Difference of Opinion

I’m always at a bit of a loss what to say when I disagree with the prevailing opinion of the general population. I don’t mind disagreeing with critics–their job is to find excellence, and sometimes I’m not in the mood for excellence. Sometimes I just want to be entertained. The Kansas City Star, K.C.’s local newspaper, used to famously send Robert Butler to review all new film releases. Butler pretty universally hated genre films. You knew he wasn’t likely to review science fiction or horror films favorably, but that didn’t tell you if YOU were going to like them. The Star finally wised up (or Butler decided he’d suffered enough) and started sending genre fans to review the movies. Finally you could trust the reviewer to tell you if you were going to like the latest installment in the “Fluffy Invades Io” franchise or not.

My problem is, what happens when a movie or book is highly praised by critics and the population at large, and I think it’s grot? When “ET the Extra-Terrestrial” came out, the guy I was dating and his son raved. The critics loved it. The film was universally praised. I thought it was cute, sure, but it was manipulative and predictable. I never found it as compelling as everyone else seemed to.

I’ve been out of step more than once. I wanted to slap Anna Karenina (“Get a grip, woman!”), ditto the silly twit in The Thorn Birds. The Red and the Black strikes me as a soap opera. Hawthorn is a mixed bag, but “Young Goodman Brown” was utter crap (at least I thought so when I read it in college).

Which brings me to my latest read, Girl in the Woods: A Memoir. The critics seemed to have liked it, but a few of the readers on Goodreads were a little more aligned with me. I loved Wild, another book about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail and had high hopes for Girl. Suffice it to say I was disappointed. But what makes critics and reviewers like this book so much? Some of the writing is good, even lyrical, but the book as a whole is rambling, repetitious, and disjointed. The author comes across as a really dis-likable person, but she is struggling with the aftermath of a rape, so does that make it okay? I can’t quite figure out what those who give it a five star rating are seeing. Did we read the same book?

My opinion is no predictor of greatness, because who the heck am I? But I am part of the reading and viewing public, so theoretically my opinion matters. It matters even more for my own work. If I can’t figure out what people will like, I may be wasting my time. Then again, I hope to avoid manipulative Steven Spielberg tricks. But writers are supposed to write for themselves. Uh huh, sure they are. Then maybe when we are long dead, someone will discover our greatness. I’m thinking that’s not the way to bet. So I suppose the line to tread is to give the people (if not the critics) what they want within reason, yet maintain your integrity. Now if only I could figure out what the people want….

Image: Chris in the woods, Colorado 1999. By Jonathan Hutchins.

In the Family

For all its flaws and foibles, without her family, Elizabeth Bennet would never have fallen in love with and married Fitzwilliam Darcy. Pride and Prejudice is about family: Bingley’s, Darcy’s, and Elizabeth’s. And where would Game of Thrones be without the highly stressed and often dysfunctional Lannisters, Starks, Targarians, and the rest? Families define circumstances, characters, conflicts, and so much more.

About thirty five or so years ago, at the invitation of a friend, I attended a party where one of the guests was holding forth about “these kids today” and the demise of the American family or some such tripe. I found his thesis interesting but flawed. I jumped right in (I’m seldom shy at parties where I don’t know anyone and there is alcohol) with a comment that family is so important to “kids these days” that if their own family didn’t work for them, they’d create a family out of friends and fellow travelers. My utterly humiliated friend drug me aside and hissed, “Do you know who that is? He’s the professor (at the local college) of family studies!” Unabashed, I responded, “He’s still wrong.”

Everybody comes from somewhere, and even orphans, a la Charles Dickens, end up with someone close to care about or devil them. Even a nameless assassin with no past like Jason Bourne will claw his way back to being David Webb, a man who once had a family. Because you can pick your friends but not your family, kin folk can bring a story tension and conflict; allies, or rescue at the appropriate moment; insight into the protagonist and his actions; even insight into why the bad guys got the way they are.

My family has been, at various times, not fully functional, so when I went out into the world on my own, I figured I could do a better job of running my life without bothering with family interference. For the most part, that worked for me, but, as I said, family is so important that, in time, I made my own–my own community of friends, people with similar interests, drinking buddies, allies, and so forth. I also, in time, made peace with my family, or the fragmented bits of it that have presented themselves over the years.

When I started writing, I wanted my characters to be independent and self sufficient. But I found if I introduced some of their family as well as their friends, colleagues, and lovers, the story got richer, like the stories of many of my favorite fictional characters who have lovable or maddening or otherwise noteworthy family members.

Some of the family that show up in my stories are modeled after my own relatives. But I have had enough scrapes with other families that I think I’ll have a supply of notable characters for the rest of my writing career–enough to round out a lifetime’s worth of  work.

