Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Saturday, December 15, 2012

What's the Answer?

We know that bans don't work (Prohibition, anyone?).

And there's the Second Amendment (although I'm not sure why we need a well-armed militia now that the British have retreated and we have a standing army).

I shake my head when folks seem to think that arming all the "good people" will make the "bad people" think twice before shooting. Members of the Mafia, drug cartels, and street gangs are heavily armed and yet this fact doesn't seem to stop armed assaults on them. Drug addicts aren't particularly logical when committing crimes to acquire their next fix. Plus, to be effective the "good people" would have to wear their holstered guns 24/7. And they would need to be so well trained that they wouldn't experience those initial stunned seconds when fired upon at the coffee shop, in the mall, or at the movies. Not to mention being well practiced with their weapon (I've seen hunting accident reports -- people can be idiots). Would armed amateurs really save lives, or increase the carnage with their crossfire?

I have family who hunt, I played with cap guns when young, I am not anti gun. I don't see the need for individuals outside of the military or law enforcement to possess automatic or semi-automatic weapons. But outlawing them or their ammo clips won't eliminate their existence.

What we can work on is our cultural attitude toward weaponry.

We'll never completely prevent tragedies such as those that rocked our world this past week. But shouldn't we strive to make them extremely rare occurrences?

Sunday, November 18, 2012

It's All in the Wrist

I chuckled as the camera panned through the office scene during a recent episode of Upstairs Downstairs. The dialogue was serious as the characters acknowledged that war with Hitler's Germany was inevitable. But I was amused by the actress pretending to type, seen only briefly in passing.

In typical Digital Age fashion, her wrists were sharply bent while her fingers tickled the typewriter keys. Anyone who has ever used a manual typewriter knows you cannot hit the keys with sufficient force when the heels of the hands are resting on the desktop. It was a brief, anachronistic moment that I found amusing.

I learned to type on manual and electric typewriters and still hold my wrists and forearms in the alignment necessary to operate these vintage machines. I think it helped prevent repetitive motion problems.

But believe me, I never want to go back to the carriage return, white out, carbon paper, and realigning documents to make corrections. Worse yet - retyping entire letters after they were edited!

I love my compact iMac keyboard with keys that respond to the tap of a finger!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Second Try: "Curse of the Mistwraith"

The first book in The Wars of Light and Shadow fantasy series by Janny Wurts was a hard slog for  most of our members. I read and enjoy fantasy novels, but my effort to complete this book was more like homework. I wasn't alone in my feelings.

First, the good stuff. Janny Wurts has done a phenomenal job of world building. The setting is complex and well planned. Her magic has a logical source (allowing for the reader's suspension of disbelief) with the necessary rules and limitations. Ms. Wurts populates the novel with characters that are all too human in their ambitions and foibles.

Wurts excels in her descriptive writing. She selects just the right details and describes them in such a manner that places the reader on the spot. We can see, smell, and feel the world that the characters inhabit.

Wurts explores the perception versus reality theme, particularly in the character of Arithon. He is the illegitimate son of the Queen and pirate enemy of the King of Amroth. Arithon has natural musical talent, a heightened sense of empathy, and innate magical ability. As the last of his paternal lineage he is destined to reign over Etarra, but Arithon would prefer a life as a master bard. A magical curse and strong sense of duty sends him on another course that pits him against his half brother, Prince Lysaer. When the reader first encounters Arithon he is portrayed as a cruel and unprincipled enemy of Amroth. As the novel progresses, however, we learn that Arithon is actually a caring and conscientious young man who places the needs of others above his personal desires.

The problem with the novel, I decided, was pace. Wurts never breaks up her descriptive paragraphs with short, pithy dialogue or action. Flip through the pages and there is a paucity of white space. As much as we enjoyed her exploration of character and setting, the endless diet wore us down. There was no relief from angst-ridden interior dialogue or descriptive passages.

The first novel in the multiple-book series has a large population of characters that confused us. Especially since there were similarities in names. Each time we picked up the book we had to reorient ourselves. "Is this character the sorcerer, or the captain of the men-at-arms?"

It took most of us about a third of the way into the novel to get hooked. And just about the time we were avidly following the characters -- we were slammed with lengthy descriptive paragraphs that bogged us down.

We agreed that this is not a novel for an e-reader -- which three of us were using. Wurts created a detailed map of the fantasy world not available with our Kindle versions. Although the map can be accessed on her web site, when I printed it out for reference it was so fuzzy I couldn't read it. Both the printed and e-book versions include a lengthy glossary of characters and locales; however, it is a major pain in the rear to move back and forth in an e-book. I was frustrated by the inability to flip pages for quick reference. We suspected much of our confusion while reading the novel would have been remedied had we been reading the printed version. By the time I finished the book I was desperate to hold a real book!

Regrettably, other than the member who recommended the book, none of us are interested in pursuing the remainder of the books in the series. I recommend Wurts' writing for her world building and descriptive writing. But if you're looking for fast-paced adventure, this isn't your book.

Our book club is taking a break over the holidays. We'll meet up again in January to discuss Laura Hillenbrands' Unbroken.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Book Club: Let's Try That Again

The October discussion topic for our modest little book club was to be Janny Wurts' Curse of the Mistwraith. I say was because only one of us in attendance had completed the book -- and she was the one who had recommended it and was enjoying it for the second time. The rest of us were generally a third of the way into the book.

I have to admit, I read maybe 19% into the book and then skimmed another 10% before our session last night. I read and enjoy science fiction and fantasy, so I was well aware that fantasy novels can start out slow as the author establishes the setting and rules of magic. For some reason I found CotM more difficult than usual to engage my interest and comprehension. My personal preference would have been to become grounded with one key character before the whole cast steps on stage. I know novels are supposed to begin in the middle of the action, but there were so many characters, locations, historical events, etc., coming so fast and furious -- I felt overwhelmed. It also didn't help that by the time I settled down to read I was tired and dozing off.

However, by the time I had skimmed a third of the way into the book, I was getting into the story. The other members of our book club had similar experiences. In CofM Wurts has created a dense fantasy setting with an elaborate history and backstory. Definitely not a book for skimming, as I was attempting to do. Wurts has written the novel in a formal style with many descriptive passages -- reminiscent of Victorian novels and appropriate for the tone of the story about a long ago and far away culture. It needs to be approached at a slower pace. And it did hook most of us (one member didn't have her interest piqued and another said she must be too literal-minded to read fantasy).

So -- we've agreed to finish the book and discuss it in November.

Guess I'll go back to the beginning to refresh my memory before continuing where I left off and give the novel more attention.

We also agreed that this is not a book for an e-reader. It contains a glossary of characters and places at the back of the book and I find it a hassle to flip back and forth on my Kindle. Also, the traditional book includes a map, which is missing in our e-books. Bit of a Luddite here when it comes to literature.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

With the help of Melody Snyder of Simply Organized, we spent two days sorting through our garage. We managed to toss out and recycle quite a bit of stuff. And we discovered a lot of items we'd forgotten about, not to mention all the family mementos stashed away for decades.

My mother found the Meier & Frank gift box containing The Oregonian issue announcing the attack on Pearl Harbor. In an identical box I came across my father's letters written while in the Army. Last night I sorted them by date (1940-45) and began reading the letters.

Rather than take the chance of being drafted my father joined the Oregon National Guard (41st Infantry Division) as a band member (trombone). He'd started playing professionally in Portland, and he was a member of the popular Woody Hite Band. The Guard was stationed at Fort Lewis (Tacoma, Washington) and environs, so he could make weekend trips home when issued a pass.

So far I've read through his 1940 correspondence and I'm well into 1941. My father was not impressed with the Army and he counted down the months of his one year commitment. The infantry made a trip to California (outside San Francisco) for maneuvers and his descriptions of the mock battles are pretty funny. As they prepare for the return north the men are hearing rumors that they may not be released when their time is up.

