Thursday, December 27, 2007

Gratitude: The Golden Human Trait

I first heard the notion put plainly by Dennis Prager. Lack of gratitude is the best guarantee you can give yourself that you'll be unhappy. And the obvious corollary of this idea is that simple gratitude is the closest thing we have to a guarantee of happiness.

It's a notion so simple that it should surprise no one. But I think, even worse than being surprised by the idea, a large portion of the populace would have a hard time believing it.

I don't pretend to have an unfailing handle on the idea of gratitude-at-every-possible turn. But I do think about the notion. And I try to follow through.

Simple things like carrying a little camera around and capturing the photos above and below make me see--and be grateful for--what nature brings us.

On the writing front, I'm grateful when the words seem to work, when the story makes sense and has impact. Is it the same as having a best-seller? Of course not. But it's still and achievement worth noting. And enjoying.

It's also an interesting consideration for anyone working on characters for a story. How do these people approach the world? Is ingratitude and misery their automatic approach? Or do they find meaning in the little gifts?

Thursday, December 20, 2007

A New Toy

view from office window

I just got a new camera (Nikon D300) and am looking forward to learning to get the most from it. I've only taken a few dozen pictures so for, but it's clearly a huge upgrade from my first DSLR (a Nikon D70) in every meaningful respect (autofocus, handling, low-light image quality, and speed).

This is the good light season in Southern California, and I should have some wonderful early and late-day opportunities in the coming weeks.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Fire Moon

In the wake of the recent California wildfires, the full moon glowed eerily red.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Nursery Santa

We visited a wonderful nursery in Fallbrook (fires destroyed immense acreage nearby) yesterday. It's woodsy, with aged buildings (a barn, a small house, a carriage house, ...) and terrific flowing fountains. Each year they sell Christmas trees and have a great assortment of ornaments and decorations (with a Santa statue whose lap the kids can sit in)

If I could live on the premises, I'm sure I'd last twenty years longer than I will here in the burbs.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Summer's End

For the first time in ages, I'm actually a little sad to see summer go.

And here's why:

This summer in Southern California was, until this last week, very mild.

I didn't accomplish anywhere near what I'd hoped to during the 'break.'

My son, going into second grade now, is growing up much too fast.

The fall is (and always has been) my favorite time. But it, too, will slide away much too fast.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

A Day of Fishing

I took my son fishing for only the second time in his life today (I'm ashamed to say). We were unsuccessful. It's clearly time to venture out to a more serious lake (or perhaps the ocean), rather than the local man-made lakes we've hit so far.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Building a Better Structure

Yesterday, thanks to the encouragement of a very capable writer friend (and after a several-month-long detour), I became a member of an online flash fiction critique group. It's a group limited to 70 members, and it has a very disciplined structure. As a member, I'm required to submit one story a month and critique four others.

Based on the limited experiences I've had with flash fiction this year (some of which I've documented in earlier posts), I expect to learn a lot. The requirement to stay engaged with consistent critique--and to routinely produce new material--should have wonderful side-effects beyond improving my skills.

As a man who claims to love writing, a large part of me believes, at some barely conscious level, that inspiration--and wonderful stories--should flow without a battle. But the truth is, I'm happy to have some external encouragement to produce stories.

An aside: Groups like this would be a particularly great outlet for writers who can't find others to commune with in their own hometowns.

Monday, August 06, 2007


passing car

I'm working--without nearly enough vigor--on my novel still. Waiting for the publication of a piece of flash fiction that came in second in a contest for an online lit magazine (I'm avoiding mentioning the details here until it's actually out in the world so I don't risk jinxing the thing).

Unfortunately, the children's book I want to write is continually nipping at my heels, demanding attention I don't want to give it until my current novel is out in the world.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Two Grand Traditions In Need of Defense

My son got to see real up-close-and-personal fireworks for the first time this 4th of July. It's a wonderful experience that's fading fast. One more sad victim of our Nanny-built society.

A Moment in Albany

I recently spent a week on business at a hotel in historic downtown Albany. A couple times, I went out for little bits of exploration, finding parks hidden away between buildings, a wonderful historic state capitol, and some lovely brownstones. Herman Melville lived--and, I believe, wrote Moby Dick--very near here.

Lacking Inspiration? Try a Contest

This past Saturday, had their quarterly (I think?) flash fiction contest. The contest kicks off with a prompt and a twenty-four hour window in which to respond. This particular prompt centered around a campfire ghost story that gets interrupted by a disheveled man and an infant who come creepily out of the dark woods.

It's a fun, tense challenge to be boxed in by both story and scope, and I think it's particularly good for any writer who's struggling with the burden of ideas-from-nothing.

There are many other prompted flash fiction contests, most of which don't have the tight time constraints. It's nice inspiration and good for your writing discipline.

I can't recommend the experience highly enough.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Flash Fiction Failures, Part I

In a recent post, I mentioned how difficult I find it to write a coherent story in 250 words. Below, I've inserted one of two stories I wrote for (but didn't submit to) one particular contest.

I wrote this story in a short, undisciplined fury. I thought the basic notion, and the punch-line, would be strong enough to make it work. Everyone (I believe it was, literally, everyone) in my writing class disagreed.

Splash, Indeed

I hate the ocean. Its romance is totally lost on me.

What’s to like, really?

Sand wedged up your crack? Seagull crap in your French fries? Hypodermics floating ashore?

So why am I here, you ask?

Fair enough.

I’m here to take advantage of half-witted tourists who leave their valuables tucked in shoes as they wallow--like pale, obese slugs--in the surf. I don’t get why these numbskulls think that, simply because they’re on vacation, they don’t have to exercise common sense.

I can’t swim, if it’s anything to you. So I try to work well away from the shore. Normally, this is no problem, since most of the touristy saps arrange their blankets well up into the dry stuff.

But today, the rip tide is strong, the beach steep and narrow. So I’m closer to the water’s edge than I’d like when all of a sudden this long-haired, bare-breasted creature comes charging out of the surf and right the hell up to me.

She’s beautiful, I suppose, for an animal out of that giant cesspool they call the Pacific. But she smells like seaweed. And her slimy fins are coated with wet sand.

I’m stunned when the crazy bitch leans in like she’s gonna give me a kiss or something. Before I know it, I’m swinging my cane like a mad-man and sorta grunting for help.

Why she acts surprised, I have no idea. I’m a total stranger, after all. And I hate the ocean.

More Summer Magic

splashing in the pool

Water has an almost mystical hold on me. In my wee youth, I was enthralled (and terrified) by the ocean. Now I'm simply enthralled. I love lakes and streams, as well. For a long time (until I'd been asked by a dozen different adults, "But how will you make a living?") I wanted to be a marine biologist.

Not surprisingly, I suppose, water flows its way into many of the stories I write, always providing mood (from bald-faced romance to brooding menace), often echoing a story's shape.

Growing up, no-one in my immediate family was particularly enamored of water, and, though I lived less than twenty miles from some of the world's most famous beaches, we rarely ventured to the shore. So I have no idea where my love of things aquatic began. But it's there, and it's strong.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Kimber Whale

My son loves the ocean (or at least what he knows about ocean creatures). Up until recently, these guys were called Kimber Whales.

This pic was taken on a nice day at Sea World San Diego.

Summer Sights

Writing Contests

I've made attempts at four different flash fiction writing contests* in the last couple months. The process has been fun and extremely challenging.

Two of the contests had a word limit of 500, which seems a comfortable fit, but one, The Pearl, had a 250 word limit. I made two attempts at the problem (writing two completely different stories) and failed miserably, even after re-writing one of them multiple times. 250 words is a painfully constricting barrier. Despite the fact that I've read published stories of that length that worked (and a writer friend of mine wrote a very fine horror story for the same contest), I'm going to make an official announcement here... It's impossible to tell a good story in 250 words. It has to be impossible, 'cause I can't effing do it.

More about the mechanics of the flash fiction contest world in the next entry...

*Writer's Weekly, Reading Writers, Tattoo Highway, The Pearl

Friday, June 08, 2007

Making Good Men

I took the above shot at a Cub Scout retreat (slipping away for a few minutes from the bonfire/awards ceremony).

In a world of maximum rights and minimum responsibility, the men and women leading Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts are doing an indispensible job helping to give young lives a sensibly guided structure. They teach, they command respect, and they make reasonable demands of their charges.

