Plots and Plans

Human emotions are a swamp best explored in a sturdy canoe. Rock at your peril.
Human emotions are a swamp best explored in a sturdy canoe. Rock at your peril.

Daylight savings time begins tomorrow. Fuzzy accounting if you ask me.

You can’t legislate daylight any more than you can deny hoping rights.

But let’s put all that behind us, shall we? Today the sun is glaring on the icy snow and with any luck by next weekend we’ll be complaining about mud.

As a gardener I’m accustomed to these mood swings. One day everything is coming up roses, or cucumbers, whatever, and the next day little green worms have infiltrated the territory, black tiger mosquitoes have awakened from their brief winter nap, and there’s nowhere to hide from the scorching heat.

Yet on we go, planning and planting, plotting and scheming. It’s a bit like writing a novel. We start out standing, optimistic about our chances of constructing something just believable enough to hold together for a couple hundred pages yet adroitly sidestepping the festering ooze that makes reality such a weary slog much of the time.

I just finished reading Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel “The Marriage Plot,” which deftly critiques the entire catalogue of traditional romantic fiction. From Shakespeare’s bantering couples to Austen’s repressed heroines, the standard model for a romance has long been: boy meets girl (or girl meets boy — let’s not quibble just yet), boy loses girl, boy and girl patch things up and marry, or at least commit to the possibility. Yet times have changed, and not in a daylight savings sort of way.

Divorce, rare and slightly scandalous at the dawn of the last century, is now utterly commonplace. Marriage itself is viewed as less essential to a satisfying life, and alternatives abound for those who prefer to march down a different aisle, or not march at all. In “The Marriage Plot” Eugenides explores the confusion and pain of three characters: two men and the woman they both love. Yet in spite of the best intentions and faithful efforts to treat each other with care and respect, their attempts to love one another are sabotaged by one of life’s many hidden hazards. When one of the characters develops manic depression, the rosy glow of romance turns murky with doubt and frustration. Happily ever after, not so much.

It’s a terrific book. All the characters are flawed, likeable, maddening, and still trying as hard as they can to do the right thing, in spite of the continuing difficulty of knowing exactly what that is. It made me think about how much the element of chance figures into every aspect of life. Some people really are born lucky. Some aren’t. But it’s what people do with the hand they’re dealt that defines who they are.

In “The Marriage Plot” the three main characters have one trait in common. They’re brave. They may run away for a time, but eventually they turn back and face the music, discordant as it may be. Sometimes in romance a little discord can be bracing. A clash of cymbals to rouse the complacent. It’s all in the volume.

There’s a rule in drama that if you show a gun in the first act it has to go off in act three. I get that rule. But I’m not convinced the writer has to kill a character in order to fulfill the prophesy. Nor do I think a marriage is essential at the end of a romance. But love? Yeah. No matter what, even if somebody gets shot and not everyone is happy, as long as somebody gave their whole heart to someone else and never regretted it, that, to my way of thinking, is love.

And you can take that to the bank and put it in your daylight savings account.


The Sap Also Rises

Cupid's aim is true at Florida Botanical Gardens in Largo.
Cupid’s aim is true at Florida Botanical Gardens in Largo.

A few years ago I swore off romance.

Enough with the sappily ever after, pie-in-the-sky, “don’t worry baby” baloney.

I gave in to the Dark Side. And was startled to find it was standing room only. Turns out you can’t throw a brick, or even a volume of Game of Thrones, without hitting some gifted young author gleefully cranking out dystopian fiction in which none of the characters expect to live past the age of thirty.

Ah youth. Wasted on the young, etc.

When I was younger I had a lot of untested ideas about the way things should be. I had dreams about the way things could be. But I always imagined that books — the kind with paper pages that whisper when you turn them — would figure into the scheme of things. I’m no longer so sure about this. Yet neither am I convinced that the future will be programmed by and for robots, and/or zombies.

