25 May

Mad Max: Fury Road review

So Mad Max is not my kind of movie in ever so many ways. Let me count them, in fact.

First, it’s dystopic, which I don’t enjoy seeing. I didn’t even make it through the Hunger Games or any of its sequels and I loved those books.

Second, it’s violent, which is not my thing. I’m — well, if I’m being kind to myself, I’ll pick the words “highly sensitive.” I’ve watched movies that have given me nightmares for months afterwards, so I avoid watching violent stuff. I used to joke that I’d decided to be the last easily shocked person in America, but seriously, there are some television shows that I can’t handle. Movie theater violence is way beyond my ability to tolerate.

Third, it’s filled with car chases and explosions, which I find mostly boring. Long action sequences generally leave me working on my to-do list in my head. Maybe that’s because I’m easily overstimulated, so I start to lose track of what’s going on? I don’t know but I do know that the description of Max Max as “one long extended car chase” is a two thumbs down description for me.

Fourth, I don’t care about the original movies, so there’s no nostalgia factor for me. Fifth, none of the actors mean anything to me. Sixth…maybe that’s enough. Clearly no power on earth is getting me to Max Max: Fury Road.

And then the men’s right activists declared that men should boycott the movie because it’s “feminist” and I got interested. I read a review or two. They raved about the acting, about the depth, about the beauty of the action sequences. I thought well, maybe, but… probably not. Really, it’s just not the kind of thing my psyche can handle. I’m a wimp. (<--That's me not being so kind to myself.)

But when R expressed interest, with the caveat that he was "not sure it's mom appropriate," I said "let's do it." Mostly because going to the movies together was a nice way to celebrate him being home. I figured it if it was too much for me, I'd avert my eyes and stare at the floor.

OMG, what an amazing movie. It was incredible. It was dazzling and beautiful and intense and powerful and the ending... I so want to talk about the ending, which I am not going to do because I can talk to myself without typing and I don't want to spoil it for anyone else. But there's a moment in the movie that was the most powerful statement of respect that I've ever seen a man give to a woman. Seriously, it was shocking. Shocking. And alone, worth the price of admission.

The men’s rights activists are sort of right — Mad Max is the most profoundly feminist movie I’ve ever seen. But it’s almost sad that our language thinks equality and respect are feminist issues, and not simply people issues. Because Mad Max is not just feminist. It triumphantly espouses the idea that everyone can make a difference — women, yes, but also the disabled, the weak, the old, the sick. It was beautiful. And so worth watching.

In the grocery store afterwards, I wanted to poke every stranger I passed and say, “Have you seen Mad Max yet? You should.”

So have you seen Mad Max yet? You should.

13 May

Grace Agonizing

Much writing agony lately. I had the file for A Gift of Grace open all day yesterday. I’d tweak a word or two, write a sentence, and then wander off to do something else. I’d force myself to come back to it — I had a whole day with nothing I needed to do but write, so I was serious about trying to use my time wisely — but I’d last five minutes and then drift off again.

A couple of times, the drifting off was literal. I wasn’t tired, I didn’t think, but somehow I wound up napping in the morning and then falling asleep maybe before 9. I say maybe, because I’m not really sure. I was awake and then… not. Anyway, I’m trying to tell myself that my subconscious needs to work on the story. Maybe that’s even true.

For once, my problem doesn’t seem to be entirely me being self-critical. I seem to have a ton of pieces, but it’s like they’re for a jigsaw puzzle that doesn’t quite fit together. Maybe it’s too many pieces, too much story? Maybe it’s a collection of scenes, minus a plot? I know how to get the answers to these questions — start writing and find out what I’ve got when I get there — but it’s tough for me to write when I don’t know what direction I’m headed in.

The nice thing is that this is resulting in being well-fed in a clean house with well-exercised dogs. Yesterday I did a load of laundry because I decided I had too many damp towels. I even folded it and put it all away, a job which really is a lot easier when you don’t start with huge piles.

This morning, I had no easy protein ready for breakfast. I could have made chicken soup — I made broth yesterday and have leftover roast chicken from Monday — but that felt like too much work. So I made some baked chicken thighs with artichokes, olives and lemon. It took about ten minutes to put together, but when I put it in the oven I realized I was going to have to wait an hour to eat. To kill some time, I made a garlic-lemon-rosemary-salt rub and prepped some pork chops for grilling later. Forty-five minutes to go on my chicken and I decided I was too hungry to wait, so I pulled out some cabbage slaw, red onion, cilantro & avocado, and topped it with some shrimp sauteed with garlic, lemon, and more cilantro. Yep, it’s not quite 9AM and I’ve cooked (mostly) three meals, adding up to probably eight meals total for me, because the chicken and pork chops will be multiple meals. So what I am going to do with the rest of my day?