A huge thanks to them all.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

What You Already Knew

Several times in recent weeks, as I've been working on stories for contest submissions, I've had trusted reviewers offer a critique that mirrors something I had already thought, at some level, about the story in question.

Typically, what has happened is that I've thought a given section (a turn of phrase, a bit of character behavior) didn't quite fit/didn't quite work. But I kept it anyway because I had a fondness for the intention, rather than the execution.

I'm almost entirely convinced at this point that it's universally a mistake to hang on to something you know isn't working (typically hoping that no other reader will notice the weakness).

Oftentimes, the offending section isn't even central to the story, but is simply a stretch of prose we've come to love. In this case, particularly, give it the ax.

But what if the broken part is central to the story? In that case, I suggest re-writing in the simpliest way possible, a de-gimicification, if you will. Just give it a plain-Jane presentation to get the point across. Perhaps something better will come along later. But, if it doesn't, at least that part of the work won't stand out like a pustulent sore thumb.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Dirty Work -- Part II

by Renee Holland Davidson

Read Part I first

Two hours later, Rickert--one chin richer than in the photo--bulldozed through the double oak doors. A man and a woman, one on each side, quick-stepped to keep up. Both wore blue blazers with blue-and-red striped ties, the executive uniforms of Cal West Bank. They stopped at the valet stand, shook hands all around, and drove off, each in their own car. Nothing hinky here.

Rickert squeezed himself into a steel blue Jaguar, an easy tail, as long as he wasn't an amateur Andretti. I brushed the cornbread crumbs from my shirt, and flipped the ignition, waiting for a yellow VW to fall in behind him before I pulled out of the parking lot.

Ten miles down the main drag, then onto the freeway, headed north. No dodging and dancing for this guy--the Jag plowed a steady seventy in the second lane for fifty miles, then a quick exit on Lakeview Lane.

Lakeview was a narrow two-lane road that first snaked through Bixby canyon, then corkscrewed up the mountain to the town of Carrington. Towering pines and wrought-iron fencing surrounded Alpine-styled castles, and in the middle of it all, Lake Carrington--a 700-acre manmade play pool for the liposuctioned, Botoxed set.

I passed the exit, certain Rickert would spot me if I followed him through the canyon. It didn't matter; I knew where he was going. One of the names Jessica had given me was Bob Harvey, Rickert's business partner and best friend. Harvey had a vacation home overlooking the lake, and I had his address in my pocket.

I took the next exit and found an all-night diner. Figured I'd grab a cup of java and give Rickert some time to get settled in. I wondered whether I'd find the old boy playing an innocent game of Texas Hold 'em with a few pals, or another not-so-innocent game of poke-her.

Forty minutes later, I was cruising down Lake Terrace Road. When I reached Harveys' Haven--a redwood and glass structure that looked like a cross between a cathedral and a ski-resort chalet--I slowed down. No sign of the blue Jag, but he'd probably stashed it in the four-car garage that fronted the circular driveway.

I drove farther up the street and pulled into the dirt lot of a house still under construction. Camera in hand, I hoofed it back down the street to the Harvey place,

An automatic gate blocked the driveway and the man-gate next to it was locked. I slung the camera cord around my neck, said a little prayer that a spiked post wouldn't impale any precious body parts, and climbed over.

The floor-to-ceiling windows in the back of the house must've made for some awesome views, but privacy be damned. Lights glowed in the empty kitchen and family room. I'd walked three-quarters of the way around the house when I heard a scream from an upper window.

It wasn't a jackpot hurrah, and it wasn't a scream of ecstasy; it was trouble.

Pulling the revolver from my waistband, I reversed direction, heading for the French doors that closed in the dining room. Before bashing in a pane, I jiggled a doorknob, surprised to find it open. I crept inside, ears perked; all was quiet. The dining room was dark, but light from the kitchen shone onto the nearby staircase. Gun drawn, I headed for the stairs.

One foot on the first step, and the lights blazed on, momentarily blinding me. I slammed myself against the wall, and dropped down to one knee; pointing my gun up the stairwell.

A bitter laugh, then a shrill, taunting, "Hey, cowboy."

I recognized the voice immediately. Phoebe! My head buzzed. Phoebe? Phoebe and Rickert? I recoiled at the images exploding in my brain. Couldn't be. Something was wrong.

She stood at the top of the stairs, smirking, hands on her hips.

"What are you doing here, Phoebe? Was that you who screamed?"

Raised eyebrows, a slight shrug, then, without a word, she turned and walked down the hall.

I hesitated. Was Rickert up there? Did Jessica think he was messing with my wife? Was he messing with my wife? Who screamed? And why? I felt like I'd taken a sucker punch to the noggin.

Phoebe looked cool and calm as the glassy lake, but I wasn't primed for a high dive. I held my gun in front of me as I sprinted up the steps.

At the landing, I stopped, took a deep breath, then pushed open the first door on the right. Bookshelves lined the back wall behind a desk the size of a tugboat. In front of the desk, two overstuffed chairs. Phoebe lounged in one, legs crossed, that same smirk still painted on her face. Rickert slumped in the chair next to her. At his feet, a broken bottle of Jack Daniels bathed in a pool of glass shards and whiskey, and protruding from a bloody wound at the base of his neck--my switchblade.

My jaw clenched. "What happened?"

She aimed a remote control at a television hanging from the ceiling in a corner of the room. Two quick jabs with her thumb, and the screen lit up. Me, the star of the show, clambering over the front gate in hi-def color. "Well," she said, "looks like a jealous husband seeking revenge, don't you think?"

I studied Rickert. Three chins lolled on a blubbery chest that should've been stuffed in a super-sized bra. A gargantuan gut splayed over elephant-thick legs. "You weren't..."

She shook her head in disgust. "Give me some credit." She threw a glance his way. "I didn't even know him."

"Then why..."

"Doesn't matter."

I looked back up at the television, where I stood in freeze frame. "What do you want?"

"Help." She paused. "You dump the body, I destroy the clip." A nod to the computer on the desk. "And the copy I emailed."

The phone rang. Phoebe plucked a handkerchief from her pocket and used it to pick up the receiver. "Hello." Another glance at Rickert. "Yes, it's done." She listened, eyes focused on the ceiling. A quick intake of breath, then a long exhale. "Good." She hung up the phone and closed her eyes for a moment.

"Who was that?" I asked.


"How do you know her?"

Phoebe inspected her newly manicured fingernails. "My bartering club."

The pieces finally fell into place. My words came out slowly. "Where is she?"

"Dallas," she whispered.

"At your father's?"

She looked up at me, her eyes dark as Texas crude. "I don't have a father," she said.

Dirty Work -- Part I

by Renee Holland Davidson

Ten minutes before closing time on a Friday night, and in swept this babe, a classy-looking broad with enough karats on her fingers to choke a rabbit.

"Sam Stickman?"

"That's me, Honey. Who's asking?"

She slow-strutted across the office, giving me plenty of time to take in the action: bare legs tanned golden, stiletto-heeled black patent leather sandals, toenails painted maraschino red. "I'm Jessica," she purred.

She dropped a handful of C-notes on my desk along with a headshot of a smarmy-looking dude. "No contract, no records." She paused. "That's my husband. I want him followed. For months now, he's been coming home late with nothing but lame excuses for company."

What kind of sap stepped out on a skirt like this? She was an eyeful, all right, packed real tight in a white silk number, curves in all the right places. Reminded me of my old lady--way back when. Yeah, the broad was a class act once, but that show closed a long time ago.

I stared at the picture on my desk--gray strands slicked down in a kamikaze comb-over, a bulbous nose, and double-decker chin, old enough to be her father's older brother.

She saw the confusion in my eyes, fingered the almond-sized diamond that hung from a trio of gold chains around her neck. "No man makes a fool out of me, not for any price."

I hated this track-down-the-philanderer crap--bad karma between blood brothers and all that. But it was damn hard to refuse those sultry eyes. Besides, wifey had been keeping her claws tight on the purse strings lately, and my wallet was light. Only be a matter of time, she promised, Daddy Dearest would be wheezing his last breath soon, and then we'd be coasting Easy Street. In the meantime, we were rough-riding the potholes.

I shrugged and pulled out my notebook. "Have a seat, Miss Jessica."

She sat, her skirt riding so high, Sharon Stone would've winced.

I forced myself to concentrate on the blue-lined paper in front of me, jotted down the information she rattled off: addresses, phone numbers, car make and license plate. Hubby had packed for a weekend business trip that morning, said he was leaving straight from the city, after a late dinner meeting at Romano's on Fifth and Alder.

