*sigh* Farewells and see-ya-on-the-other-side stuff

First Molly Ivins, then Sidney Sheldon (creator of “I Dream of Jeannie”!) And just before that, the great Art Buchwald.

*sigh* God needs writers. There must be newspapers and books in Heaven, or it wouldn’t be Heaven, now, would it?


Time to send that in. . . .

It’s time for me to print and mail in that essay, “The Zap Palace,” to the Writers’ League contest. So if there’s ANYONE who might be willing to read and comment on it, now’s the time. It’s in this previous entry.


In other news . . . what IS this big deal that Chris Matthews and others are making over Hillary Clinton’s quip in yesterday’s Q&A TV session? Somebody asked her about “bad men,” and so of course she made that into a witticism before answering seriously. Even Pat Buchanan said that it was obviously just funny, that she got everyone in the room to laugh, and what did you want from her–they’d told her not to be so serious, and now she’s trying to. (And he doesn’t support her–he’s just a smart person who gets jokes.) It’s as if Henny Youngman got up there and said, “Take my wife–please!” And then a bunch of reporters ran up and yelled, “Mr. Youngman, that sounds serious. WHERE should we take your wife?” And he’d be sawing away on his violin, rolling his eyes. Please, Chris . . . you’re cute, but you are not the brightest crayon in the box. (Keith is.) (And Pat B. is, and Ron Reagan is. Ooo, that Ron Reagan . . . I don’t know why I like him SO much. I never like guys with short hair, as a rule . . . well, except him and Joe Scarborough. It’s odd that it doesn’t matter whether we agree on political stuff or not, I can still respect and like a broadcaster or pundit if they are fair and wise and rational. Imagine!)

The Zap Palace

I told y’all I was working on a ten-page, 3000-word personal experience essay to send off to the Writers’ League of Texas contest . . . didn’t I? The winner gets to go to the conference and not be mocked. But I thought I’d polish this up and send it, anyway. It’s an illness memoir based on the one that I did for the University of Oklahoma Medical School literary magazine.

If you feel like reading it over and making a few comments, the essay follows, mostly behind an LJ cut. But I thought it might be fun to inflict the opening on you, anyhow.

They say this is a safe haven for healing, a sanctuary just like home. If you live at 13 Chernobyl Place.

Radiation Therapy 3 is where they do all the “head cases.” It is to be “my” machine.

When they arrange me on that moving steel table, they say, “Just be calm and hold still.” But they’ll be leaving this vault; they’ll walk up the ramp and outside the several-feet-of-concrete walls and to the other side of that lead door that goes “boom” when it closes, and I’ll be in here alone.

With my head in the mouth of the dragon.
Continue reading “The Zap Palace”

Rabbit Hole Day on LJ!

I just now discovered, via and , that today is LiveJournal Rabbit Hole Day, in honor of Lewis Carroll’s birthday!

He suggests falling down the rabbit hole:

“When you post on that [day], instead of the normal daily life and work and news and politics, write about the strange new world you have found yourself in for the day, with its strange new life and work and news and politics. Are your pets talking back at you now? Has your child suddenly grown to full adulthood? Does everyone at work think you’re someone else now? Did Bush step down from the White House to become a pro-circuit tap-dancer? Did Zoroastrian missionaries show up on your doorstep with literature in 3-D? Have you been placed under house arrest by bizarre insectoid women wielding clubs made of lunchmeat?

I vote for #1, #2, and #3, but not for #4 and defintely not #5. I’ve got to run some errands, but maybe I can come up with such an entry later tonight. I’ll pull it out of my, um, hat.

And today is also the anniversary of Apollo 1’s tragic launchpad fire. The fire killed three astronauts–Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Roger Chaffee, and Edward White. I know I’ve mentioned that my mother knew Gus Grissom through my dad’s job at NASA as a rocket scientist who was working on fuel mixes (and I am not even making that up) for Apollo. Spare a thought for these pioneers of the space program.

