Wednesday, November 26, 2014

At an Age

Very recently, I ran across a talking head in one of those documentaries I so enjoy, discussing a historical figure at age sixteen.  She described the woman as being “at an age” where she would be highly self-conscious, while events played out in her life which would have been humiliating and difficult.

In a way, the point is valid; though we invented the teenager in the twentieth century, those things that cause humans genuine embarrassment and pain are not unique to any particular time period.  Yet I was struck by the implication of tortured adolescence.

The figure in question, hardly a personage famed for a typically twentieth-century persona (indeed, almost a symbol of precisely the opposite, when that time came upon her), is not one I would readily cast in the image of tortured adolescent, no matter what happened to her at age sixteen.  I also, as an amateur student of and writer about history, find the tendency to view the population of our past, no matter how far back, through the lens of the psychological and social expectations of the past century or so a little bewildering more often than not.

A part of my personal fascination with history is not just taking myself out of the present and an ordinary world I know, but also taking myself out of the present and ordinary mindsets and people familiar from my own life.  So when I see all-too-identifiably contemporary characters waving the occasional fan or scimitar or what have you, it is frustrating.

Let it not be said that I am any expert at honestly, fully, and accurately rendering a 5th-century Frank in all his glory, but I did what I could in relating Clovis’ story to address both the misconceptions about what “Barbarian” means, and to avoid, as much as possible, turning him into a corporate raider or king of the surfer dudes.

This goes beyond *not* modeling his character on anyone I know, but into an honest consideration of those things that make up the whole of who he might have been, given what I know.  I didn’t throw around a lot of self-consciously antique language, but did work hard avoiding anachronism.  I thought about the smell of the air in his cities, northern and on down to Paris, the quality of air containing different kinds of pollutants, the manner of food, the way time would worked and been observed.  One of the deepest dives I took into Clovis was the examination not only OF his religion, but its ultimate expression in the novel.

In sum, while I didn’t gadzook my way around the place, I did *look* around it, really consider motivations, remember that humans in every age are funny … and maddening … and go from there.

This. will. NOT. satisfy everybody.

There will be some who quite love a good gadzookering, and will resent not finding it in *Ax*.  There will be others who’ll find the voice alienating and foreign even without a thou to be seen.  And that is the world WE live in.  I’m too old to try to create one where I can make everyone happy.  It would take far more hallucinogenic drugs than I am capable of dealing with, and there’d still be some guitarist with commentary about the décor.


As the child, sister, and niece of scientists, I have a pretty hard time believing in magic – much though I always wanted to.  *Superstition* - now, that’s easy, it’s just a matter of silly habits.  But actually believing in sympathetic, mystical, or merely physical magic; I’m no good at it.

Yet, since the Conference on October 18-19, there has been a mysterious and complete, inexplicable disappearance in my life, and I am at a perfect loss.


This past spring or summer, after Admin’s Day, I used the gift certificate they gave the secretaries in thanks, to buy a simply spiffing pair of palazzo pants.  They were comfortable, went with tons of my things, would have seen me through every season, and were comfortable, stylin’, and flattering.  In short, the holy grail.

I’m saying these were excellent pants.

And the things have either:  run away from home, or simply defied the law of Object Permanence.

I have looked in every closet eighteen times.  With a FLASHLIGHT.  I’ve ransacked the shelves at the back of the closet, pulled back the old box shoe rack to look behind it, inspected the items on every single hanger time and time again, gone through the cabinetry in there dozens of times, looked in the floor, peered in the dark again and again.  Every closet.  Guest room, master, wardrobe, foyer, linen closet upstairs.  Dressers too, guest room and master, because there’s been a seasonal wardrobe shift since the Con.


I’ve done laundry countless times, of course, since mid-October.  And these pants steadfastly refuse to miraculously appear – not on the clotheslines in the basement, not in the basket, not in the machines, not in the trashcan in the basement, not on the disused plumbing fixtures in the middle of the floor, not on the ironing boards.  Not behind the washing machine nor dryer.  Not in the kitchen cabinets nor drawers.  Not in any of the storage dressers.  Not in the library on the DVD shelves.


I have looked, even, in the mending, which happens to be in my office these days.  I thought, maybe I forgot an the hem was going, maybe I put the pants in the quick-fix pile I keep and never get to quickly.

Every so often, I think of some new place to look (usually:  again).  Every so often, I look.  Again.


It’s maddening, bewildering.  Inexplicable.  This mystery will not be splicked, and heck if I have not tried.  And tried.  And tried.

I’m beginning to think I’ll find an agent (and maybe even be sold) before these damned pants will reappear and satisfactorily explain themselves.


Being a woman, of course, I have *looked* for new palazzo pants.  For second-best, for something to settle for.  For (cue that Who riff) a Sub-sti-chute.

Oh, but NONE of the pants I’ve perused desultorily are the same.  Most are cheap, an *awful* lot are not black, are very heavily patterned.  None want to be replicants, rebound stand-ins for The Only Pants I Ever Loved.  None is made with as well-draped a textile, none has the weight or quality of The Missing.  Some veer perilously close to being SLACKS.  Heavens forfend.

I do not wear slacks.

I *can* not wear my palazzos.  I can’t do the great sweaer outfits they’d have been so perfect for, with my cute little shoe-booties, sophisticated colors, and long scarves, warm around my neck.

I cannot wear them: for Thanksgiving.  Horrors!  They’d have been so good for Thanksgiving.  Their kind, yoga-style (non-elastic-banded) waistband – not an option, for the holiday when it would be so very welcome.  Their long, floppy legs, soft and fine for napping in.


I cannot wear them in a car, I cannot wear them in a bar.  I cannot wear them, Sam I’m Not.  I cannot wear them, no matter what.

But the real problem is something deeper, something more profound, even, than That Perfect Garment, the comfortable, washable, versatile and good looking pants.

No.  More desperately, and more to the ultimate, mind-deteriorating, insanity-inducing point:  I can’t figure out … What. the. Hell.

It’s a COGNITIVE torture, this terrible case of non-presence.

My brain honestly cannot cope with what has become of these pants.  Never mind not being able to find them.  Not being able to understand what could have become of these things, this item in my care, this bit of flotsam in the material blessings over which I carry stewardship.  THAT’S the problem.

