Letting Go

For every thing, there is a season ….

We humans were put in charge of this planet, to tend it, nurture it, govern it, and take care of it. And when you nurture something, you have a responsibility toward it. You owe it the respect of accepting and fulfilling that responsibility. Sometimes responsibility dictates that you must kill and remove for the betterment of others. That is why we humans raise and slaughter livestock for consumption and leather goods. It is why we clear fields and plant them, and later harvest them. It is why we pull weeds from our flower and vegetable gardens, removing the plants that we don’t want to make way for those that will flower beautifully or bring us bounty to eat. It is why we chop tree roots that are threatening our house foundation.

Today, I put aside memories, regret, and sentiment and set about bringing down my biggest, first, most special, and oldest Linda Campbell rugosa rose.

In a past post, I chronicled the removal of a different, smaller rose bush of the same variety–the second plant in my current yard to succumb to the horrid rose virus now rampant across our nation. That bush held no sentiment in my heart other than its beauty and ease of care. Yet I fought the virus, fought the inevitability of the plant’s eventual demise. I kept young Linda going longer than I believed possible before I finally gave in to the ugly “witch’s broom” effect and took her out.

IMG_1366{The deformity isn’t showing well in this photo, but the affected canes are thick and soft, the leaves remain red and strangely shaped, the buds cannot open.}

Several times this year, I have daydreamed about reconfiguring my large front flower bed. It’s probably the worst landscaping I’ve ever had since I rented my first little house in graduate school and could only afford six marigold plants. At my current address, the largest plants grow in the front. Weed trees sprout in the back. The perennials are in the wrong places. The entire composition fails to please me. And if a front flowerbed is supposed to be the jewel of a home’s entrance, this one would be what’s known as a “dead rhinestone.” It has no sparkle. At its very best, it offers a mishmash of brief spring bloom. All last winter, I thought of making a few changes, of adding a bistro set, of moving the birdbath, of installing stepping stones and mulch, of making it beautiful.

Well, be careful what you wish for.

These days, all but driven from gardening of any kind by dicey joints, tendonitis, and mold allergies, I tend to think and imagine more than I actually accomplish. I have let my responsibilities to my beloved plants slip quite a bit. So I’ve been thinking about changes without making any actual push to bring them about.

Old Linda Campbell is the anchor of this front bed. Since I moved here, she’s been my showstopper, growing huge and wide and tall in the front curve of the raised bed next to the sidewalk and covering herself with enormous red bouquets of bloom all summer long. She was the first Linda Campbell rugosa I ever purchased. I bought her for the front bed of my previous home, and she thrived there in the cheap sand the builder used instead of topsoil, sheltered by the sun-warmed brick in winter and bronzed by the sun in the summer. How she bloomed! How she grew! I cut her back constantly so that visitors could walk past her without being snagged on their way to the front door. She evaded blackspot, required no dead-heading, didn’t care whether I fed her or not. We loved each other wholeheartedly.

IMG_1145{Here’s old Linda from a different year, blooming away.}

When I moved, I dug her up and plunked her into a large pot. She thrived. She survived the wind-whipped drive to her new location. She survived being dug up again by a so-called landscaper and left lying on the front lawn with her roots exposed until I saved her in the nick of time. For thirteen years she has been MY ROSE. Some of her canes are nearly as large as my wrist. Because of her, I bought several other Linda Campbells, but none of them have ever grown or bloomed as magnificently as she.

But last winter, she began to fail a bit. Last summer she contracted blackspot and staggered against it. This spring she stood a bit ragged, with dead canes in need of removal and her first flush of bloom for the season less than stellar. And then, a few weeks ago, I saw the mutated new growth that told me what was wrong.

The virus had her.

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I could have cut away the affected canes. I could have fed her, babied her, tried to save her, but it would be to no avail. There is no cure to this disease except destruction of the affected plant. Keeping her longer would be akin to propping up an elderly dog with cancer and letting it suffer just because I couldn’t bear to part with it.

Linda’s quality of life was doomed. So today I got out the large loppers, trash bags, my elbow-length gloves, and set to work. I bagged everything for the landfill trash since such diseased plants must NEVER go into the municipal compost. By rights, the cuttings should have been burned, but we aren’t allowed to burn in the city limits. And as I cut her down, bit by bit, I mourned her.

