Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Creating depth in fictional characters

I read Ursula K. LeGuin's Earthsea series a long time ago--probably when I was in high school. I recently revisited the world by reading Tehanu, which continues the story of Tenar, a beloved Earthsea character--except here, she's a middle-aged woman who gave up power in order to embrace an ordinary, invisible life as a farmer's wife.

Comparatively little takes place in this story, yet it really struck me as being powerful. It seemed to me that here was a character who truly embodied the antithesis of the Mary Sue--when an author creates a character that she uses to live out fantasies of her own life, without giving her any truly meaningful challenges. It took a while of musing on why exactly I was so affected by this story.

It comes down to something said in this talk: David Brooks on "Should you live for your resume or your eulogy"?

He talks about two selves we all have--one that focuses on building one's strengths, and craves success, and one that focuses on battling one's weaknesses, and on charity, love, and redemption. Only the latter creates depth of character. He quotes Reinhold Niebuhr--"Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime."

Mary Sue stories (Twilight is a good example, in which the only weakness focused on is Bella's physical clumsiness) focus on characters' strengths; the backdrop of the story and the plot are only meant to showcase those strengths. Tehanu, on the other hand, focuses on testing the characters' weakness--and the story is about the building of depth of character. Not only does Tenar care only about charity, love, and redemption, but she eschews recognition for her past achievements.

We can admire Mary Sue characters, and fantasize about being them, but the fiction is ultimately escapist. There is a place for every kind of fiction, of course. But when I read something that somehow keeps me in reality even as I'm indulging in fantasy--something in which I truly feel like I'm relating, that my brain synapses are firing in new patterns as I align myself to a character's search for identity, purpose, ways to embody humanity in their being and actions--there is something truly special about the experience.

It's hard for fiction, especially in the fantasy genre, to show us what we can do in our lives. We don't have much cause to battle evil in the form of paranormal creatures or magicians. But fantasy can, if done right, show us what we can be, and as it taps into the mythological archetypes that exist in our subconscious, maybe it can do so even more than other genres.

Friday, October 24, 2014

My story is on tour today

The 50 Shades of Green anthology is on a 20-blog tour and my story, "Sunlight and Water," is excerpted here today!

Life is good. It's on my to do list to update my blog this weekend. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

How to make narcissistic small talk interesting

So one of my Facebook friends posted this cafe.com article today, "What to Talk about When we Don't Know What to Talk about," by Amanda Stern. It lists "14 topics which no one will find interesting. Ever." I read through them and had a "Golly gee!" moment because I talk about nine of those 14 topics somewhat regularly.

Anyway, it got me thinking about breast pumping and when I used to do it daily. After I had my first son, I started working at the Claremont Resort and Spa in Berkeley, CA, and because he was only a few months old I was trying to maintain my milk supply by pumping at work. It was frustrating, grueling work, because you know the milk doesn't release that easily when you don't have a baby sucking at the nipple to trigger the let-down. So I used to spend half my lunch break milking myself in my massage room, frantically pumping, watching the trickle of translucent white liquid collecting in the bottle and every so often dabbing the clamminess from my brow with towels from the hot towel cabbie.

The massage rooms at the Claremont are arranged in a U shape downstairs, in the basement floor. There are eighteen rooms, and everybody knows that room #17 at the end of the U is haunted. Therapists have reported strange caresses on their own bodies as they're massaging their clients, things dropping from the walls, the doors slamming shut when no one has pushed them closed. A strange coolness in the room that never quite goes away, no matter how high the heat is turned on.

One day I was assigned to work in room #17. I was late for work that day and thought nothing of it at the time, rushing to get things ready for my first client. "It's a bit chilly today," my client said as I worked, but that was all. I turned up the table warmer and hoped I'd still get a decent tip.

While I worked on my second client, things started to get a little strange. I was more relaxed by then, no longer hurried, and I had drifted into that altered state of matching my client's energy, mirroring her muscles with my hands and my mind as an extension of my hands, allowing the session to become an alpha-wave dance, an exercise of maintaining a porous, translucent sense of self through which my client's energy could flow.