The other night I watched Network, the landmark satirical film from 1976, again. It’s kind of stunning how well it’s held up. In spite of all the technological and social progress humans have made in the last 40 years, our sheer blinding stupidity and careless cruelty remain daunting obstacles in the way of any sort of real progress as a species. It remains to be seen whether we will destroy the planet before we wipe out humanity.

The biggest difference between the fictional society of Network, with its classic talk show call to arms slogan, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore,” and the modern Twitter-mad world in which we live, is that now people are free to rant and vent without opening a window to shout. They simply open Windows for Cranks and let it rip without fear of consequences, without even changing out of their pajamas.

Well, perhaps this is therapeutic for some people. But it all seems a bit childish and pointless, not to mention counter-productive. Anyone who really wants to change the world must, at some point, step away from the keyboard and engage with reality. And that, of course, is a lot like work. Not my best thing.

Anyway, after careful consideration, I’m planning to return to writing romance. Not that I ever really stopped. Although I did try to be dark and edgy, my heart just wasn’t in it. I hate sad endings. In my view, reality provides more than enough of those. Millions of readers enjoy reading tragedies. Legions of readers thrive on a literary regimen of gore and terror.

But seriously, look around. Reality provides all the grim horror and senseless sorrow you could ever want. What there’s a shortage of is believable uplifting fiction about humans finding happiness together in spite of the everyday zombies and vampires intent on draining the life out of everything .

Walt Whitman once wrote: “I stand for the sunny point of view, the joyful conclusion.”

That’s my plan for 2015. More romance, more hope in the face of the great wheeling darkness that surrounds our little world. I’m going back to basics: When a man loves a woman, and she, in spite of everything, loves him back.

Sound sappy? You bet. Love with no limits, when the going gets rough, when the repartee gets crabby, when the midriff gets flabby. No matter.

Let’s face the music and dance.

After Happily Ever

The hopeful sign will fade and fall off; the journey goes on.
The hopeful sign will fade and fall off; the journey goes on.

I broke up with Romance a few years ago.

I fired off a bitter post and threw out my romance writer magazines. I put away my childish dreams, having decided it was well past time for me to grow up. After all, my children had done it. Surely it was time for me.

And for the last few years I’ve tried to dwell in the dark and grim margins where the media pack lurches from one horror story to another, groaning and scrabbling like a horde of you-know-whats. I even tried my hand at writing a darker sort of fantasy, forcing my characters to struggle with problems bigger than a rip in the heirloom wedding gown.

But to my surprise, after a while, my characters rebelled. Oh they kept jumping through the hoops I set before them. They quipped and parried with the fell forces of darkness, because, you know, what choice did they have? But gradually, without my willing it to happen, they began to sneak off together into quiet spaces and cavort with each other. And I, being the permissive author that I am, gave them freedom to “explore their feelings.” And wouldn’t you know? In the face of all the gloom and doom, those kids were falling in love whether I liked it or not.

That’s when I realized that try as I might to quit the romance genre, I can’t escape the romance in my nature.

Yet I was born a skeptic. My parents told me my first word was no. However I think this might have been a misunderstanding on their part. I wasn’t saying no to everything. I simply wanted to make my own choices. And there is no choice more exciting, more personal, and more unpredictable than the choice to give your heart to another human. Talk about adventure!

The thing that repels me about Romance with a capitol R is the narrow definition of exactly what is romance. James Thurber once wrote a droll little book titled “Is Sex Necessary?” which described the ways in which men and women differ in their approach to romance. Thurber was never more brilliant than when delineating the vast mystery that exists between the sexes. Most romance novels make good use of this fertile ground. Yet the deepest vein of romance remains untapped until after both parties have passed the checkpoint of commitment.

Early romance, fed on wine and roses and carefree hours together, is a surface thing. It can be fun. But at some point, if it’s going to last, it has to be more than just fun. When the going gets tough, romance either grows deep, or drowns. Either way, it’s a stronger story line than Happily Ever After.

Because there’s always After Happily Ever After. And that’s where I plan to make my stand as a romance writer. Yet much as I admire Shakespeare and appreciate the poetry of tragic love stories, I don’t want to read them. Or write them.