Roses have existed for thousands of years. They scented ancient Persian gardens and adorned the hair of Roman maidens. Their oils formed the perfume called Attar of Roses and have been the base of many other fragrances. Their petals were strewn before the chariots of triumphant Roman generals and down the aisles toward bridal altars. Roses symbolize love. The Tudors carved them into architectural motifs, and during the War of the Roses one faction sported the red Tudor rose and the other sported the white Lancaster rose. Roses have grown wild and tough and stalwart in old western homesteads, blooming at the broken steps of little farm houses long since crumbled or abandoned. They have grown from cuttings snipped by elderly women and passed along to granddaughters. They have rambled over fences, climbed archways, sprawled over doorways, and graced the White House gardens.

So why are they dying now? Why have we created horticultural messes with our gene splicing and hybridizations? What mite, what rodent, what gene manipulation is responsible? Is it transmitted via an animal? Is it airborne? I can’t bear to read about the latest discoveries because the disease breaks my heart.

In past years, I found effective stress relief from my day job by walking through my rose garden and dead-heading the spent blooms. These days, I let a lovely, nameless little rose given to me for my birthday swell its spent buds into rosehips, thereby blooming only once for the season, all because I can’t bring myself to walk among my plants with a bottle of rubbing alcohol to sterilize my pruners and avoid spreading disease from one plant to another.

In search of easy care, hybridizers created Knockout roses. No dead-heading needed, but then why walk among them? They need no care. They have no scent. Yes, Knockouts are pretty. They serve their landscaping purpose, gracing the borders of parking lots and filling corners of our yards as blooming shrubs. However, could Shakespeare have penned his immortal line about a scentless modern rose? I grow a few Knockouts, but can a scentless rose beguile the senses the way an old Bourbon or Damask rose can?

Am I to be the generation that sees the extinction of roses? Or will they prevail, the tough ones that aren’t hybrids, that aren’t grafted wimpy things that last for one season and die? We humans are modern. We are busy. We are tech-savvy, yet our super-wheat creates celiac disease and obesity, and our roses and bees are dying.

What does that tell us? Or are we too busy to pay attention? The trend du jour is to eat paleo, yet how many cavemen actually ate cupcakes made from almond flour? (We are kidding ourselves and ignoring too many warning signs of looming agricultural disaster.)

All these gloomy topics floated through my thoughts as I chopped and cut. In gardening, you know some plants will never thrive from the day you plant them. If they don’t solve the problem by dying, then they have to go. You know that some plants reach their natural end and have to go. You know that some plants bloom in peculiar, new, garish colors that surprise you–not in a good way–and they have to go.

As I cut old Linda down, I saw that I had been right to tackle this sad task now and not try to prolong her agony. For the tiny new cane sprouting from her very base was deformed. I have loved her, and I loved her today in putting her down.

All that remains is to dig up her roots. It will be a tough, difficult job–perhaps beyond my strength now–yet I will get it done.

IMG_1372{A sad ending to a great old lady.}

And will her disease spread to the other roses in the front bed? Who knows? The first plant to succumb in my backyard–a lovely old rose variety called Penelope–was yanked out and a replacement planted a scant foot away from her hole. And after a few years, the newer bush has shown no signs of the disease whatsoever. No other roses in that bed have contracted the virus. So maybe–fingers crossed–old Linda’s companions in the front bed will escape.

Ready or not, happily or not, the front bed is already being reconfigured.

IMG_1370{Spent blooms from another, lesser Linda Campbell rugosa unaffected as yet.}

IMG_1145

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From My Bookshelf: Perry Mason

To quote from Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky poem: O frabjous day! Calloo! Callay!

I have just acquired a copy of the 1953 Perry Mason mystery, THE CASE OF THE HESITANT HOSTESS, by Erle Stanley Gardner, and I am thrilled.

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As some of you know, I shun used books that are too musty for my allergies. And all too often, Gardner’s mysteries turn up foxed, cocked, gnawed on by mice, and reeking of mold. Just two weeks ago, I found a Mason mystery but regretfully had to pass. It was very hard to walk out of that antique mall without it, but breathing trumps reading every time.

However, good fortune was shining. Over the July 4th weekend, I stumbled across a  copy of THE CASE OF THE HESITANT HOSTESS in Texas. Not only does it have its dust jacket, but it isn’t musty at all. Thank you to all its previous owners (whoever you are and were) for taking such good care of it! I came galloping back across the Red River in triumph.