At midnight last night I decided to go to bed -- I'd not yet come to the December 1941 correspondence.

It's interesting reading the thoughts and feelings of my 20-year-old father. He declared his mother's cooking the best in the world, teased his younger brother who was completing high school, and talked music with his father (violinist with the symphony). He asked about his high school buddies, and complained when the band unit lost several good musicians who returned to civilian life. He repeatedly asked his parents to send more stamps (note the 3 cent price) because they weren't always available at the base canteen. He sent money orders home to have most of his pay deposited in a savings account.

Reading the letters of a young man who'd rather be home playing his trombone with a jazz band and enjoying his mother's cooking is even more poignant knowing what was to come. My grandparents would soon have two sons fighting at opposite ends of the globe.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Feathered Attack Drones

I have no idea when Phantom may have seen Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, but he's pretty much convinced that the pair of pigeons who insist on establishing a nest in the covered arena are deadly.

I can't say as I blame him for being startled by the sudden swoop of Mr. Pigeon arriving at the nest where Mrs. Pigeon is brooding. But once the pigeons were on the move, Phantom was more focused on the feathered "attack drones" than he was on me.

So I ventured outside, where the whole world is a potential threat in Phantom's mind. He actually did pretty well on our way out to the track and back. Although he had his eye on the greenhouses at the adjacent commercial nursery.

Apparently the greenhouses barely moving in the light breeze were more of a threat than the scolding scrub jay that flew out of the blackberries. Although, Phantom kept watch on the jay, too.

It's just one thing after another for my pudgy gray Arabian gelding.

By the way, what's with those dingy pigeons trying to nest when the Canada geese are heading south for the winter?

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Apparently no one is being taught to stop and look both ways before stepping off the curb. Granted, pedestrians are supposed to have the right of way. However, they might at least give drivers a clue that they will be crossing the street in front of them.

Some years ago while driving slowly through a congested area I noticed two teenage girls walking on the sidewalk to my right in the opposite direction. They were involved in a conversation and giving their attention to each other. Imagine my surprise when they suddenly made a right turn in front of me at the crosswalk. With no "body language" signs that they would be crossing the street, no stopping at the curb to check the oncoming traffic, and no eye contact with the closest drivers -- they simply executed a right turn and stepped off the curb into the street without a break in their conversation.

It happened to me again today. This time it was two teenage boys walking in the same direction  I was driving. I was making a right turn into the post office and had stopped for two pedestrians who were in the driveway. Just before I made my right turn into the parking lot, the boys stepped off the curb right in front of me. Once again, no body language indicating their intent to cross the street, no eye contact with me to make sure that I saw them, no stop at the curb before crossing.

Last week at the park children were dashing across the drive on their way back to the parking lot without looking for cars. Fortunately, I expected as much and had slowed to a creep.

Today a woman was so intent on her smart phone she didn't notice I was backing out of a parking slot straight at her. Good thing I saw her before she noticed me. Months ago I had another encounter with a woman walking across the grocery store parking lot with a cell phone to her ear. Didn't look right or left -- just walked in front of me as I was leaving.

I was taught to stop at the curb and look both ways before crossing the street. As a human being it takes a few close calls to take the lesson seriously. After years as a pedestrian in downtown Portland I learned to always look over my left shoulder for drivers making a right turn before I crossed the street. Making eye contact with drivers was the surest method to make sure one was seen before entering the crosswalk.

I don't want to hit a pedestrian. I don't want to run over a child. I don't want to crumple a bicyclist. But as a driver I have a lot to watch out for. Like vehicles that are way bigger than our compact car. Other drivers who can't stay inside their lane or otherwise flaunt traffic laws. Bicyclists who are smaller than a car and faster than a pedestrian. I therefore use any and every clue I can observe to assure everyone's safety. So it would help me greatly if pedestrians would at the very least give a hint that they are desirous of being on the opposite side of the street.

Better yet -- stop at the curb, look both ways, and make eye contact with oncoming drivers even when you have the right of way at a crosswalk.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Not Another Tangent?!

After attending the Willamette Writers Conference I learned what I need to do for my second draft of Galactic Empress. I also got a few ideas for a sequel while at the conference and these I jotted down for future use.

So I've been merrily working on draft two, thinking I can pretty much salvage the first quarter of the book when I'm suddenly struck by a new story idea.

Actually, it was a very vague idea for a story that came to me from the title of one of our book club reads. What occurred out of the blue was the solution to the story concept. I have a bead on the protagonist, and a dilemma she must resolve at the climactic moment.

Have you ever read the title of a book and imagined a story that was different than that of the actual novel? The Lace Reader is set in Salem, Massachusetts, and has a little something to do with fortune telling and communicating with spirits. Before opening the book I had an image of women who actually interpreted the patterns of lace to "see" into the future. Turns out that's not exactly what occurs in Brunonia Barry's book.

However...I was left with the idea of women who had the supernatural gift of reading lace to interpret the thread of an individual's life. Sort of the next step after the Fates spin a life thread. But I wasn't sure where to go with the idea and how to develop it. Until this week.

The Last Lace Reader is the working title for my latest young adult story. The craft of lace making is strictly controlled, but the art of reading lace has been outlawed. As the elders who have "The Knack" for reading lace pass away, the art is disappearing. When my protagonist discovers she can read lace she is frightened yet fascinated. She could be executed if it is revealed that she has The Knack. Yet her gift could be of use to others.

I haven't yet figured out the setting. So far I've bookmarked sites ranging from the lost continent of Atlantis to steampunk. There will be horses (that's a given). I have a few characters sketched out and a potential image for the protagonist.

I need to at least finish the second draft of Galactic Empress. But I'll jot ideas for The Last Lace Reader as they come to me, and get serious about research and world building at a later time.

Friday, August 17, 2012

For what we hoped would be a fun summer read our book club selected a mystery set in the commercial fishing industry of Astoria, Oregon. A Killing Tide is the first book in the Columbia River Thriller series written by P. J. Alderman.

Regrettably, some of us found the writing clunky and full of cliches -- and the solution less than mysterious.

As best we could determine, this book was Alderman's effort to transition from romance writing to mysteries. Unfortunately, the romance was the worst part of the novel with its strained attempt to create tension between the pair and the requisite bedroom scene full of trite, overdone descriptions. Considering the main character had undergone a bruising encounter with an intruder only hours before the steamy sexual encounter, we found the whole scene hard to believe.

That said, we thought the descriptions of Astoria and its environs were well done, as were the scenes set on the boats. The Columbia River bar is one of the most dangerous locations in the world to navigate and these scenes made for white-knuckle reading.

The mysterious activity that resulted in a murder and arson was fairly easy to guess, and I think all of us knew whodunnit far before the villain was revealed. The characters were a bit stereotypical:  the big city cop (or this case arson investigator) who retreats to a small town to escape his past, the gorgeous blonde with an independent streak, the police chief more interesting in an arrest than locating the real murderer, etc.

We all thought the author missed several opportunities to enrich the story. Kaz (Kasmira) Jorgensen and her brother Gary are twins who lost their parents when they were only teenagers. The special relationship of twins and the effect of their parents' death in a boating accident that only Kaz survived were not developed to any depth. The widow of the murdered crewman and their cancer-fighting son might have made for a heart-rending subplot. A plot development involving the mayor seemed dropped in at the last moment and not set up well earlier in the book.

Alderman did keep the pace moving and the stubborn, strong-willed Kaz was anything but a passive heroine. But like the characters in a B horror movie, her survival smarts were set aside for the purposes of plot.

One can only hope that the editors at Bantam Books have improved Alderman's Port Chatham books (her other mystery series). Aside from the Astoria setting, I don't think any of us would recommend this book.

Our next read is In the Land of Invisible Women by Qanta Ahmed. The memoir about life in Saudi Arabia for women should be an eye opener.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Another great Willamette Writers Conference. An estimated 850-900 attendees participated over the three days.

