Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Folly of After

When I first started gardening seriously, I got myself a bunch of books and read like a maniac. I hadn't grown up in a gardening family, and I didn't even meet my first real "plant people" until I was in college. So I had no background in it, no natural feel for growing things. I just knew that I felt a strong desire to grow things, and I had a clear vision of my own garden.

The vision was especially important. In those first few years, I spent a lot of time looking at pictures, thinking, "THIS is what I want my yard to look like." I like a heavy tropical look, so I salivated over rare aroids, tropical epiphytes, and exotic ferns. I got in the habit of driving very long distances to track down unique and unusual plants, and when that didn't work, I found people who would mail me cuttings or root sections.

I didn't really know it then, but I was making a critical mistake that I'm still working to undo. My idea of the perfect garden was a snapshot. It was literally a photograph. I knew what I wanted, and it looked exactly like the pictures in the books. I figured once I collected enough rare plants, once I figured out how to grow them, I could have that garden. It would be mine forever.

I viewed this garden as a static place, a place of frozen beauty. Of course, anyone who has spent years gardening knows that's ridiculous. But I was new. I didn't get it.

Since then, now going on 15 years later, I've had too many moments in my yard to count when I marveled at the beauty of it all. But never the same vision twice. At one time, I had a huge stand of ice cream bananas. They were gorgeous, but they're gone now. I've had 20 orchids blooming at once in my yard; I've had rows of papaya all heavy with fruit; I've had beds of color; vines loaded with fruit. All gone now.

This is what gardening has taught me: there is no goal, and in a way, the only ending is heartbreak. If I stopped taking care of my yard today, by the end of the summer, it would have reverted to sand and weeds. It only exists through the sheer force of my will, and even then, I'm only barely in control. It's forever changing, a kaleidoscope of color and texture, life and death. There are days it looks beautiful, and days it looks awful.

So it goes with writing. I think sometimes writers get attached to an idea of after. "After I sell this book ..." and "After I get a big advance ..." and "After I can quit my job ..." But I'm beginning to understand that the writing life isn't meant to yield those kinds of rewards. If it does, it's purely accidental, fleeting. The more I write, the deeper I travel into my own writer's journey, the more I see that writing is very much like my garden—the process IS the point, and at the end, the only reward I can reasonably expect is the satisfaction of the journey itself.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Respecting Red Lights

I dated this girl for a while who had a thing about red lights. She HATED red lights. She would sit at red lights and rant and rave about the damn red light. To her, every red light was basically a personal insult leveled by the state's transportation gods against her. She often tried to calculate how much of her life she would spend sitting at red lights, assuming 1 minute per red light, and X number of red lights a day, multiplied by weeks and years, and holy cow, before I knew it, she had thrown away whole YEARS of her life because of red lights.

In novels, we don't really bother with red lights. Or cat naps. Or TV time, reading time, eating, sleeping, and the 90% of every waking hour that's just a yawn of time. This is why novels will never be like real life—real life doesn't have the advantage of an editor. I might be bored out of my gourd for the next four hours, but no editor is going to highlight this morning and delete it, saying, "C'mon, Jon, are you really moving the story forward here? I mean, what are you doing exactly?"

(But oh, how I wish for such an editor sometimes.)

A novel is a collection of moments, and if it's handled well, you hardly realize that the writer has strung together six or ten or twenty minutes from a single day and turned it into a cohesive narrative. You know what I really admire? Writers who can blink by a whole day or whole month with hardly a bump in the narrative.

I got dinged last night in my writer's group because I botched an important minute. It was a meeting between two characters, and although the actual time sequence is less than a minute, it's a very important minute. These characters will spend the rest of the story getting to know each other and developing a relationship. You can't really afford to blow these scenes.

But, see, I'm always concerned with pacing. I don't like red lights in my manuscript, sitting there sucking up time and insulting my readers. The problem is the natural tension between characterization and pacing. A very fast-paced novel tends to have less character, and writers who spend pages developing characters are less concerned with writing a bullet.

When I was thinking about fixing this particular scene, I went back to that minute and realized my problem: I hadn't fully inhabited the moment. Not in my head. Not really. I basically wanted to move past it, to go down the stairs, into the basement, not to linger there at the doorway while they make that first contact.

I have to remind myself that sometimes it's OK to slow down, to linger. If a moment is important enough to include in the story—more important than all the other moments that surround it—I should respect it enough to give it life. I never really said this to my girlfriend (she was kind of volatile), but if there's a good song on the radio, and it's a nice day with the windows down, I sometimes like red lights. They give me time to think.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

On Failure

I was watching last night when Lindsey Jacobellis failed out. For anybody who isn't following the winter Olympics, Jacobellis is a snowboarder. At the last winter games, she had a solid lead for a gold medal in the snowcross racing event. But she stumbled just short of the finish line and had to settle for silver. This year, much was made of her comeback moment. She did interviews, NBC ran features on her, she got endorsement deals. It was a Big Deal. An athlete seeking redemption, or in the words of Bob Costas, a chance to "silence her critics once and for all."

