out the door to the bus, Mom never really fully opened her eyes until mid-morning.
Malkina’s older brother noticed, though.
“Whew!” He whistled.  “Got a hot date or something?  Can’t remember the last time I saw you in a skirt.”
Bob could be so annoying.  For one thing, he’d gotten a nice, normal name, not like Malkina.  For another, he couldn’t seem to stop teasing her.  He still thought she was a little girl, and that comments like that were funny.
“Just thought I needed a. . . change,” Malkina said.  “In a rut, you know.  Always the same.”
Walking to the bus stop Malkina found that the tail caused some trouble.  She’d had to pick a fairly long skirt to cover it, but the tail, unable to wave the way a cat’s tail should properly wave, twisted around her legs and threatened to trip her.

When she got to school, things got both better and worse.  Better, because her best friend was waiting just inside and grabbed her in a hug.  Worse, because she was dressed much like Malkina.  She whispered,
“You too?”
Adrianna nodded, looking scared and excited at the same time.  “It worked!  Our incantation worked!”
“ But that was just a joke!  Magic doesn’t really work,” Malkina objected, evidence to the contrary twitching beneath her skirt.
Adrianna shrugged.  “Guess maybe it does.”
“But what are we going to do?”
“Have the best Halloween costumes ever, for one thing!”
“But I can’t even sit right!  The tail’s in the way, and when I brushed my hair, it hurt my ears.”
“We’ll work it out.”
During the math test that followed morning recess, Malkina began to find the advantages of being part cat.  She always panicked a bit on a test, but when she put her hand up to her head, her fingers found an ear.  She scratched lightly behind it, the way she did with the neighbor’s cat, and felt calmer at once.  A twitch or two of her tail made her happy again when she got her Social Studies paper back with a lot of red marks.  Maybe this wasn’t so bad.

It wasn’t until they were out trick-or-treating, dressed in black leotards with real tails and ears protruding, that the two remembered they’d worked more than one incantation.
They were three streets over from Malkina’s house, trying to decide if they’d knock on the Burdocks’ door or skip it.  They usually had good treats, but Max Burdock was the biggest pain in their class.  Such a big pain that. . .
“Uh-oh,” Adrianna muttered.  “Do you suppose. . . ?”
Malkina felt her tail expand as the fur stood on end.  They had followed up the incantation that gave them cat features with one to turn the annoying Max into a pig.  And he hadn’t been at school today.  Was that because he had a curly tail and a snout?  Would his parents guess who’d done it and get them into trouble?
Caution came too late.  They were at the gate, and from behind it they heard a dreadful snorting and snuffling.  Malkina remembered that they had called Max a big pig, when a huge boar, with tusks as long as her arm, burst from the yard.  She had time to remember a few of the other things they’d included, giggling, in their incantation, as they girls turned to run from the giant, red-eyed, fire-breathing demon they had turned loose on the neighborhood.
This can’t end well! Malkina thought, despairing.

It didn’t.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Revising until my mind's as numb as my bum

Revisions are proceeding on "The Ninja Librarian Returns," and I'm carving out time blocks to work until my bum goes numb.

That doesn't take as long as you'd think, thanks to a lot of biking and a mild hamstring strain.  But even so, it takes about three minutes longer than it does for my mind to go numb.  How do full-time writers do it?  I can't engage my inner editor for hours on end--my judgement goes out the window.

Haven't written anything new since the writing challenge last week.  I need to have some fun with a new story.  Maybe pop in and see if the Ninja Librarian has anything more to say for himself.  Maybe something completely different, a little bit of nonsense I was messing with a couple of weeks ago.

Watch this space for some kind of story, because it's time!

Friday, October 26, 2012

Ninja Librarians

Just stumbled on a whole bunch of YouTube videos on the "Ninja Librarian" theme (though none seem to be anyplace as . . . interesting. . . as Skunk Corners).  Thought I'd share a couple.  I'll see if I can figure out how to embed a video, while I'm at it :)


I like this one:
Just for fun!  I guess I'm not the first to put the two ideas together. 

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Book Review: Tracks, by Diane Lee Wilson

Tracks, by Diane Lee Wilson.  Juvenile historical fiction.

I'm having a little trouble deciding just how I feel about this book.  I think that it's very strengths are what make me feel a little ambivalent: Tracks is historically accurate in its depiction of the prejudice and cruelty of many of the people of the time all too well--and the main character doesn't escape his time.

It is 1866, and 13-year-old Malachy has signed on and come west from New York to work on the Transcontinental Railroad.  He's big for his age, and is the man of the family since his father died in the Civil War, so he needs to make some money.  Certainly Malachy thinks he's a man, but his decisions aren't always rational, and his judgement is poor in certain areas.  His connection, and ours, to the family back home seems tenuous at best.

Nonetheless, Malachy sticks it out through the winter, even though it means working as the only white man with a crew of Chinese laborers.  From the beginning, Malachy, like most in his time, has viewed the Chinese with fear, suspicion, and contempt.  He mocks their language, their clothes, and their customs. At the same time, he is drawn to them (their food certainly smells better than that the railroad provides for the Irish workers), especially one young man he calls "Ducks," due to both the way the language sounds to him and his own inability to pronounce the man's Chinese name.