It would be preferable to believe that (a) my pants don’t actually possess the power of teleportation, (b) someone didn’t come in my house just to steal nothing in the world but these precious pants, and (c) I didn’t forget that awkward moment when, apparently, I was driving home from the Con, shucked my pants while in the car, threw them out the window with a whoop of deranged glee, freeing myself from these inexplicable pants, and apparently walked back in my house naked from the waist down.  *Erm*

I’m pretty serious about that (c), too.

Unless I have lost my way around a perfectly ordinary house I’ve lived in for FIFTEEN YEARS now … these pants simply do not exist anymore.  They are nowhere in evidence, in the only possible place I’m capable of *comprehending* they should be.  They are nowhere to be found inside my house.

And yes, I have looked under all the beds.  With that flashlight, and multiple times, again.  And no, I never lent them to anybody, nor took ‘em to a dry cleaner.

I take nothing to a dry cleaner, man.

These pants appear to have renounced molecular cohesion, shivered themselves into nonexistence, and dispersed, to play with the dust bunnies, mold, cave crickets, and dust.  Either that, or they actually honestly don’t exist, even in particulate form, whatsoever anymore.

They’re chimera pants.

Dare I say:  they are immaterial.

*Ducks to avoid the response to that last line*

What’s inexplicable in your life, this Thanksgiving?

Monday, November 24, 2014

Observed Just Now

It's hard to butterfly-kiss a cat.

Cluster. You Know the Rest.

For the first time in years, I seem to have returned to The Land of the Cluster Migraine.  In some ways, "cluster" can be a misnomer for this type of headache.  When I was working for That One Guy lo these many years ago, I once endured a headache over the course of something like four months (no, it never stopped; no, not even when I was asleep - it just got worse or less-worse, with no cessation whatsoever, for actual months on end).  That ain't a cluster, that's a single nasty monster-ache, over a season or more.

Right now, though, "cluster" is about right - it's letting up from time to time.  But, I believe, my output here has been affected, and I can say for certain my output at Twitter has plummeted.  Perhaps all to the good, that part.

Unfortunately, the output in querying has been constrained as well.  I've never been an email blaster, but I can recall getting three and even six or eight queries out in one night, in the past.

So it is with tempered joy, but at least some satisfaction, I realize I've reached the point where I'm soldiering on through the pain.  Got some good submitting done tonight, and that after a seriously hectic, but rather rewarding (and long) day at work.

Not half bad, considering the unseemly relations I indulged earlier today, with a fist full of NSAIDs.

And so now:  beddy-bye time.  Anything that happens there with Gossamer the Editor Cat is strictly seemly.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Not Because I'm Christian ... Because I'm a Writer (and a Viewer)

With the latest biblical video game coming soon to a cineplex near you, I’ve been thinking about storytelling as an author and as a moviegoer.  Biblical stories have lent themselves to embroidery and retelling since the beginning; perhaps not least because the stories themselves almost ostentatiously offer a paucity of detail.  Jewish scholarship for millennia have built upon the bare bones of the Tanakh (having grown up highly Judeo-adjacent, you’re not going to catch me writing the term “OLD Testament” thoughtlessly I hope), and gentiles have been in on the same game for centuries now.

Centuries ago, when I was a liddle-*liddle* kid, some of the first stories that caught my imagination were those of Genesis.  Because of those tantalizing voids in these stories, I became obsessed with backstory.  Not even “WHY, WHY?” – though these stories beg the profoundest of moral questions, given their fundamental position in the Bible – but “WHAT ELSE?”

These questions absorbed me, and once I got old enough for purty, midcentury modern aesthetics, diaphanous costumes, Anne Baxter, and movies to arrest my attention, “The Ten Commandments” fixated me to no small degree.  Its annual event-viewing at Passover and Easter time always stopped me in my TV-viewing tracks, even when I was too young to stay up past Moses’ banishment from Egypt.  (Much like Sound of Music, Wizard of Oz, and Gone with the Wind, there were great swaths of this we-watched-it-every-year-when-it-aired movie I never knew existed.  Beyond Maria’s getting married, Dorothy’s beauty makeover at the Emerald City, and Scarlett being widowed, there were realms unknown.)

For me, that movie’s always been about Anne Baxter’s dramatic smoker’s voice, allure-as-evil, a fancy palace, exotic locale and time, and pretty costumes.  And Yul Brynner, who is OSUM and a biscuit.

That was really the cinematic point:  wish fulfillment.  Ten Commandments and every 1950s biblical/historical epic involving any amount of sand or religiosity (see also They Egyptian, a nonbiblical story but one so seriously Judeo-Christian it actually used sets and cast left over from Ten Commandments, and closed with a fascinating piece of 19th-20th century spiritual theorizing that captivated me at the time) was cartoonishly unrealistic, providing a great deal in the Booming Elocution department, even more in production design joy for the crew, and a curiously contemporary brand of fantasy most people find has aged amusingly in sixty or so years.

And yet, the current crop of setpiece dramatics, nominally Biblical stories, are very much the same.  Noah and Exodus:  Gods and Kings place an emphasis on CGI dramatics, the high-intensity visuals and action born of a generation’s ever more sophisticated video game aesthetics, and a manner of world-building (and, even sixty years on, STILL casting) having little to do with the people of Bronze Age and even pre- or quasi-historical Mesopotamia.  The new tellings just as lacking in story as Heston’s bombasity; only the eye-candy has changed and the spectacle delivered via a different state of the arts.

I like a good CGI popcorn flick – give me a Marvel film and I’m there, uncritical, ready to partake and ooh at the gee-whiz.  I’m a great, uncritical audience.  But.

But.  When it comes to Noah and Moses and tales which almost predate themselves, in terms of the cultural significance and enticing hints of ancient life in the Fertile Crescent … what wouldn’t I give for a quiet, intimate film, focusing on imagined *people* more than spectacle and thrill … ?  A movie looking at the strange and dark tales of the patriarchs, men (and those glimpsed women, as storied as the men) whose legacy seems to be revered not because they were moral but because they lived at the dawn of a spiritual civilization we carry unto this day.