When she was finished, I stood up. "I'll call you tomorrow."

"I'll be out of town for a few days. I'll call you when I get back.

"Fine." I held out my hand.

Her touch was cool, her fingernails sharp. A slight nod, and then she turned and sauntered toward the door, hips switching from side to side. She stopped in the doorway and looked over her shoulder. One eyelid slid down in a slow wink, a miniscule upturn of the lips, and then she gently closed the door behind her.

I exhaled a long, low whistle, grabbed my handkerchief from my breast pocket and mopped my forehead. Collapsing into my chair, I yanked open my desk drawer, pulled out a fifth of whiskey and revived myself with a stiff shot.

When I got home, Phoebe was yapping on the phone. She hung up the minute I walked into the kitchen, her face flushed red as a tomato.

I threw my jacket over a kitchen chair. “What’s wrong?”

Phoebe brushed a swath of bottle blonde from her face with the back of her hand. Her fingernails had grown half an inch since morning and turned Pepto-Bismol pink in the process. “That Emma, you know how she riles me.” She pecked me on the check and I gave her neck a nibble, but she pushed me away. “Not now!” She stomped over to the stove, picked up a lid and started stirring like she was paddling upstream in a hurricane. "She's asking to borrow money, again. Just a couple of hundred, she says--like it's nothing."

At one time, it was nothing--back in the days when she was still Phoebe Moore, only child born to an over-the-hill Texan oil tycoon and an under-the-sheets Vegas showgirl who'd first partied her way to Moore's bedroom, and three years later, to the high-rent district at Forest Lawn.

My Phoebe, once sweet as cherry pie, without daddy's dough, she'd hardened to a bitter crust.

Her eyes were glued to the murky brown stew she’d whipped into a tidal wave. "You've got to call her, Sam. Tell her we don't have it."

Phoebe liked to call me good-for-nothing, but I was always good enough to do her dirty work. Haggle with the bill collectors, snake the stopped-up sewer line, explain to her money-mooching cousin we weren't Dialing for Dollars.

"I'll call her later." I watched her at the stove; all four burners were fired up. "Don't tell me we're having company for dinner." Just what I needed, one of her gabby friends nattering in my ear.

"No, I'm cooking for the Jamisons. Shelly's doing my nails this month."

Phoebe belonged to some bartering club. Bunch of broads met a couple of times a month, swapped cooking for cleaning, haircuts for sewing, who knows what else.

I planted myself in the nearest kitchen chair, tilting on the back legs. She usually hated when I did that, but tonight, no reaction. “Got an out-of-town job," I said. "Leaving tonight, should be back in a day or two."

"What kind of job?"

"How many times I gotta tell you, Phoebe? Can't say." Sure, I could've said, but a man needs a little breathing space.

She skewered me with an icy stare, then turned her back on me. "Fine, I've got my own plans, anyway."

"Yeah, like what?"

Crimson lips curled into a smirk. "Can't say."

After dinner, I poured oil-black coffee into a thermos, wrapped up a couple hunks of leftover cornbread, smacked Phoebe on the cheek, and headed for the garage. I checked the trunk, taking a quick inventory of the overnight bag I always kept there, then slid behind the wheel.

Romano's Ristorante took up two-thirds of the bottom floor of Overton Hotel. I'd been inside the place a couple of times--clattering silverware and clinking glasses dueled with business chatter. Stuffed suits hashed out deals in high-backed booths, and, rumor had it, even more deals got banged out in deluxe suites on the upper floors.

I pulled into the deserted parking lot of a beauty shop across the street, pulled my cell phone from the visor, and punched in the hotel's number.

"Overton Hotel, how may I direct your call?"

"Put me through to Carl Rickert's room, please."

"I'm sorry. There's no one registered by that name."

I pushed "end," then called the restaurant and asked for Rickert again. Gnashed my teeth through five minutes of smooth jazz, Muzak-style.

"Rickert here." Deep voice with a don't-like-interruptions edge.

I flipped the phone closed and glanced at my Timex--ten after seven. If Jessica was paranoid, and hubby was humping nothing but a pile of business contracts, it could be a long night. I'd need some company.

I fumbled under the passenger seat searching for my ole buddy, Jack Daniels; found nothing but a tattered Thomas Guide and a crushed fortune cookie still in its plastic wrapper. What the hell? I'd just cracked open a new bottle last Saturday night, a couple of snorts to fortify myself for some Midsummer Night crap Phoebe had dragged me to. A bunch of fairies in tights and face powder, spouting Shakespeare and prancing around, faces screwed-up looking like they needed a healthy dose of Ex-Lax.

I knew I shouldn't have trusted that skew-eyed valet. Put a red vest on a Burger King reject and watch all the suckers line up to hand him their keys and a fiver to boot. Lord, what fools these mortals be!

Shit! What kind of idiot was I? I punched open the glove box; yup, it was gone--the lock-picking kit I'd shelled out 150 smackeroos for. What else was missing? I fished around, hunting for the switchblade I'd procured a couple years back--a donation from a baby-faced mugger wannabe. One swift, well-placed kick to the family jewels, and the kid had dropped the knife, clutched his gonads, and whimpered off.

I sighed; the blade was history. Guess I was lucky I still had the car.

Part II

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Addendum to Handling Criticism

I think that last post sounded more somber--dare I say negative--than I meant it to.

A review with meaningful criticism is Always a good thing... and so it is with this one. I'm grateful for the input, both the directly stated stuff and the things I've inferred from it.

The opportunity to take corrective action on a story is exactly why we ask for feedback in the first place (or at least it should be).

Handling Criticism

I just received my first critique of an extended stretch (nearly 100 pages) of my suspense novel

The verdict:

There was no ticker-tape parade for me, the conquering hero. No key to the city. No line-up of fatherless strippers come to do my bidding.

Though I suspect, way down deep inside, that some things went unsaid (I should clarify that by saying, some bad things went unsaid. Good things always find voice), overall I would characterize it as a soft good review.

Now, just in case you're wondering, soft good is a whole lot closer to dreadful than it is to really good, at least from the perspective of getting your book published. In order for a company to invest energy, money and brainspace in your novel, they’ve got to love it. Lukewarm affection just ain’t good enough.

A soft good review means--once you accept that your reviewer has a point--that you’ve got serious work to do.

In my case, several of the complaints were relatively minor (and some addressed issues I already had concerns about*). But there was also the more surprising issue of a major character not working and her decision-making seeming inconsistent.

Beyond the criticisms that were raised (and perhaps buried in the unsaid stuff mentioned above), I got no sense that this book would be burning a hole in the reviewer’s desk, demanding to be read.

This, of course, is where the waters get murky, the traveling tough. It’s as if I were a doctor presented with a patient who has a general malaise, a patient with non-specific, I have no energy, Doctor, kind of symptoms.

It’s valuable input, just like the more directed stuff, but it requires more work on my part to divine some corrective action. Before I send this book out into the cruel world for assessment, I’ve got to believe that, for my trusted readers at least, it sings.

*a lesson for another time… Don’t ignore the stuff you already know is broken, hoping that for everyone else it will work.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Character Naming Tip

Actually, this blog entry should be called a character naming anti-tip, because it starts with the pain I'm having renaming my characters after I've lived with quickly-chosen names far too long.

During an in-class critique of my last submission from my novel, several people agreed that they were having problems with two of the character names, Aidan and Devlin. Apparently, the shape of these two words is too similar and causes confusion, however subtle, for readers.

The trouble, from my side, is that I've come to know these characters with the names they carry. Forcing new ones on them turns them into impostors. I'm sure, once I've lived with some newly-chosen names for a while, I'll get comfortable, but for now, it makes me feel like a liar.

Don't do a careless job of naming the characters in your novel. You'll only pay for it later.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

The Trouble With Beginnings

Beginnings are nasty. They are ugly. They are wicked.

As I mentioned in my last post, I've been reworking a suspense novel that I'm anxious to get out into the world. For the most part, my writing has followed a semi-linear path; I began with the notion of several major scenes that I planned to hang the book on. I started from the first and charged along until I hit a rough patch, at which point I went wandering.

This wandering generally landed me in a scene for which I had a reasonably clear vision. At some point after completion of the new scene, I would head back to the trouble spot, hoping to have a clearer head and a new idea.

At this point, with over 400 pages and 80,000+ words, I've decided to start from the beginning and work my way to the end, without allowing for any side-trips.