Image: A slice of my husband’s family. By Warren C. Hutchins, Sr.

Back in the Saddle

If you check now and again to see if I’m posting to my blog, you may have noticed I’ve been on a bit of a hiatus from writing. Between funerals, the kitchen remodel, a two week visit by my best friend (involving much drinking and conversation), and a few other things that took my mind elsewhere, I’ve been unable to really focus. Last night I re-read all of my blog posts. At the risk of seeming immodest (oh, who am I kidding–I haven’t a modest bone in my body), I have to say there seemed to be some pretty good advice in a few of those posts. I’ve decided to follow my own advice and get back to work.

The first thing I did was drop by the library and get new books, both to read and to listen to as I drove to the stable to see my husband’s horse. I realized after reading on my blog about reading that I haven’t been doing enough of it lately, and I know reading is a strong stimulus for getting me to write. I’ve also set aside time each day to write, either at home or someplace that works for me–coffee shops and the library are among my favorites. I get a lot of writing done in waiting rooms, but if I just plop down in one and help myself to their coffee and donuts without a good reason to be there, I might get asked to leave. I haven’t actually tried it yet.

I’ve decided I need to take another look at publishers for my second novel. I also need to take a good, long look at the short stories I’ve written to see if they are salvageable and should be sent out on the endless merry-go-round of submission and rejection. Always a good time. I was inspired to this by a friend I recently had lunch with. She has multiple plays being produced this summer at multiple venues in multiple cities. This success is the result of sending out masses of plays and then forgetting about them. I found that inspirational. I shall go forth and do likewise.

I did have some encouraging news. Alternating Current Press has finally closed submissions (again) for Undeniable, and they project an early autumn publishing date. Of course, there’s still a chance they’ll decide, “Oops. We don’t like your novella after all.” I should know by the middle of June.

So it’s back to the keyboard, I go. Time to get back to work.

Image: Me on Amish Honey in 2013. By Jonathan Hutchins.

 

Kitchens and Other Nightmares

I have a joke. It goes like this:

I know why the Biblical time frame for the Creation differs from the geological record. The Great Architect’s original design called for a six day process. The general contractor promised to have it done in two weeks. In fact, it took millions and millions of years. If you’ve had a kitchen remodeled, you know this is true.

I am now into the fifth week of my one week kitchen remodel, and while I finally can cook again, the kitchen is still not done. The microwave is no longer in the living room nor the refrigerator in the dining room, but the woodwork isn’t up, and a few other details are wanting. It’s a bit hard to concentrate on writing when workmen are pounding away. I could have fled to the library or a coffee shop, but sometimes decisions had to be made, so I had to stick around. And in the meantime, I succumbed to the worst temptation–writing nonfiction.

It’s so easy to write nonfiction. It doesn’t require thinking things up, only checking facts. All the heavy lifting has been done by other people. All I have to do is connect the dots and cite the references. Now that the workmen are winding down, surely I can extract myself from the quagmire of nonfiction. Surely I can save myself. But there are all these interesting articles to read and extrapolate from and unite into a coherent story…

Someone stop me! I shall flee to my garden and bark at the squirrels who are making craters in my raised beds. Surely that will inspire me to fiction–something with a theme of revenge against rodents. I feel a story coming on.

Image: After the tear out. By Jonathan Hutchins.

Instant Gratification

My husband can tell you I’m lousy at delayed gratification, so I keep wondering why I end up in vocations and avocations that are all about delayed gratification. There aren’t too many things on this planet slower than research–something I did for over twenty years. First you do the lit search, then come up with a theory, write the grant, wait for funding, do the experiments (if you have to wait for donors, that takes even longer than if you’re working with something more compliant, like, say, bacteria). Some experiments take days, even weeks to get results. When you finally have the results, you write the paper then try to get it published. Waiting and waiting and waiting.

It’s the same with writing fiction (or even nonfiction) and with gardening. So much time is spent waiting, for the seeds to come out of the ground and the fruit to set, for the publisher to get around to doing what publishers do. I recently suffered another gratification blow. The anthology Undeniable: Writers Respond to Climate Change has reopened submissions hoping to add diversity to its author pool. This anthology accepted my novella “Wasting Water” about a hundred years ago, then kept pushing back the submission deadline. I told everyone I knew to send them something. The publisher finally closed the call for submissions, but recently reopened it. I’m guessing by the time this anthology is published, half of Florida and most of the islands in the Pacific will be underwater. Oh, well, delayed gratification is the name of the game, and I’m nothing if not gamy.