I’ve learned that this is not necessarily usual – but, from my smallest childhood, the entire contents of those stories were taught to me in Sunday school.  The nakedness, the murder and polygamy and incest, the child and human sacrifice.  The special, spiritual morality of Abraham, who married his own half-sister, then used her beauty for gain and deceived kings through her, was lost on me and always has been – but, having gotten some age on me, the idea of his being a prophet of G-d intrigues me.  We’re all flawed, but all we know of Abraham is his flaws, all but unallayed by the assurance of his peculiar rectitude.  The binding of Isaac alone has provoked us intellectually, emotionally, and socially for thousands of years.

At bottom, it’s a queasy thing, really.  I was ENTERTAINED by this lurid stuff, this first literature I ever knew – Noah, having a bad relationship with his boys, Lot procreating with his daughters (after having offered them up as sexual sacrifices in Sodom), parent after parent scheming against each other due to favoritism amongst their children.  And Jacob, and his favoritism amongst his wives.

I never even got as far as the Midrash, where we are told those wives were *all* sisters, where we elucidate the idol worship bewilderingly present throughout the families (not just households) of the matriarchs and patriarchs.  Where the women unnamed take on lives and even speak.

Even for the sources who originally wrote down these traditions, always, there has been *more* …

And yet always less than we seem to come up with – the porcine performances (ironic, all things considered) and splashy visuals, the impressive story*telling* that omits human stories.

Tucked into the annual memories of my childhood, quiet amid the saturated brightness of movies shared every year, and my enduring fascination with Hebrew Biblical films … there is a false memory, one that cannot have happened (indeed, is not remembered at all by my mother), of one movie I watched with my mom one single time.  It is the memory of sharing faith and mother-daughter time, one couched in a generation’s depth of warm feelings – one I found, somewhere in my thirties, never happened.

For some reason, I recall it as happening upstairs in the bedroom at my grandmother’s house in Ohio.  I was unwell or perhaps just petulant that day, and on my own up there.  There’s this strongly affectionate recollection that we watched a movie alone together, that I remembered for years as being called “Ruth and the Bible.”  Its actual title, almost certainly, was The Story of Ruth, and – as I read about it today – I see that not only was the lead role played by an Israeli woman, but its reviews praise it in a noticeable way:  It was called “refreshingly sincere and restrained” and “commendably unepic” …

Now – one – this makes me highly eager to see this film again (probably to own it, to love it, to name it George – heck, I already renamed it once).

But, two, I am struck by the longing for a Biblical story to be told, to be portrayed, on a quiet, intimate level.

There is not much in the story of Ruth, which could be Blowed Up Real Good by Hollywood, and though there has been a surge in interest in the nature of the love between Ruth and Naomi (lesbianism seems not to have made it into the variety of entertaining sexuality within the Holy Scriptures), this does not beg for special effects, and so the only production-design hope for it would lie in a story of lushly attractive white girls getting their languid on in appealingly exoticized gauzy accoutrements, while Boaz stands by fascinated at this dynamic and perhaps sweatily drops a few grains for the gleaning.  Ahem.  He may not do this in Bitchin’ Velvet, but one has faith in the resurgent fashion for men in long hair, and that surety in Hollywood, the currently-sellable, pretty and white boy.

It could be done – and it could be done inexpensively.  But would it make any money?

One has to wonder.  And maybe order the DVD of that movie I affectionately recall sharing with my mom, in a time and a place it could not have happened.

The formative tales, too, could be told with this intriguing closeness, with attention to aspects other than the pyrotechnics of miracle and divinity.  Perhaps there is no other audience who would be fascinated to look into a world not peopled by obsessively styled white people, inhabiting a world in which NONE of our social assumptions holds – about family, about marital arrangements, about day-to-day life and the religion and superstition permeating an existence nowhere near so thoughtless and easy as the modern middle-class is today.  Perhaps there’s no money in world-building designed to explore, to understand – only production design and gee-whizzery.

Gee, but I’d give a buck to sink down into a movie like that.  Would you?

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

#AmQuerying ...

Uuuugghhh.  I can't get the next query out until I revamp that stinking synopsis YET again to tailor it to yet another set of submission guidelines.  I refuse to flub "3-5 paragraphs" to the entire page it is right now, but sometimes (after a 9-hour workday, just for instance), following the rules gets exhausting.

Don't go thinking six or seven revamps is ever enough, either.  Sure, you might have a 3-5 page synopsis, a one-pager, a 3-5 paragraph one, and the query itself, but some agent you crave-crave-crave to impress is going to turn up asking for one seven pages long, or one TWO PARAGRAPHS long.  It's not their fault there's not industry standard!

Or is it ...?  :)

Me, Too

Deaf?  Why yes, thank you.

(You and me both, Mojourner.)  And I went on to marry that 80s hair band musician, too!  Even earplugs could only help me so much, given our family and hearing ...

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Darn Cat

Everyone who's ever had a cat knows that sometimes they have this charming way of going missing on you, hiding in closets, behind stray molecules of air, or ...

... occasionally taking trips to NYC.

Dagnabbit, Goss-ness!  You're supposed to be a *mama's* boy!!!!


Inspired recently by some discussion in the comments at Janet Reid's blog, please note we have a new feature here at the old homestead.  A slight scroll down on the right will show a Contact the Owner widget in the sidebar.

This emails me anything you have to say directly, without public commenting, and I stay on top of my messages on my personal time.

Thanks to French Sojourn for being my first contact!  Cheers.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Corresponding, Funny Things, and Love

Some years ago, I was privileged to correspond briefly with Roger Ebert, the late critic with whose assessments of movies I scarcely ever agreed, but who remains one of my favorite writers.  I also emailed with Donald Harington several times during the period when he was writing Enduring, a novel whose title alone sends a shiver down my neck and arms it’s so wonderful.  On Twitter, I’ve had the odd drive-by-Twitting with writers from Lore Sjöberg to Elizabeth Chadwick.  I’m an uppity cuss, and most of this has come via the speaking-up-at-a-party method.  They say it’s one way to network, as an unpublished author.  Certainly, it’s fun (I had to restrain myself from going off on a “and I know these Trek designers and actors” tangent, as this post actually has a topic).

I also like ongoing parties, and at one of the many places I like to hang out, I yipped up and sucked up and got the attention of Janet Reid (a.k.a. The Query Shark) with, if not my manuscript (WAAAH!), at least the adorable Gossamer the Editor Cat.  Thanks to that little loverboy, I’ve hit her with the occasional grey Goss pic, many of which have made it to her Facebook, blogs, and so on, and we have a very occasional but very amusing correspondence as well.

