Bad Hair Sufferers

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Check out my tired and defeated and washed-out look. How can someone with thick hair look this bad? Is it a reverse widow’s peak or … something like the lost art of cutting hair?

Hair stylists across the midwest have spent hours of senseless chit-chat in an effort to shanghai customers into believing they are getting a real hair cut. When in reality what customers get is too much information about the stylists’ new apartment, vacation, new beau. I’ve had my ear clipped, my hair scissored into a mullet, bangs cut into a horizontal line across my head. And the price for these fashion modifications wasn’t cheap.

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Can you believe this cut cost $80? But the hair-flattening tonic was free.

In my salad days, I lived in New York and went to a Japanese artist/stylist. He spent an average of three hours on me. Look at this–a great cut that doesn’t makes my head look like a mushroom or a plant.

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Alas, my daughter inherited my unfortunate luck with hair stylists. Fortunately, she has a higher forehead so even with a bad cut, it looks as though her head extends above her eyebrows. When she learned that she will never in this town get a good haircut, she and her friends wore buns and mourned the loss of pretty hair. My daughter is on the right. Note her look of shock and disbelief. It was a sad day.

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“Let’s go to a big city and get a good hair cut,” I told Anna one day.

She happily agreed. We boarded the Greyhound and headed for Chicago. There we found a non-franchise salon in the basement of a hotel. The hotel had elaborate replicas of Tara’s Gone With The Wind chandeliers in the lobby. The receptionist was busy scheduling appointments. “We’ll get a good cut here,” I told my daughter.

After the wash, cut and blow dry, here she is:

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I didn’t feel that she got the proper styling around her face. She wasn’t happy about having to wear a pony tail to keep her hair from falling over her eyes.

After I paid $175, for both of us, this is how I looked. Anna agreed that the cut made me look older.

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You’d think that after going to Chicago once and having such bad luck that we wouldn’t try again. But we did. We found a new salon in Lincoln Park. It was rated the ‘best haircut’ by Yelp. I didn’t think to ask ‘the best haircut for who’?

I told the stylist to be creative. She told me that the latest style was the wind-blown look.

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However, Anna fared even worse. Straight bangs and flat top.

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At least the hair cuts were cheap.

I now have stopped going to salons. I save hundreds of dollars in travel costs, not to mention stylists’ fees and the pricey medicine for the stomachaches that follow.

Anna found a sponsor who took pity on her and sent her to Europe for a real cut. Her friends no longer mourn her bad look. In fact, she was recently awarded ’employee of the month.’

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I have finally found what might be a solution to a profoundly terrible problem. Occasionally Aveda Institute in Northeast Minneapolis offers a complementary hair cut. If it isn’t a good cut, at least it’s free.

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Fargo at 20: Notes from an Extra

My friends and colleagues, D. R. Martin and Sue Wichmann, posted a descriptive and anecdotal account of playing extra roles in the filming of Fargo. I’ve reposted it here. Enjoy!

It was about twenty-one years ago that Sue and I were extras in a movie that was being made in Minneapolis. That weird little flick came out on March 8, 1996. It was called Fargo. In honor of the b…

Source: Fargo at 20: Notes from an Extra

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If you ride the bus in Minneapolis, my son will give you the skinny …

I think it’s been a little over a year now since I started taking the bus to work. I thought I’d celebrate with some stray observations.

– Buses are usually late, unless you’re even a minute late, then they’re several minutes early.

– Standing up and saying “I have to catch my bus” will get you out of anything, no questions asked.

– If you want to buy weed, ride the light rail at literally any time. Doesn’t matter which one, or where. The cops will give you a 250 dollar ticket for riding without a pass, but they don’t seem to mind the dank musk at all.

– Just because you pull the cord doesn’t mean the alcoholic with one arm driving the bus is going to stop.

– Some drivers will let you on without paying a full fare. Not all of them are so kind, though.

– Riding the bus to work is sort of like saying “I’m ready to get hammered as soon as my shift ends; I know I have a ride waiting for me.” Unfortunately, you usually have no idea when that ride is going to show up.

– That smell is coming from the person you most expect.

– Despite being in Minnesota, no one thought that the bus stops or train stations might get cold in the winter. Heating lamps don’t stop the frostbite from an ultra-low windchill.

– Some routes are far, far worse than others (in terms of fellow riders and time). Don’t ride the 10.

– 95% of rides are completely uneventful.

– Nothing will make you appreciate having a car like riding the bus. Nothing.

