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Active shooter, Drop-and-cover, Fear, Featured, Lifestyle, Writing

Thinking About Schools

April 9, 2018

Schools have been on my mind lately. Part nostalgia, part not. I clearly remember the first school I attended. I think it was kindergarten through third grade. London Avenue School had beautiful Spanish mission lines with terra cotta tile roofs. No, I don’t remember them. I’ve seen pictures. Mom was a delightful pack rat who kept a lot of my younger photos.

My grandmother walked me to school. One mile each way. Uphill. Barefoot. In the snow. Actually, not. Flat suburban landscape with sidewalks and no snow. Ever. I remember my third grade teacher, Mrs. Peete. She encouraged my reading, although I already knew how to read when I started in kindergarten, the gift of a school marm grandmother and a mother who binge read books, often aloud. Mrs. Peete was also the one who had to lead us through earthquake drills. Hide under your desks and cover your heads with your hands. She led us through drop-and-cover drills in case of nuclear attack. Same regimen for us, hide under our desks, except we had to turn them away from the windows. As if turning away from the windows would keep us safe from nuclear war.

I went to nine more schools before my last one, East High in Pueblo, Colorado. I remember Mrs. Spiess, who taught me Latin and English, Sam Genova, who taught biology, creepy Mr. Gadow who was afraid on the dark and dogs (yes, we tested his fear. He was right.) By this time we were no longer doing drop-and-cover, because we knew nothing would keep us safe if a bomb fell. And with no earthquakes in Colorado, we didn’t need anything beyond the regular fire drills.

I have no idea why I can’t remember the nine schools I attended between London Avenue and East High.

It pains me to think that other schools have knocked the schools I attended out of my memory. Schools whose names are forever imprinted in the national psyche. Columbine. Sandy Hook. Stoneman Douglas High. These students have never known a time in school when they didn’t practice for active shooter attacks. These are no more real than our drop-and-cover drills, but are more frightening because the odds of having an active shooter in your school far outweighed the possibility of the USSR nuking the United States.

The point is I can’t remember a time when children didn’t have to fear something in school. Not the evil algebra teacher in high school, but a fellow student with a dark side who wreaks havoc on what should be a safe place. I don’t want to turn this into a political diatribe or a hand-wringing fear-mongering essay. I just can’t stop thinking about students, then and now.

I think I’ll hide under my desk for the rest of the day.

Featured, Lifestyle, Writing, Writing Style

Bright, Shiny Objects

March 26, 2018

I was going to call this post, “Bright Shiny Balls,” but I thought some people might take offense. Or not, as the case may be.

We live in an Attention Economy, where we are too easily distracted by bright, shiny objects. Try watching commercial television, where a man screams that you must, absolutely must buy this product immediately, but wait, there’s more because if you buy right this very instant, you’ll get two for the same price, except for shipping and handling. And when the commercial runs again in an hour, you get the same offer.

Our attention spans are shrinking daily. I used to believe that this all started with USA Today, which synthesized news articles to fit on one page. Only the main story in each section jumped to an interior page. Now, we get news snippets on important topics in all the local papers. “World Headlines,” “News in Brief,” etc. If we want “News in Long,” we have to go to a major newspaper or online to read a more comprehensive story.

I’m exhausted with everything that vies for my attention. I don’t want to know what’s going on in the world every single minute of the day. I don’t want to know that someone posted a picture of her dinner on Instagram. I don’t care if you took 100 selfies and posted them all on Pinterest. Sometimes, I like being in the dark, quietly writing with all electronic notifications turned off.

For the last two weeks in February, hubs and I were on vacation in Florida, where all the local news was about the tragedy in Parkland. We talked about this and other topics poolside with other guests at the Silver Sands Villas where we stay every year. Deep conversations. Rewarding conversations. Distracting, in a good way, conversations. As we were driving home, hubs commented that one thing he truly enjoyed was talking with and listening to people face to face. I agreed. So often our conversations are bright, shiny objects over Facebook, blogs, or email. God forbid, we have a conversation in Tweets or texts. Still, these bright, shiny objects make up most of our interpersonal communications today.