After the latest Gossamer shameless-shot, we swapped a bit of silliness and she concluded with “you crack me up.”

Now:  given that she makes a living knowing her way around a witty word … if I used a few of ‘em well enough to give her a giggle, I’m pretty spankin’ pleased with myself.


Something more like seventeen or eighteen years ago now, I had a similar piece of praise, when the goddess of the boards I once belonged to online sent me a private message, “I just wanted you to know I think you are a f***ing riot.”

This came from my gut-deep, wonderful, lunatic, loving friend Zuba, and it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, that PM.  I pulled up my funny girl pants, PM’d her back, began bantering with her on the fora we shared, and ended up becoming something of an institution there myself.  Not even entirely thanks to reflected glory.  (I’m an institutional smartypants.)

Mellow I may be, is the point, but shy is something I lost my talent for long ago.  Innocence and wonder and even fear I have held on to, but … an inability to speak?  Not me.  All of the significant romantic relationships of my life seem to have started with me conking some poor, helpless boy on the head and dragging him off to my cave.

Or, you know – saying hi to him.

I can still remember the first time I made my brother laugh – really belly laugh, so hard we both ended up half falling over.  It was something or other about Double Stuft Oreos neither one of us can EVER recall anymore.  I remember making Zuba laugh, that first time – or, at least, her telling me about it.  I remember just two years ago, the way it felt to be in the same room with Mr. X, to laugh together, for it to be a physical experience shared for the first time in a long time, and how transformative the moment is.  And how much we both missed that.  And now miss it again.

The most indelible, important images in all my memories seem to be of laughter – ex boyfriends’ beautifully crinkled, contorted faces – actual photos I have of Mr. X laughing – that Oreos moment with my brother – the gruff, wonderful sound of my dad’s voice in mirth – my mom’s laugh; and how, throughout my life, I’ve been told my laugh is like hers.  I’ll take that.

One of the pinnacle compliments of my lifetime was Mr. X’s “You use your wit and your intelligence as if your appearance has no power, and the effect is devastating.”  “I just want you to know I think you are a f***ing riot” is right up there on the list, too.  And now we have the up-cracking of someone I highly respect.

Perhaps I should be a comedy writer instead …

Take My Character - Please!

Last night, I happened to be in a hospital room with my mom and stepfather, and a nursing student joined us for a little while.  He had a list of questions for his patient, and we all had a nice chat, finding out he shared a hometown with SF, and of course with my mom he had in common that she had some nurses’ training Lo Many Moons Ago, and that in many ways she’s been a frustrated nurse ever since.  If it weren’t for the dagnab studying, by golly – she’d have been a stupendous caregiver, if she does say so herself.

I haven’t blogged a ton about my mom, but she is one of those surprising Little Southern Ladies who can be thoroughly awesome when she puts her mind to it.  Last night, her mind was to it.

She was talking about nurses’ straining circa, I guess, about 1960 or so (I believe it was before her career days, but am not sure how soon out of high school her brief curriculum ensued).  It seems the doctor coordinating the student nurses was a minimal fellow – no taller, no bigger, than my mom.

Mom, by the way, is 5’2” and had the nickname Razor Butt in those days.  She was noticeably TINY.  So this guy – not a bruiser.

She described to our friend the nursing student how this doctor would take them around, wearing his white coat and smoking a pipe (Oh the Places you could Smoke in that day and age … shew!), and concluded,

“He was a strutting little bantam.”

Let it be said, I could probably find a use or two for a strutting little bantam of a character – but, given my chosen eras, so many of these details would be lost.  To all my writerly pals, I implore you – find the place where the Strutting Little Bantam fits, because he’s a plot bunny of a story element I can’t do justice to, and he deserves justice.

Or, perhaps (particularly if you write humor) a little injustice?

I give him to you gratis – formed, unformed, strutting, pipe, lab coat, and all.  Use him in good health!

Or … as he’s a physician, after all … perhaps find some gripping ill health for him.  It’s your story!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Even Just an Interview ...

... with the Arrant Pedant is erudite, openminded, engaging, and worth reading.  So go.  I'll still be here.

There are ways to love language that don’t involve being lecturing people on their mistakes or otherwise being an insufferable pedant.

(I)t’s sad that people assume that being an editor or a grammar expert means you’re a jerk.

--Jonathon Owen

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Writing and Communicating

There is some irony, perhaps, in the fact that, though I’m a novelist and can barf out a block of text topping several hundred words in no time flat, when I’m at work and see an email consisting of more than about 200 words in paragraph form, with no formatting to highlight key points or organize information visually, messages are lost on me.  It was a fun fact of life at my last job that “messaging” was commonly effected by the Giant Block O’ Text method, and sometimes I still find this true at the “new” (now nearly a year old!) employer.  When working on communications with one of my own kids, I’ll massage a message (har) with at least a bit of formatting, especially when it comes to emails we’ve got to share with big groups.

When working on anything, ever, in PowerPoint, I’ll gnash my teeth and go mad at Giant Blocks O’ Text, flat out.

Perhaps precisely because I’m guilty of producing giant streams of NON-information in excess, when I see actual information treated to the essay format (or, Maud help us, novel lengths – which you all must have seen yourselves in pointless emails), seeing GBOTs in forms definitively unsuited to it (PowerPoint, I am looking at you) hurts my head.

GBOTs hurt *everyone’s* head.  It is unkind and unproductive to try to stuff a Word document into PowerPoint or an email.  PPT and email are visually and cognitively rotten vehicles for anything but the most high level media.

For pushing twelve years, let it be said, Mr. X and I have brought novel-length emails to the level of an art form – I won’t pretend that when options are limited, you use whatever medium you can.  But even then, once there is any exchange, we have always reorganized big blocks into smaller chunks of dialogue, responding to each other point by point in a visual equivalent of real time.  Sometimes, if we don’t read an entire email before responding, the results can be curious – amusing – even disastrous, of course.  Limitations.

But the point is, given constraints, the only kindness to our fellow beings is to work within them.

