Thursday, September 23, 2010

First Tree of Fall

I hereby pronounce this Victorville's first tree of fall ... in my neighborhood, at least.

Fall gets off to a slow start here in Southern California, maybe even more so in the High Desert. A few days ago, this little tree was aflame with red and orange leaves. Unfortunately, the wind got to it before me and my camera.

But as you can see in the next photo, the trees stretching off behind it are all still fully engulfed in green. 

It may be fall, but I guess they didn't get the memo.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Morning Glories, Kevin McCarthy and the Twilight Zone

"We love a rose because we know it will soon be gone. Who ever loved a stone?"

Kevin McCarthy delivered those lovely words, written by Charles Beaumont, from my television screen last night. We were watching the Twilight Zone episode, "Long Live Walter Jameson," in honor of McCarthy's passing earlier this week.

I thought of that line today when I walked outside to admire my morning glories. It's quite a crop, if I do say so myself. I counted 34 of them this morning.

Know what? By tonight every one of them will be gone. The flowers close up and don't re-open. On some hot days, they don't even make it 'til noon.

It's the nature of morning glories. They open as the sun falls on them (as if to trumpet the morning -- hence their name). And they don't last more than a day. They have a shelf life even shorter than a rose.

Amazingly, there might be just as many new ones tomorrow.

There's something special about this kind of transitory beauty, and the way it can replenish itself. It's both temporary and eternal at the same time.

I guess, as people, we're the same way. In most ways, we're temporary. But it's nice to know that Mr. McCarthy, who left us at 96, lived long enough to see his TV episode enjoyed and preserved for generations to follow. We heard his voice on the commentary last night, marveling at the quality of the print and saying very nice things about the actors he worked with.

It's a shame that the writer of the episode, Charles Beaumont, and the show's creator, Rod Serling, didn't live to see how long their work would survive them. Beaumont died at just 38; Serling was only 50. I hate that. But it does show that we don't always know how much of a mark we're going to leave.

The TV episode we watched last night first aired 50 years ago. Fifty years!

It's lasted a heck of a lot longer than a rose. Or a morning glory.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Kitchen Table Talk

Last weekend my mom and sister came out from Texas for an all-too-brief visit. Guess where we spent most of our time for those two days?

Around the kitchen table.

Funny thing is, I didn't even do much cooking while they were here. The kitchen table isn't just about food. It's about sitting around and gabbing.

My husband didn't quite get it. He joined us from time to time, pulling up a chair and chatting sociably. But after a while he'd say, "Wouldn't you guys rather sit in the living room where it's more comfortable?"

I don't know exactly why, but the kitchen table runs deep in the female of the species. Watch at your next family gathering. Whether it's before the meal or after, the women tend to land in the kitchen, the men in the living room. You might think it's because that's where the TV is. Admittedly, the big game can be a big draw at Thanksgiving time. But I say the tradition started way before television. Read a 19th-century novel, and you're likely to see the men retire to the drawing room for brandy and cheroots, while the women ... do what? Wash dishes? Sit in a sewing circle? Faint? I don't remember.

For whatever reason, the kitchen table is the scene for female bonding.

Men don't get it. They prefer a cushy sofa to those hard-backed chairs. And maybe they are lured by the glow of television's electronic hearth -- or, in earlier days, the fireplace. Maybe it's a caveman thing.

But how does that explain us, clustered around a hard surface in those hard-backed chairs?

Maybe it's because, like it or not, the kitchen table puts us closer to the center of traditional female chores. Far from being a physical barrier, it's the perfect place to cluster around, to talk about everything and nothing. It's also a great place to rest that cup of coffee, or soda, or whatever.

I can't really explain it. It just works -- and I wouldn't trade the hours we spent there for the world.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Discipline and the Power of Deadlines

Or, Where's a Deadline When You Need One?

Confession: Every book I've written has been finished after I got a request from an editor or an agent. It wasn't a hard-and-fast calendar deadline – but someone was waiting for it, and it wouldn't look good if I took too long.

But what if there's no one out there waiting for your work? Or they don't need that work Right Now?

In addition to my fiction, I've branched out into the world of freelance journalism. I've produced somewhere around 200 articles in the past year and a half – because someone was waiting for them. And still, I fight the demon of procrastination.

I'll start promptly this morning, I say. After I have this cup of coffee with my husband. After I check my e-mail one more time (and this Yahoo headline about Crystal Bowersox). After I have another quick bite to eat, so I can focus. After I write this blog entry. (Yep, you caught me.)

I'll be EARLY on this deadline because if I am, I can have a free day tomorrow to goof off with no deadline hanging over my head.