So, I've been stuck working on the first chapter. For all novelists, this part of the book represents a brutal challenge for one simple reason--we haven't yet convinced our reader that time spent on our book will be a better investment that grooming his long-neglected ear hairs.

Our reader, be she an agent, an editor, or a prospective paying customer at Wal-Mart has a hair trigger at this point. She's as likely to drop our book in disgust as she is to pass wind.

There is no time--and are no words--to waste.

Beyond the need to entertain in those first few paragraphs, we've also got to set the tone, give a hint of genre, and introduce some important problem. It's a heavy burden.

In my quest for a strong first chapter, I've started my book with two entirely different scenes and re-written each of those numerous times, trying to get that first chapter to sing. Most recently, I introduced what could be perceived as an annoying gimic in the first chapter, an odd tonal thing with he main character having an internal dialog with himself. I thought that, if it worked, it would create a striking tone that readers don't see every day.

The problem was, no matter how many ways I tried to re-write it, I couldn't make it work. So, finally, I've come to my senses and--mostly--abandoned the notion, pulling some of the thoughts into a more traditional narative flow.

Having done these repeated surgeries on my first chapter, I can no longer see the material very well. So I'm going to be looking for trusted eyes to help me out here.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

More On Stragety*

In my recent post A New Voice, I detailed how enthralled I am with the notion of writing an enduring children's story and mentioned that I had started my first children's novel.

Later, when I was talking this over with a friend, I started to feel foolishly misdirected. I had, after all, talked about the mainstream suspense novel that I've been working on for a good stretch, a novel that's over 80,000 words and should, if I had my wits about me, be nearing completion.

How, I thought, can I sensibly charge ahead with a new novel?

It felt like a serious loser's gambit.

I decided, after some abusive self-assessment, that I would park the new novel and turn my attention back to the nearly completed one.

My first order of business was to print out the 400+ pages and give it the first clear-headed read I've ever had. Predictably, parts of the novel felt like they need serious attention. Not so predictably, the excitement I'd felt for the story when I first started writing it came charging back. I rewrote a couple scenes, rearranged some story elements, and wrote a couple new scenes that felt immediately at home.

Even after having completed two unpublished novels, I've never been sure how to handle the pacing of the work necessary to craft a such a long work of fiction. Stephen King, in On Writing, recommends that we simply tear through a first draft--seeking no outside critique--in order to protect the fragile energy required do the work.

John Gardner, in On Becoming A Novelist, recommends parking a novel for at least six months after its initial completion in order to be able to read and edit with a clear head.

In the case of my suspense novel, I hit a flat spot--not so much with the story, but with the writing energy--some months ago and then began to wander. On the good side, it served the purpose of giving me some editorial distance and allowing me to see the story fresh. On the bad side, it allowed my mind--and eye--to begin to stray.

Not smart for a writer with serious ambitions. And not a move I plan to repeat any time soon.

As part of my quest for discipline in the writing process, I've set a goal of July 15th for getting this book finished and out into the world. In the end, it's pretty clear that bits and bytes--even hundreds of thousands of them--have very limited value. The story--in printed form--has got to get out into the world for evaluation. The final goal, after all, is a sale.

I'm hoping that the act of stating my intentions publicly--and writing the finish line on the calendar--will help encourage my drive to completion.

Along the way, I'll let you know if I learn anything that I find interesting or useful. And I'll tell you when and how I stumble.

Wish me luck.

*My apologies to Bugs.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

A Superhero Worth Watching

I went with wife and son to see SpiderMan 3 today. I've been a big fan of the series and wasn't disappointed with this one.

Spiderman stands alone among the superhero films because of the human complexity of it, both for the heroes and the bad guys. Superman, by contrast, has always been populated by simple-minded lunkhead thugs and a star whose complexity only shows itself when he's deciding whether to wipe with double or triple-ply.

Heroes shouldn't be unwaveringly perfect. Their lives and quests should involve real internal struggle. There must be moments of weakness.

Bad guys shouldn't be bad through-and-through, or maybe it's fairer to say that they shouldn't be bad without interesting reasons. Being bad, alone, is not interesting. The why of it might be.

Even if you're not typically drawn to the genre, the Spiderman series is worth studying for this effect alone.

Friday, May 04, 2007

My Son's First Stand-Up Gig

The other day, my 7-year-old son was in his room with an adult family member (whom I won't name to protect his/her dignity) when this particular adult had a pungent gaseous moment.

Without hesitation, my son looked at the offending visitor and said, "Take a bum mint."


Thursday, May 03, 2007

The Sad Abuse of the Word Flaunt

I just read a post called Deliberately Flaunting The Rules at one of my regular photography stops on the web.

Now, lets get one thing straight... to flaunt something is to show it off.

You might, for example, flaunt your new double-D's after Dr. 90210 has had his way with you. But you would flout the rules of etiquette if you showed them off at your niece's baptism.

flaunt = exhibit ostentatiously or shamelessly

flout = show contempt for

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

A New Voice

For the longest time, I’ve dreamt of writing an enduring piece of fiction for children. It represents the Holy Grail of writing achievement for me.

Why, you ask?*

The opportunity to surprise, to enthrall, to drive a thirst for stories is immeasurably bigger with the young.

In our youth, we are more easily and more deeply influenced by the stories we read (or have read to us). The good ones—the moving ones**—stay with us in ways that nothing we read as adults ever will. That impact is a result both of our un-cynical innocence (how else would the simple-minded preachiness of the Hardy Boys move so many generations of boys?) and the very limited history we have with stories—we haven’t yet grown hardened to the tricks story tellers will play on us through the years.

And beyond our innocence and clean-slatedness, we are also unshakably receptive to the absurd in our youth.

The potential for such remarkable and long-standing influence draws me to children’s fiction like I’m drawn to no other form. I always had a vague pull in that direction, but in recent times—perhaps it’s a response to my 7-year-old son’s burgeoning love of story—the drive has grown immensely stronger.

In response, I’ve started a novel for children. The biggest challenge I’m faced with, in the early going, is a question of tone. I can play the story--a realistic-fantasy, for lack of better-tuned language--straight, like I would a mainstream novel, or I can attack it with an absurd tone through-and-through, like much of Roald Dahl’s work(James and the Giant Peach, The Twits).

Tone is something I’ve never given this much attention. Its exploration opens up all kinds of possibilities and challenges that I’ve solved on auto-pilot in the past.

In the next few days, I’ll post more about the specific scene exercises I’m planning to undertake, and I’ll post a few different permutations of specific scenes.

Stay tuned…

*I know the question didn’t even occur to you, but play along with me here.

**for me, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlotte’s Web, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings leap to mind

Sunday, April 29, 2007

A Busy Visitor

We're having work done on our yard and have an assortment of plants still in their containers arrayed about the landscape. This bumble bee, after having inspected every plant on the lot, found only the lavender to his liking. He visited each flower on the plant exactly once and then left the premises.

Hope Is Not A Strategy*

As tight-fisted as Mother Time is, those of us who pursue writing as a sidelight have some particularly hard decisions to make.

In my writing life, I've tended to shoot for the moon, writing spec scripts and novels in the hope of inducing heady auctions that end in six figure deals and an ocean view home in the hills of Malibu.

The difficulty with such a strategy, if you can call it a strategy at all, is that it carries the stench of desperation, much like the dreamers among us who will be saved by the big lottery win.

Even ignoring the financial aspects, the external rewards for novelists and screenwriters are very few and far between. It's possible, even likely, that a writer will labor for months and years at a time without having any real sense of whether he's doing publishable work (or even work that has any drive, makes any sense, deserves to be written).

Another strategy, one that's making more and more sense to me in recent days, is to take a more balanced approach, writing both long and short-form fiction, submitting to markets both small and large.

The benefits, on the feedback side, are immediate and obvious. If you're doing good work, you have an opportunity to be told so, and to be rewarded in the short term. If, on the other hand, you're crafting dreck, you'll know that soon, as well, and won't have wasted months of your life chasing something that has no prospect of publication.

Another nice side-effect of chasing the smaller story is that this kind of writing demands precision of craft that you may well not develop writing only longer stories. The efficiency necessary to telling a good story in 500 words forces a level of craft that few people who've only written novels can understand. And this skill ultimately extends very well to the longer forms, when the backbone, high-pressure scenes require all the craft you can muster.