Because PowerPoint, for instance, is theoretically designed as a presentation software (often used to present without an actual speaker or even a meeting involved, of course), it is optimally used to illustrate data, plans, concepts, or team information at the highest level, eschewing detail.  The idea, again theoretically, is that a big-picture chart or bullet list allows a speaker to expound further than what’s on screen and make their speaking role relevant while perhaps more dynamic, with graphics and other visual/auditory information supporting them rather than the other way around.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever watched a presentation in which 100% of what a speaker said was emblazoned at great magnification directly behind them on a big screen.

Yeah.  That.  Or, really:  NO ("noooooooooooooooooo!!!").  That.

It’s torture, waiting for a presenter to catch up with their plodding, hyper-pedantic slides.

It’s torture, too, going through email and getting a message the sender passionately believes is crucial for you to understand, and it’s half a screen of black-on-white prose in ten point font.

When we’re being paid to read and receive information, spelunking for it when it’s buried in paragraph form in a copious message can be bitter work and wasted time.

When we’re alone on a train or at home, reading a book we chose out of interest and hope – no matter how long – the same is still true.  The nature of the reading, the working of our brains, the organization are completely different – but the need can be very similar:

“Give me the story.”

This doesn’t mean rich descriptions and context and world-building needs must be pithy – or that, literature forfend, prose should be organized in some other way than a wonderful block of text, perhaps even topping four hundred juicy, pulpy pages of reading goodness.  It just means that everything contained in those pages ought to be serving something, ought to be accomplishing something (even if that something isn’t pushing out the sales figures for Q3).

The luxury for authors is that what we’re out to accomplish may be conveying something as subtle as the alluring turn of an ankle, the way a character’s walk romantically captivates another (or, as in “Pippin”, the arch of a foot!).  We may need to place a reader in a moment of stillness which, redolent with some flower’s exotic scent and the soft, golden light of evening, may be broken at any moment.  The need may be to leave our audience wondering whether we’d rather stay in the stillness or heedlessly throw ourselves into the next action, the next sound, the next rapture or disaster …

There just should always be some need.  That “tension” our beta readers like to go on about, that agents get so excitable about.  Even if the tension isn’t that of a spy rifling through a drawer just as the Russians are coming back to the office.

If we have a Giant Block O’ Text going, but its essential message isn’t apparent, we’re doing no better work than the Communications experts who bury the lead (lede, if you prefer …) and render it invisible with too much pointless verbiage.

Like this post, if you will.  Which started with a 532-word intro before I revealed the point.

Was that clever context and tension … ?  Or just torture?

Friday, November 7, 2014


“I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.”
-- Blaise Pascal

Loving a good pun, this headline taking an opportunity to abbreviate “Twitter”– a veritable art form in condensed expression, sometimes – was too self-gratifying to resist.

Most contemporary writers know:  the irony of editing is that reducing word count once the “actual writing” is barfed out can be much harder work.  Revision can be so painstaking as to paralyze us outright.  What research to remove, what scenes to sacrifice, what action to abbreviate?  Down in the forests with our trusty butter knives, chasing dragons, it can get harder and harder to see the trees.

Beta readers, of course, are a wonderful thing.  The great and inimitable Leila Gaskin (herself an expert on dragons) nearly got kissed, once, when she simply told me to jettison sixty pages.  She’d been afraid to say it, but the instinct correct – AND shucking like that is a pretty easy job, compared to line-by-line word-shaving and migraine-by-migraine character analysis, scene analysis, structural retrofitting after deletions of same (lawzy, ask me how long it took to get rid of Clovis’ older sister, an historical figure by the way, who added nothing but bulk to our story!).  In revision, continuity can become a pernicious problem!

In microcosm, a lot of Twitter users – especially amongst my writer friends, I know – suffer pangs of a similar sort, getting everything into 140 characters.  I have witnessed that same Leila, sweating out a Tweet or three, sitting in panels at #JRW and sharing wisdom with the world.  Watching the process of paring but preserving voice and conveying a point was not merely entertaining, it was instructive.  I’ve felt that pain.  I’ve REHEARSED Tweets – not because I’m that anal-retentive, but because I know exactly how I want something said, and the limitations on my loquatiousness.

“That awkward moment when you exceed 140 and have to choose which grammar crime to commit.”

Those limitations on my loquatiousness are damned useful little beasts, though.  They keep you alert as hell, and, over the course of a couple years or so relearning how to communicate in microblog form (“Must! Leave! Room! For the BLOG LINK!”) illuminates for analytic eyes a new perspective.  And I still use the two-spaces-after-a-period system in most of my Tweets.  … Most …

Before I ever joined – and I only did so out of some curiosity about the medium, much-touted as one outlet to reach out to people as an author – I tended to stand with those snobs who pooh-pooh Twitter, under the idea that nothing worthwhile can possibly be shared in a 140-character entry.  The name itself hardly dispels this notion, evoking nothing but the confused, crowded noise of a flock of birds, and onomotopoeically silly to boot.  Much as I do with “secretary”, I intentionally call myself a Twit when mentioning my usage, because that’s what it sounds like the population should be called, for layered reasons.

It didn’t take me long, though, to come to appreciate both my friends there and the medium itself.  It forces my yapping-puppy mode of communcation into a harness, a discipline I’ve come to appreciate.  And it also affords me lines of communication with people who are almost universally intelligent and interesting.  I jump in and chat with men and women both sharing my interests and ideas, and exposing me to new ones.  Life there isn’t too hard to keep troll-free, and with the standard that anything I say online I would be willing to allow my mother or my nieces to read, I don’t think I’m too hard on anyone else, either.

The brevity of Twitter, too, means that even as your timeline rushes by – which, even with only about 700 followers, and following over 800 myself, provides quite the dizzying rush of links, observations, rallying cries, and incredibly funny posts and retweets – and conversations don’t get much bogged down.  I once live-tweeted Highlander with a couple of pals, we had a good time, then it was over – and you can do much the same with television and so on.  In much the same way I work crosswords with my mother over the phone, sharing entertainment virtually can be diverting, particularly when your IRL companionship is snuggly and furry, but still sub-verbal.

Twitter has provided moral support and encouragement under the #AmWriting, #AmEditing, and #AmQuerying hashtags more than once, and the occasional insight into the way I write.  This is no advertisement nor exhortation to join; just an observation, because all this interests me, and anything that changes or even develops my use of our language does too.