So -- I didn't schedule any pitches because Galactic Empress is in first draft and not ready for the light of day. Even less ready than I thought, given what I learned over the weekend. Amazing how much more enjoyable the conference is when not stewing over one's pitch and checking the time for the scheduled 10 minute one-on-one with an agent or editor.

Three workshops stand out for me. Susan Fletcher's "Mining for Theme," Gene Del Vecchio's "Creating Blockbusters," and Lisa Cron's "Wired for Story."

So good stories have a premise or theme. I know that. Most writers know that. But many of us just write the story that wants to get out and hope we'll figure out the theme at some  point. Susan Fletcher has been there. Her solution to mining the theme in her own young adult novels is to read her partial or complete draft to look for repetitions. Whether words, settings, actions of characters -- see if anything keeps popping up. There is a good chance that, subconsciously, the author is inserting the premise. Consider the repetitions or similarities and determine if they represent the theme -- the underlying truth of the story. Interestingly enough -- while reading the completed first draft of Galactic Empress I discovered a character activity that I had also inserted in Quest Schmest. The repetition wasn't necessarily in the same story, but in multiple stories. And yes, it is the theme of Galactic Empress and subconsciously I had placed the protagonist in an initial predicament that is an excellent metaphor for the theme. Thanks to Susan Fletcher, I discovered my theme and now I can be more deliberate in developing that theme in the next draft. Yay!

Barnes & Noble is a sponsor of the conference and each year they have a mini book store where they sell writing-related books as well as the books of the workshop presenters. Gene Del Vecchio's Creating Blockbusters caught my eye. Who doesn't want to receive royalty checks from The Da Vinci Code or the Harry Potter books? But I already have a copy of Donald Maas' book about writing a blockbuster. Del Vecchio was the luncheon speaker on Saturday and after his entertaining talk I had to attend his workshop. Del Vecchio's background is in consumer research and it is from this perspective that he approached the question of what makes a hit movie, TV series, book, video game, etc. It turns out that the characteristics that hook and retain an audience are very similar to the elements of The Hero's Journey (Joseph Campbell's study of culture-crossing mythology). As Del Vecchio explained it, the blockbusters connect with the kid in all of us but they are edgy enough for adults to enjoy and thus attract a wider audience. His book helps the writer avoid the dreaded "it's dumb" or "it's boring" review from the 8 to 12-year-old audience.

Of course I rushed back to the B&N table to buy Del Vecchio's book and while there I picked up Lisa Cron's Wired for Story based on the title alone. I've come to the conclusion that humans need stories, and here was a book that supported my viewpoint. As it turned out, at breakfast on Sunday a woman sat down at the table where I was seated with a couple of other attendees. As soon as she said she was a presenter my intuition kicked in and I suspected she was Lisa Cron. Sure enough. Of course I went to her workshop where Ms. Cron explained that human beings think in story and in fact it is critical to our survival. Sure, you can tell a Neanderthal child not to eat the red berries because they're poisonous. Or, you can tell the child a grisly story about a boy from the next clan over who ate the berries and died a horrible death. Through story, humans can envision the future -- the evolutionary characteristic that truly sets us apart. So when the child comes across the shiny red berries he recalls the story and imagines the horrible death that awaits him should he succumb to the temptation. Because it's important that we pay attention to these life-saving stories, our brain is wired to tune out incoming information not directly related to the story. And our brain receives the story as if we are engaged in the same activities as the characters. Thus, we can experience various and sundry acts without actually endangering ourselves. As writers, we can access the reader's hard wiring through character, plot, and theme to answer what happens next, how the protagonist is affected, and what it means to the reader.

The cool factor was -- Del Vecchio's poll revealed that elements of The Hero's Journey do indeed resonate with us, and Cron's research presented the scientific basis to explain why this is the case.

Amanda Gersh presented a workshop on believable dialogue for YA novels. The dialogue should feel real, not be real. Read a transcript of a conversation and you'll se why. She also discussed turning off the "parent/teacher filter" when writing. Could be why childless writers are often successful authors with the younger crowd. Pamela Smith Hill's session on writing romance for teens indicated that the age/maturity of the target audience must be considered (lower or upper end of the YA bracket of 12-18). She also demonstrated that being less explicit and having sensitive scenes occur off stage can be effective.

I really enjoyed Susan De Frietas on speculative fiction. She discussed how recent discoveries in science may serve as the inspiration or jump off point for science fiction and fantasy. Talk about the strange phenomenon of quantum physics! "Spooky actions at a distance" may serve a hard science fiction story, or provide the basis for magic in a fantasy novel. The editor's panel that included Tricia Narwani with Del Rey and Melissa Frain with Tor indicated the first page of a manuscript reveals the author's storytelling voice. It's either there or not.  When combined with a main character the reader can connect with the editors will work with a writer to overcome plot point issues and inconsistencies in the story. Attendees created a bizarre science fiction world in Denise Vitola's workshop. She reminded us that all of our characters must be living meaningful lives in the world of our story. Screenwriter Miguel Tejada-Flores emphasized the importance of making it clear who the story is about and the character's motivation for the decisions made and actions taken. In her workshop on The Second Draft, Molly Best Tinsley explained that in the first draft the author is writing to herself. The second draft is for the audience. Eric Witchey illustrated the use of irreconcilable differences to create character depth and develop backstory.

Whew! A lot of good stuff to assimilate. Once again I'm glad I decided to spend time with one of my tribes.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Not So Bad After All

I completed the first draft of Galactic Empress several weeks ago and set it aside before tackling revisions. With the Willamette Writers Conference coming up I decided to pick it up again. I didn't sign up for one-on-one pitches at the conference this year, but in the past I've had informal chats with editors and agents. At this writers conference you need to be ready at any moment to discuss your work.

Once again I was surprised that the novel was better than I remembered. Not that it doesn't need considerable help. But it has promise.

Apparently some writers overwrite the first draft and need to eliminate a considerable amount of material in subsequent drafts. I tend to do the opposite. My first drafts are more like sketches that need material added. Kind of the reverse of peeling an onion. Instead of removing layers, I have to add them.

So -- I hope I pick up more great information from the conference workshops that will help me add the right sensory details and action that will improve the readability of Galactic Empress.

By the way -- the working title doesn't really reflect the story that actually ended up on paper. I'll keep it for now until I see how future drafts turn out. One option is The Adventure of the Emerald Helm.

My elevator pitch:  Galactic Empress/The Adventure of the Emerald Helm is a young adult space opera. It's Princess Leia meets Indiana Jones when two young adventurers hunting antiquities inadvertently rescue a young woman in the line of succession to rule a powerful galactic sovereignty.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Book Club: Caleb's Crossing

Critics and readers have lavished praise on Geraldine Brooks' Caleb's Crossing, a novel inspired by the life of Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College in 1665. However, I slogged through the novel and wasn't hooked until I was half finished. So I was curious to hear what the other members of our little group had to say.

Regrettably, two of our members couldn't participate, but I was surprised to learn that I wasn't alone in my difficulty to get into the story. Our member who loved the book had lived for a period in the Boston area so she enjoyed the depictions of Martha's Vineyard and Cambridge. She also appreciated learning more about the historical period and the lives of the colonists, which we all agreed with, and following Bethia from childhood to old age.

My difficulty with Caleb's Crossing was the point of view. It is narrated by Bethia Mayfield who meets and befriends Caleb when she is 12. The story is revealed as a sort of journal or memoir recorded by Bethia at different times of her life. Although described as Caleb's story, I found the novel to be Bethia's story with Caleb as a supporting character. Anything we learn about Caleb's crossing from his native culture to that of the colonists is told through Bethia. They share an interest in nature and education, and struggle to understand each other's society even as they embrace aspects of each culture. Yet Caleb's thoughts, difficulties, and actions are all filtered through Bethia's journal. Caleb's story is distanced by time (all action is reported after the fact) and point of view (Bethia's perceptions and recollections). I began the book in anticipation of reading Caleb's story. Instead, I got Bethia's struggle with the limitations of her society.