So next spring, after I wrap up my fantasy series The Greening (which has been quietly turning into more of a romance than I’d anticipated anyway) my next book is going to be about love that doesn’t need diamond rings or champagne to keep it alive. It’s going to be about the burning hot flame of passion buried under the quietest mountain.

Because what matters most happens After Happily Ever After.


Don’t Explain

Sometimes the light at the end the tunnel leads to yet more mystery.
Sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel leads to yet more mystery.

As a child I was never drawn to read Nancy Drew mysteries. The whole whodunit genre left me cold. I was more interested in sob stories about brave dogs who died saving babies from burning houses, or tales of horses that somehow survived mistreatment and went on to win the Big Race.

Plain vanilla Fiction. That was my poison.

In truth, I thought the mystery genre lacked mystery. The implicit guarantee of a mystery novel is that the mystery will be solved, your questions will be answered. Monsieur Poirot will gather the suspects and explain everything in the final scene.

In real life, mysteries more often remain unfathomable. Even if the culprit is caught, the true motivation, the primal “why?” is rarely answered. But in a mystery novel, the author provides us with that satisfaction. For me the idea of this formula diminished my enthusiasm for the genre, in much the same way, I imagine, that the traditional romance formula repels some readers.

Not all mysteries are created equal, however, and a touch of mystery can be a potent ingredient in novels outside the genre boundary. I began to get a clue when I got caught up in Sherlock Holmes. I devoured Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s entire series like a box of Godiva chocolates. As fast as I’d finish one, I couldn’t resist digging into another. Later I dabbled in Agatha Christie, and few more modern authors whose works straddle the border between mystery and romance, and, in some cases, serious fiction.

But I was never really hooked until I found Kate Atkinson, whose work serves up the whole enchilada with extra hot sauce.

I began innocently enough, with “Human Croquet.” She had me at croquet, of course. As the plot wickets twisted and turned I followed giddily into the darkness, amazed and delighted to be led on by a writer so clearly in control of her craft and so deft in her character development.

For this is the real key to a successful mystery story, or any story really. Some readers rave about labyrinthine plots, or gory crimes, or whimsical humor, and all of these elements certainly help create a mood. But what brings us into a mystery, what makes us care who did it and whether or not they get caught, is the characters.

Atkinson’s characters are fully realized and believable. Love ’em or hate ’em, they are compelling and convincing. Her first novel, “Behind The Scenes at the Museum,” named the 1995 Whitbread Book of the Year, put her on the map and bestseller lists where she’s remained ever since. That book is a family saga that centers on the life of young Ruby Lennox and the mystery at the heart of the novel is layered with humor and pathos.

Once I read “Scenes” I realized there was no turning back. I swiftly plunged into “When Will There Be Good News?,” followed by “Started Early Took My Dog.” The pleasure in these books is compounded by Atkinson’s breadth of cultural references. The way she weaves Emily Dickenson into her work simply takes my breath away.

Currently I’m totally engrossed in “One Good Turn.” I’m in no hurry to get to the end. I’m savoring each page like a fine wine, enjoying the color, the aroma, the mood lifting thrill of the words, the comic turns, the subtle slight of hand. Eventually I’ll know what’s going on. For now, I’m happy to be lost in the mystery of it all.

A La Cartography

Some of the most interesting places can't be found on ordinary maps.
Some of the most interesting places can’t be found on ordinary maps.

My status as an antique has recently been upgraded to “living fossil” due to my persistent preference for paper maps.

My children don’t even bother to hide their condescending smiles when they see me rattling the pages of my trusty map books, while their fingers dance lightly over tiny touch pads to ascertain the best route to our destination.

I don’t mind. Inquiring minds may question whether or not zombies will rule the world come the apocalypse, but one thing is certain. Once the internet is felled by a meltdown of all the bright gadgetry of modern technology, we who folded our paper maps properly and kept them handy will still be able to navigate through the steaming wreckage of the dystopian landscape.

Probably. One can never predict the future with certainty. However, with a map, even an old, out-dated map, there is a probability that some of the landmarks and routes pictured on it remain.

