The ladder of incomprehensibility

I think it was 1984 when I got my first computer, a hand-me-down from my then-girlfriend’s geek brother. It had virtually no memory, and one floppy held a short chapter. The Tandy TRS 80, known affectionately as the Trash 80. Available at Radio Shack. With much struggle and many phone calls to the brother in Pennsylvania, I managed to learn how to use it. I loved it. No more cutting and pasting manuscripts. No more white-out.

I’ve lost count of how many there have been since then. Black screen, white words. Dos. I discovered Gopher in the early 90s, with its Archie and Veronica search engines. I began doing some of my research on this predecessor of the Web. Fell in love with the web when it showed up.

So my history with this stuff goes back pretty far, and  you’d think I’d be comfortable with all things dot-com.

Well, I’m not, and it’s not my fault. It’s raced ahead of me at warp speed. Just when I get to point B, I discover that the world has advanced to point D and there’s a whole other  ladder to climb. I am forever struggling to get past the next incomprehensible rung. For instance, this weekend I’m  joining something called The Virtual Living Room, which I think is a lesbian literature site focusing this week on lesbian mysteries, for a three-day chat and a one-hour interview with me stuck somewhere in the midst of all that. I think I’ve sent to the hosts all the items they required from me: epub books, excerpt in PDF, bio, and a list of times when I will be available and times when I will be hiding under the bed.

If there’s anything else I’ve already forgotten it.

I was led kicking and screaming to this virtual door by a friend and former student whose first book has just been released. How about doing this? she said. Great publicity. She would be one of the hosts. The group has 800 members all over the world.

I’m not intimidated by an audience of whatever size. I rather like blabbering about myself and my books. But I have no idea how this kind of thing works.

Suddenly the world of computers is incomprehensible again.

Holiday Madness

At the s.f. convention I attended last weekend, some of the magazine and anthology editors were looking for holiday-themed material (mostly short stories).  They wanted other writing too, but the holiday connection sticks in my mind.  A couple of years ago I agreed to write a novella for Christmas marketing.  The editor didn’t insist on sleigh bells and snowmen, but the idea was that the work would be a virtual stocking stuffer.  So I wrote The Young Pretender, a novella in the regency mode.  It took me a bit longer than I expected it to, so we released it for Burns Night, a Scottish holiday toward the end of January that honors Robert Burns on his birthday.  I even tucked in bits of Burns’ poetry.  The Young Pretender is not a bad story–one of my funnier tales, in fact.  I’ll always associate it with Christmas, but I’m the only one who will.  It continues to sell well, so the Burns Night connection isn’t necessary to marketing.

Holiday marketing is a fine capitalist tradition, up there with coupons and loss leaders.  But, I wonder, is it truly Protestant?  We seem to be moving back toward the Wars of Religion.  Will corporate bank-rollers want to continue to celebrate holidays?  It was, after all, a Catholic practice.  The Lutherans, when they came along, tolerated a few of the old holy days, but the orthodox of Scotland (wha’ believe in John Knox) tossed out all of them along with bishops, statues of saints, prayers for the dead, and stained glass windows.  They continued to burn witches.

It was a hard time for artists, musicians, and architects.  I can see another wave of Protestantism being hard on writers.  What with all the new devices and programs for tracking posts on social media, I foresee bloggers such as myself being dragged off to the pyre for half-assed reflections like this one.  Such a pity, but maybe we’ll turn into martyrs and saints with our very own holidays.

I want the Feast of St. Sheila to slide into the gap between St. Patrick and Easter.  A book fest would perk up the wet season no end.  My books would come on sale, two for the price of one, and folks who wanted to celebrate my life could drink peppermint tea and munch peanut butter cups (sweets to offset the salinity of corned beef and spiral cut ham).  Appropriate toasts could be offered, preferably rhymed, and glasses of Pacific Northwest merlot or shiraz raised to salute me and my books.  I believe I would like a parade.

I don’t see why the rest of you shouldn’t have feast days too, first come first served.

Expectation Management

Writing is an expectations management venture. If you don’t manage your expectations, you can get really depressed, really fast. It’s that simple. Self-publishing or indy publishing aside, the number of books submitted to traditional publishers, both large and small, borders on the ridiculous. The number that are accepted and make it into print is a very, very small fraction of that. So, the odds are stacked against you from the get go.
Right now, I’m in Saudi Arabia, teaching with the Royal Saudi Air Force as I wait for Perseverance Press to release my new Jacobean era mystery Shakespeare No More next fall. Expectations management has been uppermost on my mind. For just as I have had to practice such management in my writing career, right now I have to practice it for my students.
I can’t talk a lot about what I do, but many of my students come from the desert tribes. They are illiterate in Arabic, so English is even a bigger challenge. Their goal is to be able to go to the US for advanced training. That’s their expectation. Mine is more modest, getting them from one level to the next. And that has a direct correlation to writing.
Focus your expectations on moving from one level to the next. Those sorts of things are achievable, are reasonable. If your expectation is a million seller and mansions to live in, well, those expectations are a sure road to disappointment. For most people.  But writing is a craft, and a craft takes practice, and you must move from one level to the next.  Lightning strikes happen, but they are hardly the rule.