Fortunately, I have coping mechanisms. One is to keep writing. The other is fiber arts. Yes, knitting and sewing are my methods of choice for instant gratification. With needles and yarn in hand, I can make a hat in an afternoon. I can whip up a dress in a couple of days. These mechanisms are less fattening than baking and more fun than cleaning house while serving to satisfy my need for instant gratification. Unfortunately, if I keep at this writing business, I am going to need more closets (to supplement the four I already have).

Image: Captain Jack holding down the fabric for me to cut. By Jonathan Hutchins.

Writer’s Block? Nah.

I don’t seem to suffer from writer’s block–that horrible time when you stare at a blank page or computer scene and can’t bring yourself to begin. There are times, however, when I can’t write, like this January when I was celebrating my birthday and burying my brother.

Over the last few weeks, I found I had nothing important to say, or at least, nothing that was worth inflicting on others. I can always blather away about nothing in particular, but I mercifully try to keep most of that to myself. Instead, I’ve lately found myself thinking and pondering and struggling with meaning or some form of significance worthy of taking up someone else’s time.

I had another birthday, so I looked back on my year and my life and found I’m the same and different. I reconnected with a lot of long-lost relatives and friends over the past year and found I had been missing those connections. I hope in the coming year to spend more time with those people and to not misplace them again.

And my brother died. My last full brother, the last of the Fantastic Four, the small family that consisted of my father, my two brothers, and me. The time when we were a family I remember through the fog of time as being the happiest of my life. Mind you, this was when I was somewhere between five and eight years of age. In the house my father built with his own hands, I had a bedroom with horse wallpaper and a lamp that was a black knight on a black horse and, pinned to the wall, dozens of pictures of horses cut from magazines or traced from books. Are you detecting a theme here? During that time I spent Christmas with my Great Aunt Sadie in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where we all ate popcorn balls and played Monopoly. It snowed, something that doesn’t happy in Albuquerque very often, and the luminaries on the tops of the adobe houses were beautiful. We four camped and traveled fearlessly and celebrated Treat Night every Friday (see my earlier post about that).

Things changed. My dad married and suddenly our family included a stepmom and two stepbrothers and, later, a half sister. Meanwhile, my mother had remarried and had a son, a half brother I’ve only come to know over the past few years. Time has been taking these people away from me, one by one. I still have one step brother, my stepmom, and the two half siblings. Over the holidays I visited my half sister and was delighted to see my father alive again in her mannerisms and turns of phrase–there was so much of him in her.

So instead of writing, I have been thinking. But enough of that. Time to write again.

Image: Birthday flowers. By Marilyn Evans

 

Happy Birthday!

My blog is now a year old! I’ve been having a lot of fun with it, and I hope my faithful readers have, too. I’ve posted 37 times (this will be 38), about three per month. That doesn’t hold a candle to Chuck Wendig’s Terrible Minds blog or the always wonderful Sandra Boynton’s daily output on Facebook, but for a rank amateur, I’d say not bad.

Blogging is far more satisfying for me than, say Twitter. I have never gotten to love Twitter as some people have. I appreciate it, but it’s just not my medium. I need to be able to ramble more than you can in a few letters. That’s probably why short stories, especially flash fiction, are not so much in my wheel house as long fiction, at least according to my rejection letters.

My beloved spouse has tried on occasion to convince me to write nonfiction, and I have from time to time. I’m not so very bad at it, but, as they say, been there, done that. Time to learn something new. In truth, there are some nonfiction projects I’d like to take on, but I feel I owe it to the novels who have been waiting patiently in the wings to finally give them their chance. They may flop spectacularly, but I’ll write them down and let them fend for themselves.

The hardest part of writing for me so far is the book promotion. I love people, and I love talking about my books and the writing process, but selling myself is hard for me. I am much more shy than anyone would guess upon first making my acquaintance. I can bluff pretty well, but I’d rather not say to a total stranger, “You really must read my fantastic book! It will change your life! You will see angels! Puppies and kittens will flock to the shelter of your enlightened mind!” It smacks too much of religious proselytizing and Amway salesmanship. Still, it is part of the process, so I must grit my teeth and have at it, at least to some extent.

I doubt that I will ever “make it big” in the writing game, but the past year has been a great joy for me. Today, I will again do as I did one year ago, brace for the cold and snow, fire up the tea kettle, snuggle down with cats, and write.

I thanks to each and every person who has read anything I’ve ever written. I hope you’ll enjoy what comes next.

Image: January 2019 snow. By Jonathan Hutchins.

A Christmas Story

My Christmas story “The Man Christmas Hated” is my gift to all of you. Go to the Stories tab at the top of the page, and you should be able to access it.