Do you belong?  (Let’s find each other there!)  Have you found it crystallizes in your own eyes the way you express things and share them?

I’d have written a shorter post … but that is for Twitter.

Beautiful Princesses

For all the poets who’ve extolled beauty since the beginning of song and the written thought, beauty is not what keeps the human race alive.

It’s not a new fact, but an interesting one, that quite a few of the hallowed standards of feminine beauty are also indicators of lives of ease.  In Europe, for centuries, “fair” or pale skin was an explicit description equating to prettiness.  Obviously, there’s a powerful racial element here, but the main point of whiteness in a largely white world had to do with reflecting a life lived not working in fields but protected and at leisure relative to the peasantry.

Soft skin, white skin, shining hair, healthy teeth, clear eyes – even youthful looks – these appearances may be cultivated in the life of a noblewoman, as they cannot in lesser social strata.  A peasant girl who starts out plump-armed and pretty deteriorates  more quickly if her life is lived on a farm or in a factory.  But a princess, who may have duties and learning to do, is physically protected from elements and exertion to the effect of preserving these things rather better.

When you read descriptions of princesses and queens, beauty comes up an awful lot.  Most sources have one form of political agenda or other – decrying one woman for being physically lovely but morally bankrupt, or praising to the heavens some saintly paragon.  Wealth, as we can see even today on any television set, predisposes many to fulsome praises of a lady – even if only through her clothes.  Wealth can also purchase some approximation of whatever signifiers appear to represent beauty in a given day – certainly in rich garments, jewels, and hairdressing, but also in cosmetic applications, shaping devices, and profounder bodily modifications, culminating in today’s booming plastic surgery industry worldwide.

Returning to the ethnic aspect –for many in the west, the main exposure too many had to any skin color other than their own was predominantly to those in servile positions, including slaves.  What to us is ugliness in a different sense, was once ugliness in its social-definition-of-beauty sense.  This continues to this day, with women of color suffering discrimination for wearing their natural hair, or religiously observant clothing, and subjected to demonization or sexual exotification simply for being Asian, subcontinental, Pacific Islander, Black, and so on.  Asian women who personify – or “fail” to – the “China doll” standard of allure fight a constant battle just to be seen as human, or professional people, in the face (har) of men and women alike seeking to find in them a mystical kind of beauty that goes beyond their own faces, and sinks into all manner of cultural prejudices, expectations, and lurid fantasies.

“DON’T YOU EXOTICIZE ME!” an early contestant on America’s Next Top Model, YaYa, once famously said.

I never forgot that, because – frankly, I realized I found YaYa quite exotically beautiful.  Like an awful lot of white folks, I had always thought my finding Black beauty so arresting and powerful … as some sort of enlightened attitude.

Take a LOOK at it for a second.  “Oh, look at that beautiful little Black child” – “Oh look at that beautiful Black woman or man” …  It’s all about the eye of the beholder, it’s the racial equivalent of The Male Gaze – in which finding some woman attractive is considered to be the ultimate compliment to her, and still misses completely that she’s a human being and in fact someone’s attraction to her is almost certainly irrelevant to her real, full life in every possible way.

Looking at a strikingly elegant and dazzling Black or Asian or Indian or multi-ethnic woman in admiration of her beauty is not a dynamic about “I find beauty even outside the Cultural(/Corporate) Norm! I’m so open-minded!”, but about failing to SEE humanity because we’re too busy LOOKING at it, staying outside, gazing as if the object gazed upon:  is an OBJECT.

YaYa was right, and it’s the most important thing I ever learned thanks to Tyra Banks, of all people, whose own investment in a career as the object of a gaze is a whole ball of wax we won’t get into.  One wonders about YaYa’s being ON a show dedicated to objectification, particularly as a platform to say, “I am not an object”, and going on to a career in acting, one step to the left of modeling in terms of the gazes of strangers.  But she got a point through my privileged head, and that was what she meant to do.  Success.  Go YaYa!

Anyway, princesses and prettiness.

Perhaps the key element in the fact that beauty is defined by parameters so well connected with a pampered life, is that above all it demonstrates that a girl PROTECTED is somehow the ideal.  Purity, even , is something of an indicator here – virginity.  Girls who are protected are often “jealously” protected.  Preserving not just youth and nice skin, but sexual inexperience, inevitably feeds into this ideal, and becomes one of the most powerful aspects of the theme.  This girl is so protected that her skin is unmarked, she is wealthy enough to enjoy physical luxury and health, her diet is of the best foods, her teeth and bones are preserved, her nails and hair are strong and pretty.  And this girl is so protected she’s not even a woman (you’ll notice my word choice throughout this paragraph).  She is so thoroughly safeguarded she’s untouched – but, even more, she may also have been “protected” from ever even learning anything about sex at all.

Obviously, we reach a point where the ideals of beauty not only contradict the biological basis of attraction – sex – but where beauty is meant actually to be a denier, even as it’s supposed to also be an inducement, of sexuality, of sexual allure.

And so, in the finest Not all men tradition, we have a world populated by people who no longer even can subscribe to “beauty” – and this is where things get truly interesting.  We rebel.

It is not possible, either in the binary of heteronormative humanity, or in all our glorious permutations between, for “all men” (or all women, or all hooloovoos) to conform their actual, real attractions to what we’re told is “beauty.”  Probably never has been – so feminine beauty, and masculine charm for that matter, are not necessarily linked to *attraction*.  Plenty of men find strength irresistible, and there are those amongst us (I’ve known a few) who are carried away by scars, or features which might stack up as weak against the going standard of a time.  Me, I’ve got a thing for a crooked tooth or two (blame David Bowie, whom I’ve never forgiven for getting braces several years ago).  My brother loves the look of women with natural grey or white hair.  Once I have “enough” white in my hair – and it won’t be long – I’m hoping to emulate a kind of Erica Orloff style.  Tell me that isn’t beauty surpassing the “standard” …. 

So, it’s a funny thing.  Feminine beauty has been systematically removed from what biologically “does it” for us, is and has long been another thing – and not just in American or Western culture, either.  Almost universally, feminine beauty is a signifier of a different kind, that speaks to very literal *value* in a market distinct from sexual attraction, yet inextricably linked to procration, over millennia and across cultures.