I have no idea, yet, how to ballance the work on my novel with the shorter forms. For now, I'm probably leaning too heavily toward the latter. But I am utterly convinced that a solid balance between the two will give me the level of feedback I need from the world and will improve my craft.

*This is the title of a book on sales. While I am not a salesman, the thoughts implied by the title alone nearly convinced me to buy the book.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Summer's First Plunge

My son and I both love the water. At the age of four, he was swimming reasonably well, but by the age of five, he was a demon in the pool.

In recent days, it's finally gotten warm enough to enjoy.

During summers and falls, there are days when we blissfully ignore time... swimming, playing, laughing for hours on end. It's the purest joy we have together.

Water is the only tranquilizer we need.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

For A Song

by Renee Holland Davidson

Kayla slouches in the passenger seat, staring out the bug-splattered windshield. The newly tarred highway stretches in front of the Buick, the afternoon heat steaming from the road in shimmering waves. For hours, they have passed nothing but scrub brush and the hard dirt of the desert.

Her mom is singing along with the radio, her voice cigarette-smoke husky. The last few notes dissipate into the stale air-conditioned air, and almost immediately another one begins.

"Honey, listen, here's our song!"

Our song? Her song, she means. The one she auditioned with--the one that won her the job with the band. The band that is leaving tomorrow for a three-month tour of the South.

Kayla's mom reaches over to squeeze her knee, then frowns when her daughter's body stiffens. "Come on, Kayla, don't be like that. You'll have a great time at your Grandma's. You love her, don't you?"

"Yeah," Kayla says in a bare whisper.

"You know how much she spoils you."

"Yeah," she says again.

"This could be my big break, Kayla. You know that. I might never get another chance."

Kayla sighs. "I know, Mama. I know."

"Okay, then. I'll be back in no time, just you see." Kayla's mom pats her leg, then turns the radio louder. Her voice blends smoothly with the woman crooning over the airwaves.

Ahead of them, a red mini-van pulls onto the highway. A small mountain of duffle bags is tied to its roof and a complicated-looking carrier holding four bicycles rises up from the trailer hitch.

The Buick catches up to the van and Kayla peers inside as they cruise side by side. The family looks like it belongs in a corny commercial--the dad behind the wheel wearing a fishing hat, lures dangling from its rim, the mom in the passenger seat, a red bandana tied around her neck. Behind them, sit two little kids--a blond-haired boy and his freckle-faced sister.

Kayla can tell they're singing The Itsy Bitsy Spider because their fingers are crawling through the air in front of them.

The mom isn't half as pretty as her own mom, Kayla thinks. Her hair's frizzy and her bare arms jiggle with each spider step. But she's got a pretty smile and her eyes sparkle behind round glasses as she turns in her seat to look at her children.

Even though Kayla can't hear them, she knows they're singing loudly because their heads are thrown back and their grinning mouths are open wide.

Kayla's fingers move in her lap. She sings under her breath, stealing a glance at her mother.

Her mom's singing loudly too, a wide smile covering her face. And her eyes are sparkling, just like the lady in the mini-van.

Except Kayla's mom isn’t looking at her--her eyes are staring straight ahead, focused on a place far beyond the cloudless desert sky.

"For A Song" was originally published in the Summer 2006 edition of flashquake.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Begging for Help For 'Beg the Question'

For reasons I couldn't begin to explain, I'm hearing people (from journalists, to fiction writers, to co-workers) use the phrase 'beg the question' with numbing regularity. Or rather, I'm hearing people mis-use the phrase 'beg the question' with numbing regularity.

To 'beg the question' does not mean to invite the question, to prompt the question, to encourage the obvious question. To beg the question is to answer a question with circular logic (i.e. 'the federal government is inefficient because it wastes so much money.' Wasting money is another another way of saying that it's inefficient; it does not answer the question 'Why?'

See here for a more thorough explanation.

Coming Soon... debunking the myth that ree-la-tors actually exist (and sell houses for a living).

Friday, April 20, 2007

Thursday, April 19, 2007

S is for Stupid

Last night, I decided, right before my writing class, to leave my camera at home. No particular reason. Just had that brainstorm.

So, naturually, at our break I looked out to see my oft-photographed tree (you'll find it elsewhere on this site, in a couple different guises, if you roam around) and was greeted with the image above... a partial moon with even the dark aspects visible, and Venus glowing like a bright star above. The sky had a rich, beautiful fade from orange to blue that you don't see here.

All I had was my lousy Motorola phone cam to capture the moment. So I took a few shots and walked away cursing my inexplicable ineptitude.

My Fan Club Shrinks By One

A couple days ago, my wife and I were arguing about something or other—maybe it’s fairer to say we were arguing about everything or other—when she moved on to an editorial of my writing life.

It neither started nor ended on a happy note.

“You’re a failure,” she said. “As a writer you’re a complete failure. You should give it up.”


Not exactly the unflinching, hard-nosed criticism* I was talking about in this post.

Perhaps I can get her to go back and re-read my thoughts—a quick refresher course, let’s call it—just to be sure she really gets the gist.

Or perhaps not.

* not really a criticism of the writing, at all. She hasn't read any of it since I came back to writing after a long hiatus.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Writing Tip: Put Your Body Where Your Mouth Is

Writing offers us the opportunity to explore locations, emotions, and behaviors we will never experience in life. We get to climb mountains whose continents we won't ever actually touch, turn the tables--in very public ways, if we choose--on lovers who've hurt us, and conduct racy, skillful affairs with near-perfect (but not too-perfect) paramours.

But that's not all the opportunity that writing offers us.

A few years back, I was a member of a small writing group that met weekly for reading/critique. Somewhere along the way, the group of us decided that there were a handful of experiences that might work to our benefit as writers.

Sad to say, torrid illicit affairs didn't make the cut.

One of the things that did make the cut, however, was to witness an autopsy.

One of our members at the time was friends with a recently published mystery novelist and managed, through her, to get us an appointment at the coroner's office, where they agreed to put us through the same scared-straight process that drunk drivers face.

The day of our appointment, we were ushered us into a small meeting room, where we watched a video documentary detailing the adventures of various unfortunate drunk drivers.

In the worst case, a woman at a bar had accepted the offer of a ride from a would-be one-night-stand. Soon after they left the bar on his rocket-like Kawasaki, with her hugging him close from behind, the driver took the wrong half of a fork in the road.

On the good side was a freeway onramp, on the bad, a cul-de-sac. Fifty yards and ninety-plus-miles-per-hour later, he slammed into a brick wall, turning himself into a stew and cutting the top half of his passenger’s head off.

The officer on the tape described the pain of explaining to the dead woman’s husband how she had come to her end.

After the sobering film, we were given white scrubs and masks, which we put on over our street clothes, and then ushered through a cooled room filled with occupied body bags.

For a minute or so, we stood by a steel door leading to the ‘operating’ room. The group of us was nervous, and some of us were actually willing to admit it.

When we entered the large white autopsy room, we came on three stainless tables aligned perpendicular to the wall. Atop them lay three corpses in varying stages of their final physical exam. One was a Vietnam Vet who’d overdosed in his apartment and gone unmissed for several long, hot days. Another was a Santa Ana gang member who’d been shot multiple times and left to die on the beach. The third was an 80-plus-year-old woman who’d fallen in the tub, broken her hip and later died of an embolism.

You might believe that watching CSI or reading bleak horror novels would tell you enough to understand this experience—and perhaps to write about it—but you’d be wrong. If you’ve got even the slightest bit of humanity to you, there is a somber gravity to a room like this and its activities. Nothing about that feeling is effectively conveyed by the carnival act that is CSI and every novel I’ve read that touches on the subject. Even when the basic mechanical details come out right—the behavior and the tools and the smells are described correctly—the feeling doesn’t.

The point of all this rambling, I guess, is to encourage you to use every excuse you can to extend your experience. Let the fact that you call yourself a writer drive you to embrace adventures you might otherwise avoid (or maybe just ignore).

I’m not one who believes you have to have experienced something to write about it sensibly. But there is no doubt that the living of a thing will flavor your writing. And, almost inevitably, that will improve your stories.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

A Novelist's How-To That You Should Check Out (after bookmarking this site, of course)

A while back, I stumbled across Crawford Kilian's writing site.

I found it interesting enough to check back occasionally but didn't turn it into what I would call a regular stop. More recently, though, I noticed his Write a Novel site. It's a series of 18 pdf documents he's published defining aspects of getting a novel written and published (ranging from Hard Facts for First Time Novelists to Ten Points on Plotting to Reading a Contract).

