What Not to Do

(Caveat: It is not my habit or intention to belittle another author’s writing. That said, I don’t always like everything I read. Do you? The statements herein are my opinion only. Your mileage may vary.)

This is not a book review. I just want that clear right up front, because in this post I want to talk about a book I have been trying—and failing—to read: New York 2140, by Kim Stanley Robinson.

I initially borrowed the book from the library because I was ready for a new read, and this was recommended as one of thirteen best sci-fi books of 2017. The premise seemed sound. In the year 2140 (obviously), Manhattan is so flooded from sea-level rise that it has become the new Venice. Interesting, I thought. Ought to be good, plus bonus points for taking on climate change in a possible near future, set in a city familiar to many readers. Makes for a story relevant to our own times.

Right?

That’s why I tried to read it. I failed to finish because…well, there’s no polite way to say this. It bored me to tears.

And that is what I want to talk about. Some of the storyline’s failings I can point to and say “That. That right there is boring.” But the rest I’m not sure how to define, which I why I’m writing about it. Because as a writer, if I can’t describe why a book fails to capture my interest, then I won’t be able to avoid the same mistakes.

So here we go.

One clear pitfall of the book for me was that a main character (there are nine) is a hedge-fund sleaze who goes on and on and on and on about finance and housing bubbles and market indexes in excruciating detail. He’s not the only character to do so. I read the first segments of this, thinking it must have some connection to the plot (I think it does, eventually, though I’ll never know for sure). But after the first five, I began skimming without actually reading them.

Another was the unnamed character (“citizen”) whose chapters were absolute info dumps about New York history and culture. Not one of these chapters that I read added anything pertinent to the plot. Citizen even tells the reader that “if you don’t wanna know this, skip to the next chapter.” (Really? The author invites the reader to skip whole chapters of the book?) Again, read the first few, skipped the rest.

The characters themselves all fell flat. Not one of them felt fleshed-out or real to me. They all said different words, yet their “voices” sounded the same. They went places and did things and got together and faced problems, but none of it gave me a sense of urgency. None of it compelled me to keep reading. The writing, overall, used limiting words that drained conversations between the characters as well as descriptions of any power, something I’ve had to watch in my own work. Dialogue between characters felt stiff. There was more, but this will suffice to explain why, at about the 25% point, I decided to stop wasting my time.

More nebulous critiques centered around the pointless wanderings of the flat characters. Maybe it’s that their relationships, activities, comments and internal monologues all felt contrived. One scene in particular had a group of characters all meeting in one place and the author overexplained insignificant details like who sat where. Why is this important? Skip to that bit, please. There were good segments that gave me hope, but overall it felt like there was far too much extraneous content, as though the author could have cut at least 25% of the book and had a better, more focused and compelling story. Again, I’ll never know.

Correct me if I’m wrong—because KSR is a best-selling author with nineteen published books to his name, so clearly he knows something I don’t—but I’m pretty sure each of these faults I’ve named breaks rules that are pounded into our heads as new writers. Books on how to write publishable fiction tell us not to do these things. Fiction classes say the same thing. Writing conference breakout sessions repeat these lessons, so I’m left wondering if a) those books and classes and conference presenters are all wrong; or b) bestselling authors are held to a different standard than new writers.

Much as I wish it were so, the real answer probably isn’t that cut-and-dried. First of all, a) is both true and false because every fiction reader is different. Each one wants something different from a novel. As awful as I thought NY2140 was, there were plenty of reviews giving it four or five stars, raving about how all KSR’s novels had an underlying and not-so-subtle message. He definitely pushes a political agenda in this novel, one I probably agree with on many levels. I don’t mind a book with a message. But let it also have a story too, please. I’ve read other books like this in that they were all message and no story. All my works of fiction have messages too. I only hope they aren’t this dry and flavorless.

As to b, this is probably true. I remember a presenter telling me at a conference that writers have to prove they know the rules before they can break them. I’m tempted to think this is BS, until I read something like NY2140. It’s an example of the fact that publishers will be more likely to buy even marginal ideas from established writers who have already identified their market, while we newbies are still struggling to do that. Unfortunately, even if our stories is outstanding, we are all channeled through the narrow pipeline of available publishing houses whose primary goal is to make money. Don’t misunderstand me; there’s nothing wrong with making money. As a writer, I too want my works to turn a buck. But with so many of us, and so few publishing channels, it’s no wonder that more and more writers are turning to self-publishing options for their work.

