Saturday, March 26, 2011

Been soaring

In my next life I may need to be a pelican. I've always loved to watch them dive like arrows into the sea or skim the edge of waves as if their wingtips could brush the surface without consequence.
On my vacation this week I discovered the Dana Point Headlands, which brought the pelicans up very close and personal.
The headlands is an enormous coastal cliff that towers above Dana Point Harbor to the south and Strand Beach to the north. I've often walked at its foot and have posted pictures of the rocky beach, but I never knew there was a trail on top.
From the top, which is an ecological preserve bursting with native plants, you can see 180 degrees of blue-slate ocean and horizon. It is one of few places where you see the slight curvature of the earth due to the unbroken expanse and the height of the promontory.

This time of year, gray whales are migrating back north after spending the winter in their nursery in Mexico.

I saw a mother and baby! Mostly, I saw a bit of their backs as they surfaced. In the three visits I made to the headlands, I saw whales each time, including a nice tail flip.
Whale watching boats linger below the cliff (you can see one in this picture) and then travel up the coast from the harbor. One of the boats was surrounded by dozens of porpoises, popping out of the water like flying fish.
This year, I remembered to bring my binoculars, which are necessary if you want to see much.

* *

The pelicans kept astounding me, too, appearing silently from below the cliff.
Not at all silent was a mockingbird who sang every song known to bird--chit-chit-chit, neider-neider, tweet, chirrup, chirrup, chip, twee-twee, wrrrrrr, cherree, pip, pip, pip. Or some such language. I was there for hours, and he rarely stopped.

The bush sunflowers were all in bloom, and the air was filled with the sharp tangy scent coming from a bluish bush and the sweet butterscotch aroma given off by California everlasting.
Between the fresh sea breeze and the heady aroma from the plants, I couldn't get enough deep breaths. It was intoxicating.

There was the continuous rush and rumble of waves against cliffs, a far-off fog horn and the querulous bark of sea lions who sunned on a buoy. I felt transported to a simpler time and place.

Later, I was back in San Clemente for sunset.

The wind was cold and howling across the sea, causing a string of little girls holding hands to skitter down the wood-plank pier shrieking.

I walked to the end where the water spreads out for unfathomable distance, and all the world is reduced to sea and sky. (And, of course, other people taking pictures who I included, because everyone knows that shots are better with people in them.)


I leave you with an ocean enameled by sunset and a few hardy surfers waiting to catch the last wave of the day.
I did work some on my fairy tale, mostly brainstorming ideas and came up with some I'm excited about. Two crit groups this week. Can't wait.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Anatomy of a good read

MR. MURDER took me where I thought I’d never go.

Dean Koontz’s novel pits a mystery writer with a successful career and happy family life against a professional assassin who is also a madman.

After I finished this book recently, I posted on Goodreads: “Wow. I had to make myself read this after a friend suggested I might find it interesting to study the way Dean Koontz alternated POVs, including the antagonist's viewpoint. Usually, I don't read psychological thrillers, because I'm a wimp and get too scared. This book captivated me with riveting story, clean prose and wonderful characterizations. It also surprised me a number of times. Excellent storytelling, and I'm so glad I got over my scaredy-catness and read it. And I have to agree that he handled POV switches masterfully and to great effect.”

I’m writing in alternating POVs in my WIP, a fractured fairy tale, switching at times to the antagonist. My villain is twisted and unpredictable, and I’m having a great time creating her, adding as much depth to her as to my protagonist.

Reading MR. MURDER now (published 18 years ago) is perfect timing for me. His antagonist is so twisted and frightening, but I grew to understand what made him tick through Koontz’s carefully-built character arc. This was the best part of reading this book for me as I study how Koontz made the story more chilling by letting us walk in the killer’s shoes and see through his eyes.

We learn just enough in the first scenes to be scared of this man who carries fake identification, a pistol with a silencer and admits to having holes in his memory. He dispassionately sizes up women he might have sex with and then kill, as long as he draws no attention to himself or messes up his scheduled assassinations. Everything he does is planned, calculated, and apparently orchestrated by some handler he can’t remember. He doesn’t know his real name or family.

He feels empty, as Koontz writes, “He feels as if he is a hollow man, made of the thinnest glass, fragile, only slightly more substantial than a ghost.”