I vowed to control this Attention Economy by turning off notifications when I write, limiting news viewing to a time of my choosing, and not getting distracted by the myriad voices wanting me to do or buy something.

Oh wait, I have to jump off and buy one of the Slimming Sauna Shorts before the two-for-one special goes away. OMG! I got two pairs! See ya.

Editing, Featured, Lifestyle, Writing, Writing Style

Swim Lanes, or How To Keep Order in Your Writing

March 12, 2018

Nearly anyone who has worked as a consultant knows that projects are broken down into sections, with those sections broken down into smaller parts. In order to manage large projects, project managers draw up charts with sections listed along the left side and major tasks or milestones listed across the top. The same holds true for writing.

Normally, I begin on page one and write straight through until “The End.” I don’t care about the niceties of the story, just about getting the bones sketched out and words on paper. I am a self-confessed devotee of Ann Lamott’s “shitty first draft.” I only begin writing when I begin editing, moving parts around, worrying over every word, every sentence. That works for a linear novel, which is what I usually write. I decided about a year ago to write a different form of novel. New for me, it’s a novel in stories, or a series of linked stories that can stand alone if they want. That said, several different narrators tell their stories, often observing and commenting on the same actions, but from different points of view.

After I finished what I thought of as the really shitty first draft of eight stories, I put it aside for a week before going back for a reread. Oh, golly goodness, gee whiz. Three of the stories nearly knocked my socks off. The rest drew a big “meh.” Holes all over the place, missing stories, overlapping material written nearly word for word in three stories. How did I go so far afield?

I didn’t have an outline. I tried to write the way I always do, linearly. Doesn’t work if your story isn’t linear, but is more circular than anything. When the narrator of two stories commented on a letter, I put the letter verbatim in each story. So not needed. When I let one character comment on the situation but not read the letter until later, the conflict made sense.

I decided an outline wouldn’t be enough. I needed SWIM LANES. Out came the old consultant’s hat. Out came a flip chart. Out came Post-It notes and marking pens. And out came the manuscript in all its flawed glory. First, I needed to know what chapters I wanted. Then, I had to populate those chapters with characters. I had to be certain I didn’t refer to a character introduced in a different story but not mentioned in the current one without some degree of introduction. I needed to know how old each character was, what year(s) the story covered, who else was in the story, and what the central conflict was.

Whew! The gaps became painfully obvious. One reader of a story asked why one character was so angry all the time. “What she always this bitchy?” Well, no, she wasn’t, but circumstances overwhelmed her, turning her to vodka. To understand and empathize with her, I needed her backstory. Oh, my another chapter.

I had several pages of notes before I went to the flip chart. The first image here contains notes and suggestions, arrows and scratch-outs. Not easy to follow. The second image is a pencil chart of what I thought I needed.  At that time, I needed to know what year a chapter took place in and how old the central and ancillary characters were. Still not enough. The image of the flip chart is what I’m using now. I can take a quick glance, move a sticky note around, move a chapter around, all without messing up anything.

If all this works, the book, Out of the Desert, will be out toward the end of the year. I hope.

This is my story about how the novel in stories is progressing. I’m sticking to it. I’ll keep you up to date as things progress. Until them, write away, write now.

Featured, Haiku, Humor, Lifestyle, Poem, Poetry, Writing

Seasonal Haiku

February 26, 2018

It’s time for something light. Days are getting longer, a minute or two each day. Tempers are getting shorter, because winter seems to be dragging on. It isn’t, but still people think it’s endless.

So, in hopes of bringing a giggle into your life, I offer four haiku.

SEASONALLY AFFECTIVE ORDER

Whites, browns, yellows, blacks
Screeching, shoving—
Gang warfare @ the bird feeder.

Gently rocking waves
Lull one to sleep—
The nose peels.

Apple, cherry, pumpkin
Pies in the oven—
Time for the gym.

Ice-shrouded world
One slippery step—
Technicolor moon.

Watch your step now, ya hear???