We all agreed we are glad we weren't living in Bethia's time and place. Bethia, like all the women of the colony, were expected to be silent and obedient. The men in their lives made all the decisions.

We did appreciate how Bethia's and Caleb's challenges were paralleled throughout the book -- the social limitations and prejudices faced by women and the indigenous peoples.  We decided Caleb met the greatest challenge, since he was dealing with languages (English, Greek, Latin), a religion, and a culture strange to him while Bethia accepted her religious and social role even though she struggled against many of the restrictions.

We discussed how a closed, tight knit society shapes its members. Although Bethia escapes the confines of the colony to explore the island, she is still very much a product of her strict religion and culture. Of the two child-rearing norms, we much preferred the Wampanoag way of allowing children the freedom to run and play and learn by doing versus the strict and dour upbringing of the Puritans.

Using discussion questions provided by a reader's guide we talked about the Golden Mean, the sense of independence and potential that symbolizes the United States, and our own feelings and experiences with prejudice. One character presented the philosophical ideal of the middle point between extremes with the exception of the extremes of good and evil. Are good and evil fixed concepts, or are they defined by society? The United States was defined by physical frontiers that represented limitless potential for individuals to forge their own futures. Having bumped into the "left coast" our current frontiers appear to be more intellectual and require a more cooperative effort -- such as high tech startups seeking financial backers. Each of us has observed ethnic and racial prejudices and confronted our own preconceptions about "others."

Our book club members agreed that the time period and setting of Caleb's Crossing makes for an interesting read, and the struggles of two young people against the limitations placed on them is an interesting story.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Fly Masks and Parallel Universes

Phantom with fly mask on -- for the moment.
Last summer I bought Phantom a new fly mask that immediately went MIA. Fortunately I held on to his old mask as a backup. The new mask magically reappeared but just as quickly disappeared again. When it mysteriously showed up once again I stashed it in my tack locker. The old mask survived the remainder of the summer without going missing.

Once again I've experienced the comings and goings of fly masks.

This summer I whipped out Phantom's ratty old fly mask. It went missing early in fly season -- but since Phantom also lost a layer of hair on his face I'm guessing one of his pasture mates is credited with an assist. It was time to try the new fly mask again, which remarkably has remained on his face thus far.

Today I found Phantom's new mask on the front of his stall. Turns out he was wearing his old mask. Someone must have discovered it in the pasture.

So where do these fly masks go? How do they inexplicably return?

Obviously the fly masks go to a parallel universe and then return to our own. Physicists should be studying equine fly masks instead of using the Large Hadron Collider at CERN to pursue spring theory and "branes."

I doubt Sheldon Cooper (Big Bang Theory) would expose himself to the "dangers" of the barn, but Brian Greene (The Elegant Universe, The Hidden Reality:  Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos) might accept an invite.

Monday, July 16, 2012


In general, first person point of view is considered a more intimate approach to story telling. However, the novel I just finished reading for our book club actually seemed to be distanced by the first person narrator.

I'll go into more detail about this particular novel following our book club discussion. But I have to admit that it took me halfway into the novel to get hooked, and even then I was irritated with the story as I rushed to the end to just finish the darned thing.

As I closed the book it struck me that what most bothered me was the POV. In this particular novel there was a lot of telling. Not so much showing. You know the writing cliche:  "Show, don't tell."

First person POV limits the story to the experiences of the narrator. So the narrator needs to be present at key scenes throughout the novel, or the narrator must be able to fill in those scenes in an interesting manner.

The narrator of the historical novel in question was constrained by the social norms of the period and culture portrayed. Although the narrator did attempt to push the envelope at times. In addition, the narration was represented as a journal of sorts. Which meant the scenes had already occurred in the past. Although the narrator recreated scenes to give them more immediate impact for the reader, much significant action had to be summarized by the narrator after the fact.

First person POV is more immediate when the author selects the right narrator. In this particular case, I think the author selected the wrong person to tell the story. The narrator was an interesting character to establish the time and setting for the story. But I think the narrator was too removed from the central premise for the novel.

A good lesson in approaching POV. What does the reader need to experience for the story to work? How can that experience best be presented to the reader?

Monday, July 2, 2012

Fess Up

Okay -- fess up! Who doesn't hopscotch when you encounter it chalked on the sidewalk? Indy gives me that humans-are-so-weird look, but at least for a few seconds I get to be a kid again.

How about you?

Monday, June 25, 2012

Book Club: "Lost Horizon"

For the first time in a long while all the members of our small neighborhood book club were present and everyone had read the book. It proved to be one of our better discussions.

Hilton, perhaps best known as the author of Goodbye, Mr. Chips, published Lost Horizon in 1933. It introduced Shangri-La, which has become synonymous with utopia. It's been decades since I first read Lost Horizon, and ages since I'd seen the 1937 movie on television. Over the years I had mashed the two together, so rereading the book was an eye opener.

The story is framed by a gathering of old school friends as narrated by an unnamed (until the end of the novel) member of the group. The narrator and Rutherford, one of the schoolmates turned novelist, later continue the discussion in private. The intriguing subject of the novel is Hugh Conway, a former school mate of the friends who had been admired as a student and was hailed as a hero during a revolution in the near east. As British Consul in Baskul, Conway had assured the safe evacuation of British citizens from the area. He was also involved in a fantastic episode related by Rutherford that becomes the basis of the novel.

Conway, his young Vice Consul Captain Mallinson, British missionary Roberta Brinklow, and American Henry Barnard board a custom-built airplane owned by a Maharajah among the last to flee Baskul. Without their knowledge the airplane is hijacked and instead of escaping to Peshawar they are flown high into the Himilayan Mountains where the plane crashes in a high valley. They are rescued by the locals and taken to a lamasery called Shangri-La where they discover a paradise on earth. The secret valley enjoys a quirk of microclimate that provides for the farming of crops not associated with the frozen mountains. The lamasery is serene, elegant, and tranquil. The pace is leisurely yet busy. Their host is Chang, one of the lamas in training, who answers many of their questions about Shangri-La, but cannot provide key information. Conway is enchanted with the location. Miss Brinklow and Mr. Barnard are uncomfortable about their predicament at first but soon succumb to its charms. But young Mallinson is eager to return to civilization. The lamasery hosts a variety of people,  but most intriguing is the beautiful young Lo-Tsen to whom both Conway and Mallinson are attracted. Eventually Conway meets the High Lama who tells him of the unusual proviso of Shangri-La that receives guests but does not allow them to leave. The High Lama also informs him that certain of the residents are far older that they appear to be.

The tale is twice removed from the events at Shangri-La, as it is the narrator's retelling of the story told to him by Rutherford based on his long conversation with Conway. This distance allows for doubt about the events and makes for fascinating conversation.

The book is a study in contrasts:  youth (Mallinson) versus experience (Conway), moderation versus passion, free will versus confinement (even in paradise). Conway is a veteran of the Great War (WW I) and it affected him greatly. Although he acted heroically at Baskul, he appears perfectly content to accept a passive existence at the lamasery to escape the memories of war and pressures of politics. Young Mallinson, unlike his older companions, chafes under the lack of action and cannot comprehend why  take-charge Conway has become so passionless and inert. Although Shangri-La is a paradise, several thousand inhabitants of the valley and lamasery live under the control of the High Lama and his order. The extended lifespan of many residents contributes to the slow pace, while the English and Americans are described as charging around the world in a state of continual and preposterous fever-heat.

Was James Hilton prescient? We found it interesting that the novel addressed issues that are still affecting us today. For example, Henry Barnard turns out to be Chalmers Bryant who is wanted for banking and Wall Street irregularities. With reference to Baskul, Delhi, London, American banking, war making, and empire building "...the whole game's going to pieces." The High Lama warned of the Coming Storm when there would be no safety in arms, no answer in science, it will cover the whole world in a pall, and result in a long age of desolation. When the book was published in 1933, Hitler's invasion of Poland was only six years away. When asked why the residents of the valley and the lamasery do not vote Chang responded that they would be shocked by having to declare that one policy was completely right and another completely wrong. A declaration that has our politicians stymied.