Answer: write, drat it. Maybe I should write some random, out-of-order scenes and see what Grace and Noah have to tell me. It’s frustrating, though, to look at my word count and see that I really ought to have a solid third of a book by now, if only so much of it wasn’t destined to be scraped away into the garbage disposal. Someday I will be able to stop writing half a book in order to find out where the beginning is. Apparently it won’t be with this book, though.

Two weeks and R will be home for the summer. I am hoping that he and I can do some good summer projects (aka much needed painting jobs) while he’s home as well as have a fun little vacation, so I’m guessing that June is not going to be my most productive month ever. All the more reason to get a lot done now. I hope my subconscious got some thinking done while I was sleeping!

09 May

Mother’s Day

I intend to have an absolutely lovely Mother’s Day tomorrow. I’ll be driving to Sarasota, where I will pick up R, and we will go out to some nice AIP-friendly lunch (which means it will probably be a lot more generic than our usual taste, but that’s okay for now) and then to the Avengers movie. If we have time, I’m hoping I can convince him to take a walk on the beach afterwards, but the time limit is the dogs, who will be wanting food at home. On my way home, I plan to stop at Trader Joe’s, where I will buy myself some gluten-free dark chocolate caramels, which are… oh, crack. They are the crack of chocolate. At least for me.

It’s going to be a really nice day.

Today, though, I’m thinking about my mom. About how much I miss her. About what a good mom she was and whether she ever knew that. About how my default position with good news is still that I want to tell her, first and always. When I realized how many copies of Ghosts had been downloaded, she was the only person I wanted to call. I worked my way around to realizing that there were other people who would be proud of me, celebrate with me, but it took a while. The only person I wanted was her. And I realized this week, for really the first time, that one of the very saddest things about losing her so soon, so much too soon, is that she never gets to know the person I turn out to be.

Because I’m not stagnant. I’m growing and changing still. The cook I am today is light years away from the cook I was five years ago. And my mom never gets to know the cook for whom Thanksgiving dinner is playful and daily dinner is absurd. Hell, dinner? My *breakfasts* are more gourmet than the fanciest meal I ever made while she was alive.

She never read anything I’ve written. At the time, it didn’t matter. I didn’t care. I told her when she asked that I knew she would tell me it was wonderful, so I didn’t need her to say the words. But now… well, she might actually think it was wonderful. And I will never get to hear her say those words.

She didn’t know the person who dropped out of graduate school. She doesn’t know the me who is gluten-free and prioritizes yoga above work. She never met Bartleby. And the part of me that is spiritual says that’s okay, she knows. But the part of me that is practical and lives in the material world is so, so, so sad. I miss her so much. I want her to be here. And there aren’t any words, any comforting sayings, that make up for the fact that I can’t pick up the phone and call her and tell her that I am sad.

I am out of tissues.

05 May

A Shy Brag

I told my friend Tim that I spent my afternoon engaged in a task that should best be described as vainglorious. That made me realize that I maybe wasn’t 100% sure of the definition of vainglorious, so I looked it up, and yep, I was using it right.

I realized this morning — I don’t know why — that Ghosts might have been downloaded over 100,000 times. I don’t keep good track of the numbers. I make sure to pay my taxes, but apart from that, I try not to watch. But it’s free and it’s stayed pretty close to the top of the metaphysical bestseller list on Amazon for a good long time now and… well, yeah. I thought it was possible. And honestly, pretty cool if it had been. Sort of terrifying, too, of course, given my initial expectations & goals (I think I wanted to sell an ambitious hundred copies), but nonetheless, cool.

So, this afternoon, I was in a mood–a bad one–and I decided to add up the numbers. What a pain. I had to open spreadsheets that I’d never looked at, download some that I’d never downloaded, organize numbers, remember how to use Excel, but once I’d started, I persisted. And, um, yeah, as of April 29th, A Gift of Ghosts had been downloaded over 150,000 times on Amazon and the international Amazons. Add some rough numbers from Smashwords (that might include A Gift of Thought), plus Draft2Digital, and Kobo, and the total is over 200,000.

Tomorrow, not today, I’m going to add up the totals for the other books. They’re much lower, of course — free is an awfully effective price. But I bet sometime this year, maybe over a quarter million of my titles will be downloaded and that… well, makes me blush. Quite literally — and not the literally that means figuratively, I mean that my cheeks are hot and pink as I write. But I’m pretty sure I’m blushing with delight.