CONTEST WHINING and mysteries: What we’re up against

We were just talking about what makes a good mystery. Here’s a mystery that’s rated above my contest entry, if anyone would like to take a gander at it. You don’t have to comment on the entry at the site if you don’t feel like it, but we could discuss some of the tropes used in general if you happen to read it. (I don’t know the author–I was just browsing the ones that have been scored higher than my book.)

My reaction? Well, I had to ignore the punctuation errors (missing and misused commas), because those are in just about every other entry that’s up. (The contest, I feel, is supposed to be for pros, and pros don’t submit copy that isn’t proofed and copyedited . . . how can a contest not be for pros when the prize is a Simon and Schuster contract? I suppose they feel they can send the winner’s manuscript to a developmental editor and then to a copy editor and poof, there’s perfection, even if it didn’t start out clean. Nobody else cares about that any more, anyway.)

However, I couldn’t help thinking how silly the introductory paragraph before the flashback was. It reads like a bad version of a Shell Scott imitator doing a ridiculously bad parody of “The Cheap Detective”-style noir stuff that’s in itself parodic of a Sheldon Leonard take on Hammett. But then, I could be wrong. Are there “humorous” mysteries out there that actually are like this one? I wouldn’t mind getting one out of the library to study, because it could be fun to try this kind of thing.

(I like the Shell Scott books, even though they are pretty silly, because they’re campy and kitschy. They were that in their day. There are no punctuation errors in them, by the way. His turns of phrase are really good. I would not put that mystery-genre contest entry in quite the same category as books by Richard Prather, a true pro. Also, Dash Hammett was a very good prose stylist, and I wouldn’t put that entry in a category with him, either, for the record. Just clarifying this because I made the comparisons, albeit somewhat in jest.)

What do I typically read when I sit down to read a mystery? Well, I’m not much of a fan of the bestsellers that are billed as mysteries (except for _The Secret History_, which was a literary novel for classicists). I like genre cozies that have some humor. The cozy market, according to new agent Caren Johnson, is “saturated,” so that gives me even less hope that there’s room for another series, but I see new ones coming out daily. Some of the authors on my buying list are Donna Andrews, Jerrilyn Farmer, Susan Wittig Albert (another Texas writer), Joan Hess (but not the Maggody series–the Claire Malloy series), Joyce Krieg, and Monica Ferris (who used to write as Mary Monica Pulver.) I used to like Janet Evanovich’s Plum series, but now they’re having her write the same book over and over; I’m sure she’s ready to move on, but she can’t. (She has done some other books, but the demand for Stephanie Plum continues, although she has pretty much used up that situation, IMHO. The longer a series runs, the more danger you are in of running out of freshness and ideas, which is exactly why the great Bill Watterson ended the perfect Calvin and Hobbes” when he did. The endless series with the same hero/heroine is problematic. There’s only so much you can do when you have to return to square one status quo at the end, as in a sitcom.) I miss the books by Carole Berry and Marissa Piesman, because their books used to be very interesting. I especially miss Anne George, who only stopped writing because she crossed over to the Other Side. Fans of her Southern Sisters series might like my Jacquidon books, maybe. I think Kathryn Lasky Knight is doing other genres now, but I liked her Charley mysteries.

is exactly right when she comments that formulaic, 12-chapter mysteries would not sell in today’s market and aren’t the standard by which today’s mystery novels are judged (see comment thread on earlier entry.) I just posted that outline because I thought that if a writer is trying to get a handle on the basic structure of a mystery, it wasn’t such a bad thing to read. Nobody should sit down with that and try to write a mystery using the outline; it’s a tool for analysis.

Mysteries today are one of the few places where you can actually read some digressionary stuff about characters and get some sense of their lives outside the plot-engine scenes. I don’t know how much longer that’ll last, but for now, some mysteries are actually fun to read.