– Plastic bags from Target will hold vomit surprisingly well.

– I missed 3 buses and drove to work today.

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The bitter end of a bad romance

For five years I have been trying to complete my novel. Now that the end is near, I’m on fire with finishing the first draft. I know the first draft will be dreadful. But it will be a form of something. I can fix it. I’ll go through and work out each character individually so that they’ll be … maybe like real people?  I’ll make sure the plot doesn’t meander the way my career has, and run 180 degrees off course. I’ll tighten and weed and carry off huge piles of narrative description. And try not to bore the reader with cliches.

I recently wrote a theatrical trailer for the book when it’s optioned for movie rights:

Voiceover:

“In the heart of New York City, in the era of disco and decadence, comes the story of a young woman’s obsession with romance.”

Close-up of up our optimistic heroine Harriet in a cab, looking out the window at a dreary Times Square with sex shops and peep shows.

Cut to the next scene where she is dancing at Studio 54. Waving her arms wildly.

Close-up of Jamie–our badboy–and Harriet snorting coke with a $100 bill. The 70’s disco song Love To Love Ya, Baby is playing. Naked dancers and flashing lights fill the background.

Voiceover:

“The object of her obsession is the sometimes-journalist Jamie Brooks ...”

Close up of Jamie leaning in to kiss Harriet, while he says softly, ‘You need a dog.’

Cut to Harriet as she and her new dog ‘Herbert’ rush down those mean streets of New York’s Greenwich Village past the leather bar, the Snake Pit. Herbert wraps his leash around her ankles and pulls her down onto the cement.

Voiceover:

“… causes her to lose sight of her tenuous role as a romance editor.”

Next scene shows the red-headed lush of a romance writer with a very large ego, Vickie, standing on her manuscript and proclaiming, ‘You have stepped on my novel! I won’t take it!’

While Harriet watches Vickie, the music, I Will Survive, surrounds her.

Voiceover:

“And makes her lust for love in the big city. Or anything to distract from her unhappy day job.”

Cut to a scene of a luscious bedroom romp with Harriet and Jamie. He says, ‘My daughter is moving in tomorrow.’

Voiceover:

“Which causes her to wonder why she ever lusted for love in the first place.”

Scene with Jamie and Harriet in CBGB’s, listening to Heart of Glass. He is enraptured by Deborah Harry, otherwise known as Blondie. Harriet asks, ‘do you know her? That’s Deborah Harry!’

Indeed he does. Next we see Deborah Harry sitting on Jamie’s lap. He tells Harriet to, ‘pay the bill, will you? I’ll meet you at home.’

Which she does, but not before she throws Jamie’s stuff out the door, hysterically screaming ‘you don’t care about me! This is just a place for you and your daughter to live!’

Voiceover:

“Making her realize that selling a romance novel with a memorable hero who sometimes turns into an alligator is her only ticket.”

Next scene shows Harriet at a male pageant where handsome young bucks are vying to model for the cover of the shapeshifter romance book that Vickie is writing and the fortunate Harriet is editing.

The camera pans to Harriet’s face, eyes wide with surprise. Jamie dances to YMCA in tight pants, no shirt and a leather jacket. Spotlights shine on him. He is falling down drunk. He pulls a green feather out of his back pocket and puts it in his teeth. He is competing to win the model contest!

A beautiful-but-tough blonde woman charges up to Harriet and punches her in the face.

‘You ass hole!’ she screams.

Voiceover:

“Or maybe it’s not about success in money or love at all …”

Scene with Harriet in a coffee shop with her BFF, Ann, crying, ‘I’m going away.’ The words, Life Going Nowhere, are heard in background.

‘You’re not suicidal?’

Voiceover:

“… but about being at home with yourself.”

Scene with NYPD police trolling the East River. They are talking about a young woman who jumped off the Staten Island Ferry. It is a cool, crisp October day.

Voiceover:

“And learning that giving in doesn’t mean giving up.”

Scene with Harriet in a sweater and outstretched arms twirling around and around, laughing into the bitter wind.

The last scene shifts to Vickie, our famous author, who is also laughing. All the way to the bank.

Voiceover:

“Even if it was A Very Bad Romance.”

That’s it. It might be a very bad novel about a bad romance, which is really about Harriet’s obsession with a bad boy. And I am really, really almost at the bitter end of the first draft.