But here’s the thing with expectation management. It’s a self defense mechanism, designed to protect our emotional health. Dreams, on the other hand, are a different matter. If you don’t dream big, you don’t achieve big. I’m reminded of my hero Lawrence of Arabia’s comment in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, his great memoir of the Arab Revolt:
‘All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible.’

So, my advice is simple. Be a day dreamer. Try to make that dream possible. But understand that there are things outside of our control, that sometimes tether our dreams to the ground. So dream big, but manage your expectations.

Where Do Those Ideas Come From?

This is Lea Wait, taking a few deep breaths. I just got home from what was close to two weeks on the road. Yes: a family wedding was included. (A family wedding in Phoenix, I might add. I live in Maine.) But most of the days I was away from home I was talking about my books — at a children’s book festival in Albany, New York, as part of a live variety radio production in New Hampshire, at a mystery bookstore in Scottsdale, Arizona … and at other places along the road, where I smiled, handed out bookmarks, and answered questions.

One of the questions authors are asked most often is, “Where do you get your ideas?”

And, yes, I’m sure we’re all tempted to  say, “I google for them” or “One whole plot came to me in a dream,” or “Didn’t you know Macy’s had an ‘idea section’?”

Of course, no author I know would say any of those things. But it’s hard to explain where ideas come from, because … they’re everywhere.  (Who knows when a wedding in Phoenix might end up in one of my books?) At least for me, yes, some ideas come from my life. I probably wouldn’t have set books in Maine or New Jersey if I hadn’t lived in those places. Or invented a protagonist who was an antique print dealer if I hadn’t grown up in a family of antique dealers and collectors. Maggie Summer, my protagonist in the Shadows Antique Print Mystery series, probably wouldn’t have thought of becoming a single adoptive parent if I  hadn’t adopted my four daughters.

But  Maggie is also a college professor. I’ve never taught. Angie Curtis, the protagonist in my Mainely Needlepoint series debuting in January with TWISTED THREADS, has a license to carry and rarely reads. Not me, in either case.

Often an idea comes from a sentence fragment,  or a newspaper clipping. If the idea sticks around, I start to dig. Research. Ask more questions. I’ve written about AIDS (SHADOWS AT THE FAIR) and Alzheimer’s (SHADOWS ON A MAINE CHRISTMAS.) I’ve written about amputation (WINTERING WELL) and rape (SHADOWS OF A DOWN EAST SUMMER.)  I haven’t experienced  any of those things first hand.

Right now I’m writing about the politics of lobstering and the embroidery of Mary, Queen of Scots. My information in both cases comes second or third hand — although I have been out on lobster boats.

So – where do my ideas come from? From life. Mine, others’, or from research. Always, they come from digging into a thought … and molding it into a piece of a plot.

Making trouble for my characters.  Making an idea a story.

Is the U.S. Becoming a Police State?

The books in my Nick Hoffman series have all been born in various ways.  Sometimes a book started with the idea of a new character entering the academic world Nick inhabits.  Sometimes while I was on a book tour, I heard some juicy gossip at a university I embroidered into my own plot.  Sometimes I’d be in a cafe or other public place and would overhear part of an intriguing conversation; I’d start filling in the blanks and my mind would set off like the TGV, the high speed French train.

But my 25th book’s origins were unique because they came from multiple sources and they seemed to come insistently.  They came from the news.  They came from newspapers and news web sites around the country.  The came from web broadcasts.  They came from reports on all kinds of political blogs.

It all started around four years ago when I started seeing stories about little towns like Neenah, Wisconsin. It’s home to only 25,000 people and in the past seven years has had only two murders, but today it’s the proud owner of a thirty-ton armored combat vehicle which can protect anyone inside against mines.

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That’s right, landmines.  They’ve never been a problem in Neenah or anywhere else in the United States, but that’s besides the point. The Pentagon has been like Santa Claus for police departments across the country, showering them with armored vehicles, aircraft, machine guns, grenade launchers and more — as if war were about to break out at any minute.  As if every single police captain in the country were Carrie on Homeland ravenous for drones, ravenous to take out terrorists now.

What’s the difference now between police officers and soldiers when they’re almost armed the same and trained the same?

As the New York Times reported recently, “Recruiting videos feature clips of officers storming into homes with smoke grenades and firing automatic weapons. In Springdale, Ark., a police recruiting video is dominated by SWAT clips, including officers throwing a flash grenade and creeping through a field in camouflage.”