I haven’t read anything else by KSR, and I probably won’t—partly because of my experience with this book, but also partly because one reviewer, who gave this book four out of five stars, commented that people who read his work usually don’t read it for the story, but for the “massive ideas he puts forth.” That reviewer is clearly part of KSR’s “established market.” She knows going in what she’s going to get and she goes back for more.

I know it looks like one, but this isn’t a book review. As always, don’t take my word for it. If you like the “story’s” premise, or have a soft spot for New York City or finance or utopian messages that out-shout the plot or the characters, by all means read this book. You may be one of those who find it inspiring. As far as I am concerned, it was a reminder to myself to mind my story/message balance, to fully flesh out my characters and their desires/conflicts, and to make every single word relevant to the work.

A God In Ruins

By Kate Atkinson
Back Bay Books, ISBN: 978-0316176507
Paperback, ©2016, 480 pages

Ex-bomber pilot Teddy, a.k.a. Edward Todd, has settled into an expected post-war role of husband and father, living out his days in small-town mediocrity with enigmatic wife Nancy, unlikeable daughter Viola, volatile grandson Sunny and pragmatic granddaughter Bertie. He is content to write for a local journal rather than seek his pre-war dream of becoming a world-renowned poet, or travel as he’d planned before enlisting with the RAF.

On the surface, Teddy is a quiet, unambitious man with strong pacifistic tendencies, and with good reason. Beneath the surface lays pent-up guilt for the hundreds—thousands—of innocents killed or maimed during his 72 bombing raids over Germany. Teddy lives by his own personal credo: Always be kind. Even when he suspects his wife is having an affair. Even when his daughter treats him like a burden and can’t wait to be rid of him. Even when those he holds dear take no interest in the one thing that ever really made him feel alive: the mechanics of bombers.

A God in Ruins is not a sequel to Life After Life, even though it explores another branch of the Todd family, most of whom we met in the first book. Teddy’s story is, rather, a companion piece and while it is not told in the same fashion as Ursula’s repeat visits to a life in this realm, chapters of Teddy’s life fall into the story in a jumbled way that at first was hard to read. However, the more I read, the faster Teddy’s hooks held my attention. Layer after layer is peeled away from Teddy’s façade to show the reader how his life came to this point. That alone would have intrigued me.

But Atkinson’s characters and their interrelationships run deep. Each and every one carries strata of cause to support the effects of their strengths as well as their flaws. Throughout the story, the author allows readers to see into the minds and thoughts of all the main characters—Teddy, certainly, but also Nancy, Viola, Sunny and Berti—so that by the end of the story we know why all of them did the things they did. Viola, in particular, presented a most unlikable character and, for me at least, never really redeemed herself. It was especially abhorrent to me the way she treated Teddy, who is the most sympathetic character of all. But when the story reveals the explosive crux behind this broken relationship, it changed everything for me. I still didn’t like Viola, but at least I understood a great deal more about her character.

But perhaps the most prevalent character in the entire story is the same as the one in LAL—World War II. Through the first part of the book, Nancy refers to “Teddy’s war” in vague comments, but Teddy’s actual experiences dribble down to the reader in small bites, enough that we know Teddy only ever really felt completely connected to his life while he was piloting a bomber. We see isolated memories of rough missions where Teddy and his crew barely made it back alive, and others where not all of them did. Teddy clearly harbored guilt over the bombing of innocents, though he carried out his duty on behalf of the Allied Forces, and is never able to understand the hostility that lingers in his countrymen and fellow soldiers long after Germany is in ruins and its despotic ruler in his grave. I related on a deep personal level with his inability to discern any reason to continue such hatred, and his horror over the enormous destruction wrought by the conflict.

While LAL carried a bigger punch with its continual restarts on Ursula’s attempt to get this life right, A God in Ruins packs just as powerful an impact on a quieter level. True to its main character, this book whispers its message, rather than swinging insight at the reader like a blunt object, as was more natural for Ursula. Atkinson’s revelations of the Todds proved for me to be a thoughtful look past the surface of what at first appeared to be the ideal family, and an advisory that no matter how hard we try, things don’t always work out the way we plan.

