Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Family Trees

I have in my office a copy of a family tree, sketched by some relative many, many years ago, long before I was born. The tree shows long branches, cut-off branches, and a sturdy trunk, but the handwriting is so spidery, and everything is so jammed, it's hard to make out what's going on. Being a problem-solver, I thought I could untangle this branchy web with a diagram. Wrong. All I did was create more confusion. Then it came to me - I really don't care about genealogy, what I care about are the family stories.  So I picked out a few names and did some research. Now that's fun!

I am doing the same thing with my current WIP. I have a family tree of sorts for my characters, but it's filled with their ages, heights, hair colors, who is married to whom and what they do for a living, etc. This background may never be used in the book, but it matters to me. This is part of their stories. I list their nicknames, their foibles, their loves, and what scares them silly. It's all linked on a neat sheet of paper, and whenever I feel as if I'm losing touch with a character, I refer to it.

It also keeps me from making that most horrible of mistakes, changing eye color in mid-book!

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

J. Rodney Johnson

When I realize how young Rodney Johnson was when he was my Wills and Trusts professor in law school, I'm gobsmacked. He seemed much older to a 23 year old me. In many ways he was. Deliberate of speech, careful in his pronouncements, a man who thought things through before he opened his mouth, he was one hell of a teacher. I can think of maybe four teachers in all my scholastic career I will never forget and always be grateful I was a student of theirs, and Professor Johnson was one of them. Miss Blazer (honors high school English), Dr. Niederer (art history), Richard H. W. Dillard (creative writing), and Rodney Johnson were the best. Richard still is, since he's the only one still with us.

Wills and Trusts was a required course when I was in law school a thousand years ago, and I really wasn't in the right frame of mind for it. I wanted to be a criminal defense attorney. As far as I was concerned, spend your money and don't leave any for your heirs. That philosophy only works when you're 23. Rodney Johnson was a no-nonsense kind of teacher who expected you sit up, pay attention, and think.  I respect that in a professor, so I grudgingly did what he asked. Along the way, I learned a heck of a lot that was fascinating and showed me how the legal landscape of wills and trusts was fraught with time bombs and not for the faint-of-heart lawyer. Yes, people killed over estates. I soaked it all in.

I can't say I ever wanted to work exclusively with wills and trusts, but I learned enough to take my time, research, and ask the right questions. If I had a sticky situation that had me wondering if I was writing a document correctly, I could always pick up the phone and call my former teacher. He'd start with his slow drawl and pleasantries, then say "well now, let me make sure we're clear about the problem." And he always helped me regain my confidence, or he'd steer me in another direction I hadn't realized was there. I will be forever grateful to him for his kindness and professionalism.

He was a good man who gave unstintingly of himself to others, and not only his former students. His dedication to his family, especially his lovely wife, his church, and his faith were givens. No one ever doubted his sincerity or his joy in giving of his talents to those who needed them.  It's pretty much a cliché to say the world will be a lesser place without him, but in this instance, it's horribly true.

I wish I'd known he wasn't going to be with us for long.  I'd have written or called, and I will always regret that I didn't.  The best thing I can do to honor his memory is to pay it forward.  I will.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Valuing our work

 I've never given my books away online. There, I've said it. I'm just not convinced using "freebies" will get you new readers.  Imagining a vast wasteland of ereaders jammed to the gills with free downloads, I just can't bring myself to toss my hard-worked, sweat-of-my-brow, blood of my soul stories into the ether for free. I worked hard on those books, damn it.

I feel as if it would be a betrayal to give them away. I don't mind an occasional story or bits and pieces. Sometimes I just need to know if something is working before I spend the next six months of my life on it.  And as a woman, I recognize the fact that we get paid a hell of a lot less than men for doing just as good a job, or even better. So the issue of the laborer being worthy of her hire strikes a resonating chord with me.

I'm also suspicious of what people will think of a free book. Will they think it's less good, less valuable, less worth their respect or time?  I know I feel that way. Or else, I wonder why a writer considers this book to be a throwaway. None of those feel right to me.

Marketing Ebooks online seems to me to be like herding cats with an invisible net.  If there were a sure-fire way to garner huge readership by giving away free copies, I'm sure the writing world would be doing it en masse. Me, I think the real idea is to write a damned good book. Let the readers take it from there.

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Cherries

Grocery shopping is one of those necessary evils, like laundry and house chores. I get it done, then collapse in a heap of OMG, I survived another Kroger's run.  But yesterday I bought cherries. Yes, cherries, my saving grace.

Every year, I wait for this season not just for the weather (61 degrees in June! really??!!), but for the flowers and fruit. Cherries are a vice, I swear. How can any one fruit (except for sweet Georgia peaches) taste so wonderful? It's a struggle to parse them out, because I want to dive head first into the bag.

They also bring back a very early memory. My family bought a house when I was in preschool that had several mature cherry trees.  I can still see the fruit falling on the driveway, the trees were so laden. My mother decided this was a waste, so she put me to work pitting the buckets-full she collected. I loved how the cherries stained my hands and nails a bright red. The next step involved making cherry preserves and pies. Now, my mother was not a die-hard kitchen fan. Cooking wasn't her forte, but she couldn't stand wasting all those cherries. I remember my dad getting involved in sealing jars with hot wax, the steamy kitchen, the counters filled with bowls of newly pitted cherries, my mother rolling pie crust.

That was a magical summer before my foray into first grade. Cherries filled my dreams. When I arrived in first grade, I was reluctant to leave that hot kitchen filled with wonderful smells and food. So I learned the art of daydreaming. After all, Dick and Jane led incredibly boring lives and had never pitted cherries. I rolled pie crusts in my mind. My teacher, young and pretty and prissy, was not amused. A conference with my mother ensued.