But Jacobellis didn't even make the finals. In the semi-final, she kind of bobbled coming off a jump, then clipped a gate, and her race was over. It didn't look like much, honestly, and it was probably the kind of thing that's happened to her a million times before in practice and during lesser races. But this time it cost her.

I watched the replay a few times. Right after she went out of bounds, she raised her hands as if to say, "How can this be happening?" Then she stopped and just looked down the hill, where her Olympic dreams were racing away from her.

At the same time I was watching this, my wife was watching a girl get cut from the final 24 in American Idol. I didn't see it, but she said this girl broke down and begged the judges for a chance. My wife said it passed the point of spunk and just got embarrassing. This singer, who came so close, just couldn't understand that the decision was made, it was irrevocable, and her own want—no matter how large it was—meant nothing.

I kind of understood how this feels. I've never failed on such a big stage, or so publicly, but I've definitely notched up an impressive list of failures. The worst, of course, came just last year, with a massive book rejection.

Contrary to what they say, I don't really believe failure builds character. Failure is just failure. What builds character is what comes AFTER the failure. Sometimes I think we place too much emphasis on emotion, too much care and thought are given to processing and recovering from and understanding a failure. Is it really that hard to understand? Jacobellis bombed her race. My book wasn't good enough. Or as Simon told the American Idol contestant when she asked what she did wrong, "You just didn't sing as well as they did."

If I could give my kids any wisdom I've learned from getting kicked in the teeth over the years, it would be this: "Feel whatever you have to feel, but DO what you have to DO." After you flame out, go ahead and throw a pity party, doubt your talent, get angry, get sad, cry your eyes out, get drunk, sober up and get drunk again, annoy your friends with forlorn emails, curse the powers that be ... do all these things. But whatever you do, don't QUIT. Stay in motion. Keep writing. Keep singing. Prepare for your next event the way you've prepared for every other event. Let the emotion run its course, move through the stages and let it drain away. But the one thing you can never, ever do is give up, because once you've done that, then all you'll ever know is failure.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Bad Lurker!

Well, I did it again. I was supposed to post my story this morning, with Janet and her accelerator. But the truth is, I didn't finish it by this morning. Er, or start it. But before you curse me, I have a good excuse! At least a good excuse among writers ... in the past two weeks, I've done about 20,000 words on my book. I'm really blazing through it right now, and every time I sit down to do anything—if I have even a few spare minutes—I think, "But wouldn't I rather be working on the book?" So I open the file and away I go. Then every time I close the file, I miss it, and I spend all my time thinking about where I left Flynn until the next time I can steal some time to write.

On the bright side, I think I'm about 10 days away from finishing this draft ... and then you just wait! Janet will be stamping on her accelerator until her pointy little foot falls right off.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Sonnet, by Erica Orloff

Janet stamped on the accelerator. A bottle of Jim Beam slid toward the gas pedal, and she kicked it sideways as she drove, wiping angry tears.

When she reached the cemetery, darkness had settled like a heavy blanket of silence. She climbed out of the car, her cowboy boots crunching in the gravel. She grabbed the bottle of bourbon, slammed the heavy Cadillac door shut with a thud and surveyed the locked gate.

“Never stopped me before,” she muttered, and climbed an oak tree, slid out on thick branch and dropped on the other side of the stone wall.

The moon filtered through a cloud and she saw the freshly dug grave at the top of the sloping hill, a mound of dirt that infuriated her. He wanted to be cremated. He told her so. Told her that. Told her a million things she bet no one knew. Secret things.

Janet hiked up the hill and sank to her knees in the fresh earth, the scent of mowed grass and damp soil making her heart ache as surely as if someone had squeezed it. She unscrewed the bottle and took and healthy swig. She splashed a little on the grave. Then a sob sprang up, and she tried to choke it down, choke it with another swallow of bourbon, but it refused to be choked.

She slid down, almost in slow motion, pressing her face to the earth and whispered. “I know you loved me, but I couldn’t go to the funeral. I just couldn’t. Couldn’t watch them put you in this box, Professor.”

She stretched her arms, hugging the dirt, then rolled over on her back and stared up at the stars.

He had been 72. She was 23. He taught her things. Like Shakespeare. He listened to her. She made him laugh.