GodSeed

Last week I gave a presentation on the Pagan/Wiccan holiday of Imbolg to a small interfaith group whose members are mostly Christian and Jewish. It wasn’t the first time I’ve shared aspects of my faith with this loving group of people. My views are always accepted with open hearts and not a little curiosity. Though most of them have heard enough about my faith to have a surface understanding, there is one thing that is almost certain to stump members new to my presentations—my reference to God as The Divine.

I can’t count how many times people have stopped short at this honorific, though I never really understand why. Usually I am asked to describe what I mean by that term—which seems self-explanatory to me—so I tell the querent that the term “God” can mean very different things to a Christian and a Hindu and a Buddhist and a Pagan. It evokes wildly variant images and emotions and expectations. The term “The Divine” has more distance, less emotional coloration. For me, that better suits a creative energy that I feel certain is limitless, boundless, so far beyond our ken that we can’t even know what we don’t know about that Presence. It feels less limiting than the word “God” or “Goddess” or any other specific name we might pin on its Universal Lapel.

People usually nod, and smile at my explanation. It seems to satisfy them, but I don’t usually go into any greater detail because I don’t want to confuse the issue. And my complex feelings about divinity/The Great Mind/The All/The Universe/God/The Divine would prompt conversations longer than the twenty or so minutes I have to speak before this group.

I am a deeply spiritual person. If pressed, I will say I am Wiccan, but it’s not really that simple. I have yet to find the box that completely encompasses my beliefs while leaving room for them to evolve as I do. In my novel series, the Umani race calls The Divine Na’Staanni, which means “Honored All”. That concept is so close to how I see that Presence, I have taken to using the Umani’s name for It. As far as I’m concerned, Na’Staani is All, as Its (admittedly fictional—but then which human-labeled God isn’t?) name implies. It encompasses you, me, the neighbor next door and those noisy ones down the street. Nature and technology and knowledge and everything we make or build or grow or know is part and parcel with It. Na’Staani isn’t part of the Universe; the Universe is part of Na’Staani, as are we all. Therefore, we – you, me, the noisy neighbor—are all part of God. That means that there is a seed, a speck, a particle of the Divine in every one of us. In everything around us. Good, bad, and indifferent, there isn’t anything or anyone or anywhere that is apart from It. You are God. I am God. God is you and me and a whole lot more.

But it goes even beyond that. If we are all part of Na’Staani, and Na’Staani is Everything, then you and I and the noisy neighbor are all also Everything. The separations between us are illusions. We are all One.

Given this attitude, it’s perhaps no surprise that I am motivated to be kind—to people, to animals, to Nature—and to extend to others the same authentic curiosity about how they seek connection with The Divine as I want them to offer me. If that Presence is as vast and all-encompassing as I believe, there is no hope of full understanding as long as we remain separated from It in this existence; but—and here’s the important thing—as long as we strive toward that goal, even knowing we cannot reach it, growth and enlightenment can follow. For such a deep and personal journey, no one route could possibly serve all of us with equal effectiveness. The commitment to seek God, by whatever name we use or face we see, is made in one’s heart and soul. That is where the sacred path lies, in that internal, intensely intimate space. Only the individual seeker can recognize its signposts or say whether Christian traditions and teachings will resonate more than Jewish ones, Hindu pantheons more than Greek, Buddhist dharma more than Wiccan mysteries.

There is beauty in our differences which, brought together and explored as a greater whole, have the power to widen our perception if we can learn to listen and truly hear one another.

Up the Tension

I’ve read it over and over, heard it in workshops and plenary sessions. A good story isn’t about any one character or group of characters. Instead, it’s about those characters doing things. Striving, reaching, hurting or being hurt, trying and failing and trying again, coming, going, living, learning. It’s about the events that happen to the characters—the foundation, the buildup, the action, and the consequences—followed by the next event and so on. These threads weave together to create tension in the book which keeps the reader on the edge of her seat (hopefully) all the way to the dénouement. The trick, as I understand it, is to write every scene in such a way that it furthers or at least maintains this tension.

The challenge, for me anyway, is learning to write structural scenes—ones that don’t have high-energy but are necessary to set up later action scenes—in such a way that they too convey some element of dramatic tension. The Kill Zone, Terrible Minds, and other blogs talk about the necessity for this, while recognizing that the reader also needs periodic breaks to catch her breath.