And, really, left entirely to the hormones, what human body wouldn’t prefer to just get what they physically desire – without having to worry about money and eternity and politics and family and warfare and religion, and all those things we have attached to marital alliances throughout history?  Henry VIII is the most famous example, perhaps, of the contradiction between honest urges and subjective consequences we’ve adopted as “necessities” …

Which leaves us with the problem and the ideal.  Princesses being a major commodity – they had to be beautiful, to be desirable in a way ultimately practical, but which we felt an emotional need to tie to the spiritual and artistic.

Most of the “ugly” people in the world have managed to pair off in their lifetimes, even if not in a standard lifelong monogamous bond (though, perhaps predominantly, in that form after all).  Certainly, sex has never been limited only to the rich and rarefied flowers, protected from human experience and retarded in physical deterioration as much as possible.  Indeed, over the past century or so, a mythology has built up around The Pretty Girl who can’t get a date, or a mate.  Wide swaths of the television and movie industries are dedicated to telling this story over and over again, and lucrative game shows reality shows make millions in reinforcing, without ever actually exploring, the perplexion of the telegenic girl who can’t get a man – or who can, but only for the span of such time as it takes for her to lose a competition and/or to whore her life out to participate in it.

Over time – even over my lifetime – feminine beauty has become a stranger and stranger phenomenon; always building on the same ideals we set up generations and centuries ago, yet ever more distended and rarefied.  Just as fashion has nothing to do with attraction and sex, really beauty doesn’t anymore either.  The pneumatic ideals set forth by designers, surgeons, and advertisers are ever more removed from human impulses, subverted and appropriated by concerns less and less human, and less and less individual.

If Anne of Cleves’ first job was to marry and enchant a king, now the princess’ job is to persuade the masses she embodies, and lives, in fairy tales that never existed in reality, and she’s now tasked to realize.  Ever-more preposterous bodily features and architecture and clothing and (ugly) jewelry are deployed to represent fantasies further and further removed from personal appeal and ever more heavily invested in making somebody a buck or million.  To age is unthinkable, to do so naturally an outrage.  Fiber-intensive extruded “food” products exhort us to obsess over our excretions in order to attain thigh gaps and acceptable waistlines.  “Luxury” brands emblazon their logos on remarkably shoddy, ethically dubious products so that discount stores can pretend to be secret distribution streams for items theoretically exclusive to the elite and wealthy.

Even in an economy enduring one of the longest and most profound depressions in history, the beauty industry booms – as it always has.  Some say this is because women feel the one thing they can indulge in bad times is a foolishly expensive lipstick, which makes them feel good.  Others point to the investment value of primping, as a poor girl looking a certain way might parlay appearance into a lucrative alliance, or professional livelihood.  Watch a single episode of The Bachelor and see if one or the other of the feminine competitors doesn’t mention “fairy tale” or “princess” at least two or three times in a single episode.  (Apart from “this journey”, “connection” and the personal pronoun, these two are the most frequently used language in any example I’ve ever seen of ANY such show.)

Do you conform to what industry calls “beauty” right now … ?  Do you want to?  Can you imagine bedding anyone who does?

Where and how does “beauty” (by standardized terms) live in your life, day to day?

Wednesday, November 5, 2014


My lunchtime reading recently has been an author I’m revisiting, who gained huge popularity in the 80s and 90s, but whose career began in the 70s and continues today.  This is someone who could frustrate with “get ready for the sequel” novels, but who also has an undeniable gift with language.

The problem with a certain level of publishing success is that, so often, it leads to a certain level of creative control that ends up meaning an author can eschew editing.  Colleen McCullough is an example of this, and her works for some years sank deeper and deeper into the “if a fact or anecdote can be told once, it can be told SEVENTY times” and the corollary, “if it can be told in twenty words, it can also be told in seven pages.”

The books I’m revisiting of late suffer a lack of editorial presence, too, and have me looking at my linguistic habits pretty coldly.  I have a thing for adverbs, and “just” and “actually” are, for reasons I can’t explain, constantly present in my writing.  And, of course, the overlocutive, unnecessarily complex sentence issues.  Reading this author’s work, though, has me finding previously-unnoticed habits in my writing as well.  “Almost”, for some reason pulls a lot of punches throughout my own work.  Given the first-person voice in The Ax and the Vase, this requires some review – Clovis is not the most likely punch-puller in the world.

It’s “and” and serial commas that seem to be a problem for this author.  She puts no comma where a new clause begins, and creates paragraph-long sentences with both lists and multiple clauses, with “and” between every element and commas following no apparent logic.  It feels like none of this writing was ever read out loud, and it also muddies the voice.

This author writes from the perspectives of very large casts of characters in many novels, and even from vantage points in time spanning literally hundreds of years.  And every character sounds the same.  And every second sentence begins with “and”, too.

Now, obviously – I’m not one of those purists who shudders and pearl-clutches at the very idea of beginning a sentence with the word “and” or “but”.  However (hah!), I don’t want to see it fifteen times in a single page.  AND this author does that.  It’s so painfully obtrusive (and punch-pulling, at that – it sucks drama out of moments and statements time and again) it’s impossible to ignore.

SO (hah), it becomes impossible to lose yourself in the novel – or in a single character’s story – because not only does every character in every individual novel sound alike, but every character in ALL this author’s MANY novels sound exactly the same.

This is why writers must read so much.

The good news is, this has me looking pretty mercilessly at my own writing.  I’m aware that parenthesis, hyphens, difficult constructions, and “pretty” are recurrent with me.  The words and patterns that seem to hover throughout my work, I try to at least SEE – even when I don’t necessarily choose to “correct” them.

To a degree, it is my own voice that makes me a writer.  The degree MUST be limited and regulated, I know that.  But it’s also true that some part of the charm of reading some particular author is *their* way of expressing things – even through the filter of POV and characters’ voices and so on.  It feels like it’s okay to infuse ourselves into the way a story gets told.

But (hah) it’s important, too, that the author’s presence should be a support, not part of the story in an obtrusive way.  In a way, this is like research – you have to do enough to know your period, but you can only put into the work what really needs to be there.  You have to know your story and be involved (even “passionate”!) about it, but most of the time – the author doesn’t need to “be there” …

Ever read a novel where the author felt like an uninvited guest at the party?  Or do you know works where the author’s palpable presence helped rather than hindered … ??

