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.