The stars made the squeezing in her heart hurt more. They used to sit on his back deck and drink red wine—from Napa, really good red wine. He taught her about finish and the scent of laurel. And he gave her his old Cadillac, and a bunch of books, and a telescope. A really good one that let them see the rings of Saturn. And they looked at stars. He showed her Orion and Canis Minor. Then they would make love. He took his time. She loved his eyes.

“But no one would understand,” she said to the stars and the dirt.

When he got sick, near the end, he made her promise. You will find someone young. Someone to grow old with in your own time. Someone to have babies with. Promise me.

She had nodded. But she never spoke the words. Never said “I promise” out loud, so it didn’t really count.

The pain was worse thinking of him sick. She sat up and sipped the bourbon. Her face was wet and mixed with the dirt, she was muddy and tired. She whispered Shakespeare,

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose Worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom:
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved

She let the words linger with him in the soil. Then she brushed her hair back, dirt on her palms, and stood up. “I won’t come back,” she said to him, firmly. “Not here. This isn’t where you really are.”

She made her way down the hill. She would go use the telescope he gave her. The one that showed her Saturn. The one that let her dream of things beyond her world.

He wasn’t in the dirt but in the stars.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Doppelgangers and Other Monsters, by Merry Monteleone

Janet stamped on the accelerator. Still nothing. She pulled the keys out of the ignition and held them between her palms. If anyone happened to notice her, they’d think she was praying – ironic really, since god was obviously done taking her calls.

Okay, one, two, three.

Shoving the key back in the ignition, she turned it with a flick of her wrist and stomped on the pedal at the same time.

“You rotten motherfucker.”

For about two seconds, the weight pressing against her neck and shoulders relinquished its grip and floated above her. Swearing might be cathartic, but it didn’t get her to work any faster. Grabbing her purse from the passenger seat, she jumped out of the car and slammed the door. She jogged up the block, until she saw the bus chugging past the next intersection. Bursting into an all out run, she cursed her cute shoes and skidded around the corner just in time to stumble into the last guy waiting to board.

Whoa. Hello.

From the back she only saw wide shoulders, mostly because she came damn close to bashing into them face-first. But when he turned and squinted down at her, all broad cheekbones and chiseled jaw, she forgot to breathe. Something about him was familiar.

“You okay?” He cupped her elbow with his hand, steadying her the way on old friend might, without thinking.

Janet regained her footing enough to pull her arm away and he bit down on his bottom lip, one dimple just peeking out. He was trying not to laugh in her face, which should have annoyed the hell out of her, but for some reason it made her smile.

“I’m okay.” Stop panting, you moron. “It’s the shoes, can’t run in the shoes.”

“That’s why I had to give up the heels,” he said, “ruined me for marathons, it did.”

She followed him onto the bus and paid her fare, and then she grabbed the closest unoccupied seat. She kept her eyes focused on the grungy floorboards and wished she’d brought a book or something. She would have if she’d known she had to take the bus.

“Janet? It’s Janet, right?”

It was him again, sitting in the seat across from her. Her chest contracted and her eyes shot up to meet his before she could stop herself.

Damn, damn, damn.

“No, sorry,” she adopted that blank stare she’d spent the last two years perfecting, “my name’s Marina.”

“Really?” He scowled, and looked above her as if trying to picture something and said, “I’d swear you were a girl I knew back in Milwaukee. You didn’t used to live in Wisconsin, did you? Maybe I’m just messing up the name.”

“No.” She answered too quick but caught herself enough to give him a full smile, “Never been there. Sorry.”

“Huh, well, you’ve got a doppelganger out there.”

He laughed and it was so warm and fun and full of promise that her heart sank. The bus slowed down and she jumped to her feet.

“Whoa, where you going? We just got on.”

“I... yeah...” she fished around for some excuse and came up lame, “stupid shoes. I didn’t think I could make the five-block walk.”

“Oh, well, nice talking to you.”

She didn’t turn around, just waved behind her as she got off and stood at the sidewalk. Through the window she could see him looking down at her, squinting again, as if he was trying to figure her out. She hoped he didn’t try too hard.

She pulled out her cell phone, and dug through her purse to grab her wallet. She opened it up and rifled past the driver’s license that said she was Marina Sandoval, and pulled out the other one – Janet Sierra, issued by the State of Wisconsin. She was supposed to get rid of it, it was dangerous and she knew it. She just couldn’t give that one little piece up. She’d already given up everything else. Behind that last reminder of her former self was the scrap of ragged paper she was after.

She punched in the numbers and waited two rings, putting the scrap of paper back into its hiding place.

“Bitsy? It’s Janet. Someone saw me.”