I wish the material were presented as HTML as well as pdf. But this is a trifling complaint--a niggling exercise in looking a gift horse in the mouth.

Definitely worth a look if you have any thought at all of writing a novel (and aren't already a wizened veteran).

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Clarifying Priorities

In line with my Call Me Sybil post, I've been trying to clarify for myself where I'm headed and what, exactly, my goals are.

I have a long history of divided allegiance, since I've tended to fall in love with myriad pursuits. In past moments of clarity, I've cast aside drawing/painting, my glorious Stratocaster, and my Taylor Made golf clubs in lieu of a more serious focus on things like building a computing career that could pay the rent and, now, figuring out--really figuring out--what I want to accomplish as a writer.

I noticed that even a quick glance at my blog--the link list in particular--might lead a reader to question my dedication to the writing life. Most of the links there relate to photography and other visual arts. Not a sin, clearly, but is that where my attention should be--or where a visitor might hope to focus?

I realized, too, that my link list echoes my behavior when I'm spending time on the web, and that both of these things need to change.

Just as I decided way back that the world didn't need yet another crappy Eric Clapton wannabe singing the blues and that I wouldn't become Picasso or Tiger Woods, I've decided to park my meandering exploration of the arts.

There may be people who can take the wandering path, who can allow their focus to wander from interest-to-interest, and still achieve something meaningful. I am not one of them.

Instead, I need a systematic, thoughtful approach to building something for myself as a writer. I need clear, structured goals--both short and long term--and I need to bleed every minute for all it's worth in the pursuit of improving my writing and my prospects.

As a happy side-effect, the link list should actually become something of more direct value to those of you who've come here to read about writing.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

A Nearby Baptist Church

The other day, as I was driving to the library to return something, I passed this church in the twilight. I got out to take a few pictures and was greeted by the pastor's son as he pulled up out front. Though I was a perfect stranger, he offered to move his car so I could get my shots and asked if I would send them to him.

Late that night I e-mailed four of the stronger pics and got a complimentary e-mail back.

Nothing remarkable in the whole interaction, but it made me feel good.

Call Me Sybil

Yesterday was an odd day. I spent a fair bit of my working day writing code, something I don't do much lately but enjoy tremendously when I get to take on an interesting challenge.

I drove home blasting The Fixx' Reach The Beach--a favorite from way back--and feeling pretty high.

After an hour at home, I headed off for the writing class. Even before class started, I had two interesting conversations with nearly-perfect strangers.

But, soon after the opening bell, my mood began to change--collapse would be a better word for it, I suppose. I made a few comments on other people's writing that sounded insipid or absurd, and I couldn't seem to connect solidly with the going's on around me.

Then my mind wandered a bit as I began to get annoyed with myself for my general lack of focus. I wondered if my new-found interest in flash fiction was a deflection from the hard work I still need to do on my novel.

Eventually, my most recent story, a 500 word piece of flash fiction destined for an online writing contest, came up for critique. Mostly, the reviews weren't good. This didn't bother me, really, since I do take my own advice about seeking out and taking advantage of strong criticism. But there was an awkward sort of vacuum at the beginning of the discussion of the story. Is that pity I hear ringing in the silent air?

It was only thanks to an insightful suggestion at the break that I came away having any clue how to improve the story.

In the second half of the festivities, I braved the waters again and commented on another writer's work. This time, as I heard myself, I thought, Am I as big a bloviating half-wit as I sound to my ears? And thus, my commentary came to an end.

I'm not generally a moody person (ignore the derisive cackling you hear in the background; it's my wife and she takes issue with that statement. It's My Blog. My Story.) I'm also not usually riddled with all-encompassing self-doubt. But last night I felt incompetent to even take command of the simplest conversation. A fraud as far as the eye could see. A tortured genius minus the vital genius part.

Bedtime couldn't come soon enough.

Fortunately, this morning I awoke with the clouds having parted. I even felt mildly optimistic.

As I drove to work, I remembered a blog post I had read very recently and a quote that was its central theme:

If I don't feel like a fraud at least once a day, then I'm not reaching far enough

Writing Tip: Look It Up. Write It Down

When I was a freshman in college, taking a 200-level English composition class, my professor was a curmudgeonly hard-ass*. Yes, he was a good-hearted curmudgeon, but we didn't get that 'til much later.

After we students had delivered our first essay--written under the gun as a 45-minute in-class assignment--he returned our graded papers with the dramatic assessment, "I see there's one person in this class who wants to pass."

Having gotten a strong 'A' and some nice praise from my previous writing professor, I assumed I was that one.


My essay earned me a 'D.'

The one person who wanted to pass proudly accepted her 'C.'

If this had been the first response to my writing in the world of high academia, I would have been badly shaken. As it was, the 'D' unnerved me and forced me to rethink where I stood.

Anyway, this is all just a long-ish preamble to set the stage and the tone for the real tip.

In addition to the writing assignments, this class required us to read many broad-ranging essays from prominent writers (John Updike, Joan Didion, Norman Mailer, and many, many more). Early in the semester, as we were discussing one of these essays, our professor stopped, pointed to one of the students--let's call her Gena--and said, "What does the word cleigenmeiser** mean?"

After doing an uncomfortable cheek-shift in her chair, Gina said meekly, "I don't know."

From the look on the professor's face, she might as well have relieved herself on the aged tile floor. With a resigned sigh, he pointed to someone else and repeated the question. The response, predictably, was similar.

One more time, he glanced around the room for a victim. My only thought was, how the hell can I make myself invisible?

After a third student embarrassed himself, the professor said, "The word is here in the essay. Right here on the page. If you don't know what it means, how can you possibly understand what you're reading?"

It's all very obvious, I know, but there wasn't one of us who had done the obvious thing.

The professor continued. "If you see a word you don't understand, Look. It. Up. Write the definition in the margins if you have to. And keep going back to that definition until you've got it down."

The notion of avoiding embarrassment at his hands was strong motivation to follow that advice, and I have defaced many books in the wake of that lecture.

Anyway, this memory came charging back last night when someone in our writing class mentioned that she had no idea what a word in one of the stories meant. I wanted to shout out, "Look it up. Write it down." But God gave me just enough manners to hold off 'til I could write this blog post.

*Sadly, I can neither remember nor find his name.

** I have no idea what word he pointed out. But the point is that it was as foreign to everyone in that room as I'd expect cleigenmeiser to be to you now.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Monday, April 09, 2007


David swam in Laura's wake, watching her legs scissor-kick through the cold waters of Squam Lake, her motion graceful and strong.

He broke the surface just as she climbed the ladder to the wooden raft. Her bathing suit, a white one-piece, lay across the crease of her leg and rear-end, a spot he watched until she turned away.

As he climbed up himself, his breath came hard, a reaction to the cold as much as the exertion. He lay prone beside her, head resting on forearms, and faced her from no more than two feet.

With her hair slicked back, Laura’s face looked more angular, her hazel eyes larger and more alive.

“You lost," she said. "Again.”

“Because I don’t bother to care for my instrument.”

She turned up on her side to face him. “Is there nothing to live for?”

“There is in moments like this." He watched a bead of water draw a course down the length of her collar bone. "Besides, losing is worth it just to watch you move.”

The awkward smile appeared again, the smile of a woman who can't comprehend a compliment.

He reached a hand to her face, slowly traced the line of her upper lip.

She closed her eyes as his finger wandered to her lower lip and rested there briefly. When she opened them again, she gently kissed the back of his hand.

"These seven days give me life, Laura."

The words seemed to pain her. She eased herself to a seated position and hung her legs off the side of the raft. "I wish you wouldn't say things like that."

Following suit, David sat beside her, thigh-to-thigh, and put his arm around her shoulder. They sat silent, their wet bodies breathing against each other, and watched a pair of loons pass overhead before he spoke again. "When will Ron be making his grand appearance?"

A derisive little sigh escaped her, and her glance fell to the water at her feet. "He missed his flight. He won't get here 'til late tonight, early tomorrow morning."

Looking out at the empty lake, David failed to suppress a thin smile. "Why does he even bother?"

Now toying absently with the low seam of her bathing suit, fingers grazing her thigh, Laura gave a faint shrug. "So he can claim he did it."

David started to say something, then froze before his intended words reached his lips. "Jesus. Why am I so smug? My wife won't even make that effort."

She turned to face him then and held his look--from only inches away. "Can you just answer one question for me, David?"