I hope you enjoy the story, and that the holidays, however you celebrate them or not, bring you and all yours happiness and prosperity in the coming year.

Image: Yule Log, by Jonathan Hutchins.

Brain Full of Poetry

I suspect my muse is an insomniac. For decades, I’ve kept a pencil and pad at my bedside for those nights when my brain is so full of poetry that I couldn’t sleep until I write it down. Poems that come to me in the night can never be retrieved as completely as when they first appear. I don’t really write poetry any more, but story ideas still come in their place–characters, plot lines, scenes, turns of phrase–they come to haunt my hours between waking and sleep when the muse is restless and pacing, when my mind is most vulnerable to her.

My poetry was pretty bad, doggerel, probably, but that didn’t keep it from being relentless. Just the other night, after a long silence, a poem came to keep me awake that was an ode to camping. I love camping in spite of ticks, chiggers, mosquitoes, sunburn, poison ivy, thunderstorms, and raccoons that steal my food and try on my clothes (long story). I even broke my foot on a camp out–full disclosure, there were darkness, uneven ground, alcohol, and flip-flops involved, so possibly inevitable. In spite of all this, I love camping, but an ode to it keeping me awake seemed a bit perverse. Who writes odes to camping? Who would read it? Yet, there it was, tapping its foot and waiting impatiently to be acknowledged.

Some writers, I’m told, sit down and write. Others write in their minds for a long time before pen ever touches paper or fingers rest on keyboard. I’m of the latter school. I think about characters, plot lines, scenes, turns of phrase for a good long while before committing them to print. When I’m stuck, I take a walk and wait for my muse to stir  herself from her nap and get back to work inspiring me. I don’t mind so much that she is erratic and unreliable, that she parties at night and snores during most of my waking hours, as long as she’s there now and again. And sometimes, without my asking or thinking about it, she comes in the night to fill my brain with stories and poetry. Most of the time I dutifully write them down.

Image: My brothers, Paul and George, and me on a camping trip in 1957. Photo by John P. Evans (Yes, my family included John, Paul, and George. No, you may not call me Ringo.)

Sex Scenes

Warning: Content possibly unsuitable for minors and nervous persons

Sex in fiction is tricky.

The Marquis de Sade writing Justine and Juliette or Pauline Reage (the pseudonym of Anne Desclos) writing The Story of O, did not exhibit much restraint in how they wrote about sex, pushing the boundaries past what many (perhaps even most) would call acceptable. But these authors knew what they were writing and why: the sex didn’t contribute to the story, it was the story. Fifty Shades of Grey, a financial success but generally regarded as poorly written and uninformed, used the expectations of its audience to deliver what they wanted–not reality, but a fantasy. Successful romance writers have a keen sense of what is appropriate to their audience and the type of novel they are writing. There are subgroups within the romance genre that prepare the reader for how much or how little sex the novel contains and how graphic the descriptions will be. This is true of other genres as well. We might expect a graphic rape scene in a hard-boiled mystery, but never in a cozy.

In a series, we might expect a character to change their relationships over time, but we don’t expect them to go too far off the rails. Laurell K. Hamilton started her Anita Blake series as really good urban fantasy with a solid core of mystery. Unfortunately, a few novels into the series, the plots disappeared, and the books because vehicles for paranormal porn. This wouldn’t be a bad thing in and of itself, except I was expecting a good story, not endless sex scenes. Some of her fans liked where the series went. I wasn’t one of them.

Sex in a work of fiction (including it, leaving it out, dialing it back) has to be appropriate to the story and to the audience. When it goes wrong, sex scenes can be jarring and distracting, taking the focus off the story being told. In his book, Jaws, Peter Benchley included an affair between Chief Brody’s wife and the shark expert. It contributed nothing to the story and was wisely left out of the film version. The legendary editor, Maxwell Perkins, persuaded Ernest Hemingway to remove from For Whom the Bell Tolls the scene of the hero masturbating on the eve of battle. Hemingway felt it showed the character’s humanity. Perkins knew it would be a distraction.

I find writing sex scenes hard. It’s not that I’m a prude–quite the contrary. But I know if it is not done well, it can be the undoing of a novel. I know that the sex scenes can go too far, that badly written scenes are laughable, that expectations not met can disappoint the reader. I know that a sex scene not expected and anticipated can derail the readers opinion of a character.

Sex is important. It’s how nearly all of us got here. Most of the time, most of us like it. It usually makes us happy. But bad sex in fiction can serve a purpose as well–for example, what better way to show a failing marriage than through the demise of intimacy? In the end, what sex should do, as every other element of fiction should do, is serve the story.

Image: Priapus, ancient Roman wall mural in Pompey, Rome. Photo by Marilyn Evans.