“You need to come back in. Now. Just grab what you need.”

“Yeah, same place?” It was mechanical. She knew she’d have to move on again, as soon as he called her by her real name, she knew.

“Same place. I’ll make the arrangements to send you on to the next stop today.”

“Oscar doesn’t know I’m here yet. Maybe I can stay.” She knew she couldn’t, knew Bitsy would talk her out of it if she tried, but God, she loathed giving everything up. Again.

“Same place, Jan. I’m sorry, you can’t take the chance. You just can’t. Meet me there.”

“Yeah, okay. My car’s not working, though, I got spotted on the bus.”

“On the bus? There’s a whole new reason public transportation sucks.” Bitsy laughed, trying to lighten the mood, “I can pick you up in two hours. Is that enough time?”

“Yeah. See you then. Thanks.”

She closed the phone and dumped it back in her purse. Walking up the street she kept her eyes open, drinking in every sound, every movement. Amazing how he could still ruin her life without even trying. She stopped at the garbage can on the corner and looked down at the old license, still palmed in her hand. She dropped her old smiling face on top of the used wrappers and garbage and walked on.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Janet Has a Gun, by Allen

Janet stamped on the accelerator. With the wind tossing her hair, she sped past the marketplace still thinking of that evil woman lying in her bed. Her husband surely knew better than to carry his secret rendezvous into their house. Each puff of wind fluttered another lock of hair across her face and added an additional layer of contempt for that tramp.

The gun sat beside her as a traveling companion. Each cylinder carried the revenge she so desperately deserved. Nothing was too morbid for this man, a cheater and a liar.

Janet stomped the brakes as the car slid into her driveway. The loud, crashing sounds traveled far past the crumpled trash cans bouncing against the garage. She wondered if the copulating cheaters upstairs had even heard it, or were they so engrossed in their own dalliance that mere thunder, lightning, nor careening trash cans could penetrate their frolicking minds.

The gun nestled nicely in her hand. It felt comfortable, like an old, worn out tennis shoe. Her palm surrounded the pearl grips as she slid her thumb across the hammer. Three solid clicks and the revolver stood cocked, ready for whatever Janet needed.

Janet stamped the cigarette out with her open-toed shoe. The last puff of smoke held in the air as she worked the key. The single ping from the alarm echoed through the hall. The clip clop of her heels on the hardwood floors traced her path through the den to the stairs in the back. Climbing the stairs, she waded through a maze of strewn clothes; a silk blouse in dark green, a black skirt too short to hide anything while climbing stairs, a black bra, and a pair of red panties inscribed with Tramp on the back.

She rolled her eyes. Fitting.

Janet stepped into her bedroom amid the smell of a lavender candle burning on the table, a gift from her mother just before she died. The sounds of sex reverberated in the corners of the vaulted ceiling. Framed by the poster bed’s posts and canopy that he bought to celebrate their twenty-fifth anniversary, Janet stared at the whore astride her husband, still riding him as if he was the only steed left on earth. Their rhythm, accentuated by the squeaking bed, droned on as moans of pleasure escaped the petite young thing’s lips. Janet, fixated on the rocking motion and the visual of this woman’s hips gliding back and forth, playing peek-a-boo with the bunched covers of the bed, couldn’t divest her eyes from the sight.

Tramp stamp. Figures.

Janet firmed her grip on the revolver, rolling her head in their direction, craning her neck just enough to view the wall mirror’s image of the two humping away. She held the gun rigid, assured of her aim and determined to fire. She watched the couple begin to build the intensity of their endeavor. Still, the gun never wavered. When her husband began his final climb, one she had experienced through all the years and both of the children, she knew the time was right.

Janet slammed to the floor as bits of her brain and blood hung in the air. The spatter, clinging to the mirror, obscured the view of the couple, still entangled in their deceit. The crimson stains slid down the glass until the brain speckled goo plopped to the dresser. The burst of blood which covered the tramps back mingled with the green of her tattoo, a grotesque display of dancing Cherubs. Her screams ended their play.

The gun, oozing smoke from its barrel, lay beside its traveling partner as another jilted wife became silent. No gurgling sounds or twitching motions. The two lay in abject stillness.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Thumbing It, by Jude Hardin

Janet stamped on the accelerator.

Janice stomps on the accelerator.

Jan floors the gas pedal. The Mustang lurches forward, pinning me back in my seat. Thirty seconds later, we’re cruising down the two-lane at a buck ten.

“Why are you writing in that notebook?” Jan asks.

“Because I’m a writer.”

“Really? A writer? Have you published anything?”

“Yes. I’m very famous.”

“Are you writing a story now?”


“And I’m in it?”