05 May

Adjectives, adverbs, and imagination

I am, technically, about three years into my “taking writing seriously” journey. It was just about this time in 2012 when I decided I needed to drop out of my master’s program. Writing was the somewhat decrepit life raft, leaky and not very sturdy, upon which I landed. Frankly, it sort of amazes me that three years have passed, although that first year was pretty much lost in a blur of tears and depression. But still, I have learned a lot. I may not be the writer I want to be (yet), but in bits and pieces, occasional lines, steps forward and then back, I think I’m getting there.

One of the areas I feel like I finally understand in a more developed way is the oft-repeated, oftener-ignored advice to avoid adverbs. There are basically two conflicting “rules” about this that you’ll hear in critique groups. One is to use stronger verbs instead, i.e. instead of “walk slowly,” “trudged.” Of course, if you replace “said angrily” with “raged,” you’ll hear that you should avoid using dialog tags except “said” and if you see how those two rules work together, congratulations, you’re smarter than me. I think Stephen King basically decreed these rules in On Writing and to the best of my recollection, he claims that writers use adverbs out of fear and timidity.

Maybe.

But I think writers use them — or at least I used them — in an attempt to make my story as clear, as precise, as accurate a depiction of my image of the story as I could. And I’ve come to realize that I don’t need to do that. More than that, the story is better when I don’t. It’s better because it leaves the reader more room to bring her imagination to the game.

Here’s an example from the first draft of the book I ought to be working on right now:

“They are evil spirits,” she said. “And your Noah is clearly possessed by a djinn. He creates ifrits wherever he goes.”
“He doesn’t create them,” Joe protested. “You know that.”
“We have had this argument before. A thousand times before. I know an ifrit when I see one.”
“Are you saying you and Misam are evil spirits? If you’re not, why are the rest of us?” Joe said, with strained patience.

I’ve used “protested” and “strained patience”. But what would happen if I didn’t? In those words, I’m revealing information about Joe, and his relationship with Nadira — that it’s ongoing, argumentative, and strained. The reader might decide from this that Joe is kind of a jerk. Or that Nadira is, depending on your perspective. If she or he is left with just the dialog, though — without *my* interpretation of it — they get to decide what it means, how it sounds. And what they’ll bring to that decision will come from their imagination, not mine, which means it will be stronger and more meaningful to them.

When we use adjectives and adverbs, we narrow the possible scope of the story. We lose the opportunity to let it resonate in a different way for the reader. Sometimes that’s okay. Sometimes it’s essential. If I need the reader to see a magical fairyland, I’m not going to depend exclusively on nouns and verbs. But sometimes — and more often than I’ve ever realized in anything I’ve written — we can rely on the reader to fill in the story, in the way that will work best for him or her.

Take a line like this one: “I didn’t understand what you meant,” she said.

If the reader would be angry in this situation, maybe she hears that line in her head in an angry voice. If the reader is a gentler type, maybe she hears it in a more placating voice. Either way, she’s going to identify more with the character because the character is more like her. That’s because she’s bringing her ideas, her imagination, to the creation of the character.

Actors understand this. The same role gets different interpretations, has different meanings. Is Hamlet an idealistic activist or an incestuously-conflicted son? Shakespeare didn’t dictate the answers, which probably has a lot to do with why the play is still performed hundreds of years after it was written. On the other hand, the simplest possible way to for me to establish the distinction between those two approaches was with two adjectives and an adverb. It’s not wrong to use them, but I finally understand how avoiding them does more for your writing than just keep it simple.

03 May

Smoked trout, arugula, strawberry, avocado salad

This salad is basically the perfect salad. I’ve been addicted to it for weeks. Today I experimented with spinach instead of arugula and nope, it just didn’t work as well.

So, to a base of arugula, add four sliced strawberries, chunks of half an avocado, approximately 2/3 of a Trader Joe’s smoked trout, and drizzle with balsamic vinegar. So good. The strawberries taste best with some arugula — bitter and tangy in the same mouthful. And the trout and avocado also taste best together — salty and creamy, plus the different textures.

I appear to have never taken a picture of it, which is okay, since my photos are pretty terrible, and I find it tough to believe that I will ever forget this recipe… but here it is, saved for posterity anyway.

01 May

Grilled Pork Chops with Garlic-based Rub

2015-04-17 16.46.17

CostCo sells multi-packs of pork chops and, as meat goes, they’re cheap. It works out to something like $1 per fat pork chop. Since eating AIP starts adding up, I decided I’d give them a try, even though I’ve never really cared for pork chops.