Conway and his companions left Baskul in the hijacked plane on May 20. On October 5 he arrived in Chung-Kiang with amnesia accompanied by a very old Chinese woman. Did Shangri-La and the secret mountain valley really exist? What happened to Mallinson during the trek out of the mountains? Was the old woman Lo-Tsen who had lost her youth on leaving the lamasery? Conway later admitted to Rutherford that he did not know whether he had been mad and was now sane, or had been sane for a time and was now mad again. Had Conway, as Mallinson charged, believed what Chang and the High Lama told him without evidence because, like most of us, he was inclined to that he found most attractive? Was Shangri-La a heavenly refuge? Or was it hell, as Mallinson found it?

You decide.

Thursday, June 21, 2012


Maybe I should have kept the Schleese forward seat saddle that was custom fitted to Phantom and me. But at the time I decided to sell it I didn't have the funds to take jump lessons.

Anyone who has done hunter-jumpers knows it requires several lessons a week to work on position and timing. And for safety's sake you shouldn't jump on your own. Dressage, on the other hand, allows for solitary "homework" between lessons. Plus, one is less likely to go flying over a fence sans horse. I could afford one dressage lesson a month and an occasional in-barn clinic. So I opted to sell my forward seat saddle.

The good news was -- the sale of the saddle paid for Indy as well as the vet bills for his baseline exam and to have him fixed.

However, there are times when I feel like I'm fighting against the dressage position. Particularly when cantering Phantom. His initial canters can be difficult to engage since he bulges against the inside leg in his effort to crossfire on the depart. Once Phantom attains the canter I struggle against the desire to take a half seat to move him forward. The whole dressage deep seat thing goes against my natural inclinations. Hunt seat seems so much more natural to me.

Given various factors in my life it's pretty obvious that I'm not going to do anything with dressage. If I'm just going to hack Phantom around the arena a few times a week and maybe venture outside on the track -- I could do that in a forward seat saddle.

So the last time I rode Phantom (when I was alone in the arena with no one to wonder "what the heck?") I tried a half seat at the canter. It confused Phantom a little. But I felt like I could make better use of my legs to massage him forward into the bit.


The whole idea of saddle shopping is depressing even without contemplating where the money will come from. Phantom is a mutton-withered, round Arab. I have short legs and a generous derriere. Our combination is a saddle-fitting nightmare. And to think I gave up a custom saddle!!


There's nothing like twenty-twenty hindsight.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Rock Star

I'm not really a rock star. I just feel like one what with the entourage that follows my every move.

There's something about the second set of paws thundering after me that I find entertaining. Indy has always monitored my activities. However, if it appears that I'm not going into the kitchen or outside he usually resumes his nap.

Trixie's presence has changed the dynamic.

Neither dog is about to be left out of anything I do. If I dash up to the loft to quickly retrieve something, step outside to water the hanging flower baskets on the front porch, or whatever -- I have a herd of two dogs chasing after me. The race up the stairs to the loft can be hysterical given the size difference in the dogs. Trixie requires a running start what with her short doxie legs. Indy can gallop right over the top of her without throwing either one of them off stride.

The galumph galumph that accompanies my every move is just too funny.

So for the remainder of the month I have an entourage. Just like a rock star.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Dogs Will Be Dogs

I signed up Indy for a "Reactive Rover" class at the Oregon Humane Society before agreeing to dogsit Trixie. The "cousin" dogs are quite the pair. Trixie is a typical stubborn little German who pushes Indy around. She's small enough to walk underneath Indy, yet he always backs off to let her have her way. I'm grateful that Indy's such a gentleman, although he is a little bent out of shape since Trixie squeezes in wherever he goes.

The Reactive Rover class is for dogs that get overly excited or aggressive at the sight of another dog. Indy is basically a friendly guy who lunges at other dogs and people when excited. He's nearly tripped up me more than once, and pulled over my mother a couple of years ago. Although OHS is quite a distance from our current location, I grew up in the neighborhood and all of our family dogs are interred at the OHS columbarium. So it's a familiar place and its training program has a good reputation.

Indy is doing quite well in the class where we are learning different techniques to distract our dogs and prevent the escalation of excitement that triggers the unruly behavior. Our class includes Tom the Pembroke Welsh corgi, Dave the border collie mix, Ollie and Kitty are fluffy lap dog breeds, and Sarge is a shepherd mix. The trainers work in pairs, one giving instruction and the other leading around a variety of dogs to attract the attention of our lesson dogs. Our first session involved a stuffed dog, but we've since graduated to live dogs from the shelter.

Today we worked with a red hound dog (redbone?) and an English setter. The hound dog was calm and quiet but gave the handler a healthy tug when he discovered an interesting scent. While I was working with Indy to reward him whenever he looked at the other dog without barking or lunging, the hound decided to look out the window by stretching to full height with his paws on the sill. I don't think he was trying to escape the intimidating (LOL) Fluffy Puppy -- more like he wanted to search for scent tracks outside.

The English setter was pretty laid back. After a few trots up and down the classroom to challenge our dogs he (she?) started laying down on his side whenever stopped. When Ollie's owner told him to sit during his practice session the setter obediently plunked down also. Too funny.

Tom the corgi is just plain cute no matter what he does. Dave the border collie has the breed's intense expression. He's quite a challenge for his owner but only doing what he was bred to do. Sarge has improved quite a bit since our first session but still a notch below Dave in intensity. Ollie and Kitty are lively characters that don't scare anything when they bark. All are dogs just being dogs. But society imposes rules on our pets as well as us -- so sensible canine behavior is expected.

As my grandmother always said, you have to be smarter than the dog to train it. Hmmm.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

What if...?

People ask artistic folks where their ideas come from. As one who loves to read and write fiction, I get my ideas from stories:  novels, newspaper and magazine articles, television programs, news casts, etc.

I can't pinpoint the exact inspiration for my current tangent. But I suddenly had an idea for a twist on the cliche′ foundling fairy tale.

The good news is, I finally finished the first draft of Galactic Empress. After setting it aside for several weeks I solved the problem that blocked me near the conclusion of the novel. As a first draft it needs considerable reworking, so I've put it aside again before tackling the changes.

I dug out The Quest (alternately titled The Quest for the Thing, The Quest for Ahmen-Ra, Quest Schmest) to rework it using Larry Brooks' Story Architecture and Randy Ingermanson's Snowflake Method. While in the process of doing this a new idea popped into my head.

What if...?

So I quickly wrote down the story concept and the tentative theme.

With those in mind, I decided to skim through The Complete Grimm's Fairy Tales for stories related to foundlings. Of late I've been using quad-ruled composition books in which I collect anything and everything related to a specific story idea. I went to the original composition book for an unfinished novel called Legacy. The incomplete draft of Legacy has elements that meld with my new story concept so I'm hoping I won't have to start from scratch. I'm recording the bare bones of fairy tales or just noting specific ideas (characters, settings, action, spells, etc.) from the stories. With luck, my findings will flesh out the new concept and set Legacy on a more successful path.

By the way -- the fairy tales collected by the Grimm brothers are full of gory, bloody scenes. Not your Disney fairy tales. Much closer to NBC's Grimm (filmed in my home town!). Cinderella wasn't the only one with a nasty stepmother. And for pete's sake, watch out for your jealous siblings! What's with all these kings giving away their daughters in marriage? Or the spoiled princesses demanding ridiculous or dangerous challenges of their suitors before accepting them in marriage? Whatever you do, don't ever cross on old hag or wise woman. Then there is the number three. It's everywhere! But most importantly, the common themes running throughout the fairy tales are kindness will be repaid, and greed will be punished (often in a grisly manner).


...what if an old hag misinterprets what she sees in the forest?