As the book unfolds, Malachy and "Ducks" keep crossing paths. . . and Malachy meets offers of friendship and life-saving actions with suspicion, contempt, and ill-treatment.  This is what was hard for me.  It's realistic. . . but it doesn't make Malachy a completely likeable character.  Without including any spoilers, he does some other things that are pretty unlikable, too, though to his credit he regrets them, at least at little.

On the other hand, Wilson manages to make us feel Malachy's confusion and reluctant regret just enough that we don't hate him.  I just want him to grow up and get a clearer vision (a clearer vision, I must add, than any of the adults around him seem to have).  The only friendships Malachy seems to have that are untainted by one player using the other are those with animals.  In the end, it is the way he treats the horse, Blind Thomas, that makes me feel the boy might be worth letting grow up.

Tracks isn't a happy romp through history.  But in the end, I think the story works well, both as a story and as a documentation of a key moment in the development of our nation.  The writing is strong, plotting clear.  Four stars.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Writing Exercise Challenge

So, Karen Einsel of karensdifferentcorners issued a writing-exercise challenge to write a story or scene using only dialogue or only description (no dialogue).  I'm not sure which I'm better at, but it seems to me that it's harder to get the whole picture with dialogue alone.  It would be pretty easy to fall into an unreal descriptive narrative that way: "Oh, look, John, we turned the corner and now there is a fire truck and a building is on fire!"  "Why, yes, and I think I just saw something out of the corner of my eye.  It had a black cape and might have been something like Batman!"

Okay, I exaggerate.  And some scenes are perhaps best rendered in pure dialogue, though I'm not sure about that.  Here are the rules of  
 “The Writing Exercise Challenge”
Mention the person or blog that tagged you :-)  (That would be Karen).
Write a short story or scene using
a. Dialogue only
b. Description only
c. Both combined
They can be as long or short as you like, as long as you get the point across to your readers.
 Now tag 3 other people or ask for participants 
And if you think there should be additional rules post a comment!
Want to challenge yourself further? Try writing outside of your genre. If you write romance, try your hand at horror. Or if you are a mystery writer, try writing a steamy romantic scene. Hey even mysteries have romance sometimes. 

So, mostly because this is what first popped into my mind, I went SF. 

"Trouble in Space"

A.  Dialogue only
    "Xark!  The murgle thrusters on engine unit 17-A aren't working.  Someone has to go out and clear them."
    "Well, it's your turn, Gerbo.  I did the last EVA."
    "If you'd made sure the idiots at that service station on Jinx had installed the filters, we wouldn't have this problem."
    "Me?  Since when is it my job to tell the technicians how to do their job?  You picked the station, so I assumed they were registered and competent.  You and your thrust-stingy ways.  You clean the murgle thrusters."
    "Maybe we can send Zerdog.  What about it, boy?"

    "He says no.  Besides, he's a space dog.  He doesn't have opposable thumbs.  Suit up, loser."
    "I hate going EVA. . . . Hand me my tether, will you?  Thanks."
    "You about ready?"
    "Yeah.  Run the check."
    ". . . Okay.  All systems sealed and running.  Radio check?"
    "Loud and clear."
    "Enter the airlock."
    "Airlock sealed."
    "Check. . . Wait!  I don't see my tether!  Where the space is my tether!?"
    "Oh, I got it all right.  See?  Oh, I forgot, you can't see me. You're tumbling loose in space.  Sayonara, loser!  I'm sick of your whining, and I don't have to listen any more!"
    "Blast you, Xark!  You damned idiot!  You've killed me, and you've killed yourself.  Without those murgle thrusters, you'll never reach We Made It.  You can die slowly in there and let Zerdog eat you.  At least I can die quickly.  When I finish laughing at your stupidity!  Hahahahaha!"
    "Haha, Gerbo!  You are the idiot.  Did you really think I'd toss you aside if the murgle thrusters weren't working?  It was a false report!  Just an excuse to get you the space out of here."
    "Curse you to the depths of a black hole, Xerk!  May your EVA suit crack and your powersource implode!"
    "That's about as nasty a curse as a spacer can make, but it won't do you any good.  I'm hitting the power thrust drive now.  Goodbye!"
    "Wait! Don't--"
    "Don't beg, Gerbo.  It's undignified.  Here I go."
    "Don't--holy meteor shower!  The thrusters are--"
    "Oh, n--!"
    "Hahahaha!  I told you you'd. . . no!  Zerdo . . . ."