As I moved, in my altered state I seemed to notice another presence in the room. It felt like a coolness, a vibration of curiosity in the room, almost a hunger. I did not feel threatened, perhaps because I didn't have the space to do so--I had to maintain a bubble of safety for my client. So I told it that it was welcome to observe, but not to participate. It seemed to acquiesce, although the hairs on the back of my neck lifted as I thought I felt--or was it my imagination?--the brush of fingers over the tip of my right ear.

"You can turn over now," I told my client, lifting the sheet so she could roll over onto her back. I sat behind her to work on her neck.

This time there was no doubt that I was being touched. Something cold poked at my own neck, in a caricature of what I was doing to my client. Those fingers--or were they teeth? tickled along my collarbone, over the hard knots of my trapezius, and then in an impossible march down my spine--for it felt as if the fingers were touching me inside my skin, burning me with cold to the bone. I stood and began to work on my client's arms, and I felt the cold stroking my arms, lingering about my fingers even as I pulled the warm human ones in my grasp.

I was nervous by the time I got to the legs--but then the fingers stopped, and the cold seemed to go away. I finished the session feeling confused, but somewhat reassured that whatever had been with me, it had lost interest.

My client left, and I cleaned up the linens before my lunch break. I sat down on the table and pulled out my breast pump. My breasts were already engorged, almost hard to the touch, so full of milk that even as I removed my bra I saw drops of milk well up on the tips of my nipples.

I placed the suction cup on my right breast and squeezed, the milk letting go almost right away, squirting in a thin stream into the bottle. I sighed in relief.

And then, I felt a sudden cold grip my hand and the pump squeezed on its own.

Squeeze! Squeeze! Squeeze! It pumped inexorably. I tried to stop it--but the suction had grabbed onto my breast and was stuck. I pulled, I tugged at the thing, but it seemed to be frozen onto my breast, ectoplasm a surer glue than I ever would have guessed. "Stop it! Stop it!" I yelled, panic tinging my voice, not wanting to disturb the massage rooms on either side of me but hoping desperately, at the same time, for intervention. The suction was so strong my breast was resembling a pointy cone, and it was really starting to hurt.

The milk had stopped releasing...but then I felt something else, it was like teeth latching onto my nipple, except this was no baby. And I saw fluid flow into the bottle in a wet stream of red.


I screamed. I stumbled to my feet and somehow tripped over the hydraulic mechanism of the table and I saw the ground shooting toward my face.

Then I knew no more.


Heh. Heh heh. Okay, so that was pretty bad. But if you actually read to the end, then it means I kept your interest, right? And so that's how you make stories about breast pumping interesting. It can be done with any of those 14 subjects, baby's fontanelles included.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Review of KJ Kabza's Under Stars

KJ Kabza sent me a copy of his second story collection, Under Stars, which will be released on Oct. 27. He sent it because I'd positively reviewed a couple of his stories in Tangent Online (The Color of Sand and The Soul in the Bell Jar). I hadn't actually realized that the same person had written these two stories, as I don't usually pay attention to the author's name. Anyway, in one of my reviews I said that I'd read anything this author wrote (I did have a caveat that I would prefer his endings be slightly happier), and with this anthology I wholeheartedly second that first impression.

This collection is long--thirteen fantasy stories and ten science fiction, plus the addition of 69 sf/fantasy erotic limericks and author notes on inspirations for the stories. Still, I was entirely engaged throughout (with the exception, I admit, of during the limericks) and it added a special level of enjoyment to my nightly visits to my basement sauna, during which I like to catch up on reading.

Kabza's voice is clear and unfiltered throughout the work--coming through not only in the story notes but in the stories themselves. A few of the stories feel like vignettes--"what if" moments developed into scenes--uncut gems not evolved into full story, but worthy of appreciation as they are. There are no weak links to this anthology. And with such a quantity and variety of material from a condensed period of the author's life, arranged and probably mostly edited by himself, it's like getting an opportunity to read a person's soul--or at least his journal, a sketchbook of his thoughts and his creative process. As a writer, I loved this--it reflected my own joy in self-expression through writing, in the making of art through linearizing reality. You can feel that joy, that connection, through these pages.