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Book Club: "The Imperfectionists"

After postponing our monthly book club meeting one week to accommodate several members, only three of us participated last night.

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman is about an English language newspaper located in Rome. Woven between chapters about individuals who work for the paper is the story about Cyrus Ott who established the unnamed newspaper in 1954 with Betty Lieb as news editor and Leopold T. Marsh as editor in chief. It was one of many ventures in the profitable Ott investment portfolio. As the history of the newspaper unfolds we find that Ott and his family live separate lives, he in Rome and his wife and son in Atlanta. Eventually we surmise that he started the paper to be close to Betty. It is apparent that they love each other, but neither compromises their respective marriages over their long relationship.

The stories about the newspaper's employees have a more contemporary setting and illustrate the changing landscape of print media as their newspaper gradually succumbs to the high tech world. Lloyd Burke, the Paris correspondence, is a respected journalist whose career, like the paper, is on the wane. We watch in pain as he struggles to pitch a story the editor will pay for, and cringe as he uses his son's government connection to fabricate a story that will bring in much needed funds.

Arthur Gopal, the obituary writer, is a happy family man who dotes on his daughter Pickles and is in the midst of interviewing an ailing feminist author when learns of his daughter's death. Arthur is devastated and nearly dropped from the paper when his depression and absence drag on. As his marriage fails and then ends, he immerses himself in his work and is promoted at the paper where his career soars.

Herman Cohen, the corrections editor, discovers a much admired schoolmate does not deserve the pedestal on which he placed him decades earlier. Young Winston Cheung, the novice Cairo correspondent, is trammeled upon by gonzo journalist Rich Snyder and finally gives up journalism for his original college major in primate studies.

And so the stories go.

We all agreed that Rachman did a wonderful job of developing and revealing the characters as well as exploring human dynamics. Although we were all depressed by the opening story about Lloyd Burke, we were hooked by the history of the paper and the personal lives of the remaining characters. All of the stories explore the dichotomy between how we perceive ourselves versus how others view us.

On a personal note, I was turned off by an incident in the final pages of the book that pretty much ruined all that had preceded it. Ignoring that event, I enjoyed the novel and the way Rachman wove the tales together into a whole.

We observed that Rachman's portrayal of most of the women in the book was less than flattering. Hardy Benjamin and Ruby Zaga were lonely and pathetic women. Abbey Pinnola was a divorced and lonely single mother. Kathleen Solson's significant other cheated on her so she attempts to reignite a relationship with an old flame. And Craig Menzies' significant other, Annika, tries to get a rise out of him after she has a fling with another man.

At one point in their escalating argument Annika tells Craig "You can't be with someone just because you can't face being alone." Yet it appears that several characters are doing just that.

We got a chuckle out of Winston Cheung's story and sympathized with the naive tyro as the excessively inconsiderate Rich Snyder takes advantage of him. Life lessons that, once experienced, make one older and wiser.

We decided the title pretty much described all the characters as well as the newspaper. Imperfect all, yet they kept at it and overcame their issues. The paper outlived Cyrus Ott. As for the setting, we didn't get much of a flavor of Rome from the stories. Although we did see how the mediocre paper filled a niche in Rome and elsewhere in Europe that kept it active longer that it would have lasted in a different locale.

The three of us ended the evening discussing our own news habits. Two of us take the daily newspaper. The third gets her news online, mainly from sources on Facebook. We considered how reading the printed news became part of our daily routine. I for one like perusing the pages at the breakfast table where I discover news stories that don't appear on the web site. But I lack all the high tech gadgets that are gradually becoming the norm. We lamented the ever smaller group of people controlling the print and broadcast media and their content.

In an interview with Malcolm Gladwell, Rachman stated the theme of The Imperfectionists was the contrast between the grand and the human, and an exploration of the role ambition has in success. Rachman relied on his personal experiences in journalism to reveal the contradiction between the story and its creator. Amazing stories ought to have caring authors instead of inconsiderate oafs like Rich Snyder or narcissistic losers like Lloyd Burke. His insider understanding of the journalism business and characterization skills make The Imperfectionists highly readable.

Our next book is a classic:  James Hilton's Lost Horizon.

Friday, May 11, 2012


Wednesday mornings are garbage and recycling days in our neighborhood. Most of us roll out our garbage cans and recycling bins on Tuesday night so they will be at the curb when the trucks rumble through early the next day. This makes for an interesting phenomenon:  clandestine garbage can stuffing.

That is -- your neighbor surreptitiously cramming his/her trash into your garbage.

Because of the dog I generally make one last "business" trip outside just before going to bed at night. And of course there is Indy's early morning walk. On occasion I've discovered unfamiliar trash bags in our garbage during these outings. These events occurred most frequently in the past when teenaged boys lived close by. Junior is charged with taking out the trash, the family's oversized garbage can is full, so he bestows it upon an unsuspecting neighbor. Since my mother and I don't normally fill our garbage can there is usually a little extra room to accommodate our neighbors.

Usually I'm a little miffed when I find a neighbor has placed their c*** in our garbage can. But if the addition isn't sufficient for an extra charge, what's the big deal?

I was ticked off several years ago when someone jammed styrofoam blocks into our garbage can. These shouldn't go into the landfill. They should be dropped off during our garbage carrier/recycler's annual recycling day for items not collected curbside. Our neighbor's laziness placed the responsibility on us to store the blocks until they could be recycled months later.

I hadn't noticed any clandestine garbage can stuffing for ages until a couple of days ago. It could be because the family with the teenage boys I suspected of stuffing our garbage moved away several years ago. Or because Indy and I usually emerge after the garbage has been picked up. However, on our return home this week following Indy's Wednesday morning walk I deposited the poop bag in our garbage can at the curb where I discovered a plastic trash bag of a type we don't have. I looked up and down the street and noticed an identical trash bag in a garbage can so overstuffed that the lid wouldn't close. Not a neighbor one would associate with nefarious activity. I wonder...?

I'm not exactly clear about the etiquette of garbage. I know I'm tempted to drop our poop bag in the nearest garbage can when walking Indy on Wednesday mornings. But I tote it home for deposit in our own trash.

Is your trash your responsibility? Or is it acceptable to foist it off on your neighbor whose garbage can still has a little room?


Monday, May 7, 2012

NW Authors Series: Middle Grade

Much Ado About Middle Grade:
Mastering Setting, Character & Plot
Heather Vogel Frederick

Sunday was the final workshop in the fifth season of the Northwest Author Series coordinated by Christina Katz and hosted by the Wilsonville Library. Although my focus is young adult fiction, the age brackets aren't necessarily clean cut. Each publisher has its own definition of "middle grade," which Frederick generalized as age 8 or 9 to 12. Any information I can acquire regarding young protagonists and readers is helpful.

Frederick is the author of the Mother Daughter Bookclub series. Her historical novel The Voyage of Patience Goodspeed received numerous awards including the 2003 Oregon Book Award for young adult literature.

Her newest book is a contemporary fantasy novel that is a whimsical spin on fairy tales.

After providing background on her own entry into published writing, Frederick indicated she enjoyed writing for middle graders because they are hungry for stories and retain a sense of wonder and willingness to go along for the ride.

Frederick described setting, character, and plot as the three legs of a stool. After discussing each element she gave participants a five-minute writing assignment before summarizing and moving on to the next element.

Setting is the anchor for the story. Frederick shared E. B. White's description of the barn from Charlotte's Web as an example of touching all the senses. Like J. K. Rowling in the the Harry Potter books and Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea series -- the author should transport the reader to the setting and set him or her down in the story world. The location should be tangible to the reader. Our writing exercise was to sketch a map of a favorite location from our childhood and then write a descriptive paragraph.