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Pre-Yelp Review for Duluth, 1876

D.R. Martin is a friend and an exceedingly talented writer. He’s writing a historical mystery series set in Duluth around the turn of the last century. He ran across a memoir of a woman in the 1870’s who was evidently traveling to a governess’ post in Manitoba. I wish i had known about this memoir when I wrote the gothic, Witch Tree Inn (unfortunately, a somewhat forgettable book)!

Anyway, read D.R.’s intro and Mary FitzGibbon’s memoir–fascinating! Thank you, D.R.!

D. R. Martin & Richard Audry Books

As part of the research for my ongoing Mary MacDougall historical mystery series, I came across a memoir by Mary FitzGibbon called A Trip to Manitoba. It was published in 1880, and can be downloaded as a free e-book from Project Gutenberg. It’s the young woman’s account of her arduous journey to Manitoba in the mid-1870s, to work as a governess for a contractor on the Canadian Pacific Railroad. Along the way from Toronto to Manitoba, she stopped in Duluth–the hometown of Mary MacDougall and yours truly. Here’s her Pre-Yelp review of Duluth, c. 1876:

“Duluth, situated on the rocky north, or Minnesota, shore of the extreme western end of Lake Superior—otherwise St. Louis Bay—was apparently planned in expectation of its one day becoming the principal centre of commerce between America and Canada—in short, the great capital of the lakes. Everything is on a large scale. The streets are…

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Leaving Santa Fe

Last night I dreamt I was leaving Santa Fe for the last time. We had packed the car, filling every available space. I awoke and felt as though I’d lost someone. In reality, I had lost a place that had been a significant part of my life for seven years.

A geographical location that one loves can create the feeling of a first time, of anticipation at a new prospect; it heightens reality and makes the world a new place. We can fall in love with a place just as we do with a person. Saying good-bye to a locale can be just as heart-wrenching as any good-bye.

In 2007, my ten-year daughter and I drove with my retired father from Minnesota to New Mexico. After searching for a rental for several months, Dad found a little adobe carriage house in a meandering lane that jutted off Canyon Road. Earth tones with turquoise trim. The little yard was bereft of a loving gardener, but it didn’t matter; he would make do with a few pots of flowering plants and a shingle over the door, Glen Smith Studio-Gallery; APPT___.

It was just as rustic inside as out, with a rough kitchen, but Dad made it a home. There was plenty of light and a whole section off the living room for an easel and book shelves for paint and canvas. It was an oasis, a dream space for a late-in-life Matisse. At night, you could fall asleep to a lone owl hooting and jolt awake to the high, quavering cry of coyotes. Their howls were primitive and savage, yet a song of the true West. There was a big desert out there trimmed by sage-and-pine mountains where just a century ago, pioneers traveled the dirt trails that cut through the wild land.

IMG_0977 In the morning, you awoke to birdsong and azure skies. The famous art scene, on the wane from its glory days, was only a block away from the little pillared front porch. Picturesque galleries in refurbished stucco homes, surrounded by voluptuous flowers, stood guard over the narrow little street and throngs of tourists. Sculpture in wood and metal in eclectic shapes, towering or tiny, paintings in watercolors, pastel, oil; some left a lingering impression–a jarring portrait of a Native American, an arid landscape in golds and browns. An Elvis on velvet? All this was part and parcel of the dying scene being ruined by a clientele who demanded art to match the rooms in their homes. The soul of Canyon Road was being crushed. A painful reminder that every trend changes, especially in the art world.

 

Dad forged his way through trial and tribulation, meeting other artists, some with talent, some with health conditions, one who copied other artists’ style to sell. He found an artist critique group; he worked his way into a gallery or two. He sold prints of watercolors of the old Catholic Church downtown; he created little postcard-sized sketches of wildlife. He latched on to the endangered species theme–a layover from his earlier design days when he painted animals for Starbucks’ mugs.

A gorilla with soul, camels in the glaring sun, a tortoise in an indigo evening. He painted animals native to the Western plains and desert: birds, wolves, coyotes, buffalo.

He painted portraits of the dead (John Nelson, our roughneck great-great uncle who married twelve Indian women and toured with Buffalo Bill), of the living (his grandkids and friends’ grandkids). He painted pets—a dog riding in a bike basket, a cat playing a piano; he did a watercolor of an artist friend’s loopy, long-eared dog that almost jumped off the canvas he was so alive. The recipient of the dog portrait didn’t appreciate the work and returned the painting with a few ten spots. I felt so sorry for the big, rascally dog.