"No. I can't." He shook his head, a motion so subtle he couldn't be sure she could even see it. "I made a lousy, inescapable deal, Laura. The story hasn't changed." He could smell her now, as she leaned against him. There was water, and woods, and sand, and something more--not sweat, exactly, but the scent of her exertion. He breathed it slowly and tried to will his mind to hold on.

"Did you even talk to your kids yesterday?"

He nodded. "Long enough for them to tell me they were headed for their gradma's." He moved his hand to her thigh and took her fingers in his, intertwined them.

Embracing his hand in both of hers, she said, "Do you think of me? Back in the world, do you ever think of me?"

"I try not to. But yes. I think of you."

"I hate that Pam gets your time. That she's the one you put your arm around. That she's the one you make love to."

"Well, you and she have something in common, then, 'cause she hates those things, too."

Laura laughed despite herself, then fell to an awkward silence. The only motion between them was the easy turn of her foot in the water. "Sometimes it all feels so goddamn juvenile."

"What? Wanting the person you're with to be something more than a stranger? Wanting to be loved?"

"We're not 14 any more."

"Immaturity's not our problem, Laura. Our problem is that we couldn't wait long enough to find--"

From a distance, a faint trilling--three short rings, a pause, and then a repeat--brought his thought to an end.

Laura, who knew the tone as well as he did, stood on the edge of the raft, said, "I think her ears must be burning," and dived once again into the cold water.

David sat still on the edge of the raft, watching her wake fade as, onshore, the phone continued to ring.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Stephen King's Algebra Cure

my long-time friend

Back in my early teen years, as a student at Trident Junior High School--I believe I was in 8th grade--I had an algebra teacher named Mrs. Smith who hated me (one of two teachers in my student career who made this point evident).

Generally, I was a mediocre student at the time (and why not? Destined as I was to play third base for the Dodgers, who cared if I could comprehend the Pythagorean Theorem?). But I wasn't the type to cause trouble in class. For the most part, the worst that could be said about me was that I was invisible.

The trouble, in this particular class, began in the early days of the school year, when I had the chutzpah to ask questions after several of Mrs. Smith's barely-coherent algebraic explanations. Unfortunately, I found even her explanations of the explanations wanting. And I asked more questions.

Well, to say that this displeased Mrs. Smith would be an absurd understatement. Rather than continue to struggle with her ineptitude and mine, she took to ridiculing me. Innocent questions triggered snide responses and occasional laughter from my classmates.

Several poor tests and several frustrating weeks later, I began to check out.

It wasn't long after this point, during yet another Greek lecture from Mrs. Smith, that I noticed that Joel, the kid in the next seat, was busy reading a novel.

The act was thrilling and scary and subversive. And I was as jealous of Joel's escape as I could imagine being of any person for any act.

Trying not to draw attention to myself, I managed to spy the cover of the book he was reading. It was The Shining, by Stephen King. And below it sat The Island by Peter Benchley.

I didn't know either of the authors or their books, but before the end of class I had resolved to go buy myself a similar escape.

Immediately after school, I rode my bike to Sprouse Rietz, a local general-purpose store that boasted the only decent paper-back book rack around. Nearly as fast as my eyes could scan the top row, I found both The Shining and The Island. Within minutes, I had made my purchase and left the store feeling like a rebellious adult.

In the days that followed, I devoured The Shining, reading at home alone, at breaks at school, in bed before sleep. I can't remember if I ever had the cajones to read during Mrs. Smith's class--though I doubt it. But that truth really doesn't matter. The book, itself, was the meaningful climax of this story. It enthralled and terrified me, made me forget my algebra woes, and awoke new ambitions in me.

Mrs. Smith's theorems now lay long-forgotten (to the extent that I ever understood them at all), but my flight from her gifts taught me things that will stay with me as long as coherence does.

For that, I suppose I should be grateful.

P.S. I did read The Island, as well. But it didn't impress me in any of the ways The Shining did.

Saturday, April 07, 2007


As a kid, I always loved the Easter egg tradition but haven't a clue where it came from. It has no obvious connection with the true meaning of the day--is, in truth, about as disconnected as anything I can think of.

But lovely nonetheless.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Its Own Kind of Beauty

image crop

I had stopped at Home Depot to buy something boring when I saw the clouds, the God light, and a lamppost all aligned in an interesting way. I grabbed my little Fuji, took a handful of differently framed shots, then headed back to put the cam in my truck.

Before I got there, I saw--out of the corner of my eye--a crow flying lazily into the scene. I sensed that his angle would take him right by the sunburst. So I hurried back into position, where I had just enough time to fire off one last shot.

the full shot

A friend, who liked the shot, lamented the powerlines traversing the scene. I told him that they didn't bother me, since they represent where I live. They are a part of the landscape--which I find beautiful even in their presence.

I don't live in Yosemite, but I make a point of trying to find the beauty and the interest--unvarnished--in the place I do live.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Legacy -- Part II

by Renee Holland Davidson

read Part I

Bear didn't return until almost dark. He trotted through the door, small twigs and leaves embedded in his fur, a man's work glove in his mouth. Dropping the glove at my feet, he sat down, panting happily.

"A present for me?" I scratched the top of his head, and plucked a few leaves from his back. "Looks like you had quite a time out there, old boy."

I was up early the next day, having allowed myself a few hours of book browsing before starting work on my novel. I was rummaging through the bookshelves, when I spied a book entitled "The History of Stoddard Mountain." As I yanked it out, I dislodged the cookbook next to it. It flew off the shelf and landed on the floor, opened to a recipe for tuna casserole, a piece of cardboard sticking straight up from between the pages.

The piece of cardboard turned out to be a postcard--a picture of Butchart Gardens in British Columbia on the front. I turned it over. It was addressed to Rose Murdock in care of the Stoddard County Library. Written in a thick black scrawl was the one-word message: "Soon."

Soon? What was the meaning of this cryptic message? And why had the postcard been mailed to the library? Had my grandmother fled up north? Was she still there, living out her golden years with her true love?

Excited at this discovery, I began rifling through any books I thought might have been my grandmother's--more cookbooks, sewing books, romances. I raked through dozens of books before I found the letter in a slim volume about herbs. It had also been sent in care of the library, written in the same heavy script as the postcard.

Among endearments and vows of eternal love, were pleas to leave Elliot. It's time, Rose, time to start our life together. The letter was signed with only the single initial "M."

I thought of my own husband and the too-many tumultuous years we'd spent together. Paul had never been physically abusive, but he'd been cruel and controlling. What I had taken for love and concern in the early years of our marriage had only been his desire for dominance over my mind and body.

In sixteen years, he had run off most of my friends and shattered my self-confidence. I had become bitter and depressed. There were days when it had been difficult to climb out of bed, and, I admit, days when I understood Grandpa Elliot's final solution.

I slept fitfully that night, hearing every sound emanating from the mountain--raccoons scratching in the trees, coyotes howling, the hoot of owls. I thought back to my childhood, remembered many camping trips where the sounds of nature lulled me to sleep. That night, those same sounds blared like warning shrieks in my head.

Bear woke me the next morning, licking my cheek with his grainy tongue. The temperature had dropped drastically overnight and before I let him out, I shrugged into a thick pair of sweats topped with my down jacket.

"Need to make a fire," I said aloud. Two days out here and I'm already talking to myself. I laughed, but even to my own ears, it sounded hollow.

I grabbed my keys from the kitchen peg and made my way to the shed in back. Bear stood behind me as I unlocked the padlock and pulled open the door. I walked inside and sighed. Behind a small pyramid of wood, were mountains of Grandpa Elliot's junk, and crammed in a corner, the steamer trunk I still needed to empty. As I grabbed a log, I heard Bear barking wildly outside. I tiptoed to the door, holding the piece of wood as if it were a Louisville Slugger.

I peered out the door, but saw nothing except Bear running in circles, barking ferociously. "What's the matter, boy?" I knelt down and patted my thigh. "Come here, buddy. It's okay."

His barking shrank to a whine, but he refused to come. Then, with one final yelp, he turned tail and ran off into the woods.

I made myself a breakfast of tea and toast and ate on the sofa in front of the fire. Drowsy from lack of sleep and hypnotized by the flames, I soon fell fast asleep.

I dreamt about Paul--Paul in this cabin, in my bed, smirking as he pulled back the sheets to reveal Rose lying naked by his side. Paul becoming Elliot--drunk, wild-eyed, waving a shotgun as Bear flees into the woods. And I, watching from a darkened closet, wrapped in a blood-splattered quilt, too afraid to move.