B.  Description only (no dialogue)

     Xerk and Gerbo glared at each other across the control room of the tiny two-man space pod.  After months in space, each could scarcely bear the sight of the other's face.  Now the murgle thrusters were blocked, and they had argued themselves into silence, first over whose fault it was that the last maintenance had been so poorly done, and then over who had to make the dangerous and terrifying trip EVA to clear them manually.
    Gerbo's final appeal had been to their pet spacedog, Zerdog, and that having failed, he knew he had truly lost.  Well, perhaps a little time alone would be a pleasant change, however much he hated EVA as a general rule.  Slowly, carefully, he began suiting up.
    Xerk ran the suit check in near-silence.  The two had been together for so long they didn't need words, even when they hated the sight of each other.  Maybe especially then.
   Only as the airlock cycled did Gerbo realize that Xerk had murdered him.  The tether that prevented his drifting off forever into the vacuum of space was attached at only one end.  He blew out the airlock door on a puff of air, already tumbling away from the pod.  His suit thrusters, meant for tiny adjustments, not for real travel, slowed the tumble, but couldn't bring him back to the ship.  
     Xerk still had nothing to say, but Gerbo could see him though the video suit monitor, laughing as he reached for the controls.  
    Gerbo could see something else.  He laughed too, as the power surge hit the fully blocked murgle thrusters.  Xerk must've forgotten them when he hit full power.  Maybe he'd thought he'd managed a false "blocked thruster" signal.  But the explosion that vaporized the pod was no fake.
    Gerbo had time for a passing regret for Zerdog in the instant before the debris hit him, shredding his suit. 

C.  Both.  What I'd call normal writing :)

      After months at space, and despite their recent stop at Jynx for maintenance, Xerk and Gerbo had reached the point where they could scarcely bear to be in the same space pod.  With another six months to go, things had gotten ugly.
     "Those idiots at Jynx must not have installed the filters on the murgle thrusters.  They're clogged.  I told you we should have found a decent mechanic, not the cheapest shop in the galaxy."  Gerbo glared at Xerk.  This was all his fault.
     "You should have checked their work.  You'll have to go out and fix it.  I did the last EVA."
     Gerbo argued the point, not really expecting to win.  But he had to do it.  If Xerk suspected that Gerbo was desperate enough for some time to himself that he'd even look forward to an EVA, things would only get worse.  He even asked Zerdog if he'd do it.  Their canine companion barked, drooled,  and went back to sleep under the control panel.
     "Fine.  I'll do it."  Gerbo began to suit up, not allowing his annoyance with pretty much everything Xerk did or said to interfere with his careful adherence to suit protocols.  
    "Pass me my tether?" was the only thing he said until he finished.  Then he asked Xerk to run the suit check.
     His fellow Spacer, likewise taciturn but thorough, tested every joint and seal, and Gerbo put on his helmet.
     "Radio check?"
     "Loud and clear."
     "Check.  Enter the airlock."
     Gerbo pushed himself off the wall and drifted to the airlock.  Xerk followed to double-check the door, then,
     Only when he blew out the outer door did Gerbo realize that, though he had attached the free end of his tether to the tether-guard, Xerk had apparently failed to attach the other end to his suit.  No.  He'd deliberately detached it.  As Gerbo tumbled away from the pod, desperately trying to aim himself back to the ship with the woefully inadequate maneuvering thrusters on his suit, he heard Xerk laughing through the helmet radio.
     "Curse you to the depths of a black hole, Xerk!  May your EVA suit crack and your powersource implode!"
     "That's about the nastiest curse a Spacer can make, Gerbo, but it won't save your hide.  I'm hitting the power thrust and you won't be annoying me any more with your stupid habits."
     "But the murgle thrusters are clogged.  You can't go anywhere unless you help me back so I can clear them."
     Xerk laughed harder.  "You fool.  That was a false signal.  I just needed to get you EVA."
     Burning with rage, and needing to see it to believe it, Gerbo brought himself to where he could at least see the thrusters he'd been meant to clear.  He lined up behind the pod and took a look at Xerk's lie.  Then he looked again, and yelled. "Wait!  Don't. . . "
     "Don't beg, loser.  Sayonara!"
     Xerk gave Gerbo no chance to tell him that his false signal had been all too real.
     When the power surge hit the clogged murgle thrusters, the entire spacepod exploded.
    "Sorry I couldn't save you, Zerdog," Gerbo managed to say before the debris scatter shredded his suit. 
     With no air, you cannot scream.

So there you have it.  That was kind of fun.  And I'll tag any of my followers who want to give it a shot!

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Learning to be a blogger

Oh, my, I am always the last to figure these things out!   I just discovered tags, or (as they are called in Blogger for some reason, Labels).  So, let's see. . . I've figured out how to post a blog, buy a domain name (but not how to use it for more than this blog, sigh), and about how often to post (two to three times a week seems good).  Now I figure out that there are ways to make people find you when they are looking for something else. 

I knew that.

Makes me wonder what else I'm missing, as I struggle to move from the 20th Century to the 21st.

A partial list:
Um. . . I'm pretty sure there's more social media out there.  The trouble is, all this social stuff is sort of contrary to what writers do: sit in a room alone and write.  Or is it?  We want an audience.  Social media is all about audience.

Social media: conversation for unsociable folks?

This is giving me a headache.