There are Sad Songs, and Then There are Sad Songs ...

Since the local “we play anything” radio station shifted to the far right side of the dial and doesn’t come in on my wee transistor radio anymore at work, I’ve been forced to listen to the rock station morning show every day (it’s either that or silence, easy listening hell, or KUNTRY).  Fortunately, they don’t have a political agenda, but it tends to be a good three hours of screamy opinions on inconsequential horsefeathers, but oddly enough they do tend to choose pretty good incidental music when they play a tune between blitherings.  Fortunately too, I listen quietly enough that few of the actual words come through my pitiful hearing.

But today there was a moment where the DJ asked his co-host or whatever, “What’s your saddest song?” and went onto a tangent “It’s supposed to make you feel good – but hearing sad songs doesn’t make me feel GOOD, it makes me all blubbery!”

My saddest song was very definitely not written sad in its day, nor is the particular version that makes me weep performed and recorded in a tearjerker style, but the things in life that generate our most powerful emotions are rarely ever those pieces of art and entertainment specifically designed to engender reactions.  Sure, a good tearjerker of a movie gets me gooey, but the emotion tends to be fleeting, gone once I change the channel or go to bed or read something funny or talk to another human being.  It’s real and personal associations, particularly ones of long standing, that “get us.”

When my brother and I were kids, it was a fact that sometimes we found ourselves more enthusiastic about our pillows than our classrooms.  Yes, strange but true.  On such days as he found it difficult to get us out of bed, dad would take out his Switched-On Bach album (then credited to Walter Carlos), put it on the HiFi, and turn up the volume as loud as it would go – playing the Brandenberg Concerto.

Such a rousing piece of music, very much enhanced by the early Moog synthesizer and a liberal, bracing sense of experimentation, was difficult to sleep through.  Challenging, too, for me in partiuclar, was dad’s habit of following this wake-up call by picking up my whole leg by the big toe (for temperature regulation, I used to sleep with one foot or even an entire leg out from under the covers) and SHAKING IT.

“UP AND AT ‘EM!” he’d bluster, sometimes even being so bitterly cruel as to take our covers away.  A terrible thing, just when you’ve got both the protection of a cover and the temperature regulation of the bare leg.  He loused up a delicate balance, mean thing that he was.  And the music was a challenge to ignore, even without the disruptions to bed-snuggling.


Meanwhile, the Moog hurtled through the massive music, shaking the walls, probably alerting every neighbor for a five-house radius that The Major Kids were having a hard time getting out of bed again.  We did like the raucous, rousing music, but not always its timing.

Of course, forty years on, and dad having died nearly twelve years ago now, that recording – those memories and associations – mean something entirely different, and, oddly enough, it’s possible to curl down into the sweeping sound of synthesized Bach in a whole different way.  It’ll never be so soft as to be cozy, but the music and the memory can wrap you up quite completely – and, especially when it gets to that triumphal bombast, the intentionally-emotional part, the mental image of dad WHISTLING this music (a recording my brother and I have only in our heads now) is engulfing and heartbreaking and wonderful all at once.

We miss him so much, yet the gratitude that we got the dad we did is always there.  He could hardly have planned a better remembrance for himself.  Classical music but a modern, almost scientific experimentalism, chest-swelling triumph, and a pair of kids he invested all his heart and mind into raising, loving him and each other and not sunk into mourning.

Sadness done right DOES feel good.  Even when it makes you all blubbery.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Agent Oopsy!

"(Q)uivered with gentility" is the dirtiest thing I've read in years that had nothing whatever to do with actual genitals.

Also:  I love Janet Reid.

Saturday, November 1, 2014


It's a completely new thing for me (even at ten months on the job) to work for a place that celebrates Hallowe'en in a pretty big way.  My office held costume contests and a cube-decorating contest.

In the Things That Don't Happen in Financial Services or Utilities department, we have:  this!  In the 28 years I've been working, the most I've ever seen anyone "do" Hallowe'en at any job was the time my boss came in wearing "hillbilly teeth" - which he had in for about ten minutes, probably.

So I heard for a week or so how they really do it up, and I thought about what I'd like to do, and I decided to go as a sort of day-wear flapper.  Long straight skirt, little skinny belt, cute vintage shoes, that sort of thing.

Then I saw the greyscale couple and realized - hey, I have some theatrical makeup, I could do that.

It was remarkably easy (easier than going white is), and a trick I want to try again so I can do it better.  The job I did in half an hour at six o'clock in the morning, as compared to the job I'd do when I was more awake, and with a couple hours to spend on getting ready - I didn't do badly, but I could do it better.  (Like matching my neck and shoulders, ahem.)

I did learn this - that makeup on the hands is an extremely tricky thing.  I've done it before, but usually not aiming for true opacity, and not using Ben Nye's clown white, which is pigment-intensive to the point it gets on EVERYTHING (hence my job yesterday sort of stopping short of the white sweater, which I had to wear during application - a trick in itself).  So my hands did not last well at all, though the manicure worked (silver on the moons, gunmetal grey on the rest).

I also learned that what at night just looks like a cool special effect, in broad daylight really reads more corpselike and creepy.  My boss had a real shock-take, and I think I kind of scared one of the other admins, and several folks commented it was gothy or scary or creepy and so on.  Worked fine, I mean it's Hallowe'en.  But I could have gone easier on the dark eye, and the constraints of work clothes sort of buried the lede - the "flapper" part of the look - and I'd like to try to put my best effort in on this look.

What'd you do for Hallowe'en?  I know of an Indy, a Maleficent, a witch, one of my trick-or-treaters had the single best gore makeup I've ever seen, and at work we had a Superman, a deviled egg, and an entire team playing out the worst fears from Shark Week ...  Tell me more!

Random ... NESS

So, I give my pets a whole lotta nicknames.  It's not like they connect any name with some sense of identity in any case - so I just count on them recognizing "eat", "treat", "come" and so on, and know the rest is pretty much for me.

In this house, the pets are their own essences.  So Gossamer is The Goss-ness.  Before him, Smikey the cat was Smike-ness.  Siddy was Sidness.

Now.  Let us all speculate.

Why is it Penelope does not get this treatment ... ?