Character is the beating heart of the story. Harry Potter, Wilbur and Charlotte, and Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird are characters we embrace and flip pages to learn how they will get out of their scrapes. Frederick discussed what she called the Outside/In and Inside/Out methods of revealing character. Outside/in starts with the physical details and actions of the character that hint at the interior aspects. Inside/Out begins with the interior thoughts and emotions of the character. J. K. Rowling's descriptions of Harry Potter's aunt and uncle give the reader an excellent idea of their personalities. The opinions expressed in a piece of dialogue between the Mr. and Mrs. Bennett in Pride and Prejudice clearly exposes their character to the reader.

No plot, no story. Plot thrives on conflict and with so many available distractions young readers need something to happen quickly to pull them into the story. Frederick proposes asking "what if?" at all stages of writing a story. What if Patience didn't want to go on the ocean voyage with her father? Frederick referenced the classic three act structure described in detail by Christopher Vogler in The Writer's Journey and summarized it neatly:

  • Act I:  Character wants something
  • Act II:  Obstacles arise
  • Act III:  Climax and denouement

Frederick concluded by describing writing as an extreme sport. We need to sit in our chairs and write. We must silence our inner critic and recognize that even the most acclaimed authors had their work rejected many times before publication.

When asked about her writing process, Frederick indicated she is one of those who hates outlines. She will often begin her initial draft with pen and paper before moving to her computer to complete the first and subsequent drafts.

I have to admit, whenever I hear an author tell newbies that he or she doesn't use an outline it makes me cringe. The successful writer knows the plot points necessary for a good story, the newbies generally don't. I fear that they will muddle around in their story without signposts to keep them going in the right direction. I'm a convert to Larry Brooks' story architecture, but we all have our own approaches to the creative process. Whatever method works for each individual is valid.

Frederick shared with us several quotations during the workshop, including one of my favorites:

There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately,
no one knows what they are.
Somerset Maugham

Friday, May 4, 2012


I receive a quarterly report of my credit record as rated by Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion. My credit scores are fairly good, but the "score factors" provided by the Big Three provide for entertaining reading.
  • Insufficient number of real estate loans:  That would be none. As a never-married woman living on a single income I could afford to do one thing. I could buy a house or condo, or make car payments, or travel, or shop, or own a horse, or.... Since I didn't want to be owned by a house and had no one to travel with, I selected horse ownership.
  • Insufficient number of bankcard accounts never delinquent:  Silly me. I thought it was good thing to pay on time.
  • Total account balance excluding mortgages is too high:  I have one Visa card and a Nordstrom card. I generally use the Nordstrom account for gifts and it is currently paid off. The balance on my Visa has been steadily declining. 
  • Length of time retail accounts have been established is too short:  This one is a real hoot, since I probably opened a Meier & Frank charge account in the early 1970s. My Nordstrom account would have followed shortly thereafter. Heck, I'm old enough to remember when Nordstorm's was strictly a shoe store before the merger to become Nordstrom-Best. But apparently my Nordstrom account was closed due to lack of activity so I had to open a new one about 5-6 years ago. And, of course, Meier & Frank is now history.
  • Total account balances are too high in proportion to credit limits:  Another factor worth a guffaw. My outstanding balance on my one and only Visa account is 6 percent of the total credit line.
The scores themselves seem to hold steady and then suddenly increase or decrease. The report I received today indicates my TransUnion score went up 61 points. A complete recovery from the dive of 61 points on the previous report.


It's all very amusing at this point, since I'm not applying for a home or car loan. But in reality the random explanations for my credit scores are a bit troubling. I thought I was being responsible by limiting the number of bankcard accounts and paying them on time. Apparently it's my fault that their credit records don't go back 40 years.

It's a bit frightening to think a program developed by a computer geek controls my credit rating.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Writer's Conference

2012 Willamette Writers Conference
August 3-5

The Willamette Writers Conference brochure is available. It contains the schedule of workshops plus bios for the presenters, agents, and editors in attendance. Conference attendees may sign up for individual or group pitches. The workshops cover fiction genres, nonfiction, and film. Registration opens May 1.

The Airport Sheraton once again hosts the conference (one of the largest in the US). Based on my past attendance, the hotel staff do a phenomenal job managing the demands of the large crowd. The Sheraton offers room discounts for conference attendees, and it's accessible by mass transit.

If you can't afford the conference fee -- volunteer! Each workshop has a volunteer room monitor who gets to listen to the presentation for free for the price of making sure the presenter has everything he or she needs.

Word of advice for attendees and volunteers:  have your "elevator pitch" ready. The ubiquitous conversation opener at the conference is "What are you writing?" The person asking may be another aspiring author, an agent, or an editor. The opportunity to pitch your project may occur at any time.

I haven't decided if I will attend this year. Once again I have nothing to pitch. I've stalled out on Galactic Empress, and I'm reworking my approach to The Adventure of the Blood Stone. There are several workshops I'd like to attend. Each time a go to the conference a little more sinks in. This year there is more emphasis on electronic publishing, and once again the conference offers a strong YA track. Hmmm. Maybe a group pitch? We'll see.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Book Club: "The Eyre Affair"

I'm a fan of Jasper Fforde and this was my second reading of The Eyre Affair. Once again, the book made me laugh out loud as I read about an alternate Great Britain where the Crimean War still raged in 1985 and reverse extinction has resurrected dodo birds as pets.

Not so much for other members of our neighborhood book club. Two hadn't finished it -- one of whom found the book confusing and the other has not yet read Jane Eyre. A third member thought the author was just too clever and overly pleased with himself for being clever. That left two of us who enjoyed the book. Our unenthusiastic reader thought the actions of antagonist Acheron Hades were inconsistent, although she did find Spike (special agent for vampire and werewolf disposal) to be an interesting character. Although humorous, the book's themes included endless wars, corporate monopolies, and the doubtful applications of science.

I did locate some book club questions to initiate our discussion. The premise of the Thursday Next series is the ability of people to "jump" into and out of novels. Sort of a theater-in-the-round, genuine 3D version of the book. The prose portal machine facilitates the entry into books, but some people have the natural ability to enter and exit novels. So -- we discussed which books we would like to enter.

Pride and Prejudice and Gone With the Wind were destinations we all agreed on. One member wanted to journey with the Hobbits in The Lord of the Rings. Of course the settings of novels are romanticized and our discussion veered off into the reality of historical periods. Castles are cold and dank places to live, our modern sensibilities would be overwhelmed by the distasteful smells of past eras, and none of us wanted to be sick or injured prior to the advances of modern medicine.

In the process of "saving" Jane Eyre from the nefarious Acheron Hades who absconded with the original manuscript, protagonist Thursday Next changed the "original" dull ending to the one we know today. We talked about book endings we would change. Our romantic selves wanted to tweak Jane Eyre so Rochester wasn't the scarred and blinded man rescued by Jane's love. And we wished Anna Karenina had a happier ending. I wondered if a visitor could hang around after the ending of the novel (apparently not), since I'd like to remain in Gone With the Wind to see how Scarlett fared with Rhett.

As for the special powers exhibited by some of the characters (visiting novels, time travel, immortality), we pretty much agreed we would prefer time travel. One member said it would be less restrictive than the limited worlds of novels, and another thought it would be fascinating to learn more about the motivations behind historical figures and events.

Like most book clubs, our discussions veer off topic. But The Eyre Affair seemed particularly difficult for the group to stick to the subject. One member observed that several of our recent reads lacked rising tension to the climactic scene. That turned into a discussion of recent trends in books with lukewarm plots and anti-hero protagonists. I'm afraid I went into a mini-rant against the Twilight series that inspired the even more badly written Shades of Grey. That raised the perennial question of how such horribly written books become best sellers beside gems like To Kill a Mockingbird.

Our next book is The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Northwest Author Series: Kevin Sampsell

The Book World:  From Reader to Published Author

Kevin Sampsell is an author and a publisher, plus he has the bibliophile's dream job:  he works at Powell's City of Books.

Kevin didn't provide "how to" information for the attendees. Instead, he related his unexpected journey from reluctant student and non-reader into the world of books and writers.