OMG, I am now in love with pork chops. Seriously, I’ve eaten five in the past two weeks or so, because they are so, so, so good. At least when cooked this way…

Make a rub of a couple cloves of pressed garlic, zest from a lime or lemon, a couple teaspoons of a chopped up herb (I’ve tried rosemary and mint, both are good, cilantro is next on my list to try) and a couple teaspoons of kosher salt. These measurements obviously are not precise, but it depends on how many chops you’re making. It’s better to have extra than not enough, IMO.

Rub the mixture all over your pork chop (preferably thick-cut) and let sit for at least an hour and up to four. Longer might be fine, too, but I haven’t tried it.

Grill on a pre-heated grill as appropriate for your cut of chop. The ones from CostCo are fat — they need about seven minutes per side. Don’t overcook them, though. Pork doesn’t need to be solid white, the way people always cooked it in the 70s. . Trichinosis is a) extremely rare since Congress passed a law in 1980 not allowing pigs to be fed garbage and b) killed at a temp of 137 F. You can cook your pork to 145, which would seem close to rare, and it should be safe.

Add some olive oil and lemon or lime juice to the dish where you made the rub and mix thoroughly. Voila, salad dressing. (You could also use vinegar.) Pour the salad dressing over a salad of your choice–mine was arugula and avocado the first time and it was delicious.

Slice the pork chop and serve over the salad. So good! That was the first time I stopped eating three bites into a meal and went off to find my camera, because I knew I wanted to save this recipe/idea. It was delicious. The two times I’ve made it since, I’ve cooked two pork chops and turned the second one into cold salads for the next day. Two pork chops can be three meals for me, so I’m getting my protein for less than $1/meal, plus getting my leafy greens. Yum. Plus, it’s easy to mix it up by changing the herbs and the citrus — maybe someday I’ll try orange zest and basil, or grapefruit zest and mint. Oh, that sounds so good. Maybe that someday will be this weekend.

01 May

Writing Fairy Tales

I’ve been thinking a lot about fairy tales recently. Sometime during the writing of A Gift of Time, I realized that what I was writing was a fairy tale. A modern one. A weird one. Not at all traditional. But a fairy tale nonetheless. It gave me, at the time, the clarity about the ending that I needed to keep going and it’s been a thought in the back of my head ever since.

My latest story–not yet in its final version–is also a fairy tale. But I’m not sure why I believe that. I suppose it would be easy to argue that almost all romance novels are fairy tales — the princess gets her prince and they live happily ever after, right? But that doesn’t feel right to me. A certain type of story is a fairy tale. Not all romances. Maybe a fairy tale requires magic? Enchantment?

The question lead me to tvtropes.org, which was awesome as always. I so love that site. And I can definitely see how I’ve used some of the fairy tale tropes in my work. (Back from the Dead, anyone?) It also amused me enormously to see how many of them I’ve already used in A Gift of Grace, which is only about 25% done. And it gave me some fun ideas for new stories–which, quite honestly, I did not need. I can’t keep up with the ideas I have! But I will be adding a couple of these to my story notes file, because they would be fun, fun, fun.

Moving on, though — here’s the thing about fairy tales. Yes, at the end, the princess gets her prince. But she gets a lot more than that, too. The princess — think Cinderella, the Little Mermaid, Sleeping Beauty — gets to be queen. She gets the gorgeous dress, she gets the big castle, she gets power. On the surface, yes, a lot of fairy tales (not all of them) are stories about a girl in need of a boy to rescue her. But when she’s rescued, it’s not into a life of boredom or drudgery. It’s a rescue into a world of magic and beauty and love. Cinderella doesn’t wind up working 9-7 and coming home to piles of laundry and dirty dishes.

But fairy tales also have their dark undercurrents. In the originals, of course, they were sometimes incredibly grim and graphically violent. But even in the less dark versions, there is a threat of some sort — the evil witch, the wicked stepmother. And that threat carries with it a sense of impending doom, of … well, creepiness, for lack of a better word. Plenty of romances have some threat in them that creates conflict but doesn’t inspire anxiety. Those don’t feel like fairy tales to me.

I’m still thinking about this, obviously. But for me, it’s a good framework for thinking about what I want to accomplish in a story. Is it magic? Does the princess win ALL the things? Does the threat cause real unease?