As my mother told the story, the teacher remarked, after introductions, "Well, now that I've met you,  I understand Tracy." My mother wasn't sure whether she should be flattered or insulted. So she chose to be amused. After all, my mother was a college grad and pretty darn smart.

I promised my mother to hide my boredom. After all, I could read already, and that's all my mother cared about, not my prissy teacher's opinion. It all worked out in the end.

I still love cherries, and not only because of their flavor.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

The Mockingbird Next Door by Marja Mills

I finished this book a couple of weeks ago, and have been debating with myself ever since about writing what I think about it.  Well, not exactly writing about the book, but about the subject - Nelle Harper Lee.  Then I realized I wasn't going to get any peace until I put my thoughts down on paper, or in this instance, the screen.

Disclaimer here: I grew up with To Kill a Mockingbird and it probably influenced my first career choice, the law. If I could have been another Atticus Finch, I would probably still be practicing. 

First of all, I totally believe Marja Mills had the Lees' permission, both from Nelle and sister Alice, to write the book.  Mills has written what is basically a softball piece, filled with compliments, admiration, and respect for both women. Alice comes across as the better of the two sisters, most definitely. A tireless worker (she practiced law into her hundredth year), her sister's shield and advocate, she epitomized, as Mills says, a female Atticus Finch.  She was a woman to be reckoned with.

Yet it is Nelle who dominates the book, probably because she's the subject the publisher wanted and because of who she is: the reclusive Harper Lee.  Mills admits she deleted stories and people about whom NHL spoke because NHL didn't want to hurt anyone's feelings.  The friends who accepted Mills into their homes were open and inclusive, and spoke, apparently, with NHL's permission. Otherwise, I can't imagine one of NHL's closest friends revealing the late night drunken rants over the telephone that came from NHL. He finally put a stop to it when his wife was home alone and on the receiving end of the ugliness coming out of a bottle.  This brief mention of alcoholism and another mention by a professor who opined that NHL didn't write a book she briefly researched because of the alcohol are the only mentions of a severe, crippling problem.

What has me in a funk is this: what a waste of talent and life.  NHL wrote well, and it is a crying shame she never wrote again. (The book coming out in July is supposedly the first draft, from the viewpoint of an adult Scout, written before TKAM.) In fact, it's criminal that she chose to retreat into a bottle and whatever demons she battled instead of facing them. What she could have given the world!  I keep imagining NHL marching with protesters in Ferguson, and what that would have meant.

Nothing can change the fact that she chose to disappear as much as possible, with appearances here and there.  If only she had used her talent wisely and given us more to remember than one very good book.  It's always horrible to learn your idol is a drunken, selfish, and sometimes less than nice, curmudgeon.   I just hope I can separate her life from the book, or one of my lynch pins is going to buckle and break.

Maybe one day I'll get over it.

Monday, May 04, 2015

When it doesn't go as planned. . .

I was cleaning up the deck at home, hauling out lawn chairs, pulling cushions from their winter hidey-holes, and generally rejoicing in a perfect day, weather-wise.  We were just back from a quick trip to the lake, and feeling the need to continue the great outdoors adventure.  So I hauled the umbrella for the dining table from the shed, and quickly dropped it through the hole in the tempered glass table.

Big mistake. The explosion was immediate, the shock quickly followed. Glass everywhere, including in my skin.  I stood there for what seemed hours, as the tempered glass crackled and continued to break from its death place on the deck floor. Slivers of glass had shot into my jeans and my shoes, and all I could think was, how on earth do I clean this up and start over? I wished I could I go back to five seconds earlier and re-do everything I had done, which was clearly a mistake.

There are no do-overs for shattered glass or writers, once a book is published. When it's done, it's done.  I can't tell  you how often I will read a paragraph here and there in one of my books, and think to myself, I need to do another rewrite. If I have the rights back, I sometimes will.  But not often. It's crazy, but warts and all, it's my baby and it needs to be what it is. I just have to get over myself and my compulsion to rewrite the heck out of everything.

A story loses its sparkle, at least for me, when I'm compulsively rewriting it. One day, I'll learn to let it go. It'll fly or sink on its own.

So there. I need to go clean up the million pieces of glass all over the deck. At least I know what to do with that.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Rereading the classics

A few books stay on my keeper shelf forever. Others have wandered away (NoMoreLendingBooks!), leaving only their memories. Some, I mean to reread and analyze. Others, I can practically quote them verbatim. In that category:

 Theophilis North by Thornton Wilder. What a charmer. A writing style I will never achieve.

 Falling Woman by Pat Murphy. So cool, even years after the first reading blew me away.

Barbara Kingsolver's Prodigal Summer is going to get an analysis - I'm going to outline the structure - because it's so unusual.

Anne Tyler's A String of Blue Thread is going to get the same treatment. The death of the narrator in the middle of the book threw me a loop, but she manages to weave her back into the story in the second half with effortless style. I don't think I can do that, so I need to learn how Tyler pulled it off. Or if she didn't, and I'm just hoodwinked.

Laura Kinsale's Flowers from the Storm. What a hero. What a heroine. What an incredible opening. I still see certain scenes, and I haven't read the book in a long time. Must go find it now. . .

There are many others, but these always jump into my head first thing when I'm looking for a book to pick me up and give me something wonderful all over again.

Oh, and of course, Pride and Prejudice. Or as it's referred to in our house, P&P. Wish I owned stock in that book. It has paid me incredible pleasure dividends over the many years since I first found it.  Dialogue to kill for.