Raised in Washington's Tri-Cities region, young Kevin wrote song lyrics for his future career as a rock star. ☺ Lyrics evolved into poetry. With little interest in school, Kevin bypassed college but did attend broadcasting school and worked briefly in the industry. He was in his early twenties before he gave reading a try, mainly true crime, Tom Robbins, Kurt Vonnegut, etc. He continued writing poetry and started to participate in open mike events as well as submit his work to small magazines. Kevin produced chap books of his poems to share with friends and distribute at readings. When friends asked for his assistance with creating chap books of their own work, he established Future Tense Books.

Kevin also set up poetry readings for friends and others whose work he appreciated. He was an early participant in and success at Poetry Slams. Through his open mike and modest publishing connections, he was hired in a seasonal position with Powell's. This led to a permanent job at the headquarters store. When the event planner resigned to focus on her writing career, Kevin applied for and was selected for the position where his past experience with setting up readings was highlighted.

Future Tense Books gained noticed when it published Zoe Trope's Please Don't Kill the Freshmen, her observations of life written while attending high school. The small paperback was well received and garnered the young author a contract with Harper Collins for an expanded version.

Kevin published his own memoirs of growing up in a a small town as A Common Pornography (not a pornographic work, he is quick to state) which was also picked up by a major New York publisher in longer form. New connections within the writing world brought Kevin the opportunity to write book reviews, and writing-related articles for Associated Press. The success of Future Tense Books brought Kevin the job of editing Portland Noir, an anthology of crime-related stories. In addition to publishing two to three books a year, Kevin currently has a novel in progress.

For someone who was not an early reader and who never plotted out a career in writing, Kevin Sampsell ended up with a life that many an English Major would envy.

The message I took away was Kevin's immersion in the writing world established contacts and opportunities, and each phase of involvement in the book world opened the door to the next one. He was willing to begin in a small way and didn't expect to his a home run the first time out.

Kevin provided hope and encouragement to the attendees. Kevin wanted us to know that it's never too late to begin a writing career. Nor is a college degree in English, Journalism, or Creative Writing a prerequisite. Persistence and a willingness to learn, however, go a long way toward building a writing career.

The Northwest Author Series is winding down as the summer months approach. The last session for the 2011-12 season is scheduled for May 6:  "Much Ado About Middle Grade" presented by Heather Vogel Frederick.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

In Tribute: Amy Tryon

The linked article at Horse Junkies United does an excellent job of paying tribute to Amy Tryon who recently passed away. She exemplified what it takes to work a demanding full-time job while pursuing excellence in equestrian sport.

The Pacific Northwest horse community mourns her untimely death.

Monday, April 9, 2012

It's a Sport

Rich Fellers and Flexible
We have an area rider who has made the long list for the U.S. Olympic Equestrian Team. The Oregonian covered the story in the March 28 issue of the paper -- in the Community section for our region of the Portland metro area. Not the sports pages.

It seems only horse racing is considered an equestrian sport by the news media. When equestrian events are covered at all, the newspaper places the story in the Metro or Living section. The local television stations relegate it to the human interest segment.

I guess, like the other "orphan sports," we horse people should be thankful that we get coverage at all. Although the media seems willing to include stories about our local Olympic fencing medalist with sports updates.

Rodeo is an outing for families, hunter/jumpers and eventing are mentioned only when there is video of a spectacular crash, dressage is mispronounced and amusingly described, combined driving is quaint, competitive trail and endurance racing are unheard of, and breed shows don't even exist.

Oh well. Maybe it's best that horse sports are our own little secret. If we received coverage in the Sports section we'd probably be a larger target for PETA. Even though my friends and I want to be reincarnated as our pampered equines.  ;-)

Friday, April 6, 2012

Follow Up: The Movie

My friends and I waited until after Spring Break for our area schools to attend a matinee showing of The Hunger Games yesterday. I don't know how well someone who hadn't read the books could keep up with the story, but I thought it was well done. The books are written in first person from Katniss' POV, which challenges movie makers to turn a character's thoughts into a visual representation. Thus some of the changes in the movie version of the story. Nothing really irritating. Multiple characters and story lines in a novel have to be pared down for a theatrical release.

As I indicated in my last post, the three books really tell a single story and the ending of the movie wasn't a very satisfying conclusion. That's because there is more to come.

I did have difficulty with the bouncing camera technique used in many scenes. I guess it's supposed to give the viewer a sense of immediacy and being in the scene. But I have an astigmatism and I get headaches trying to focus on a book in a moving car.

The whole premise of the books and movie is violence done to and by children. Much of it was displayed very briefly for the viewer to imagine what was done. And in all cases Katniss, the character with whom we are expected to empathize, displayed distaste for it.

I admit -- I'm out of it. I wasn't familiar with the young actors playing the main characters. They all did well. But I have to say, Donald Sutherland is at his slimy best, and Stanley Tucci is hilarious as the over-the-top broadcast celebrity. The costume designers and make-up artists must have had a blast clothing the citizens of The Capitol.

I admit, I'm not a movie critic. But I think the movie expressed the theme of the book, and it certainly held my attention throughout. I'm looking forward to the next installment in the series.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Hunger Games Trilogy

I finished Mockingjay last night. The three books are actually a single book printed in three volumes. I suppose a 900+ page novel would appear too intimidating for the young adult readership -- unless it was the last book of the Harry Potter series. Any way, if there is anyone left who hasn't read the books I highly recommend consuming them successively for the full effect of the story arc.

My reaction on completing the series was "Wow!" I was also disgusted by the commercial success of the poorly written Twilight novels when compared with The Hunger Games trilogy.

Near the conclusion of Mockingjay, Collins sums up her theme:

...something is significantly wrong with a creature that sacrifices its children's lives to settle its differences.
We're fickle, stupid beings with poor memories and a great gift for self-destruction.

Some folks will point to the child warriors of Africa, but I'm not so sure the western nations can be left off the hook. Eighteen is hardly mature -- with a prefrontal lobe that is not fully developed. As for poor memories and and a gift for self-destruction -- the history of our species speaks for itself.

Collins says her inspiration for the books rose from scenes of the war in Iraq and the popularity of "reality" shows. The final scenes of Mockingjay involve street fighting that comes right out of the nightly news feeds from the Middle East. Her descriptions reminded me of newsreel coverage showing American GIs fighting their way into Italian villages. Panem, the remnants of the United States after a vague disaster, hints at 1984Brave New World, or North Korea. It is is a centralized totalitarian government that controls its citizenry by keeping it underfed and overworked. The techniques for maintaining an ancient empire still work today. Or tomorrow?

Instead of the passive Bella of the Twilight series, Collins' Katniss takes action at a young age to care for her mother and sister after the death of her father. She volunteers to represent her district in the Hunger Games in place of her little sister. Katniss has no taste for the acts she must commit to survive the Games. As the Mockingjay figurehead for the rebellion against The Capitol, Katniss is aware that she is once again being used. She does not relish placing others in danger, deeply feels the loss of friends and fellow rebels, experiences PTSD, and suffers from survivor's guilt. 

I did balk at the "love triangle" of Katniss, Gale, and Peeta. I feared it would be similar to that of the Twilight series with vacuous Bella mooning over controlling Edward. Katniss, in contrast, wasn't pining for anyone. She cared deeply for both youths, but was too busy surviving to waste much time examining potential romantic relationships. Each youth represented an aspect of Katniss:  do whatever is necessary to survive versus maintaining her humanity against all odds. Who would she be by the final pages of the third book?

For the parents concerned about the violence contained in The Hunger Games, be forewarned. Mockingjay is worse. Parents would benefit by reading the books to evaluate their own thoughts about the theme. Collins is making a point, not tossing in action to enliven a dull moment.

The Hunger Games trilogy and Harry Potter series both deal with young people finding their inner strength when faced with extraordinary circumstances in imaginative settings. Maybe not great literature, but done well enough to absorb readers and initiate discussion.