Probability is the spice of life. A little bit adds zest to every venture.

Recently our local weather forecasters have been taxing their hard drives with attempts to calculate the probability of snow, ice and frigid conditions.  I saw a map today that included a “probability legend” to enable viewers to comprehend the weather data. I’m not all that interested in the data. Data comes and goes like the snow. But I love the term “probability legend.” It has a winsome inscrutability that I find irresistible.

I’ve always been a sucker for language that slips past the fortress of cold reason and stokes a cozy campfire of possibility beyond the walls of convention.

Thus, some of my favorite maps are of imaginary places. The first map I remember studying with delight was of “The Hundred Aker Wood” in A.A. Milne’s timeless Winnie the Pooh. Everything about that map appealed to me—its scale, the little drawings of trees and landmarks.

I still find pleasure in novels that include well-wrought maps of imaginary places such as the stellar examples in George R.R. Martin’s epic A Song of Ice and Fire, which provide a superb landscape for a work of great imaginative scope.

One of the great things about maps is how they can be used to convey ideas beyond the geographic. There is a marvelous “Map of a Writer’s Mind” by Anne Emond, for instance, which offers a humorous look at the challenging terrain many writers know.

And let us not forget that most personal of maps, the human face, with its lines etched by time and experience. The map of my face includes not only the Frown Lines of Perpetual Worry and the Blemishes of Self-indulgent Folly, but also the Freckles of Summers Past, the Crowsfeet of Laughter, and the Pleated Lips of Kisses.

In our youth-mad culture there are those who try to erase the evidence of time on their personal maps. I would no more do that than I would erase an old letter from a dear friend. I’m grateful for every line.

They remind me who I am: a Probability Legend, if only in my own mind.

This Is Your Life

Every rainbow is a small miracle.

Karen Thompson Walker’s debut novel The Age Of Miracles takes off from a simple premise, the sort of “what if?” that has inspired science fiction writers for decades. What if the Earth’s rotation slowed? What if, gradually, but unmistakably, the sunlit days grew longer, the dark nights correspondingly longer, and cooler?

From this seed of possibility any number of mutant futures could be imagined. In these days, when young adult dystopian fiction is the leading edge of publishing trends, such a plot could have been milked for a franchise by a writer less concerned with exploring the subtleties of human nature under stress. But Walker, a deft and capable plot spinner, is also a thoughtful and caring observer of the paradox of human existence. Just because we know we’re doomed doesn’t mean we have to believe it.

Through the eyes of the 11-year-old narrator Julia, a lonely girl in Southern California, we see the hairline cracks in society widen as the days lengthen to 30 hours, 50 hours and beyond. When the government steps in to try to impose order on a world which no longer runs on clock time, the divisions between schools of thought lead to irreparable fractures in families and communities. However, no government can impose order on the natural world, and as the food supply and all living things including plant life are imperiled by the slowing, a miasma of gloom settles over much of the world.

But of course, to a lonely girl with a crush on a boy, all the world’s problems are mere background. Up to a point.

Walker’s brilliance shines in the way she shows her young protagonist coming to terms as she navigates not only the ordinary uncertainties of adolescence, but the terrifying new normal of loss.

For a while as I was reading the book I almost lost heart. I usually get my fill of depressing ideas reading the daily news. But I stuck with Walker, hoping she might have some miracle planned for the ending. And even though she didn’t give me the candy-coated over-the-rainbow finish I might have chosen, she left me with a lot to think about.

As her sensitive and warm-hearted heroine recounts the tale from her perspective as an adult, the story is saturated with the sense of “if we’d known then what we know now,”  a common enough phenomenon among those who’ve experienced the bittersweet sensation of 20-20 hindsight. By pointing out the amazing beauty of the world which vanished during her lifetime, Julia reminds the reader that that same amazing world is still here now. We might even still have a chance to save it if we don’t kill each other off first.

Many of us live in a state of constant expectation, looking for miracles or waiting for them on the horizon of some afterlife. But in the meantime we overlook the everyday miracles with which this planet is blessed. Sunrise daily, starlight, trees and birdsong, breezes and butterflies, babies of all kinds. Music.