Crime, Featured, Lifestyle, Narrative Voice, Serial Killer, Suspense, Thriller, Writing, Writing Style

An Interview With An Author, Part II

February 12, 2018

Welcome back. I’m your Intrepid Reporter interviewing Betsy Ashton, author of the incredibly chilling EYES WITHOUT A FACE.

IR: I’m here with Betsy Ashton. Welcome back.

Me: Thanks. And thanks for the coffee.

IR: We’ve already talked about the cover and why you wrote the book. I want to talk now about the killer herself.

Me: I’m good with that. This killer got under my skin.

IR: She doesn’t have a name.

Me: I think you mean she doesn’t have a given or family name.

IR: Right.

Me. In her small town, most kids grew up with nicknames, Buddy, Bub, Junior, Princess. Her family nickname is a representation of how her family sees her.

IR: Did they really call her That Thing?

Me: Alas, they did. It shaped her worldview.

IR: I found I couldn’t always believe her.

Me: Well, she is unreliable. She doesn’t want you to believe everything she says, but she wants you to believe everything she does.

IR: That sounds contradictory.

Me: It is and isn’t.

IR: I see, I think. Is she a sociopath?

Me: She doesn’t think so.

IR: So, she’s a psychopath?

Me: She doesn’t think so.

IR: That’s why she’s called unreliable, isn’t it?

Me: That’s part of it.

IR: I may be foolish, but sometimes I found myself rooting for her.

Me: Good. That’s what she wants you to do.

IR: I got a distinct Dexter vibe. Was that intentional?

Me: By no means. I have heard of Dexter, of course, but I’ve only seen one episode. I don’t receive the channel it was on.

IR: Did you have any television show in mind?

Me: Criminal Minds. I think the episodes are perfect for that show.

IR: Do you see any of the actors playing That Thing? G-Man?

Me: Casting That Thing is for a different interview. If Joe Mantegna weren’t so old, I’d like to see him play G-Man. That said, I wouldn’t turn down Shemar Moore…

IR: Do you have any advice for a budding author trying to do what you did with this book?

Me: Humanize your character.

IR: How do you recommend doing that?

Me: Give her a cat.

IR: I’m afraid our time is up. I hope I can have you back to learn more about how you write and what you are working on now.

Me: It would be a pleasure.

Author Interview, Betsy Ashton, Eyes Without A Face, Featured, Lifestyle, Psychological Mysteries, Psychopaths, Suspense, Writing, Writing Style

An Interview With An Author, Part I

January 29, 2018

Recently, I sat down with an Intrepid Reporter who wanted to talk about my serial killer book, EYES WITHOUT A FACE.

Intrepid Reporter: I understand you recently wrote a book about a female serial killer. Do I have that right?

Me: Well, since you are reading from the press release, yes, you have that right.

IR: What ever possessed you to write about such a dark subject?

Me: Nothing possessed me, if you mean, was I taken over by a spirit or something like that?

IR: Huh?

Me. It was the result of a double-dog dare. You can never turn down a double-dog dare.

IR: Really? Who dared you?

Me. I took a course on writing mysteries a few years back. One of our challenges was to write the first sentence of a mystery. I wrote: “My sorority sisters were into sex, drugs, and rock and roll, but that wasn’t enough for me. Then, I killed someone and found my true calling in life.”

IR: Well, now.

Me: That’s what the teacher said. She went on to double-dog dare me to turn the opening into a novel. I did.

IR: May I assume you are not a serial killer?

Me: You may.

IR: How were you able to get inside the head of such a, um, well different character?

Me (signing): It’s called using the creative gene. I imagined what it would be like to be a killer and wrote about it. Simple as that.

IR: I think it would be very hard to write this book in first person.

Me: No harder than in third person or from the point of view of a dog.

IR: A dog?

Me: Never mind. It was a challenge, but one I was ready to take on. I’d never written anything with such an unlikable character. Strike that. Some people think she’s likable.

IR: Eeuw! Really?

Me: Really.

IR (shaking her head): I couldn’t, but then again I’m not you.

Me: And you should be glad you aren’t. Imagine what my husband had to live with for the three years it took to shape and polish the book.

IR: I’d rather not. Let’s move on. The cover is very chilling.