But if you didn’t know anything about the modern mystery, you might get the impression from reading that contest entry that we’re still stuck back in the old pulp detective days. Remember the Stacy Keach television series that was based on Spillane’s Mike Hammer? That’s perhaps what people think when they think “traditional mystery.” Or they think of Dame Agatha and the somewhat formulaic structures that she often used. Maybe they think of the Thin Man movies, which would be OK with me, as I adore them. (They rely so much on dialogue and witty clever repartee, whereas films made after 1980 pretty much don’t.) Or am I wrong? Is that contest entry a brilliant comedic success, and I simply can’t perceive it?

Only time will tell. I suppose it’s as likely to win as any of the others. There are now 500 entries on the site. And they accepted ALL genres. You’ll see YA, horror, mystery, chick lit, mainstream literary stuff, and whatever else you can think of. I’d have expected them to stick to their rule of “commercial fiction that fits the Touchstone imprint,” but they didn’t. The Touchstone imprint is going to get a big surprise, perhaps. *grin*
# # #
The thirteenth-century Persian poet Sa’di (c. 1213 ~ 1291) wrote, “Whoever is aware of his own failing will not find fault with the failings of others.”

I think it’s just the opposite. When I see someone with the flaw(s) I hate in myself, THAT’S what drives me bats.

CONTEST WHINING: Well, my rating went up a LITTLE!

NOTE: American LJ Idol entry is the previous entry. My intro is still here–scroll down. This entry is contest whining.

I’m still in the running at the Gather.com First Chapters Contest. If you’d like to go rate my chapter *ahem*, it’s up at the Little Rituals chapter page. But when you try to click on a star or put in a comment, if you’re not a Gather member, they’ll take you to a registration page. I have not had any spam or mail from them since I joined, so that shouldn’t be a problem, but it is a consideration (sometimes you just don’t want to give out your e-mail address.) Some people have gotten sixty votes or more! However, please don’t feel pressured. They told us to go pimp publicize the contest and get people to vote on/rank our chapters, so that’s what I’m doing.

_Abigail’s Dragon_, by our colleague , is still hanging in there with a fairly good score. (See, I’m being fair in hyping that chapter as well as mine.) I also liked a couple of the other higher-rated stories on the site. However, a few of the highly ranked stories have flaws that I believe would keep them from being pulled out of the slush at most literary agencies. The biggest flaw that seems to fly right past most readers, though, is the problem of starting too much “in medias res.” We as readers need to identify with the main character before we can sympathize or care much about what happens, so when the first line is, “Hurry! Run for your life!” and is about someone being pursued, that can work against you. After all, you are supposed to ramp up tension and anticipation across the book, and after this kind of opener, tension is necessarily going to drop. If you kill off that first character immediately, it’s going to be the “Mars Attacks” effect–some readers (me) will throw the book against the wall in frustration. It’s a high-wire tightrope act. However, many online readers seem to like those kinds of openings.

It’s kind of neat the way I keep getting comments from people I don’t know and didn’t contact. I hope they are hitting the star for a rating of “10,” though, because I need it to pull that average up. They’re only taking the top 15 entries on to the next round. *gloom*

*sunlight shafts through clouds* Although I did get cool comments from most everyone. Okay, y’all already know/suspect that Dennis is a little in love with me* my long-time friend and critique partner, and might have been a LITTLE biased because he was already an advocate for LR to begin with, and I begged Jack R. to go over there from Writing2 (a mailing list I’ve always been on) and rate it, but he also e-mailed me with a long list of questions and things that I can use to improve the next book–basically, he talks about a plot engine to drive a story rather than character quirks, and since he’s on the staff at a Canadian TV show, he should be listened to. It was really cool that he went over to vote! But most of the commenters are people who ran across the chapter on Gather, apparently. They cared enough to post, so that’s cool.

* [Only kidding.]

I have to stop checking my ranking. I mean, if my chapter doesn’t make the cut, it’s not the end of the world. (That’s a song by Skeeter Davis that was covered by Herman’s Hermits, and is still one of my favorite wallow-in-misery songs–has been since junior high. I inherited the Peter Noone crush from my older cousin, who donated her records. I’m not THAT old.)