Back when I decided to indie publish, my goal was to write a million words that I was willing to share with other people and then decide if I wanted to be a writer. If I was good enough to be a writer, really. I’ve probably got another 300,000 to go (and I might be being generous to myself by counting words that I never really did share with that number). Anyway, I can’t objectively judge my writing, of course, but I’m definitely noticing that I’m thinking about it differently again.

For a while — maybe 400K into my goal — I was obsessed with mechanics. Avoiding repetitions, tightening, stronger verbs, better mannerisms. Now, though, I seem to be goal focused. A beta reader suggested I delete a paragraph and I ruled out the suggestion immediately. When I took a step back, I realized it was because I know exactly why that paragraph is there. I know what my goal is with it, how I’m using it to build character, why it’s important in the overall story, what it does. Now maybe it’s not doing it successfully, which is why the reader might not see its purpose, but I’ve gone from writing entirely on intuition to … well, writing on intuition, but still being able to break it down afterwards in a different way.

Which brings me back to fairy tales. Tomorrow (or perhaps tonight) I will start working on A Gift of Grace again, and I’m going to be thinking about fairy tales every step of the way. Instead of discovering at the end that I’m writing a fairy tale, I’m going to plan it as a fairy tale. I think it’s going to be fun. Fun to write and, I hope, someday fun to read.

27 Apr

Writing Strategies

Back in March, I decided I needed a new writing strategy. The one I was using was not working. I was writing a lot of words, but hardly any of them were on the stories I was trying to write. So I decided that I would write nothing else — no blogging, no journaling, no long emails to friends — until I finished writing the short story I was working on. I figured ten days.

Ten days went by. I was still writing. I thought maybe another four days. Four days went by. I was still writing. And on it went. (I cheated on the long emails to friends — that one was just impossible to continue not writing.)

Last week I finally finished the first draft and for the past week, I’ve wavered over whether my goal was to have a final version before I wrote anything else (it was) or whether I could start blogging again. The final version is not done. But eh, I missed blogging. And more than that, stuff has happened in my life that I don’t want to forget and blogging is my way of saving my memories, plus sometimes it’s how I make my thoughts coherent. So close enough, yes?

I am hard at work on the second draft and I will finish it, and moving forward, I’m aiming for balance. Some blogging, some story, all wrapped around with the realization that beginnings are hard and stories, for me, take a lot of thinking. Sure, a 15,000 word short story should only technically take me two weeks to write, but that’s after I’ve put all the thought into it. I can’t skip that step. And I don’t know why other authors get to speed through that step, but I just can’t. Even with characters I know well, it takes me a long time and a lot of daydreaming to find their authentic actions. Forcing it just means lots of time tangled up in a sense that something is wrong without being able to find the bruises.

Yes, I’m imagining an apple, rotten at the core, that looks all nice and shiny on the outside. I need my apples to be solid and sweet all the way through and it takes me a while. So it goes. Maybe I can get a job at … hmm, for some reason Home Depot was the place that came to mind. Possibly because there’s so much work to do around this house that I don’t know how to do? But maybe a job at Home Deport with writing for a fun hobby is the way to go. Not before Grace is finished, though.

And, in the realm of things I want to be reminded of someday in the future, R called in need of money last week, for a project for one of his classes. We discussed finances, a paper he’d been asked to submit to a conference, and a scholarship he’s applying for, and oh, I had a gigantic lump in my throat by the time I got off the phone. He is so mature, so independent, so self-motivated, and I am SO proud. Ironic that all that came out of a call asking for money, but it did.

During the high school years when I was being the academically incredibly hands-off parent — didn’t ask him if he’d done his homework, didn’t tell him he was going to be late for school, never visited a college with him, encouraged him to believe that it was okay if he didn’t go to college — I did sometimes worry. Academically, I was the opposite of a tiger mom. Well, with the exception of making sure that he was going to a school that valued learning, individuality, and challenge, which is sort of the dirt in which initiative grows, I think. But if he was a tree, I provided the dirt of the educational institution and the sun of love not conditioned on any parameter of “success” and got out of the way and … yay. It worked. It’s hard to parent in opposition to cultural norms. I feel like I spent all 19 years of his life trying to figure out a different way to be a parent than the models I saw around me and … yeah, yay. Yay, him, yay, me. And I hope his initiative gets rewarded.

Ooh, almost time for yoga. So a rambling personal blog post, but later this week, I’m going to be posting recipes on my cooking blog (I made a rub for grilled pork chops that is so good my mouth is watering at the thought of it) and something about writing — specifically adverbs — on the writing blog. But I’m still going to pretend that the professional publishing blog doesn’t exist.

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