All this before the reader is 30 pages in. Then the killer goes renegade, pulled by some destiny to find a life. “I need to be someone,” he says.

Because I don’t like to give spoilers, that’s all I’m going to say about a story that gallops headlong into terrifying territory. I strongly suggest reading the book if you haven’t and are interested in writing a great antagonist.

As for overall viewpoint, I’m one of those readers who must have clean POV changes or I’m booted out of story. I like the viewpoint switches to occur by chapter or by scenes separated by breaks and with action anchoring the reader in the new character’s perspective. There are very few authors skillful enough to do it within scenes, Neil Gaiman being one of them.

Koontz used multiple POVs in MR. MURDER. He did it with scene breaks, and the opening lines of each scene made it clear which person was thinking. I never questioned where I was or why I was there. That’s another key issue—the reason to switch heads is to convey information or perspective that can’t be gotten another way and is important to the story arc. It should add depth, not just words.

Dissecting Koontz’s viewpoint changes, the opening lines if each break include the following (this is not verbatim, just partial lines)
1(protagonist)—Martin Stillwater suddenly realized he was repeating the same two words in a dreamy whisper. . . “I need. . . I need. . .I need. . .”
2(antagonist)—The killer’s flight from Boston arrives on time. . .At the rental agency counter he discovers that his reservation has not been misplaced or misrecorded, as often happens. . .Everything seems to be going his way.
3(protagonist’s child)—Daddy wasn’t Daddy.
4(antagonist)—Like a shark cruising cold currents in a night sea, the killer drives. This is his first time in Kansas City, but he knows the streets.
5(protagonist)—While the girls were upstairs, brushing their teeth and preparing for bed, Marty methodically went from room to room on the first floor, making sure all the doors and windows were locked.

This book is too wickedly good to give away the plot, so I don’t want to go into who the killer really is or what happens to the family. But here is a snippet I loved as a writer:

He said, “You and I were passing the time with novels, so were some other people, not just to escape but because. . .because, at its best, fiction is medicine.”
“Life is so damned disorderly, things just happen, and there doesn’t seem any point to so much of what we go through. Sometimes it seems the world’s a madhouse. Storytelling condenses life, gives it order. Stories have beginnings, middles, ends. And when a story is over, it meant something, by God, maybe not something complex, maybe what it had to say was simple, even na├»ve, but there is meaning. And that gives us hope, it’s a medicine.”
I hope this is useful to other writers, or readers. I was fascinated.
I may or may not have Internet access this coming week, so if I don't respond to comments, that's why. Have a great week, everyone.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Taking a moment to celebrate

Happy St. Patrick's Day--before a chance to post my wishes for a safe and fun day slides away. I've been busy!
I baked brown soda bread yesterday for family in Venice. Today, I baked another loaf to take to a friend's house for corned-beef dinner. Add a Guinness, and, well, yum sums it up.
The best soda bread in my opinion is made with whole grains, oats, buttermilk, a dash of brown sugar and, of course, baking soda. There's no need to add anything (except a slab of butter) to this flavorful bread.
My daughter is studying to become a Pilates instructor, so yesterday I also took a lesson with her that was truly amazing. She's going to be a great teacher, and I'm fast becoming a convert to this exercise program.
Plus, I've written another chapter of my fairy tale, so I'm feeling energized and productive, even while my heart still grieves for the losses in my personal life and in the world right now.

The tide was super high in Venice today. I remember reading something about the full moon this weekend being closer than it's been in 18 years and, so, may affect the tides.

I took this photo on another day when the tide was low, and with a touch of pink to the clouds, instead of the lid of gray there was this morning.


Here are some off-the-top-of-my-head haiku that floated from the sea breeze into my muddled brains.

tide reaches so high,
water laps the lifeguard
tower called Driftwood.
sandpipers huddle
in the weak dawn; a fishing trawler
sways on choppy seas.
two monster-bright eyes
emerge from swirling mist; clawed
tractor sweeping sand.
Cheers! Slainte!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Each voice, each life

Author Jo Knowles wrote an excellent post titled Write like there's no one in the room.

There's something that frees us to take risks, explore our boundaries, let our spirit rise when we are not concerned about eyes watching or critics judging. And each of us has something to say, in a way no one else will say it.