LJ Idol: Introducing Shalanna Collins

(Or someone who looks sufficently similar.)

Welcome, those who clicked on the link from the list of contestants on The Real LJ Idol!

Shalanna Collins is a novelist, pianist, and dilettante. She maintains this LJ in order to have someone to talk to. She is from the planet Mongo and has three heads, two of which constantly bicker with each other . . . no, no, this isn’t working.

Let’s do a short question-and-answer and try to rescue the intro.

*Q* How did you start to write? Did your interest grow out of your love of reading as a child?

*A* I started reading before I can even remember. I mean, I can’t recall a time I couldn’t read. I remember our family driving up the old highway between Houston and Dallas to visit both grandmothers, and I remember pointing at the billboards and saying, “Schlitz! Stuckey’s!” I also remember having the entire collection of “Peanuts” paperbacks, which at that time were on the grocery store racks and cost sixty cents or so; my parents had bought some of them, and I stole them and colored the cartoons. There was one strip per page back then. (Speaking of Peanuts. Isn’t Charles Schulz the perfect example of the consummate creative mind? When the strip ended, it ended him; he’d put all of himself into its creation, and when he tied it up, that was his time to leave this earth. Charlie Brown and Snoopy going up there to live on their own cloud, a doghouse-shaped cloud. I think God has a special love for those of us He makes into creators of worlds and people, because of course that is what He did when He created us. And of course God is a writer, and He can’t get people to read His book, either. . . .)

I had a huge collection of Little Golden Books that were in Mama’s attic until her house burned down in 1986. Before school started, I had (and had read) all the Bobbsey Twins books; the children’s classics like Peter Pan, Mary Poppins, Wind in the Willows, Little Women, The Five Little Peppers, Doctor Doolittle, the Oz books, and others you could get at the time (including fairy tales); and the Donna Parker series, which was my favorite because she was already a teenager and I could project myself into a time when I’d be grown-up enough to do things I could not yet do. I’ve always liked to feel prepared for what is probably going to happen next, and reading about others’ experiences helps me envision what could happen and plan what to do. I guess many people read for vicarious experience, because that’s one good way to learn, as well as for escapism. (Of course, I’m sure that the series books are so dated now that they’d be period pieces, but I actually learned lots about the locations those books were set in. For example, when Donna Parker went to Hollywood, I learned about Olvera Street’s market and Pacific Ocean Park [now gone] and other landmarks of Los Angeles, not to mention all about the Indian ghod Ganesha, because she’d lost that figurine.)

You could also learn something from the Bobbsey Twins books, because they were always traveling somewhere and discovering something about the place they’d gone to and about what their father’s associates did for a living. The Bobbsey series has now been re-edited, and I recently picked up a very disappointing “new” edition of the first three books in a store and started to cry. They had rewritten them in modern terms and taken out all the charm, very effectively. I realize they might have needed some “political correctness” editing, but this went too far. The first three series books were written near the turn of the century originally, and the ones I had were that version– they showed children of my generation that wonderful life in America before the wars, before technology. It was a lifestyle grand (a word they removed from the books) and gay (another doomed word– like “aid” and “aide” now. What DO they call teaching assistants and library or congressional helpers now? Pages?) They showed us a world that is now lost, the way old movies do. Sad to see them “improved” and ruined.

Anyway, when I was a child, it was rare for a family to have just one child. Since I was a “lonely only,” I grew up as a little adult, participating in or at least sitting quietly (coloring or reading or putting together puzzles or playing) among the adults’ kneecaps as they talked. My father was a professor before I was born and became one again later on, and so my parents had lots of intellectuals as friends. They would smoke and talk and listen to old records (often the Brother Dave Gardner or Bill Cosby comedy albums that I still have someplace) into the wee hours. I went to bed late, and often I could sneak back into the room in my pajamas to hear what was going on. So I was an odd chick for those days (the early to mid-1960s, to confess my ancientness.) Nowadays, I’ve noticed, *all* the kids are precocious and adultlike, or at least adolescent-like, very early, so they’re all like I was. If only I’d had the computer and the Internet and the cable television and all this technology back then. . . . Wow.