If you argue that our police forces have to be safe at all costs, it’s hard to disagree. But groups on both sides of the political spectrum maintain that the militarization of American police forces has gone way too far. When the ACLU and the Heritage Foundation speak with one voice, you know we’re facing a real crisis.

That dangerous militarization is one of the subjects of Assault With a Deadly Lie, the first book I ever felt  urged to write because of current events that seemed to be spiraling dangerously out of control.  The idea came to me way before the events in Ferguson opened a national conversation about the possibility that we might be headed toward living in a police state.  And this book has already opened the door for my next novel of suspense where the stakes will be even higher than they are here.  I’ve got my title, my opening scene, and a fiendish villain worse than anyone who’s stalked the pages of my series before.

Assault With a Deadly Lie is available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Busy, Busy

 

 beforeFiles of a BPIW.

 Do you know any busy people? Are you one of them?

Here’s my pet peeve: people who are busier than you, no matter what. They’re the people who can force you into exaggerating your own busyness just not to lose the busy battle. Or maybe I’m the only one who responds that way when someone tries to convince me that he’s the busiest person in the world (BPIW).

My father used to say: he’s the kind of guy, if you’ve got a bottle, he’s got a case.

That translates nicely into what I mean.

You can have two jobs, multiple deadlines, seven children, and a marathon to run, but BIPW will best you every time. “I’m doing all that, AND I’m expected in New Zealand any minute,” she’ll say. To which I’m tempted to respond, “I just got back from there and I’m packing for Greenland where I have to make a speech to the entire population.”

It’s not that I have to fake being busy. I teach an online science class (25+ students for 16 weeks) and several in-person writing workshops. I facilitate a couple of book clubs, fiction and nonfiction. Then there are my writing deadlines. I have three contracted books due in the next few months and a WIP with another writer. I keep my miniatures hobby going in several ways, including furnishing a dollhouse for a school raffle. Throw in a family, participation in writers’ organizations, assorted volunteer work, and a semblance of social life – see? I’m busy, too!

BPIWs usually miss no chance to remind you that they are working stiffs, Christmas Eve or not. Of course you’re working — if you have a job that requires any kind of creativity, you’re always working. You don’t have to remind us, as if the rest of us take off at 5 on Friday and frolic in the pool all weekend.

I never like myself when I get into this mode of claiming to be a BPIW. It makes me tense about my life and my projects. I’d rather take it easy and think how lucky I am to have many things to do, instead of trying to impress people with my to-do list.

I had a colleague once who was a BPIW and also a S-SM (self-sacrificing mother). If I came into the office with a new jacket, she’d moan about how she’d love a new jacket, but she had to feed her children. If I mentioned a movie I saw, she’d complain that she hasn’t had time for a movie since her twins were born. The only way I got her to stop was to confront her with, “Gee, BPIW, you make me very happy I never had children. I’m so sorry you weren’t so lucky.”

Here’s a paraphrase of one of my favorite cartoons: God is on a cell phone, saying “I’m sorry, I can’t. I have to be everywhere.”

Now, that’s busy.

 

The Polls Are Open

It’s the first week in November and the polls are open in Alameda County, California, with early voting starting on Saturday, November 1. The general election is on Tuesday, November 4.

For me, that will be a long day.

That’s because I signed up to be a poll worker during the general election. On Tuesday, I report at 6 AM and will be there until the polls close at 7 PM, and probably a good while after.

My long day will actually start on Monday evening, when my fellow workers and I will meet at our polling place, a local high school, to set up and arrange the room.

This will be my first time as a poll worker. It’s something I’ve been thinking about doing, so earlier this year during the primary, I inquired at my polling place and discovered that all I had to do was fill out an online application the Alameda County, California Registrar of Voters website.

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So I did, indicating that I was willing to work in Alameda, the town where I live. Some weeks later, I received an email advising me that my application had been accepted. I was assigned a polling place.

I was also required to attend a two-hour training class prior to the election, which I did late in October. The class was an eye-opener.

There’s more to this job than greeting voters at the polls.

Each polling place here in California is assigned an inspector, a judge, and several clerks. Me, I’m one of the clerks. The reason things start so early in the morning is that we have set up and arrange the polling place. In some cases, when access can be arranged, poll workers can set up on the night before the election, which is where I’ll be Monday evening.

In addition to the voting booths, there’s an official table, where voters check in with clerks. There is also a scanner for ballots and a touchscreen voting apparatus which also has an audio option. Plus inside and outside signs must be hung.

Once the polls close, all this stuff, plus the ballots must be packed up just so. There are as many closing procedures as there are opening procedures. Various containers are packed and sealed for transport back to the Registrar of Voters.

All the poll workers must take an Oath of Office, which will be administered by the inspector. That makes it feel very official.

It’s a good thing I have this manual to consult, as well as an inspector who, when I spoke with him on the phone, sounds as though he’s done this many times before.

This should be an interesting experience, one that I take seriously.

 

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