Some of the stories elicit the same reaction I had upon reading "The Soul in the Bell Jar"--feeling upset about his choice of poetic justice over the happy ending. Kabza is ruthless with his characters for the sake of story--all the more painful because he has a knack for making characters who are intensely likable--and the writing often has a dark edge to it. But much of it is also whimsical, as I found "The Color of Sand." (Both of those stories are included in this collection, by the way.) The prose itself is lush and lyrical, yet down to earth, accessible. It's brain-candy for the linguaphile.

A few of my favorites, aside from those two mentioned above:

"The Idiot" is about a girl whose mind and intelligence is trapped in a body that can't speak or move properly, and her meeting with a special animal in an oddly similar predicament. This story made me cry. A lot of Mary Sue-ing goes on in fantasy writing, but here is a heroine who truly faces challenges, and who overcomes them wholly within her limitations.

"Neighbors: A Definitive Odyssey" is funny and unique--it's a story about neighbors in a dictionary turned literal, and Joystick's attempts to save his new but unstable neighbor, J/psi particle. Joystick is creative and resourceful in dragging his friend around the dictionary, and his final solution does not disappoint.

"Heaventide" has a young woman in a tribal setting whose culture demands that she marry and settle down, when all she wants is to Travel--which is something reserved only for men. Her need to express this urge in her is stronger than anything, even love. The romantic aspect of this story, although admittedly not the happiest, makes this story worth it.

"Gnarly Times at Nana'ite Beach" stars a guy who, failing miserably to impress the girls on the beach, manages to get a hold of a revolutionary surfboard that interfaces with the sand and water. This story is just ridiculously funny.

In "Something to Be Tamed," a man who's been captured by aliens actually doesn't mind being a pet, and then he meets a man who really does mind. This story details their interactions and is both amusing and oddly touching.

I wasn't that into the limericks, honestly, but I did enjoy the story of the making of them, and I suspect they're best shared when one is in a group and in a juvenile mood.

Overall, a truly enjoyable, professional collection. It's here on Amazon and here on Smashwords.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

To do lists aren't evil

My dog has gained some serious weight since I got her a year ago. I tried to put her on diet food, but it tripled the amount of poop she was producing and I thought that must mean she was eating a lot of indigestible fiber instead of nutrients. Anyway, I finally have decided that I have to do something about this. So I'm going to order her some expensive grain-free dog food, and we're going to go for dog runs instead of dog walks daily, spending the same amount of time outside but going for longer distances.

I read this article about time management and productivity. It says that to-do lists are evil and that you need to schedule everything so you can be realistic about what you can do. I disagree.

I keep extensive to-do lists--one for today, one for tomorrow, one for the week, and one for eventually. I also keep a list of goals (separated into personal/career/spiritual, and sometimes brainstormed in graphic formats), things coming in the mail, things I need to buy, and expanded list of writing project elements. And I have evernote folders for everything else. I find that if I don't write something down and put it in some list, I won't remember to do it at all. Amazingly, even though the disorganized state of my organizing seems like it wouldn't help me at all, the lists are fluid and shift about on my Excel spreadsheet like things in a messy room where only the owner knows their location. 

The way I organize my lists and go about doing things on them is the same way as I mow my lawn. I begin in neat rows, overlapping exactly 1.5 inches every time I turn around for the next sweep...but then I realize that it's more convenient if I mow the edges of the lawn so it makes it easier to turn at the ends. Then, because I've lost the symmetry of my mowing experience, I start going in circles around the lawn...and then I start criss-crossing diagonally, just going for the longest-looking patches. In the end, it looks pretty well mowed.

Whenever I try to do what that article says and schedule my activities, I end up falling behind within the first couple hours, and then I feel bad about that. The problem is not that I'm realistic about what I can accomplish. The problem is that I need a lot of dreaming time, and the more intensely I work for a period, the longer I need to dream.