While Dad wrestled with his new lifestyle, my brother and I and our families visited again and again. We discovered a natural hot springs high in the hills and drove up late one day through the dusty sienna landscape. We immersed ourselves in warm minerals and mud while clutching the slippery rocks to keep from immersing our heads. At dusk, lightening danced in the navy sky to the baritone beat of thunder. We groped our way down to the car as a blanket of storm and darkness covered us; our cell phones lit the way.

We became one with the forgotten Anasazi Indians and climbed into their rock cave homes to listen. Could we hear the echoes of their lives? While engaged in deeply meaningful rumination over the lost civilization, Dad stayed below on a park bench and dozed. A large furry dog lumbered past and Dad smiled in his drowsy contentment. Soon, park rangers followed in a frantic chase and wondered which way the bear had gone?

After Dad’s big gallery opening several years after he landed in Santa Fe—his distant cousin happily purchased several paintings—we met en masse at Canyon Road’s low-flung bar in the El Farol cantina. We watched Flamenco dancers and ate tapas and the wine flowed. Dad was still holding a grudge against my brother and I for arriving late to his opening. One of my girlfriends showed up with a man fond of taking photos, and it had not been long into the night when Dad noticed him, well, he was rather earnest with the picture taking (and did he think that Dad was going to be famous)?

Dad turned to me, ‘Who the hell is that?’ Dick, I told him.

By the time the bill came, Dick and Dad were in a heated discussion over ‘creek’ vs. ‘river.’ He set Dick straight that here in this part of the world, it was river. Dad was a man of strong opinions, and he never quite got over Dick. I guess Dad was already disgusted with the plebeian mentality that was bringing this art world down. Poor Dick. He was flung aside just like the hapless dog in the portrait.

Two of Dad’s close friends passed away during his tenure there, and he fell in love with an Italian bombshell who grew up in Hollywood and would eventually convince Dad to take her home. He had toured the ranches; he had played extra roles in movies for not much money–don’t miss Observe and Report–he had shown in the galleries; he had seen screenwriters come from California to make it big and leave Santa Fe quickly to resume screenwriting. At $10,000 a month for gallery rent, it was enough to make anyone run away.

Dad is not sentimental. He had been there, done that.

He’s not as timid as I am to leave the ghosts behind. However, like me, he is still in search of duendethe Spanish word for inspiration, for an awakening to everything truly alive. This feeling of exhilaration is usually found in the tradition of song and dance. But I seemed to find it in remote historical backwaters. I was able to catch this inexplicable wave of emotion once before. When I was in Saint Augustine, Florida, walking through an ancient neighborhood with moss-covered trees—still as statutes—the heat of day abating, I thought I heard a whisper. I turned, a little afraid, but I was alone. Even though I spent a brief evening in this old city, I felt it had been a life; the connection was made. Driving home along the Atlantic coast, lightening flickering menacingly over the ocean, I felt the sort of sadness one feels at leaving a place one has lived forever.

I never really lived in Santa Fe, either, although I threatened it every time I visited. But the parting was as sorrowful as if I had made it my life. I will go back some day, I know I will, and maybe even return for good. When that time comes, the ghost of my Dad will walk with me in the high desert among the cacti and turquoise lizards scrambling in the noon sun, and I will think of our conversations about the creative process. …

 

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I’m a Writer

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For Christmas last year, my twenty-something kids gave me a hand-painted coffee cup. It was lovely and colorful—purple with a red heart. On the bottom when you tilt the cup up to finish your last dregs of espresso, “I’m a writer” is scrawled in bold red. Sweet or sarcastic?

I’ve worked as a medical, eLearning and erotica editor, a marketing/ad writer, a copywriter, a tech writer, a creative writing teacher, an admin, a substitute teacher, a waitress, a sales-clerk, an actress, a model, a tour guide through Betty Crocker kitchens, ad infinitum. The list is as long as the many excuses I have to not write a book. When I swear bitterly about wasting time on the very-necessary day jobs, my kids tell me sit and write something, then.

It’s becoming an integral ingredient of my personality to threaten to write and never do it. My hands, my feet, my anxiety disorder, my love of idleness are part and parcel of who I am. And so too is my not-writing-but-wish-I-could disorder. And I will do nothing to change it. It’s dreadful, really. I sleep too long on the weekends when I could get up at 6:00 AM and write a paragraph, even. But it’s been a hard, cruel winter up here in the north.

