Category Archives: Random thoughts

Dancing with the stars

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Jennifer Crusie is the second from the right.

The blogging group with Jennifer Crusie (second from the right)

Every year for some years now I’ve attended RWA’s national conference in July. This year it was in New York, which meant that my favorite writer of all time, Jennifer Crusie, who also taught the McDaniel College creative writing/romance program I took, could attend. I went to her two conference sessions along with my group bloggers (my former classmates from the McDaniel program), and a nice person took a photo of us all. Proof positive!

The conference was its usual busy self. Besides meeting Jennifer Crusie, the other highlight of the event was that one of our number, Jeanne Oates Estridge (third from right) won the Golden Heart award for paranormal romance. We’re all super proud of her! It’s a tremendous honor, winning over hundreds if not thousands of entries. I’m hoping for a major hardcover release for her.

I got more out of the conference this year than usual (good sessions, connecting with old friends, cementing new friendships, interesting pitches, and did I mention Jennifer Crusie?), but it took more out of me than usual (too much noise, too much rich food [all my fault], not enough sleep [ditto]). It’s been my vacation of choice for a while now, but after next year, when it’s practically in my backyard, I might think about cutting back to every other year or so and maybe going instead to smaller, more local conferences. I could save me some bucks and plan a bigger trip for the times I do go. We’ll see.

Next year in San Diego!

Selective blindness

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Watch this 1999 video by psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons. You won’t be sorry, I promise.

Did you get the number of ball passes correct? I really focused, and I did count correctly.

For those who didn’t see the 300-pound gorilla in the room, which I did not, this phenomenon is entirely normal. Did you ever not notice a friend’s new haircut? Or not realize that a sibling had gained weight over the last 10 years? If so, it’s not because you’re too self-involved. According to researchers, it’s how our brains are wired. It’s called “change blindness,” and it’s the phenomenon of not noticing something—even a 300-pound gorilla—when it stares us in the face.

There’s also “inattentional blindness,” when we don’t see the difference because we’re not looking for it. In the video, if didn’t see the gorilla, it’s because you were told to count the number of ball passes. If you’d been told to look for the gorilla, you’d have seen it. Which I did, easily, when I played the video back.

These blindnesses are shortcuts our brains take. There’s too much information to process everything constantly, so the brain fills in the space we don’t much care about. The brain assumes. And we know how assumptions can sometimes get us into trouble!

While inattentional blindness can be fun when it’s about gorilla videos or video games, it can have serious consequences, because if you’re not looking for gorillas, you won’t see them. So if you’re not consciously looking for motorcycles or dogs in the road, you might miss those, too.

So be careful out there! You never know when a 300-pound gorilla will be in the room.

It’s my party, and I’ll cry if I want to

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poetryWhat with one thing and another, it’s been a rough week. I took a hiatus and wandered over to Jenny Crusie‘s site, where I learned about The Toast, which is a blast and just what I needed when I was done assembling receipts for Uncle Sam. For a fun look at oppressive activities, take a look at “Women Having A Terrible Time At Parties In Western Art History” by Mallory Ortberg. In fact, her entire “Western Art History” oeuvre is not to be missed. As one of her women who’s having a terrible time at a party would say, it’s bears.

Happy (or whatever) Thanksgiving!

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Charles_Green01-victorian-christmasWhen I was a kid, my family celebrated all the holidays in a Norman Rockwell-esque Midwestern way. There weren’t many of us, so that worked for a while. By the time I hit early adulthood, though, enough had changed that holidays couldn’t be celebrated the way we used to do it, so every year since we’ve made some kind of nontraditional accommodation in one way or another. Now we know that what counts is the time we take together, whenever that is, wherever that is, and whatever it looks like. Sometimes a six-foot meatball subway with your vegetarian second cousin twice removed and the church bag lady on the Sunday before is the best holiday ever.

I dug around a little for what other people might think about Thanksgiving. One of my favorite quotes is from William Jennings Bryan, who from school history, I always thought was a bit of a blowhard. Here’s what he said: “On Thanksgiving Day we acknowledge our dependence.” I love that idea.

A Native American saying also hits the spot for families who might be living through dark days: “Give thanks for unknown blessings already on their way.”

Finally, I rounded up a few memories, thoughts, amusing stories, and jokes about our “uniquely American” (as write O. Henry would say) holiday. Have at it! And wherever you are, with whomever you are, I hope you have a Thanksgiving that brings comfort to your heart.

From Johnny Carson, entertainer:
Thanksgiving is an emotional holiday. People travel thousands of miles to be with people they only see once a year. And then discover that once a year is way too often.

From Oprah Winfrey, entertainer:
Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never have enough.

From Erma Bombeck, journalist:
Thanksgiving dinners take eighteen hours to prepare. They are consumed in twelve minutes. Half-times take twelve minutes. This is not coincidence.

From Sherman Alexie, writer:
I always think it’s funny when Indians celebrate Thanksgiving. I mean, sure, the Indians and Pilgrims were best friends during the first Thanksgiving, but a few years later, the Pilgrims were shooting Indians. So I’m never quite sure why we eat turkey like everybody else.”

From Phyllis Diller, comedian:
My cooking is so bad my kids thought Thanksgiving was to commemorate Pearl Harbor.

From Debi Mazar, actor:
On the morning of Thanksgiving, I would wake up to the home smelling of all good things, wafting upstairs to my room. I would set the table with the fancy silverware and china and hope that my parents and grandmother wouldn’t have the annual Thanksgiving fight about Richard Nixon.

From Robbie Robertson, musician:
It’s a bit of a sore spot, the Thanksgiving in Indian country.