Me: It’s supposed to be. I asked my son to put on a hoodie and ski mask that covered his lower face. I gave that picture to a cover designer who took out the rest of his skin, overlaid the eyes, and created a character without a face but with eyes that follow you.

IR: I can’t imagine what your dinner table conversation is like.

Me: Pretty normal, actually, except talking about using KA-Bars or switchblades for killing.

IR: But you don’t have a KA-Bar in the novel.

Me: Aha, you have read the book. I did, but I took the scene out. I may use it as a short story because I love one line in the section: “I don’t use guns because you never have to reload a KA-Bar.”

IR: I think it’s time to take a little break.

The second part of this interview appears on this blog on February 12. Stay tuned.

Eyes Without A Face, Featured, Lifestyle, Writing, Writing Style

Looking Ahead

January 1, 2018

And so 2017 is in our rear view mirrors. ‘Tis the time to wax eloquent about what the new year, 2018, will bring. I’m not one of those. I’m more rooted in what I can make happen and how I can entertain readers of this blog.

  1. Trust me. I will still occasionally post a blog with social meaning, social commentary, or just thoughts about life.
  2. I want to share more of my work in progress. Some brief bits of new work will appear here before anywhere else. (Later, the bits will appear on my Facebook pages, MadMaxPage, and EyesWithoutAFaceNovel. Completely new work might appear on my BetsyAshton page as well.) Lots of little things swirling around in the old brain that demand to be shared.
  3. I will continue promoting Eyes Without A Face  most of the year, because it’s a terrific story. I’ll share what readers tell me, like this quote:  “Congratulations on a superb achievement! Your book is riveting, original, and impressing. To evoke sympathy for a serial killer is no small task, but you did it. And the amount of research you must have had to do for this novel boggles the mind.” When you share comments, I’ll keep them, respond, and share.
  4. I ask you to review my books, all of them, on Amazon and Goodreads.
  5. I’ll let you know when the next Mad Max book comes out. HINT: February.
  6. And I have yet another novel I hope to get out in 2018.

So putting the angst-filled 2017 behind me, I’m really looking forward to 2018. Thank you for taking this journey with me. I value your support and comments more than I can express.

Happy 2018. Onward!

Christmas Past, Editing, Featured, Lifestyle, Satire, Writing, Writing Style

‘Twas the Night Before Deadline

December 18, 2017

with apologies to CLEMENT CLARKE MOORE

‘Twas the night before deadline, when all through the house

Not a writer was stirring, not even his mouse;

The laptop was set up on the table with care,

In hopes that the words soon would appear.

 

The images were nestled all snug in his head;

While visions of page proofs filled him with dread;

And good guy in mischief, and bad guy with a rap,

How to keep the right words, and edit the crap.

 

When out on the street there arose such a ruckus,

He sprang up in anger at loss of his focus.

Away to the window he flew like a flash,

Drew back the curtains and peered through the glass.

Red lights swirled on ceiling and wall,

Shattered concentration caused him to bawl.

When what to his curious eyes did appear,

Images of pages, blank and austere.

 

He wielded a pen so sure and so quick,

He knew in a moment his edits were nixed.

More rapid than eagles his cross-outs they came,

And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name:

“Now, Bracket! now, Period! now Colon and Slashes!

On, Comma! on, Hyphen! on Quote Mark and Em-Dashes!

To the top of the page! to the top of the wall!

Now erase away! erase away! erase away all!”

 

Ideas that normally flowed freely and fast,

Now met so many obstacles they left him aghast;

So on the pages his cursor stood still,

Hours to deadline and no words to kill.

 

And then, in a twinkling, he heard in the hall

A shuffling gait of his wife’s slow footfall.

As he drew back his head, and was turning to see,

Into the study she carried fresh coffee.

 

She was dressed all in flannel, from her head to her foot,

And her clothes were all rumpled, no makeup to suit;

A cup she set on the table with care,

Steam rising and swirling, to drink it a dare.

 

Her eyes—how they twinkled! her dimples, how merry!

Her cheeks were like roses, her nose like a berry!