Now, in case you don’t know about Gardner, let’s just say he was a writing fiend who got his start producing short stories in the pulp era. It was his goal to write 1.2 million words a year, and, during the Great Depression when most of America was out of work, he made $20,000 a year writing stories that paid 3 cents a word. Gardner was also an attorney, although he found the practice of law beyond litigation and strategy to be boring. From 1933 to 1973, he wrote over 80 Perry Mason novels in addition to his short stories, radio dramas, and other projects. He favored action and dialogue over characterization or complicated plots. He preferred to focus on “speed, situation, and suspense.”

Not a bad formula, folks. His characters are paper-thin, under-described, and far from stereotypical. And until his death in 1970, he was the best-selling author in America. I can’t remember the exact figure now, but I’ve read about how–in the 1960s–bookstores would position a clerk near the cash register with a stopwatch to clock how many thousands of copies the latest Perry Mason mystery sold in an hour.

It’s been said that the last decade of Perry Mason books are less than great. I haven’t read enough of them to know. Still, I prefer the earlier Mason stories, when Perry was a tougher and more hard-boiled character than later on when Gardner softened him to be more appealing to mass audiences.

As for digging up more of Gardner’s work, yes, there is Kindle as a potential alternative to inhaling mildew, but Kindle lacks the lurid pulpy covers of the tangible books and offers a scant selection to the contrarians like me who don’t subscribe to Amazon’s lending library or Prime.

Besides, I enjoy the hunt for those old, inexpensive, battered hardbacks–even if I have to leave most of them alone. (What did the public do decades ago with old Perry Mason books? Let them float in flooded basements?)

Meanwhile, I’ve got my nose in THE CASE OF THE HESITANT HOSTESS. Is it amazingly, breathtakingly good?

Nope.

Can I stop turning the pages?

Nope.

 

 

 

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Book Promos

I just found out that Amazon has chosen two of my YA fantasy books–CRYSTAL BONES and THE CALL OF EIRIAN–to be discounted July 12, 2016, in connection with their Prime celebration. The books were published under my C. Aubrey Hall pseudonym. So if you know any youngsters–or just the young at heart–looking for fantasy adventure, please pass the word. Thanks.

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Superstitions and Rituals

Do writers need these? Do they work? Are they important? Why do they matter? What’s the difference between them? How can they do harm?

Superstition is when one believes–without proof or a clear connection–that a certain object or behavior will bring either good or bad luck. For example, a tennis player who always wears a particular shirt when competing in important matches.

I used to avoid writing a dedication to any manuscript I was selling on spec. Once I sold the book to a publisher, then I would add the dedication or acknowledgment page during production. I developed this superstition early in my career because one or two manuscripts with dedications never found a publisher. It was silly, of course, and this superstition went away once I began to land book contracts on the basis of proposals instead of submitting complete manuscripts. In other words, I outgrew that superstition.

As long as a superstition is harmless, it can remain private or become an anecdote at parties. But if a writer allows superstition to interfere with writing production, marketing, or professionalism, it becomes another matter, one that requires investigation and possibly eradication.

Let’s say a writer develops an aversion to writing on cloudy days–and happens to live in an area of heavy rainfall. I’d say something psychological is going on. Is the writer in question just procrastinating?

One of the most charming superstitions I’ve encountered is a man who liked to write his book outline on index cards, and his wife would give him a new fountain pen at the start of each project, saying “Your next bestseller is inside this pen.”

Ritual is habitual behavior organized around a specific purpose. We’re told that–besides a supportive and comfortable mattress–achieving a good night’s sleep involves a regular bedtime, shutting down TV and all electronic devices at least 30 minutes before bedtime, dimming the lights, bathing, reading, etc.

In much the same way, rituals help writers to focus their thoughts as they prepare for their day’s writing session. Whether it’s brewing a cup of coffee, lighting a scented candle, going for a walk, putting on favorite music,  or rereading yesterday’s work, a simple activity repeated each day becomes a habit and trains us to set aside distractions and commence.

For example, Balzac is said to have oriented his desk in a certain direction. Other authors–in the days before computers and word processing–used rituals such as cleaning their typewriters, sharpening pencils, filling fountain pens with ink, and changing their blotter paper. Such mundane tasks required little attention, allowing the imagination to wander back to whatever scene was in progress.