When I do get up around 10 AM on Sunday and crawl to the espresso maker, I think about writing. But I should read the news first, because what is the point of writing if you are not informed? I pull the NY Times from its protective plastic bag lying sideways on a snow bank and start the coffee. I’ll read for a half hour—I don’t need to read every section: focus on the front page and the book review. I get the waffle iron going, beat the batter, slice the berries, and heat the ‘real’ syrup and, ahhhh. This is my moment. My Sunday morning. I deserve it after working all week for the Good Ole’ Boys Club. If the half hour drifts into an hour and a half? It’s okay.

I take out my notebook to write. But wait. Maybe I should start the draft on the computer because I can check spelling and look up words in the thesaurus. But let me clean up the kitchen first. Okay. Laundry? That will only be a short task and then …

I descend to the rank underground of moldy concrete walls and floor spiced with the tang of cat urine. I never let our clothes touch the floor for fear of soaking up smells and possibly snagging an insect corpse. A load of whites into the washing machine and I am suddenly overcome by guilt. Oh god, oh god, oh god. This basement needs a good cleaning—throw out boxes of odds and ends saved when there was no time to sort. Dust off Mom’s Danish China and that ancient clock and bring upstairs. Toss the prom gown; tax returns from the 1980’s. I promised myself on New Year’s that I would chip away at this job a little every week.

As long as I’m down here, I could go through those two smelly boxes over there. It won’t take ten minutes. I grab a couple Hefty bags and a snippet of Leonard Cohen’s “Democracy” plays through my head, “ … But I’m as stubborn as those garbage bags That time cannot decay. …” I ponder my incredible disregard for the next seven generations. I tried plastic eco bags, though, and they ripped when I touched them. I gag as I reach into the first box with ancient and rancid old sweaters, plastic toy parts, empty notebooks, chipped cups, dry pens, paraphernalia of a kitchen drawer a long time ago.

Several hours, two loads of laundry, and two boxes later I have completed the clothes-washing-partial-basement clean-up task. Don’t my co-workers talk about their housecleaning on weekends? It’s a thankless job but someone has to do it. I wonder how those people live. Grinding away the hours of their precious lives under fluorescent lights engaged in meaningless actions. (Like me.) Weekends cleaning or gambling or playing Bingo. It’s enough to make me want to write. And that’s what I will do.

My desktop Mac whirs to life while I peer out at the twilight dusk. It’s January 19, and the temperature is twenty below. A cold wind rattles the windowpanes. It’s a scene from Dr. Zhivago without Omar Sharif.

I log on and decide to check my emails—very quickly—I am getting hungry and should stick the organic chicken breasts stuffed with goat cheese and mint into the oven. There are about thirty messages, but they’re mostly promotions from job sites: Comcastity, Job Upon, Monster. However, there are a few posts from Facebook. I send the unwanted items to Trash—my son has instructed me how to avoid Spam, but I haven’t had time to go through my settings yet—and check into Facebook. In my spare time, I have become a Facebook spy. With tenacity and clarity of mind that is rare for me, I follow an ex-boyfriend who was untrue during our brief encounter and log on to his home page, as well as his girlfriend’s page. It’s a click-through from his profile to her profile—as his ‘friend’—and voila! I can see what she’s up to with him. I knew when she visited him in California just after I visited. It didn’t take long, with my substantial technical cleverness, to discover that he was cheating. He turned out to be the original Wizard of Oz—all flash and glossy photos and smoke and cranks of the wheel. A superficially big, handsome man with many plagiarized ideas, even plagiarized photos! Except the photos of the two of them sitting on the beach, which turned out to be real.

Thankfully that obsession is over. I turn to my desktop folder, “2013 – 2014 Novel.” There are several Word docs containing outlines of my story, but they are forced and the characters as dry as the polar air. My writer friends’ voices echo in my brain, “just write. It doesn’t have to be good. Get it on the page.”

It’s 5:00 and my stomach growls. My son will be here at 6:00 for dinner, and I do want to eat and have the dishes put away in time to watch “Downton Abbey” at eight. Why can’t I write like Julian Fellowes and create those memorable characters that keep an audience enthralled? I can; I will.

If I could find the time.

I leave the computer on, its milky light glowing, in the unlikely event that I will return when the evening routine is over. But tomorrow is Monday and recycling day and there are wind-chill warnings and I think about bed and Rascal, my cross-eyed cat, purring contentedly next to me. Tomorrow is another day.

I’m a writer …

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Notes from the Historical Novel Society

Several years ago, I went to a romance writing conference. This genre is the most successful genre in the world, selling 50% of most paperbacks (and now 50% of the ebooks). It’s not a four-letter word, but there were times it felt that way to me. I had edited too many books that were poorly written, badly plotted with abusive heroes who had control issues.