We already live in an age of miracles.

The Font and the Fury

Bookstore cats are a breed apart.

While recovering from another losing battle between me and the Microsoft Word system that rules my computer I recently read Robin Sloan’s  Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, a literary pick-me-up about book lovers, computers, and the curious obsessives who thrive in the shadows of secret libraries.

What’s not to love, right?

Mr. Penumbra’s, as the name suggests, explores the uneasy interface between old school wisdom keepers and the new technocracy, with its wide open, full-throttle approach to problem solving. The story unfolds somewhere between genres, being neither a conventional mystery, nor a whiz-bang thriller. Some critics have compared it to recent novels such as Erin Morgenstern’s delightfully atmospheric The Night Circus and Neal Stephenson’s weighty Reamde. Yet, although the plot includes a hint of romance and a suggestion of immortal aspiration, it’s more Encyclopedia Brown than Thursday Next. The geek protagonist is a Leonard, not a Sheldon.

In truth, the soul of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore has less to do with technological or magical wizardry than it has to do with the clunky magnetism of age-old fonts.

That’s right. I said fonts. And this is where the Word Warrior in me lifted her shield and sword and embraced the cause.

A good book is a fine thing, but a great font is a rare and precious tool. Unfortunately the Word version on my computer thinks it knows what’s best for me when it comes to fonts. Anyone who has tried to format a document using Microsoft Word has probably grappled with the maddening “helpfulness” of its system. Sometimes, in my dark moments, I long for a typewriter. But then, I never did learn to type, so the computer is really a much better tool for me. If only Word wouldn’t keep second-guessing what I’m trying to do.

Ah well. As they say,  if uppity technology is your problem, you don’t have problems.

However, if you, like me, find yourself in need of a lift after a vexing session with your computer, you could do worse than dip into the pages of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.

And, bonus happy points: the cover glows in the dark. Oh yeah. That’s technology anyone can love.

Only Make Believe

Be your own Buddha

When you tell people you’re a writer the first thing they ask is, “Oh, what do you write?”

Then, after you tell them you write fiction, they tell you what kind of book they read, if they read at all. If you don’t write the sort of book they prefer, that pretty much ends the conversation. Occasionally you run into an omnivore—someone who reads anything and everything. This sort of reader will usually be kind enough to make an attempt to appear interested in whatever it is you write.

Generally speaking, I try to avoid talking about what I write beyond saying that it’s mostly fantasy. This isn’t strictly true, but it makes for a simpler interface with the non-reading public.

I’ve been a daydreamer all my life. As a child I did it to escape the casual cruelty and numbing boredom that fester in the savage wilds of public school. As an adult I’ve learned to channel my daydreaming into imaginary worlds which offer some respite from the daily horror stories that flood the news channels.

Apparently I’m not the only one looking to escape.

These days fantasy is big business. Books in the sword and sorcery genre abound, dragons are a growth industry, and butt-kicking heroines with paranormal powers have become a genre unto themselves. Yet still the fantasies that thrill me are the ones that lurk on the edges of the mainstream fantasy realms. There aren’t many writers like Tom Holt, Terry Pratchett and Christopher Moore, who write wildly imaginative fantasy replete with humor and philosophy.

I’m not a big fan of fantasy in which writers rely on the trappings of violence and creepy gore to make up for lack of imagination and humor.

I yearn for the Buffy factor. What made that landmark show so remarkable wasn’t simply the “girl kills monsters” theme, but the way humor was woven into every aspect of the show, from the romantic plotlines to the apocalypse scenarios. Joss Whedon understood that a good apocalypse needs more than a few laugh lines.

And this is where I draw my own personal line in the sand when it comes to fantasy. I will put up with a lot of gore and violence if I can trust the writer to punish villainy in the fullness of time and to make sure that everyone has a few laughs before the lights go out.

Many very intelligent and thoughtful readers have no interest in fantasy, or even fiction of any kind. They view reality as the whole picture. They consider history and science the only worthwhile detours from the serious business of Life. And, of course, such readers are essential to us all.