Today, some of my  rituals include waiting for my ancient, wheezing computer to grind, thump, and growl itself to readiness–along with what seems to be an unnecessary amount of beeping and clacking from the printer–switching off my cell phone so some random text message doesn’t blow apart the perfect line of dialogue I’m about to write for my protagonist, switching on the lamps in my home office for optimal task and ambient lighting, and making sure my dogs have had their chance to visit the backyard.

What I don’t want to do is check my emails or text messages. That activity doesn’t work for me when I’m preparing to write. It provides a distraction, not a focus. It shifts my mind from creativity to responsivity. I can look at messages after I’ve written, when I need a break and want to think about something other than my characters or setting. Other writers, however, may need to check their messages first simply to get them out of the way. But for me, just as I don’t want to scroll through Facebook or work email  before I go to bed, neither do I want to deliberately distract my thoughts before I write.

You no doubt know already what works best for you versus what gives you an excuse to dodge that knotty plot problem you can’t seem to solve.

Productive rituals, good habits, self-honesty, and harmless superstitions equal a happy, working writer.

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Wonky Scenes

Let’s say you’re working on a scene in your story. It’s supposed to be a turning point. You know what’s at stake. You know which characters will be involved. You know what you want to have happen. You know how you want it to end.

But somehow when you write it, nothing goes as planned. Either your characters get bogged down and talk about nothing important, or things veer off course, or you can’t make the scene end, or it doesn’t achieve the resolution you intended.

Just about every writer has had this happen, so if you’re experiencing this quandary, be assured you’re not alone.

If your characters bog down … look for the point in their scene dialogue when the conflict jumps track. Consider the following primary reasons: 1) the antagonist deliberately changes the subject and both you, dear writer, and your protagonist lose sight of the scene goal; or, 2) your protagonist’s emotional stake in the scene’s outcome is too tepid; or, 3) you have too many characters in the scene, interrupting each other.

Reason #3 is the easiest to address. Eliminate everyone but the two characters in conflict. Send the sidekicks out of the room. Lose the cute tiger cub lying at the villain’s feet. Avoid text messages on the protagonist’s phone; shut down phone calls and anxious little secretarial tappings on the door. If there are onlookers that really do have to be present as a backdrop, keep them quiet until the scene is over.

Do some authors write scenes that feature multiple characters and interruptions? Yes. But until you’re adept at scenes, avoid this construction.

Reason #2 means you should re-examine your protagonist’s motivations. Why is it so important to borrow the boat keys at this moment, on this day? What will happen if the keys are withheld? In other words, what’s at stake in this scene for your protagonist and why does it matter? If your protagonist starts a scene with a meh attitude toward the scene goal, the scene will lose momentum quickly and stall.

Reason #1 may seem heinous to fix, but actually it means your villain is working very well. Now you just have to bring your protagonist up to speed.

While it’s tempting to rein in your antagonist, avoid doing so! The bad guy or girl is doing a good job here. Instead, pull your hero together, pump up his or her motivation, and keep the scene focused on the goal despite all the antagonist’s tricks.

If you can’t get the scene to end … it feels like you’re mired in quicksand, sinking fast, with no way out. The rescue rope is actually the scene goal. What happened to it? When was it forgotten? Focus your protagonist on that, and keep your character moving toward it.

Also, sometimes the conflict in scenes lapses into circular bickering that won’t end. This usually occurs because the character motivations are weak, and the scene goal is lost or lame. Are the scene’s stakes too low? What might happen if you raised them?

However, remember that not everything in your story has to be written in a scene. The story action may not be important enough to warrant dramatization. Reserve scenes for turning points, strong conflict, and high stakes.

If the scene outcome surprises you … that’s usually because you’ve lost control of your characters.

Who’s in charge, anyway?

When I was writing my first stories, I used to hope that my characters would seize control of the plot and do all the hard work for me. Usually those attempts flopped before completion. Then I learned that I had to be in charge, and that I shouldn’t let my characters take over. While you don’t have to keep a stranglehold on them, remember that your protagonist should propel the story action forward. And if you can’t reach the scene outcome you want, maybe you need to rethink it.

Have you intended your protagonist to achieve the scene goal with no problems? Then be aware that you will weaken your story and lose suspense and rising tension if you do that. Having your protagonist achieve only part of the scene’s objective–and at a high or unexpected cost–forces your lead character to take bigger risks in the next attempt.