During the conference, writers talked about writing about exploitive sexual partners, oppressive relationships, how romance was evolving into erotica and unless your book was describing glaring body parts from beginning to end, it wouldn’t sell. Was this a writing conference? I had my doubts and left early to escape to the Metropolitan Museum where I found peace amid the Impressionists.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy a well-written romance novel, but I hadn’t read any lately. Since I am starting an online writers’ co-op, I was out to discover a new author who had that special talent for keeping me awake through half the night, turning pages, wondering: what’s going to happen next. At the conference, I was hoping to find wonderful writers in the style of John D. MacDonald, Anne Lamott, Lawrence Block. Writers who could post a blog, record a YouTube video about writing their books, and include links to their personal web sites where readers would buy their books. My ultimate mission was to help authors connect with readers.

I was invited to another conference. The Historical Novel Society’s conference in St. Pete’s, Florida. Having fled the last writing conference with something like disdain for new books and a whiff of bitterness (I don’t want to be bitter), I hoped I wouldn’t be disappointed again.

I wasn’t.  Ann Chamberlin, of the excellent Reign of the Favored Women series’ fame, was the key organizer of the conference, and she also happens to be my friend. She’d asked me early on if I wanted to pull together an editing service for the Society, which would give aspiring writers a chance to have professional writers review their opening pages. The published authors not only ultimately offered guidelines to newbies for how to write a better book, they gave aspiring authors hope. It was a miracle.

The first evening Mary Burns (author of Portraits of an Artist: A Novel about John Singer Sargent—with 5-star Amazon reviews) introduced me to the attendees as the Blue Pencil Café editing person. Immediately, a dark-haired, pretty woman approached me and asked if I needed any more help? Maybe. And your name, just in case? Diana Gabaldon (of the famed Outlander series). I knew that.

She very graciously stepped in at the last minute and reviewed several writers, thrilling them. One author kept asking me if that was Diana over there? and could she ask her a question? I told her that Diana would not harm her in any way if she approached her.

Next, I worked with Ann Weisgarber who also amiably spoke to new authors who didn’t have appointments (but they were supposed to—entirely my fault). I have never been especially organized, so my role as editing coordinator was a weak decision. Ann was funny and smart and laughed about the agony of the writing process. Oh, could she write a blog for my new site? She’d be delighted, she told me. I bought her first book, The Personal History of Rachel DuPree.  Since the conference, it has come in the mail and I’m halfway through the book. I can’t put it down. It has already received four or five awards. Her blog arrived a few days ago (I won’t give it away—you must check back to read it), but she revealed that Rachel DuPree is being contracted for a movie. Gulp.

Jack London was another reviewer.  A soft-spoken, kind man who has written a trilogy about World War II—the first book French Letter’s Virginia’s War, which is the best-selling novel for War Fiction and the eighth best-selling novel for Historical Fiction, both on Amazon Kindle. He will remind you, though, that he’s been a trial attorney for many years, having written many articles that forged his brilliant writing skills (‘brilliant’ is my adjective, not his). I call that talent. Well, maybe he’s had some good writing practice along the way, but he’s got it. Stay tuned for a few blogs from him. He’s written some inspiring articles about the adventures of writing called A Novel Approach

 I haven’t even mentioned Bob Larranaga, award-winning copywriter who came to the conference as an aspiring writer. His first self-published book, The Reckoning: Saga of Civil War Blockade Runner has received many 5-star reviews on Amazon, and his second book, which I reviewed, Death Trap, made me wish he’d sent the whole book. It’s the second novel with Ed Canfield as the reluctant hero—another thriller set during the Civil War along Florida’s Gulf Coast. I promise that as soon as I see the complete Death Trap, you’ll see it, too!

Ron Singerton is still unpublished. His book, Silk and the Sword, a novel of treachery and lust and all the cultural goodies of Ancient Rome, is being vetted by several agents and publishers as I write this. Stay tuned.

This is just the beginning for many exciting books and articles to come to Jeri’s eBook Express. I was more than happy not to flee this conference and find my solace in the local museum, but to hang around long enough to absorb the wonderful writing energy.  

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How to start writing a novel: Saturday

If you are a writer by trade—and you’re weary of the banal routine and inconsequential technical articles about information management that you’ve been writing—or if you just want to write for the hell of it, you can do it.  But how to find the time?  Here’s something like an answer to this dilemma:

A week’s vacation.