“That’s right.”

“What’s my name in this story of yours?”

“I couldn’t decide between Janet and Janice. So it’s just Jan.”

“That’s boring. Would you like to know my real name?”

“There’s a pretty sharp curve up here,” I say. “Might want to slow it down a little.”

Jan glances over and smiles. She doesn’t say anything, and she doesn’t slow down.

“Seriously. Really sharp curve. Up ahead. Really sharp.” I fasten my seat belt. “Actually, if you could just drop me off here…”

“You’re funny. Are all writers such cowards?”

“I’m not a coward. I just believe in exercising a certain degree of caution.”

“Where’s your sense of adventure? Isn’t it important for a writer to have a sense of adventure? If I slow down, the story isn’t going to be as exciting, now is it?”

The needle on the speedometer jitters around the 120 mark. It’s dark outside, but a Texaco sign blurs by and I know there’s an extremely sharp curve less than a mile from here. Beyond the guardrail there’s a sixty-foot drop to a dry creek bed.

“The story’s not even going to get written if the main character dies,” I say.

“Who’s the main character? Me or you?”

“That would be me.”

“Rather selfish, don’t you think? You should make me the main character. Make me the main character, and I’ll slow down.”

“Okay, you’re the main character.”


Jan presses down harder, as though she’s trying to put her foot through the floorboard.

“What are you doing? I thought we had a deal.”

“A main character should have some sort of flaw, right? I’m a pathological liar. That’s my flaw.”

Jan flings her long blond hair back and cackles insanely. We pass a blinking yellow light atop a sign that says Curve.

“This is, like, super-suspenseful, isn’t it?” Jan says.

“I’ve decided to make it a horror story.”

“Beg your pardon?”

In one swift motion I grab Jan by the hair, pull my hunting knife from its sheath, and slit her throat from ear to ear. Her muscles go slack. I straddle the console and stomp the brake pedal with my left foot. The Mustang goes into a spin, whipping round and round like a Tilt-A-Whirl from hell. With every revolution I see the reflectors on the guardrail. Closer and closer and closer until…


The Mustang breaks through the rail and bottoms out on the asphalt. Sparks fly from the undercarriage as it grinds to a stop on the edge of the cliff.

I gently open the door and step out.

The car teeters, and then, as if in slow motion, careens down the hill and explodes in a massive fireball on the rocky bottom. Realizing this is a cliché, I vow to think of something better on revision.

I stand on the precipice, like some sort of crazy god, and shout toward the plumes of greasy black smoke filling the canyon. “A first-person narrator rarely dies, silly girl. It’s a point-of-view issue.”

Monday, February 8, 2010

Your Lucky Day, by E. Flanigan

Janet stamped on the accelerator. She meant to hit the brake, but her foot hit the gas instead.

In that brief second, as the minivan lurched forward instead of stopping, she felt strangely calm. She didn’t think of Christian sleeping in his booster seat in back, didn’t think of anything — just watched the dark world careen by. Then the crunch of metal on metal and Christian’s startled cry.

Even by the glow of the orange street lamps, she could see the side of the other car was crumpled. Luckily, her van was moving so slow the air bag hadn’t even deployed. If you can call that lucky.

Christian was crying in earnest now. She opened her door a crack so the interior light would turn on, and in the dim glow he seemed fully intact. Thank God for small miracles.

She got out and walked back to open the side door of the van. Christian was coughing. She leaned in and put her face close to his. “You OK, buddy?”

Christian turned his head away, eyes wide, mouth agape. His arms were bent awkwardly at the elbows, hands up, fingers splayed. Janet watched the little fingers spread and close, spread and close.

“You’re OK, little man,” she said, and unbuckled him from his seat.

The other car was parked directly in front of the convenience store, but no one emerged from the store to claim it. As she approached, she could see its rear quarter panel was smushed. It was a new Mustang. Shit.

Janet guided Christian back to the van by his shoulder and opened the passenger door to look for her phone, but her purse wasn’t there. Double shit. She wasn’t surprised to find the purse missing. Maybe it was on the kitchen counter. Maybe it was in a store somewhere. It had been that kind of day.

Christian was working himself up—flapping his arms and moaning. The point of this drive had been to keep him sleeping, get a break. Ha. She wished she could put him back in his seat and get out of here, but fleeing the scene wasn’t really an option.

The Mustang’s dark tinted windows had made it appear empty at first. But from this angle, she could make out two figures framed by the lights from the store.

She again took Christian by the shoulder. He was flapping his arms wildly and starting to spin. Janet stepped up to the car and tapped on the window. “Hello?”

The window rolled down an inch, maybe two, and a young man’s eyes peered back at her.