Doesn't work. That deadline has to be hovering over me like the black shadow of the sword of Damocles before I really buckle down for hours of straight-ahead, non-distracted work.

I know several writers who are now blessed with contracts from publishers, and most of them admit to the same problem. After finishing their latest novel at a hard sprint, they vow to pace themselves better next time. If I start early, they tell themselves, I'll only have to write "X" number of pages a week. But even when they start early, the pace doesn't really pick up until that deadly sword is hanging low. Could be in the last month before that deadline ... could be the last two weeks.

I think the problem is, we writers are Creative Types. And I think the same part of our brains that makes us Creative Types also, perversely, makes us resist Creating until we're darn good and ready.

I've discovered, time and time again, that self-imposed deadlines aren't enough to make me more productive. They fall under that softer, smushier label called "goals." Goals make me feel guilty, make me aware I'm falling short, but so far, the ugly little buggers have never made me turn out a book according to schedule.

What I need, of course, is self-discipline. I looked up "self-discipline" on (because I'm too lazy to get up and pull my dictionary off the shelf). It's defined as "discipline and training of oneself, usually for improvement." Doesn't tell me much I didn't know – but I find it interesting that the site says the word didn't originate until around 1830-1840.

"Discipline," on the other hand, appears to be a much older concept, dating back to 1175–1225. Two of the nine definitions sounded appropriate to me. One was "behavior and order maintained by training and control."

The other definition: "an instrument of punishment, esp. a whip or scourge, used in the practice of self-mortification or as an instrument of chastisement …"

With that thought in mind, I think I'll get to work.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Fair Food ... or, is this even legal???!!

Is it my imagination, or has food at county fairs gotten even more unhealthy in recent years?

I remember corn dogs and fried cheese on a stick. But I don't remember fried Klondike bars, fried White Castle burgers, fried Twinkies -- even fried avocados?

(My son begged for the fried frog legs. But I think he did it to mess with my daughter, who was still reeling over the thought that all the livestock at the fair could end up on someone's dinner table.)

All the pictures you see here were taken Saturday at the Orange County Fair. Honest.

However, no actual family members were harmed by any of these foods. We managed to resist the temptation. If only because they didn't have my sinful favorite from the San Bernardino County Fair: Fried Snickers bars.

Saturday, July 24, 2010


I saw an article recently about a popular new Web site, "I Write Like." It offers to analyze samples of your writing and tell you what famous author you sound like.

I thought it sounded fun, and ran for some sample text from my work in progress.

My husband, on the other hand, snorted. "Type in some Charles Dickens and see what it says."

I did. I copied-and-pasted a couple of different sections from an online version of A Christmas Carol. It came up with James Joyce once, and Stephen King twice. But no Dickens.

Then I tried a few samples of my own work. Based on samples taken from the same chapter of my current book, it thinks I write like David Foster Wallace, Kurt Vonnegut ... or Stephen King.

I took a closer look at the article, by AP entertainment writer Jake Coyle. Turns out the site was set up by a Russian software programmer named Dmitry Chestnykh. English isn't his first language, and he created the program using three complete books by about 50 authors for comparison. (I'm not sure if Dickens made it or not.)

It sounds like Mr. Chestnykh worked pretty hard on it, poor guy, but there are obviously a few bugs in the system.

Here's the biggest bug: Computers can't read.

No matter how much programmers teach them about types of words, grammar and sentence structure, a computer can't tell what we mean.

In my critique group, we've had some fun lately looking at what Microsoft Word's analysis has to say about our writing. It rates our work in terms of grade level, what percentage of passive voice we use, and "readability." (We're still trying to figure out what "readability" means.)

I'm a big fan of sentence fragments, contractions and sentences that start with words like "but" and "so." So, of course, grammar check has a fit. And Microsoft said my last chapter was written just below the fourth grade level.


Of course, I'm no Hemingway, but with his legendary simplicity, I'm not so sure he'd get a higher grade than me. I can take comfort in that.

Here's my point. Computers are wonderful tools, but they're just that -- tools. They're made to serve us, not the other way around. They may be able to help us snuff out some of that pesky passive voice – but the darn fools would never notice if your character drove his car into the garbage instead of the garage.

You know what you mean better than any software program can, so don't rush to "up" your grade level just because a computer says so. And don't rush to channel your inner Stephen King just because a Web site says you sound more like Dan Brown. (You shouldn't be trying to sound like anyone else anyway. Right?)

Do what no computer can do. Read your work. Listen to your words. Decide if they say what you want them to say.

But for kicks and giggles, you can check out "I Write Like" here.