Anyway, yes. (Does that answer your question . . . what was the question again?)

I just always knew that I would be a writer. Originally I thought I would start out as an actress, because I believed that the actors on TV and in plays were making up the dialogue themselves. Once that was straightened out for me (and if you don’t realize it, writers create *everything* that you see on the screen or hear on the air . . . the performers generally aren’t the writers, except in the case of songwriters, and sometimes not even then), I stopped worrying so much about getting on television and started observing people and how they talk and act so I could make the books and TV shows and movies happen myself. (I also defied conventional attractiveness measures, so it’s a lucky thing that I didn’t have my heart set on being a teenage sweetheart.)

The first book I wrote was a coloring book that I drew and colored in on tracing paper while I was in my father’s office one day. I guess I was about three or four, just barely able to handle the pencil and crayons. (Nowadays, I think kids start earlier, but back then that was about as early as you started coloring.) Mother had it until her fire. I’d done quarter sheets of paper and then taped them together for a binding. I remember one was a ladybug (“BUG”), one was a car (based on my daddy’s b&w Nash Metropolitan), one was a cat, one was a cloud (“SKY”), and of course one was a house, the basic kid house. That book has been lost to posterity.

The next serious effort I made towards writing a novel (that I recall) was when I was eight and had just discovered the Narnia books. This piece of juvenilia has also been lost, but it was a bunch of stories about a girl who could heal with her hands and (something or another.) Soon after this had been turned down by just about every teacher as “silly,” my best friend and I discovered books like The Egypt Game and Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and me, Elizabeth, and began writing witch-type stories. (It helped that her older sister was rehearsing a production of “Macbeth” at the time. More on this later.) When we entered fifth grade and “The Godfather” was all the rage, we tried writing a mob book. To give you an idea about that one, it had illustrations!

The woman who was our speech and drama teacher, visiting once a week, discovered us working on that during homeroom one day and picked it up, then tossed it back into my face in disgust. “Why are you wasting your time on that junk,” said Ms. Moore, her nose wrinkled, “when you could be working on something useful, like a piece for the UIL contest?” The whole class stared at us, and Teresa, my friend, promptly ended her career as a collaborator/illustrator. I learned to hide my work from all prying eyes (for many years after that, in fact.) I did return to the fantasy milieu, though, realizing that the mob book was, in fact, derivative junk.

Looking back on this event, I suspect Ms. Moore wanted us to win some trophies at that UIL speech contest because it got her brownie points when her students won those trophies. However, how many people are still carrying around trophies they won in elementary school? If they are, they need serious psychological help. I’m still writing, and I believe *all* the time I’ve spent writing has helped me improve. So shame on you, Mary Ann Moore, you rude teacher. That was not the only rude thing she said to me about my writing during free periods, either. Nor was she the only bad teacher who said that sort of thing to people who were focused on events beyond their little principalities (classrooms) and that particular year. But that has all changed. I am pleased to report that nowadays, journaling is often assigned as part of a learning experience, rather than being a target of hassle. I know that writing about experiences can really help you understand those experiences, even if you never let anyone else read the writings.

I hid the writing from then on so people around me wouldn’t hassle me, but I used to send the New Yorker every short story I wrote. This was from about the age of eleven or so. I really believed I’d eventually hit. I put my age on the cover letter every time (and I was borrowing Daddy’s portable Royal typewriter to type them with–remember, this was 1970 or so.) I got some really nice personal rejections from them as a result. Some poor editorial assistant, bless him or her, wanted to encoureage the pathetic critter who kept sending epistolary tales about baby-sitting crises and boys passing notes in class. I thought I sounded just like Robert Benchley.

*A.* And you do! Well, that’s all the bandwidth we have for today, folks. Catch you next time on our search for the next

LJ Idol!!