“Hi, I hit your car."

She didn’t know what she expected. Maybe for him to start yelling. Maybe for him to get out of the car. But he just looked at her.

“Yeah,” he said. “Yeah.”

Janet was processing slowly. It was late, she was tired. But she definitely saw a young guy in the passenger seat. And she thought she saw a gun in his lap.

She stood there silently. Her brain was moving at half-speed. The only sound was Christian: “Digga-digga-digga-digga. Digga-digga-digga.”

The guy behind the wheel stared at Christian. Then he looked at her. Nothing.

“I’ll go call the police,” Janet said.

She grabbed Christian's shoulder and started to maneuver him towards the store's automatic doors, but Christian threw himself into a seated position on the ground and began rocking back and forth. He closed his eyes.

Janet tried to lift him by the armpits, but he was in a panic and started thrashing. "Digga-digga-digga. Digga-digga-digga," more loudly now.

"I wouldn't do that," the man said. He opened his car door. He had a gun in his hand. "I wouldn't move."

Janet looked down at Christian on the ground. Shit. Shit. Shit. She didn't know exactly what crime she had interrupted, but she was certainly in the middle of something bigger than herself.

"You need to shut him up," the guy said. "Make him stop doing that."

Christian was rocking and digga-ing and working himself into a lather. "Shh, Christian. Shh." But it was pointless. "He's just scared," she explained. "He gets upset kind of easily."

"I'm gonna need money," the guy said. "To pay for my car."

Janet closed her eyes. "I don't have my purse, though. I mean, it's missing."

Down the street a horn honked, and Christian clamped his hands over his ears and moaned.

The guy watched with wide eyes. "What's wrong with him?"

Janet considered how many times she'd been asked this very question. She thought of the business cards in her purse—her missing purse—that her husband had printed up, ostensibly so she could hand them out at the park and the mall when Christian made a scene.

"He needs his special clothes hanger. He likes to carry it around. He's autistic," she said. "Do you know what that is? Like Rain Man?"

The guy looked blank for a moment, then smiled. "Oh, yeah. I saw that. Can he count stuff?"

"No," Janet said. "No."

They stood in silence for another minute, both watching Christian do his thing. Then the guy looked up at her.

"That's pretty messed up," he said.

"Not really," she said. "He just needs his hanger to calm him down. It's back at home."

The passenger got out of the Mustang, looking annoyed. "Yo, Smitty, the store's at zero. Are we gonna do this shit or what?"

Janet looked at Smitty, who was watching Christian. Everyone waited, but Smitty lingered, spellbound.

Then suddenly he shoved the gun into the waistband of his jeans. "Well, it's your lucky day. 'Cuz we were just leaving."

He and his partner got back in the Mustang, revved the engine, and with that, they were gone.

Janet looked down at Christian, barefoot and rocking, hands over his ears. She crouched down and touched his shoulder.

"Did you hear that Christian? It's your lucky day."

And even though she knew he wouldn't like it, she kissed his cheek.

Road Rage, by Melanie Avila

Janet stomped on the accelerator. The guardrail curved with the road, the scratched metal glinting in the bright sun and reminding her to take it easy. She eased off the pedal. Slightly.

Bruce didn't know what he was talking about. He’d walked in there with his shoulders back and that damned cocky expression plastered across his face, raising his eyebrows ever so slightly when she announced her decision.

Her decision. Not his. Since when did he care anyway? He always did what he wanted, when he wanted, and if it somehow worked its way into agreeing with her plans, great. If not, screw her.

Her fingers twitched at her jeans pocket. Maybe she should call—

A sleek blue car slung out from behind her and tried to pass on her left. “Screw you,” she muttered, and drifted over the center line. She tried to check over her shoulder but the seatbelt dug into her ribcage and kept her flattened against the vinyl seat.

The car fell back and her gaze settled on the rickety bridge that spanned the road. Two children leaned over the railing and waved as she passed, but her attention was locked on the smooth blacktop.

Bruce thought he was so smart. What? He's a guy so he automatically knows everything? Heaven forbid she ever know what she was talking about, and forget her ever being right. If it was up to him she’d hand all decisions over to him and become the fifties housewife he dreamed about.

As if.

The sun slid behind a clump of trees, then blinded her as she rounded the next curve. She nearly slammed into the backend of rusty green car that clung to the center line.

"Move it!" she hollered, blurring past the car and flipping the bird over her shoulder.

She couldn’t let him be right. Not that it would make any difference after that day, but just once… She flexed her fingers against the steering wheel, the grooved metal cool against her skin.

Not today. Today he was wrong.

Her foot pounded the slim pedal to the floor and she hurtled past the black and white checkered flag.