Her droll little mouth was pursed up like a bow,

And the hair on her head was as white as the snow.

 

He wished she’d call his editor to plead

All he wanted was more time to re-read.

His editor he knew would laugh and deny,

He was behind in his contract, he could but sigh.

 

That editor so mean, so nasty and bold,

“Not another second,” his memory so cold,

With a nod of his head and a stroke of his pen,

He showed him the way out of the mess he was in.

 

He spoke not a word, but went straight to the work,

Delete key melt down, words appearing from murk,

Finally laying fingers on keyboard with a touch so slight,

He typed and typed well into the night.

 

He sprang from his chair, the manuscript to send

The deadline met, the last words “The End.”

His editor sent a note full of delight,

“Happy deadlines to all, and to all a good write!”

Featured, Harassment, Lifestyle, Women's Perspective

#MeToo

November 20, 2017

I hadn’t planned to write about the #MeToo movement. Some of my readers might think it too political for all the places this blog posts. The more I think about what is happening, the more I know I can’t remain silent.

#MeToo started with a few women speaking up about sexual harassment. Without going into details, these women stood up and talked about how some men had demeaned them, had exposed themselves. had touched them inappropriately. The list grew daily with women in entertainment, business, and politics feeling emboldened. No longer hiding in the shadows, these women stepped into the light, risked ridicule and having their reputations impugned, and stood steady under verbal assaults from too many different sources to name here.

It’s not just in the US where #MeToo has brought the issue of sexual harassment into the light. I’ve read posts from all over the English-speaking world, including India and Pakistan. Women everywhere are no longer silent.

Yes, I was the victim of sexual harassment. When I was early in my professional career, I traveled with my VP, my Managing Director, and a technical manager overseas. I was the only woman. I had no thought that anyone would say anything inappropriate, but on the first night, the VP offered to “take the edge” off my, um, “tension.” He said I’d be on the road for two weeks and would probably like a little “servicing.” Yes, servicing, like I was a cow in heat. I turned him down. He never made a second move, but I was never in the same room with him without a lot of people around.

By the standards of what is being reported today, this encounter was almost benign. And yet it wasn’t. The VP made me feel dirty, like I was coming on to him, and that I couldn’t be away from home for two weeks without needing sex.

I don’t want this post to be only about what happened to me or to these other women who have the courage to name names, places, and feelings.

I want this lesson to be the LAST time we have to talk about sexual harassment. I want this movement to make real changes in how we respect both men and women, because men are often victims of sexual harassment themselves. I want my daughters and granddaughters to know that they can speak up immediately. More, I want them not to have to speak up, because we have changed our behavior. I don’t want them to have to tell a person in power that you aren’t interested in their overtures. I don’t want them to have to tell a man to talk to the right boob because it’s getting jealous of the attention he’s paying to the left one. I don’t want them to have to look over their shoulders to be sure no one is stalking them at school/church/on the job/wherever. I want the next generations to feel as safe as they should be. I want them to wonder what all this craziness is all about, because it’s no longer an issue for them.

Are you with me? Are you ready to stand up with me and say #MeToo?

Featured, Lifestyle, Veteran's Day, Writing

He Sat Alone

November 11, 2017

Those who are regulars on this blog have read this essay before. I run it every Veteran’s Day to remind me of what our service men and women do and what ghosts they bring home. I hope you enjoy the rerun.

Dedicated to the management and staff at Applebee’s,
Bedford, VA

The black man sat alone in a large booth in an Applebees restaurant filled with friends and family honoring our veterans on 11.11.11. When he arrived, the manager asked, “Would you like to sit with other veterans?”

He shook his head. “I’d rather eat alone if that is all right.”

“Of course.”

The manager led him to a large booth, the only one open, at the side of the restaurant and handed him the special menu for Veterans Day. Every year for the “Veterans eat free” promotion, it was always the same:  sit alone, eat, leave. Every year the manager tried to get the man to join with others, but failed.

He measured every bite of his free dinner slowly. He drank nothing but coffee and spoke with no one. Was he a Vietnam vet? He didn’t look old enough. Was he a combat vet from Persian Gulf War? The age seemed right.