I woke up shivering. The fire had gone out and the air was still and frigid. I sat up, pulling my wrap tighter around me. The cabin walls seemed to shrink; the ceiling spun in drunken circles. My breath emerged in frosty, shallow gasps. Never--not even as a child--had I believed in hauntings or evil spirits. I shook my head forcefully from side to side. No! I was not losing my mind--it was only the nightmares, the lack of sleep.

I stood up, trembling, intending to relight the fire. Suddenly I realized I had the crazy quilt wrapped around me. Screaming, I flung it to the floor.

Scratching on the door almost sent me into hysterics until I recognized Bear's high-pitched bark. I staggered to the door and opened it. Bear ambled in, something glinting in his mouth; I followed him to his blanket.

There, next to the work glove, a red bandana, and a woman's tennis shoe, he dropped his latest prize--a dirt-encrusted pair of reading glasses, one lens missing, a broken gold chain hanging from its arms.

I moaned and sank to the ground, fully understanding Grandpa's despair, much too aware of his blood coursing through my veins as my thoughts turned to the old steamer trunk hiding in the shed.

**The End**

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Legacy -- Part I

by Renee Holland Davidson

The log cabin stood on the north shore of Lake Stoddard, lined on three sides by groves of pine and redwood. For two years, it languished unoccupied--since the day Elliot Murdock took his shotgun to his golden retriever, Max, then turned it upon himself, splattering the gray matter of his gone-mad brain all over the crazy quilt handed down by five generations of Murdocks.

That wasn't the first time a Murdock had fallen victim to a violent end in that log cabin--the family Bible only lists dates of births and deaths, but local legend fills in the rest.

In 1902, Samuel Murdock fell off the sloped roof, narrowly missed a bed of redwood branches, and dove headfirst onto his just-sharpened axe that had somehow gotten lodged in between a tree stump and the three-quarters full rain barrel.

Twenty-three years later, seventeen year-old Susanna Murdock was strangled in her bed two nights before her intended marriage, her fiancé nowhere to be found.

And now, I, Casey Murdock, granddaughter and sole living descendent of the aforementioned Elliot, had come to claim my share of Stoddard Mountain.


When I arrived, the Starving Students moving van was parked outside, next to a dust-covered Toyota pick-up. The two movers, both unshaven and beer-bellied, looked well past student age and far from starving. They eyed Bear warily, taking a half step back as he jumped from the passenger seat.

One-hundred-fifteen-pound Rotweilers tend to provoke that kind of reaction, but in Bear's case, it was only for show, since he fully lived up to his given name of Teddy Bear.

The taller guy hooked his thumb at the cabin, doubt wavering over his face. "This it?"

I gave the cabin a once over. "Yep, that's it." I knew what those two were thinking--From a luxury high rise in the city to an eight-hundred-square-foot hovel constructed of rotting Lincoln Logs. Boy, did this lady get the shaft.

The scent of Lysol and lemon oil assaulted me as I opened the door. The janitorial crew I'd hired was finishing up a two-day cleaning junket. "Ma'am, you sure you don't want us to cart this stuff away?" A nervous-looking stick of a man pointed to the far end of the room, where a dozen boxes were stacked.

From where I stood, I could see a chair leg, a rusted toaster, a small wagon wheel, and a faded garden troll poking out from one of the boxes. "No, thanks. I'll take care of it." Any armchair detective knows there's no better way to get to know a person than to dig through his trash.

"Hey, lady, where do you want this?" The movers were inside the front door straining under the weight of my old steamer trunk.

The smaller one dropped his end of the trunk and muttered, "What the hell's she got in here?"

I knew I wasn't meant to hear, but answered anyway, "Books."

"Books?" they both asked incredulously, their eyes roaming over the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that lined three walls, jam-packed with books of every subject and genre.

"I'm a writer." I didn't add that I'd never been published. "There's no room in here, please take it out to the shed."

There wasn't much more for them to bring in. The only furniture I'd brought was a sofa and bed. Grandpa Elliot's massive oak desk was an antique treasure, and I'd make do with the linoleum-topped kitchen table and mismatched chairs. Add to that a few boxes of household and personal items, and three suitcases of clothes, and that was that. I was officially moved in.

After everyone left, I settled myself at the desk and placed my laptop on the cracked leather blotter. I released a contented sigh and gazed out the window. The magnificent view of the lake and the mountain beyond made me feel at once powerful and insignificant.

Much as I hated the way it sounded, I'd come up to the mountains to “find myself.” No, I wasn't into New Age mumbo-jumbo, or any of that touchy-feely stuff. But when you get home early from work one day and find your husband of sixteen years sliding between the sheets with the woman you thought of as your best friend--well, let's just say it changes a person.

I didn't tell anyone I was going up to Stoddard. I no longer had a family; I was an only child and my dad died before I entered kindergarten, my mom just last year. If told, my friends--the few that I had--would have pestered me, spewing garbage about running away from my problems and all that. And so what if I was? I didn't plan to stay forever, only until I finished my novel, or depleted my savings, whichever came first.

Some might have called it bizarre--moving into a madman's home--but strange as it was, this was my history. My dad's family had been a mystery all my life. Mom had told me he'd had a troubled childhood. He ran away from home at sixteen, then returned a year later to find his father alone, his mother having disappeared three months earlier. Dad left immediately, never to speak to either parent again. When Dad died, Mom had written to Grandpa Elliot, but she'd never heard a word in response.

Behind me, I heard Bear yawning, then the click of his nails on the hardwood floor as he walked to the door. He sat down in front of it, then turned to look at me.

"You want out, huh?"

Bear wagged his tail and let out a small bark.

I walked over and opened the door, "Okay, buddy, be good and stay close."

While Bear was foraging through the forest, I pawed through the contents of Elliot's desk. A quick survey of the top drawer revealed a broken key chain, a Band-Aid box filled with used stamps, an empty disposable lighter and a single eyeglass lens, along with the usual clutter of pens, pencils, paper clips and other assorted junk. The drawer wouldn't open all the way and when I stuck my hand inside, I felt the sharp corner of what felt like a picture frame. One hand wedged inside the drawer, I lifted the front of the drawer to release the frame.

I took one look at the photograph, and almost dropped it in shock. This was the face I saw in the mirror each morning--round with almond-shaped eyes, a small pointed nose, and the slightly jutting chin I hated. If I'd mysteriously gotten the urge to curl my hair into a teased-up flip and donned a Peter-Pan collared blouse, I could have stepped right into that pewter frame, and no one would have known the difference.

She sat at that very desk, the family Bible open in front of her, wire-rimmed glasses hanging from a thin gold chain looped around her neck.

A sudden knock at the door startled me.

Jeb, the proprietor of Stoddard's Sundries and my nearest neighbor, stood on the porch. He was the grizzled caricature of an aging mountain man--coarse features on a weather-beaten face topped by white hair poking out from beneath a grimy John Deere cap. Without a greeting, he said, "Got your load of wood stacked in the shed. I'll add it to your bill." With a quick nod, he turned to leave.

"Wait! Please come in, I want to show you something."

When I handed him the picture, he gave me a quizzical look. "This is..." He stopped, looked up at me, then back down at the picture. "Well, I'll be--you're the spittin' image of her."

"My grandmother?"

"Yeah, your Grandma Rose."

"Did you know my grandparents?"

"Much as anyone did, I guess."

"What were they like?"

"Mostly kept to themselves." His face reddened. "Don't mean any disrespect, but your grandma could be downright spiteful, and your grandpa didn't have much of a spine. Many a day I heard her caterwauling at the poor man. Sometimes your grandpa gave as much as he got, sometimes he just didn't seem to have the strength. When Rose left, Elliot took to drinking and taking potshots at anyone within shotgun range of his property." Jeb looked to the place in front of the fireplace where Grandpa's body had been found. He shook his head. "Guess the booze finally pickled his brain."

"Did you know my dad?"

"Little bit. He was a few years behind me in school. Seemed like a nice enough kid, considering. Suppose these days, child welfare would've snatched him." He shrugged. "No one was surprised when he ran off."

When Jeb left, I sat on the sofa, staring at the freshly laundered and sanitized crazy quilt that hung over its arm. Trembling, I reached out and ran a finger over a square of faded blue flannel, wondering how much bad blood had filtered down the years to run through my own veins.

continued on 4/5

read part II