Each voice. Each person. Each life. That's what's on my mind. The images coming from Japan bring me to my knees, cause such anguish and heartbreak.

I grieve for the country. I cry for each person whose voice is gone.

None of us know if we will live a century or be handed an abbreviated life as I wrote about in my last post.

We have no control over some things, but we can control how we spend our time, how we treat other people and what kind of legacy we leave. I am guilty of many mistakes in life and can only hope that each time I pick myself up and go on that I will do better.
Recent events hammer home to me how much each second matters, how my petty worries are insignificant within the bigger scope of life, how I have a responsibility to myself and others to let my light--whatever it is--shine and not shroud it in fear and self-doubt.

We live on a volatile planet in a volatile universe. I have loved this Earth, this tiny planet in the vastness of space, with the fierceness of a mother. I have feared her, too.

This Earth, in all its beauty and danger, is what we have. What we do is up to us.


Photo of a supernova remnant, courtesy of NASA.
(Important update: For those of you who know blogger Claire Dawn in Iwate, she has posted that she is safe. I am filled with such relief.)

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Day After

Irene. Krista. Judy. Kevin. Joanne. These are people I loved who died of cancer.

They had so much still to live, to give. And they died with too much pain.

The reason I'm writing about this today is this weekend I attended a memorial for Jo--a funny, vibrant, compassionate woman who loved her family and her animals fiercely. She did not want to give in to cancer. She fought hard.

One of her sons swallowed his grief to talk about her loving heart. Another son made a touching slide show of her life. As we watched, we saw the joy and love that had filled so many years. We laughed at the German Shepherd trying to curl into her lap. We cried at her last visits to the stables.

As painful as memorial services are they give us the chance to reflect on the lives of those we love, to remember how they touched us or made us better. That is an honor, not a burden.


When my friend Kevin was struggling to stay alive, I was shocked to be diagnosed with the same cancer he had. Normally, I wouldn't share much about this on a blog about writers and stories, but what is dying but the final bookend of life and what is writing except about life?

I still remember his reaction when I told him I had been struck with the same cancer. He let loose an expletive of the strongest kind, and I actually liked that a friend would loudly voice that anger and not give me pity or platitudes. I am one of the lucky ones, having survived several surgeries and treatment. I'm still here after a dozen years. *knocks on wood*

Kevin was an artist, curator, writer, musician--a true creative soul. But he told me he had come to accept that his life might end long before he'd anticipated. I wrote this simple poem as I struggled in the early days of my own diagnosis. It's just a reminder to me to live each day as if it were the last, to be clear in my goals, compassionate in my interactions to the best of my ability.

"I’ve accepted an
abbreviated version
of my life,"
he said.

An elegant,
gritty turn of phrase.
Wish I’d imagined it,
not inherited it.

But it’s time
to edit,
clarify the essence.

And be prepared
for an abbreviated
of my life


This morning I wandered the sea shore, thinking of Jo and her family. Some words came to me in haiku form, so I'll share them.

sluggish clouds lift from

the green back of coastal hills.

sun melts the tightness

swarm of pelicans,

trailed by two stragglers, skims the

ruffled edge of waves.


wailing, scolding gulls

circle, land; unquestioning

their role or place


a surfer glistens

ocean-wet, grinning, teeth white

as the crashing waves.


clear, salt breeze fills my

lungs, makes me part of the sea

and completely me


Godspeed, Jo. And love always Irene, Krista, Kevin, Judy. And, belatedly, I add my dear Aunt Doris, who I just found out died of cancer, as well.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Take a look at a book

I was so lucky last night to have a young reader at my crit group and thrilled to see her happy faces drawn on my YA manuscript. If you write kidlit of any sort, you know that's an extra-special connection. So, thank you, Lucy.

And that brings me to another reading moment of joy. Read Across America is celebrating today with a slew of Dr. Seuss activities in schools, libraries, homes. Is there anyone who hasn't experienced the joy of Seuss rhymes and satisfaction of his stories?

Dr. Seuss, aka Theodor Geisel, wrote the iconic The Cat in the Hat, following a 1954 report that suggested children were having trouble reading because books were boring. He incorporated words his publisher thought would be important for children to learn. He made it fun. He made it meaningful. He left a legacy of 44 books. Soooo. . .

Read to the kids

Read to yourself

Take a book right

Off of the shelf!