What an excellent way to get started on your novel!  You have not planned to travel, you’ve already paid your bills, you have enough food—and there is always take-out—the laundry is done, the cat box cleaned, the rooms are not dusted or even necessarily clean, but the kitchen and bathroom are mold-free.  You’ve had your check-up, and it’s official: you will live to see another year.  It’s time to stop worrying about those trivial, superficial things (you know, money and health), because this novel might sell.  You could make a living; not to mention, lower your blood pressure.

You have the luxury of seven full days to concentrate exclusively on your writing.  Here is your first day:

Saturday:

The plan is to wake up and feel good, which you do, except for that niggling headache from last week’s droning schedule.  You are not going to make a stop at the grocery store to grab cilantro for tonight’s potato soup.  You are not going to have coffee with your neighbor, or check Facebook every ten minutes to see what your ex-boyfriend’s sister had for dinner.  It’s a beautiful summer morning.  Birds are singing.  You’ll go into the backyard and engage in a fifteen-minute yoga stretch.  To get the circulation flowing.  Now back inside.  Measure your espresso and smell its heady aroma while you log on to your computer, but don’t think of food until you’re an hour into your writing.  And do not check your email.

Start with a writing warm-up exercise to write about your ‘issues’—the things that grind you down.  Like being down on your luck and having to apply for a Frontier Airlines MasterCard at 22% interest, or your humiliation when someone called your ex-boyfriend ‘stupid.’  Hold on to these ‘feelings,’ but don’t give us this list of troubles in your novel.  ‘Know thyself,’ a smart person said a long time ago.  It’s the essence of good storytelling because you can only create characters by understanding the many sides of yourself.

Your warm-up will give you time to write about life’s details to free yourself up so you can come to your clarity.  It’s important to get deep and write like a junkie to exhume your troubles.  Because you want to cut to the chase (be sparse with your words/language) and not whine when you write your novel.  Imbue your characters with problems with which you can relate.  Give them personalities that you understand, but that aren’t necessarily you.

Okay, so you spent an hour writing in your journal.  You’ve exhumed your venom, and now you might feel quite clean and pure.  Mmmm.  Anything left to say?  Yes, there is.  That is where you can use what you know to write your story.  So, you’re obsessed with a particular cheater of a man, huh?  Instead of crying and wringing your hands, write about him.  Adele did, and look where it got her.

Your cell phone rings.  It’s early—only 10:30 AM.  Could it be your mother? Do not check.  Is she okay?  You can find out later, without being an uncaring daughter.  They will not find her dead in the bathtub—after all, she is alive now.  You are outlining your book in order to have a roadmap.  Look at novels about ill-fated romances so you can understand how other authors created pacing and general plot flow.  Ask yourself technical questions, such as time period, lapse of time throughout the novel, how many chapters? Word count for each chapter?  Within these precise guidelines, you can be creative and fluid.  But construct the boundaries first.

Biting your nails, scratching your head, removing your glasses to see how well you see without them, you are still trying to discern how many chapters for your book.  The buzzer goes off.  The biscuits you have popped into the oven are done.  Slather the warm delicacies with butter and, yes, honey.  You’ll need another espresso to go with them.  Stack your breakfast on the little tray and carry it back to your computer.  It’s a little hard to stay focused while eating such wonderful things.  Maybe you should step outside?  The patio looks tempting, so you pull up a chair and enjoy the warm air, the sun, the butterflies, the bumblebees, the budding roses.  It’s your favorite time of year.  This will give you time to think about your book without dripping honey on the keyboard.

‘Hello?  Hello?’ It’s your neighbor.  What a sweet woman who has had only one job her whole life, one marriage, and is truly happy.  You hate her.  She has no idea what a writer thinks about (and right now, neither do you), but you can’t say no.  Not saying ‘no’ is another problem of yours, another ‘issue.’  She stays until noon, talking about this and that, and when you tell her {finally} that this is your week to write, she kindly excuses herself.

Back to work.  Of course, you are hungry again, having eaten that biscuit an hour and a half ago, but you must stay focused.  You come up with a rough outline, consisting of ten chapters.  Start very small and simple and expand if you must.

Amazing.  It’s 2:00 (and you haven’t had lunch yet).  But you’ve had a good start.  All of a sudden that niggling headache has turned into a pounding one.  You have to take care of yourself, right? You almost fall up the stairs as you return to your kitchen for your meds.  Shit, you say.  It doesn’t seem like a good idea to continue working.  Writing past a certain time yields no results—you will cut it, anyway.  Your cat rubs against your legs as you approach the kitchen sink, and your phone rings again.  It’s your mother.  You have no resistance.  She is talking before the receiver is in your ear.  As she talks about problems with her job and second husband, you reach a desperate hand for the Excedrin. 