From Dave Barry, writer:
Proper turkey preparation is critical. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more Americans die every year from eating improperly cooked turkey than were killed in the entire Peloponnesian War. This is because turkey can contain salmonella—tiny bacteria that, if they get in your bloodstream, develop into full-grown salmon, which could come leaping out of your mouth during an important business presentation.

From Larry Omaha, comedian:
My mother won’t celebrate Thanksgiving. She says it represents the white man stealing our land. But she’s not angry. She figures, what the hell, we’re taking it back one casino at a time.

And—if you want to see what my family looks like, just google weird families under Google Images. You won’t be sorry.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The season’s upon us!

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My tree. Thanks to Beth Barany for taking the photo!

Here’s a picture of my Christmas tree. It’s not really a tree. It’s a traffic cone that I liberated from a construction site and then wound with lights. When I first got the cone, I used regular Christmas lights, the old-fashioned kind. They generated so much heat that they made the rubber that the traffic cone was made of smell (there’s nothing like the smell of burning rubber for the holidays), so I switched to LED lights that I got on sale after the holidays were over. They do not generate any heat, and the tree is now as fabulous in every respect as I thought it would be.

The other thing about my tree: I keep it up all year round, so it’s not exactly a “Christmas” tree. It’s just a tree—or, really a traffic cone—with lights. So for anyone who worries that I’m being insensitive to cultural diversity, it’s just festive home décor.

It’s too, um, avant-garde for a lot of people. I love it, though.

Best wishes for everyone throughout the next month or so!

Becoming a professional writer

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The new cover!

The new cover!

A while ago, I decided that  one of my self-published books needed a new cover. I’d done the original, back in the days when I thought I could do it all. I have a little graphics experience. I thought I could make it work. But no. If my cover is anything to go by, I best leave cover design to the professionals.

So I commissioned a new cover, and then I thought—in for a penny, in for a pound. I’ll move it into print, too. Get it out onto more platforms. Go the whole nine yards. After all, I want to be a professional novelist, right? I have to act like a professional novelist.

To go into print, the cover needs a spine–the part of the cover that faces outward when the book is on the shelf. The spine width is determined by how many pages the book has. So then I thought, I should do a quick edit pass, take out one excerpt from the back, and make sure this book is as tight as it could be.

How much have I edited so far? Not counting the excerpt I deleted, I’ve cut 8,500 words from the original manuscript. I’m happy about it. The book is better, and readers will kill fewer trees when they buy it. Now I have a second edition, edited for conciseness and clarity. I feel that I’ve made a good professional decision in upgrading this book.

Not that my family gets it, exactly. What do you say when your friends and relations ask you what you do? Do you tell them you’re a writer? And if you say that you are a writer, how do you answer the follow-up questions? (Is there a lot of money in that? Where do you get your ideas? How do I get an agent? Can I give you this great idea, and then we can split the profits?)

Tom Coyne, a published author and creative writing teacher at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, reminds us that writing is about process, not perfection. See what else he has to say about calling yourself a professional writer.

http://magazine.nd.edu/news/49016/

Dumping Helga

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scissorsI’ve been revising my WIP for some weeks now. I have a lot of work to do yet—my last chapter is 15,000 words. Bad! There’s no escalation whatsoever from my last turning point to the end. Also bad. I’ve got a Dark Night of the Soul that’s written essentially as “Gosh, bummer.” (That would be my inability to write conflict.) I’ve got a final climax and triumph that’s essentially “Gee, great.” (That would be my inability to write anything, evidently.)

And now, I’m pretty sure I have to delete Helga.

Helga is the girlfriend of my antagonist, and she gives him depth. He’s crazy about her (in a good and healthy way, I hope). He calls. He writes. He buys her little presents. He’s texting her when he should be thinking of villainous things to do to the protagonist.

Helga reciprocates. She’s so worried about my antagonist that when she’s sure he’s gone off and done something stupid and wrong and just plain dangerous (good head on her shoulders, that Helga), she goes after him to dissuade him from whatever dastardly course he’s set on.

I like Helga. She’s focused and determined, cynical and practical. My critique partner wrote in one paragraph, “Love Helga!”—but then just one paragraph later, “I’m losing interest in this scene, and I don’t know why.”

I had to agree with her—I’d lost interest in that scene, too, and all the other scenes with Helga. Where was my protagonist? Antagonist? My hero? When were my heroine and hero going to kiss, for pete’s sake?

Helga has to go.

I read a dumb-ish article the other day about the 10 elements a good movie must have. Number three was “sense of camaraderie.” I realized that’s the first reason Helga has to go. She’s not part of the community. She’s not central to the story. She doesn’t come in until half-way through (nor should she), and at that point it’s too late to become part of the Scooby gang.

The other reason, and it’s probably the same as the first reason—she’s just not that central to the plot. What she does is peripheral. That doesn’t have to be bad, but secondary characters should interact meaningfully with the major characters, or (and) they have to reflect the story ideas, themes, or motifs.

Helga doesn’t do any of that.

It’s hard to say goodbye. Besides that I like her, and she occupies a fair amount of space—in the 5K–7K word count, maybe more. I’ll have to make that up somewhere. Not to mention the transitions I’ll have to write to cover her tracks.

But revising Helga to be more relevant, useful, and major isn’t the answer. I think the way to go is to delete her (sorry, Helga! Maybe another time) and build the action and consequences of my major characters. (Note to self: we’ve got a really lousy Dark Night of the Soul to improve and expand.)

I could be wrong. I have a long road of revising ahead of me, and I might change my mind. But right now, I’m thinking that Helga has to get off the bus.

We have to make room for the passengers who really count.