But I believe fantasy matters. And here’s the point of the sword: There’s no wall between fantasy and reality. Gravity may seem inescapable here on Earth, but if humans hadn’t imagined flight we’d never have walked on the moon.

It takes courage to be a dreamer in this rough and rude world. Not everyone will respect you for it. But you have to decide if you want to live your own life. You have the choice to be the hero or the villain or the comic relief in your own story. Whether you write it down or not is also up to you.

Be your own hero. You may never make your parents proud, but you can be proud of trying. Whether you walk through walls or into them, the important thing is to keep going. Even make believe wings can give you a lift.

Slow Burner

Every tree contains stories waiting to be told.

On a recent episode of “The Big Bang Theory” Raj Koothrappali, the cute astrophysicist who can’t utter a word to a woman without an alcoholic drink in his system, surmounted the challenge of talking with an equally shy woman by arranging for them to meet in a library for a face-to-face texting date.

It was adorable.

But what I liked about most about the episode was how it illustrated the way bold new technologies that seem to diminish the need for human contact can also be used to create new and imaginative ways to connect.

With that in mind, I’ve finally overcome my resistance to e-publishing. As a lifelong book lover, I was slow to warm to the idea of electronic pages. However, the tree lover in me can see the virtue of virtual pages. And now that I’ve embraced the world of self-publishing, e-books simply make too much sense to ignore.

So this month I’m launching into the epub world with a will, starting with a new edition of Alice and The Green Man. This restored edition includes portions of the original book that were edited out of the first edition in a misguided attempt to qualify for “Publisher’s Choice” designation, an honor supposedly designed to open marketing doors.

This time around I’m driving, and the trip may be a little longer, but for me it’s worth it for the scenery. Call me a control freak. Or just a freak. The point is, in the last six years I’ve learned that no one else will defend my work if I don’t. So I’ve restored Alice to its original giddy green luster and sent it out there to play with the other e-books.

True, there was an e-book version out there before, if you hunted for it. Trust me, the second edition has more spring in its step.

And now it’s available on Kindle. It may take a while to catch, but I’m already feeling a warm glow.

My Back Pages

The Library of Congress has room to read and no end of books.

My resolution for this new year is simple: less time on Facebook, more time with real books.

It’s not that I hate Facebook. It’s more a mild sort of cringing from the whole leap into the virtual social pool. Inside, you see, I’m still that shy nerd I was at age six, 12, and pretty much always.

I’ve learned to mask it, of course. One can’t function in the push and shove of modern life without developing a crust of some thickness. But, given a choice between entering a room full of laughing talking humans or a meadow full of sky, I would head for the sky. Space. The final frontier, as the fellow said.

Actually, I’ve never had the slightest desire to go to space. I’m an earth sign, after all. Even if I give no credence to astrology, I enjoy the poetic symbolism of its design. But I’m more a burrower than a flyer. And nothing completes the cozy burrow like a shelf of books. Or a wall. Perhaps a room. Or two. It could be a long winter.

Libraries are my spiritual home. The hushed atmosphere of a reading room seduces me. It was one of the many, many, things I loved about Buffy the Vampire Slayer – how so much of the story took place in the library, and how Giles, the librarian, was heroic, geeky and adorable.

But I digress. The point is, the task of keeping up my Facebook appearances – liking this, commenting on that, posting proofs of my existence to the universe – is taking away from the time I need to read, write and daydream.

Daydreaming is a key component of the writing thing for me. I need that staring into space part of each day. Although sometimes a baseball game works almost as well – there’s something mesmerizing about watching a ballgame. Anyway, that’s the kind of space to which I do relate – the kind in my head. Without it I begin to feel trapped in ye olde burrow.

Books are a wonderful way to create space inside your mind. But sometimes you need to step out of the page and into a world of your own.

So that’s my plan for the New Year. How long will it last? Well, it’s only a hundred days till opening day. I think I can make it. After that the sky’s the limit.

Words cast a timeless spell.