Anyway. So, fat dog on diet. Running with her kicked my ass today. But I felt good about doing that and deleting it from my list. When I'm ready, I move to another item. Maybe it's not super efficient, but we have to find the ways to achieve things that suit our own personalities. I believe in setting loose goals, breaking them down into units of concentrated activity from which I can withdraw and dream for a little while, or be present with the kids, or get up and take care of dinner, before picking another one to do.

Other ways to organize time...?

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Control freakishness is based in insecurity

This is my monthly post for the Insecure Writer's Support Group. I think it's an anniversary of some sort for the group, so cheers to all my fellow insecure writers!

So the past month I've been kind of depressed. I realized that it's in large part because I keep trying to control my universe, out of a fear that I'm wrong to trust it. I cheer up whenever I let go and imagine that I'm taking a step off of a cliff into warm and beautiful blue waters. Trust my higher self to take care of me, stop having expectations of outcome, put out my desires to the universe and let them return to me in whatever form is in affinity with the higher good...

But wait a second. I did that jumping off a cliff into beautiful blue waters once, fifteen years ago when I went to Hawaii, and for a horrible few seconds I wondered if I had made myself a paraplegic all for the sake of a momentary rush. It turned out that I'd just sprained a muscle in my low back, but I spent the rest of my trip in agony.

I guess that's what happens if you jump off a cliff and you still don't quite trust that you'll be okay. It's like saying, "Universe, I'm letting go, show me what you will," all the while expecting or fearing that you'll be shown shit. The letting go has to be an experiencing of the feelings one wants to feel...

So I like this self-publishing thing. I have four 20k stories and three 8k stories I ghostwrote and wasn't paid for; I found three of the 20ks and one of the 8ks so far published by my non-payer and got Amazon to take them all down. I self-published five of them in the last three days and it's so easy, it's addictive! I love it! I keep looking through my computer for more things to self-publish, but unfortunately nothing's ready. Anyway, I'm thrilled with the whole deal, that I can slap a cover on something and upload it and in twelve hours, someone from halfway across the world can buy it and read it.

The royalties are just pocket change at this point, but still--it's so much fun and I think I'm glad I didn't get paid for these stories. I have to admit I'm a little embarrassed about them because they're kind of smutty, which is why I'm not putting links to them all over my page, but as you can tell I'm not embarrassed enough to hide behind a pseudonym, or I could just be really lazy.

Anyway, it's nice to focus on enthusiasm...it's a big help to letting go of control.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Glum dream

Dream from this morning:
I had three kids and had gotten accidentally pregnant with a fourth. Each child was from a different man. I felt sort of alarmed, like I had been stupid and unthinking, and knew I wouldn't be able to give each baby (because at least one of them was still a baby) the attention it needed.

In the next dream, some vampires moved into the master bedroom of my parents' house, where I was staying. They were planning to build their base from that place and were catching rats which would be transformed into vampires. One of the rats was injured, and this rat was staying with us; I knew later that when he turned into a vampire he'd have a hole in his face and the head vampire would kill him for his disfigurement. But because I saw this murder ahead of time, we had a chance to save the rat-vampire's life.

I was very nervous about spending the night in the same house, although I suspected that they wouldn't attack that first night--they thrived just as much on dragging out the chase, building up their victims' fear, as on the kill itself. I kept prodding my parents to leave--we could make several trips back and forth from the house before nightfall, and remove at least most of the valuables.

We were going to leave the house at least for the day--my parents were still planning to come back and stay for the night again, though--and I realized that I was fully dressed except I wore no pants. I pulled on the first pants I could find and they were gray sweatpants and matched my indigo-colored t-shirt surprisingly well. Then I demanded that we leave.

My parents started locking up the house so more vampires would have a harder time entering (even though some of them were already asleep in the master bedroom) and then my mom looked in the backyard where everything was covered with dew and she realized that the alternator needed to be fixed, and she said we'd need to spend several more hours at home. I wanted to scream.