Veterans walked over to greet the man and ask if they could join him. He shook his head. No, he wasn’t feeling like company. He didn’t look up. The vets moved away and found others to share a meal with.

A little boy broke away from his father’s hand.

“Mister, are you a veteran?”

“I am.” The man looked at the boy.

“My daddy was in Iraq. What war were you in?”

“I wasn’t in a war.”

The boy’s father retrieved his son, apologized for interrupting the man’s dinner and moved to his family’s booth.

“But, Daddy, if he wasn’t in the war, why does he get to eat here today?” The little boy’s voice rang through a quiet moment amid the usual cacophony of shouted greetings and hellos.

“Because, Ben, many men and women are veterans, but they never went to war. We need them to help keep America safe during peace, too.”

The boy crawled into their booth, his face frowning over his father’s lesson.

Halfway through his Salisbury steak and macaroni and cheese, the man looked at a vet across the aisle from his booth. They recognized the emptiness in each other’s eyes.

“Army?”

The man shook his head. “Air Force.”

“Where?”

“Dover.” The man looked at his plate. The conversation was over.

The Army vet whispered to another vet. “He was at Dover.”

“Think he was a crew dog?” asked a third man.

“Nah, seen a lot of crew dogs. He never worked the flight line. He was inside somewhere.”

“Don’t look like an officer,” said the original vet.

“Might have enlisted right out of high school,” said the man who knew the black man wasn’t a crew dog.

“Coulda been in an office job. Logistics. Payroll. Something like that.”

“You don’t get that thousand-yard stare flying a desk.”

Other vets in the restaurant joined the whispered conversation. They kicked around what kind of job the man had held that left him haunted.

“Maybe he was in the clinic. Get to see a lot of sick and injured there.”

“Maybe. He don’t look like a combat vet. ’Sides, he told the kid he wasn’t in the war.”

“Peacetime guys see shit, too. Sick and injured. Dead.”

“Don’t Dover get the bodies from Afghanistan and Iraq?’

“Yeah. Wonder if he was on part of the honor guard.”

“Could be. Thought most of them guys was younger. He seems too old for unloading flag-draped coffins in the middle of the night.” The second vet wouldn’t let the issue die.

“Someone has to do it,” said the first vet. “Maybe he saw too much of what’s in those boxes. Young kids. Someone like his own son, maybe. Had to be hard looking at dead kids.”

“Never forgot what it’s like to see your best friend blown to bits,” said an older vet.

“He’s got the look, don’t he, Rex?”

“If he wasn’t in combat, he most likely was in the Dover morgue. Bad enough to be shot at. Worse to have to put the pieces back together for the families. Most IED dead don’t leave much behind,” Rex said.

“He’s alone. Bet his wife and family dumped him. Hard to live with a guy full of demons. Wife left me, too. Never understood the darkness didn’t involve her. She moved out. I tried to move on. Damned hard sometimes.”

“Hear you, man.”

Tables emptied as veterans and their families finished their meals. New vets arrived. Someone would whisper “Dover” and jerk a head at the man sitting alone.

No one asked what haunted him, the man with the thousand-yard stare. Veterans walked past his booth, dropped hands on his shoulder and moved on. He sat straight, frozen, neatly dressed in clean jeans, a shirt and zippered jacket. His ball cap rested on the bench seat beside him. Head and face shaved. He couldn’t acknowledge the support his fellow vets tried to give him.

Alone. On Veterans Day. As was his wish. He kept his head down and ate with complete concentration, lost in his thoughts. He paid for his coffee, asked for a go cup, and carefully dressed it with two creams and two sugars. He stirred, put the lid on, set his cap on his head and worked his way off the bench seat. He passed the boy’s table.

“Mister?” The little boy stood in front of the man. He held out his small hand.

The man reached out and shook it.

“Thank you,” said the little boy.

The little boy saluted. The man straightened his shoulders, held his head high and saluted. He looked at the father and his son, nodded and walked slowly out of the restaurant, a black veteran alone, his cup of hot coffee clutched in his hand.

 

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