She screeched on the brakes, climbed out of the car, and tossed the pink helmet to the smiling attendant. A smirk danced on her lips as Bruce pulled to a stop alongside her. "I told you the red one was faster."

Friday, February 5, 2010

My Desk ... In Defense of Organization

The paper-clipped stacks are current projects that will get attention today. The open space ... is open space.

In Which I Exhort

I was a nerdy little kid. Well, correctly put, I was an extremely bookish little kid. I read constantly, almost compulsively. I regularly got into trouble for reading during class or taking books to places where books didn't belong.

As a result, I had developed a fairly chunky vocabulary by about third grade. I knew most of the little words, and lots of the big ones, too. The problem is, when you're a third grade boy, and you're already known for sitting in a corner with a novel, having a big vocabulary is NOT a good thing. You get questions like, "Why do you use so many big words?" And, "You just use a lot of big words to show off." Or, "What are you talking about?"

No kid likes to attract that kind of attention, or at least I didn't, so I can actually remember making a conscious decision to use fewer big words. And to swear more. Lots more (that part I liked). Pretty soon I could swear like a marine, and by sixth grade, I like to think that you could have talked to me and never known I'd read a book in my entire life.

Now that I'm an adult, I still have echoes of this. I still cringe sometimes when I hear a three-dollar word creep out. I know this doesn't make sense completely—people tend to appreciate well-spoken adults, and they sort of expect writers to be word-nerds—but it's a lingering effect from being the bookish kid.

But on paper ... now that's a whole different ballgame. I'm a total word hound, and when I say I'm editing, what that means is I'm usually combing the book looking to replace and upgrade single words. See, I believe in precision, especially in verbs. I believe very strongly that there is a world of difference between "crying out" and "yelling" and "screaming." And sometimes people lope, while other times they jog, and yet still other times they might run or sidle. And I believe IT MATTERS which one they actually do—these aren't synonyms. (Don't even get me started on the whole idea of thesauri ...)

I respect writers who choose their words carefully, and I'm almost instantly bored by prose that lacks any specificity of description. As a reader, I can almost feel the writer casting around, spilling whole paragraphs while they look for the right few words. Sometimes it's sloppy editing, sometimes lazy writing, and other times it's just a lack of vocabulary. Even in simple books, aimed at children, I think word choice matters a great deal.

I'm afraid this might sound elitist, but I really don't mean it like that. After all, I'm the kid who taught myself to avoid big words.... To me, this a craft question, and this has everything to do with how good you are and how good you can be. If I was a brick layer, I'd want to know all the kinds of brick available. If I was a painter, I'd want to know every shade of white I could memorize. So as a writer, there should be a hunger to know every word (impossible, of course) and a willingness to spend time looking for just that perfect one.

So you see, I'm not really ranting. I'm exhorting.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

It's Not the Length that Matters ...

When I first got serious about writing MG fiction, I went through this whole Word Count Phase. I'm the kind of writer who believes in making life easier on myself, which means writing to my market. It's hard enough to get published, so why bother approaching a publisher with a 200,000-word epic aimed at 12-year-olds? No, no, no. I'll leave the windmills for Quixote.

So "they" say an MG novel should be somewhere between 50,000 and 60,000 words. Definitely not more than 70,000 words, or less than 40,000 words. Using these as my guidelines, I did some research into the word counts of best-selling books in my genre:

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone: 76, 944
Series of Unfortunate Events, The Bad Beginning: 24,744
Inkheart: 145,000
A Wrinkle In Time: 52,587
Holes: 46,587
The Hobbit: 95,022
Artemis Fowl: 56,924
Percy Jackson, Book 1: 86,826

Interesting, huh? I just picked these titles randomly, whatever popped into my head. Obviously, all of them are best-sellers or classics. And only TWO of them are within the suggested word range. Most are significantly longer, but the first Lemony Snicket book barely rises above the level of an extended essay.

Here's the kicker. Although my list suggests that word count isn't all that important, I'm not arguing that we should disregard suggested word lengths. In fact, just the opposite. The truth is, most of those books were written by established authors or they were written overseas. In this country, in this moment in publishing, I think you're shooting yourself in the foot if you turn up with a super-long or super-short opus, especially if you're unknown. They're always looking for reasons to burn through submissions.

But it is food for thought, no? I know personally, I pay attention to word count. I've always envisioned my current book as one of a series of relatively short books (between 40k and 50k words each). My other two novels fell right between 55k and 60k words. What about you? How much does word count matter when you sit down to plan a project?

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

War & Peace? Surprising ...