Maybe your scene is heading toward a too-predictable outcome, and maybe your story sense is trying to help you by stalling the scene. Maybe you need a plot twist–something that will be logical to the story but entirely unexpected to your protagonist and reader.

When scenes go astray, train yourself to pay attention. Check these problem areas, and above all, listen to what your instincts are trying to tell you.

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Story Outlines

Ah, the dreaded outline–aka plot synopsis. An invaluable aid in organizing a story before commencing the actual manuscript, and a requirement in marketing any manuscript to potential agents or publishers … yet how many inexperienced writers panic or hit dead ends in creating one?

When appealed to for help, it’s easy for an experienced writer to shrug and say, “Just put it together chronologically from start to finish.”

But there’s a bit more to it than that. Let’s consider a few tips. (Any repetition in the following points is deliberate and for emphasis.)

  1. Understand that a story idea or premise is not the same thing as a plot. You may have thought up a terrific concept. You may have devised a highly imaginative setting. You may be able to envision what your protagonist looks like. All of that is great, but those elements do not add up to a plot. Until you have an actual plot in mind, you cannot write an outline of it.
  2. To create a plot from your idea, you need the following elements:  a protagonist that will serve as the most important character in the story; an objective for your protagonist that is specific and potentially obtainable; a foe for your protagonist to serve as the story’s antagonist or villain; and some idea of how, when, and where the story will end.
  3. It’s important that your protagonist character be an active individual. Your protagonist should not be remote, isolated, held prisoner, or someone to be rescued by other characters. In other words, your protagonist should not be someone living exiled on a distant island with all your other characters trying to  effect a rescue. No, your protagonist should be the bloke hired to guide a group of adventurers deep into uncharted territory in order to save a person in need of rescue. Your protagonist is the character doing the primary work.
  4. You must create a villain. For some reason, bad guys tend to be overlooked by inexperienced writers. I’m not asking you to like them or defend their dastardly actions, but villains serve a vital purpose in making stories work. You need someone that actively tries to oppose the protagonist or stand in his or her way. And the stronger your villain, the better your story will be. Why? Because opposition challenges your protagonist, tests your protagonist, and forces your protagonist to become stronger and more heroic as the story progresses.
  5. Testing your protagonist is the whole point of writing a story. Fiction isn’t about creating a new system of magic, or evoking the desert sands of the Sahara. It’s about changing a protagonist from an ordinary person into a hero. Or in giving a naturally heroic person a place in which to shine.
  6. The end of a story–its climax–should be dramatic and dynamic. It’s the big showdown between hero and villain. It’s where your protagonist will resolve his or her story problem. It’s where your story is headed from page one. It should demonstrate in action (or words) who and what your protagonist really is made of, and your protagonist should defeat the villain.
  7. Take time to think through these elements carefully. Until you have all of them, you aren’t ready to start outlining.
  8. The outline should start at the point where your protagonist becomes actively involved in a problem, challenge, or dilemma. You can call this in medias res (in the middle of things) or you can think of it as the change in circumstances that forces the protagonist to take action. Outlines should not open with heavy descriptions of the setting or long explanations of what’s led up to the problem itself.
  9. From start to finish, you then summarize what will happen as your protagonist takes his or her first action to solve the story problem or reach the story objective–and is directly opposed by the villain. That first encounter is a roadblock. The protagonist will have to figure out a way to move past it and try again. Again, villain will oppose hero, forcing another, more daring, attempt. Step by step, in sequential order, summarize what happens through attempt and block, attempt and block, until the end. Your story involves dramatizing how your protagonist is forced from his or her comfort zone into taking progressively larger risks.
  10. Don’t be coy. You will not entice an editor’s curiosity by leaving out a critical event. An outline is no place for tricks. Include all the major turning points of the story. Will the outline read as dry and flat? Yes. Will it illustrate your talent for lyrical prose? No. (Nor should it.) Should it indicate that you have an active, sympathetic protagonist pursuing a clear, specific goal despite direct opposition from a villain? Yes.

 

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Podcast 6

Things eventually come to an end. I have enjoyed my first foray into this high-tech type of interview, and I hope those of you who have listened have gained some insight into the process of writing. This final podcast about THE FANTASY FICTION FORMULA offers a few tips about revision and critical feedback. Enjoy!

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