 

 

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Where’d you get that hero?

Whether relationship material or simply a bad boy, heroes are fascinating. Literature includes the worldly, dapper Rhett from Gone With the Wind, the conflicted and brilliant Macbeth, the gypsy loner Heathcliffe riding over the windswept moors, cape and voice trailing behind him, “Catherine!” These particular examples of memorable heroes are as lasting in our collective memory as a Crichton dragonfly is as lasting in its amber tomb. These are heroes written with flair and understanding of the human condition. They are great and multifaceted. That’s why we love and hate them.

But what is happening to our modern Romance hero? The particular brand of reluctant-bad-boy-turned-hero? Contemporary heroes are neither deep or many-sided, and quite frankly, they are difficult to love. Too many are dependent on external physical qualities to make them special—you know, shape shifting into alligators, glowing eyes, genitals with special features. Or they possess emotional deviances—they’re psychologically wounded by their fathers and can only endure sex by controlling a woman with ropes and electronic apparatuses.

Where’s a real man when you need one? The roots of our modern, classy hero started with Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine. Before her rule, twelfth-century Europe was barbaric; men engaged in bloody battle for land, and women were nothing more than booty. However, things changed during Eleanor’s rule. Romantic literature flourished in Aquitaine. Women traveled alone and ruled their men as well as their kingdoms. Although the culture still stressed woman’s inferiority, women were rising up to meet a new day. From 1150 to 1250, troubadours sang not only about heroes’ battles, but about heroes’ feelings. Women became the subject of worship, of a loftier place in a man’s heart. When chivalry took hold, the romantic worship of women was a necessary element.

Eleanor educated her untutored charges in the ways of gentleness, gallantry, and the understanding of the higher percepts of living through an ethical life. It served her politically as well as intellectually, but soon King Henry II saw her training of aristocratic courtiers as a subversive attempt to undermine his rule. He quickly stopped Eleanor and her court of love, and the age of the troubadour became history. Yet the tradition of romantic love was irrevocably woven into the tapestry of Western culture. It has been handed down to us like a colorful reminder of a softer, gentler age. Our knight in shining armor was born!

We love to love our modern version of Eleanor’s hero. We are intrigued by a man who is dangerous, mysterious, smart, powerful, charismatic, a rebel with a cause. He’s a great man with a lot on his plate, but he loves you and will take care of you.

This modern classic hero is the handsome stranger who didn’t murder his wife and who might be a genius with a propensity toward deep self-awareness. He isn’t a cross-dresser or an abuser smiling and winking his way into your heart. He won’t tie you up or fly through the air with wings because he’s from outer space, and he won’t bite your neck. He is James Dean, Gregory Peck and Ryan Gosling.

He may be a reluctant hero, but he is mentally and emotionally stable; he’s a good guy without the peccadilloes of a sociopath. This is the kind of romantic hero we want to embrace! In Romance, as in all good fiction, the hero is still a bigger-than-life character with redeeming qualities—even if generations removed from Eleanor’s original idol.

Do we really need to read about control freaks or mashers to titillate us? In the construction of memorable heroes, earnest writers may forget to include a soul. Even if our hero is too aggressive, throws a temper tantrum, sulks, cries or does all the million things that make him human, he must “know thyself,”[1] in order to see when the stunned heroine reacts to him in fear. He’ll have learned, by the novel’s climax, to be the bigger man and not only say, “I’m sorry,” but try to understand why he did what he did. And fix it.

To get to the heart of a real man, a real hero, the writer must dive into the brain and emotions of a man who has sifted through the hard lessons and has come out a better person. He may not have wanted to give all his money to his child, he may have felt close to murdering his narcissistic wife, he may have wanted to step down as Batman or Superman a thousand times and give someone else a chance at glory, but he always did the right thing.

In fiction, heroes are as glorious as the original knights in shining armor, but they are more than a stage prop or a sprinkle of fairy dust from a romantic era. Who really fantasizes about caricatures of heroes with big muscles, bad attitudes and bloodlust, anyway? Nothing will make him look better than possessing honest human emotions. It’s time to create men who are many-layered and rooted in real life’s nurturing soil. Men who are genuine—if hesitant—heroes.

 

[1] Attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates. His philosophy was based on the precept that one could know nothing without first knowing one’s self. 

 

 

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