Growing up as a writer and reader, Tolstoy's War and Peace occupied a special place in the pantheon of books. It was the doorstop all other literature was measured against, often squatting atop "Best Books Ever Written" lists like some kind of fat, Russian toad. It was the yardstick against which all literary endeavors were really measured. "Well," someone would say, "it's not like you're writing War and Peace." Or you'd hear people say, "Someday, one of my life goals is to read War and Peace," and they'd say it in the same way that people talk about getting a colonoscopy.

So I'd always avoided War and Peace. I worked my way through Dostoevsky and The Man of La Mancha, then all those 18th century French translations, and of course many years spent with Dickens. I did 100 Years of Solitude and Faulkner. Heck, I even did Gravity's Rainbow. But never War and Peace. Even as a dedicated reader, I always figured life was too short for books like that.

Recently, my father-in-law bought the new Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace. I'd read about this translation in a few places, and most people who would know were saying it was the best translation of Tolstoy ever done. That it rendered War and Peace as close to the Russian original as any translation had ever come. Then not too long ago, we joined my in-laws on vacation, and my father-in-law happened to bring his book along, which is a pretty sure invitation for me to pick it up and thumb through it. I read the first page. Then the first 20 pages. And that was it ...

I borrowed the book.

I'm about 200-odd pages into the book now, and I don't know why I should be surprised by this, but I'm kind of blown away by how good it is. Tolstoy's sense of character is incredible, and the scope of each scene is so impressive. I've never seen a larger cast of characters handled so adroitly. It's not hard to keep track of the scores of people because each is rendered so individually. And even more surprising: Tolstoy is funny. Hard to believe, but he is. He has this really fine sense of humor; he frequently tells jokes at his characters' expense, and he sets up situations that are utterly believable but droll (there really is no other word to describe it). Finally, his description of impending combat, of armies lining up preparing to shoot and the feelings and thoughts that go through a person's head in the moments before the bullets fly, is just so authentic feeling.

You know Beauty and the Beast? If War and Peace is the beast, then I feel a bit like Belle (which is still infinitely better than a singing teapot). I expected this book to have fangs, to beat me over the head until I was senseless, but instead I found something else entirely. I guess generations of critics know a little something about books after all.

Anyway, you tell me ... have you ever been surprised by a book? Which one? Why?

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Tipping Point

I think there's a tipping point in certain manuscripts, when you know you're actually going to finish the thing. Other ideas start to drop away and this one idea consumes more and more brain space ...

In my current book, I stalled at 12,000 words for months because other things intervened. Then I picked it back up a few weeks ago, and yesterday I hit the halfway point, maybe a little more. It was kind of a victory, because over the last few days, I've slowly become aware that I hit that tipping point: I'm going to finish this book. I can see the end. It won't be long now.

It's funny, because my crit partner Erica posted on this subject today, but her experience of this same place, for this particular project of hers, is so different. She's got this huge, many-tentacled story that sprawls across centuries and multiple POVs with a dash of global epidemic thrown in. She's literally dreaming about throwing herself off a bridge. (And believe me, I get it. Personally, I'd be freaking out too, but let's just keep that between us ...)

So far, no one has seen most of this book I'm working on--even my crit partners have only seen about a third of it. For now, it's MINE. I'm feeling very protective of it, like it's this crystal I'm growing in a dark room. All day yesterday, I walked around talking to this story, because yesterday I think I wrote the best single page I've ever written. And as long as no one else has read it, then I'm free to keep thinking that.

And that's what it's like for me at the halfway point. I'm secretive, committed, protective and mad proud of this little organism I'm nurturing on my hard drive. Soon, I'll kick it out the front door, where it will have to fend for itself, but for now, this book is my secret and my pleasure.

Monday, February 1, 2010

February Prompt

Ah, another month, another Monday. I would have posted earlier today, but instead I spent this morning trying to get my head around the Amazon/Macmillan kerfuffle. What does this mean? Am I pro-Macmillan because they're a publisher and publishers are going broke? Does this mean Macmillan will be able to pay for more new voices, or is that a wad of horse-pucky pushed by a company that likes to threaten its own customers? Or am I pro-Amazon because I'm rooting for consumers and agree that $15 e-books are ridiculously overpriced? Will this be good for writers? Or are we doomed to even worse health insurance? Which corporate behemoth do I root for? And what role did Apple's iPad really play in forcing Amazon to eat crow?

I'm worried that the thudding sound I just heard was the echo of the sky falling down on my roof, but I'm afraid to look.

Anyway, this month's prompt is a single first sentence:

Janet stamped on the accelerator.

To the keyboards! And if anybody wants to mull over who will rule over us in the future, we can play "Choose Your Overlord" in the comments.