Right now, I’m a little more than halfway through the first draft of my novel’s sequel, and struggling with a few structural scenes that set up the last quarter of this book and the entire premise of the third book in the trilogy. It’s crucial that they deliver the necessary information; telling/showing it in such a way as to make the reader care is what takes so much time. These scenes are always (for me) harder to write than the more action-packed ones, but some days the words just WILL NOT come. I write, erase, write, erase, and write until my wrists ache, then I put on my braces and write some more. Usually I’m shooting for a target word count but even if I make that number for the day, it won’t matter unless the words count. If I have to erase them the next day and start over, what have I gained?

I’m whining, but it’s okay. I think that’s part of a writer’s process. Have you seen the meme about the phases writers go through on any draft? In summary, they go something like this:

  1. This is the best thing I’ve ever written.
  2. This has a few problems.
  3. This is the worst thing I’ve ever written.
  4. I’ll never get published.
  5. This might be okay.
  6. This is the best thing I’ve ever written.

For a hilarious visual concept, see the interpretation by Captain Jack Sparrow.

At any rate, today was a Level 3 day. I’m sure tomorrow (or the day after) will spring back to Level 1 or forward to Level 6 but for a first draft, I suppose I’m right (write) on target.

See you next week.

Going It Alone

I have to admit I’m old-fashioned, to some degree. For the past however many years I’ve been writing, I’ve declared I would only seek traditional publishing routes for my work. I believed that self-publishing was only useful for those who couldn’t get published any other way. But I have to admit, that’s beginning to change. For one thing, I’ve read plenty of drivel between paperback and hard covers that came from reputable publishers, books so bad I put them down long before I was even halfway through. I’ve also enjoyed my share of self-published works in multiple genres that held my attention and left me wanting more. The Martian was originally self-published. So was A Time to Kill, and Fifty Shades of Gray. Amanda Hocking started out publishing her own books and is now selling millions of copies.

Old assumptions no longer work. Maybe they never did.

That doesn’t just go for novels, either. I’ve heard other writers talk about saving up their short stories for self-published collections, instead of parading them past innumerable magazine or other periodical markets. I can understand why; I’m finding it hard to get the attention of an editor. Writers are told space is at a premium in these publications and only the best make it into their pages. Okay. As someone who used to publish a magazine, I understand that. But despite the usually excellent content of my regular magazines—Analog, Ploughshares, Glimmer Train, a few others—an occasional story appears therein that makes me shake my head and wonder how the writer got it past the zine’s staff. Granted, one person’s riveting tale is another person’s sleep aid. But seriously, some were truly awful. I found myself thinking, “There’s an hour I can never get back.”

Years ago, I saw a movie by the name of Ator (1982). The best thing about this flick was its service in later years as a low-end yardstick to describe just how bad a movie could be. I walked out at the “Don’t touch the drape” mark. If you’ve seen it, that’ll give you an idea of how much I endured before calling it quits. Imagine my surprise to learn in recent years that the producer made two more of these awful films, each of which received lower ratings that the first one. Yet production companies spent money to produce each one, and movie houses actually showed them. It boggles the mind. I’m sure there are much better scripts just waiting for notice, but how is the writer to get past the gates?

Now of course I think my own stories are good, the ones that have been workshopped, and are “finished” anyway. Yet I have not found a good home for them. Maybe it’s just that the individual stories haven’t landed in front of the right editor at the right magazine yet. Or maybe they just didn’t fit the issue that editor was filling at the time s/he read my work. One editor I have known for years produces a seasonal print magazine. I sent her one of my stories and she loved it, praised it and wants to run it, but she said up front that it deserved a paying market, so I pulled it back and am shopping it around. Another of my stories she also liked, but said it didn’t fit their format (I kinda knew that, but asked anyway). Everything I’ve read or been told in workshops and by published writers confirms the idea that it isn’t me; it’s the glutted market. Still, I sometimes think I just want to put a story online and charge 99 cents for it, and see what happens.

I’m not sure I’m ready to self-publish just yet. I’m considering it, but there’s so much to keep up with! The term “self-publish” covers so many options available to writers these days, I don’t even know where to begin. I do know I’ve heard tales of success and of horror when it comes to this road, so if I decide to take that leap, I’ll need to do some serious homework.

Do you have experience with self-publishing? What route did you take? Were you happy with the result?

 

Lost, Somewhere on a Fictional World

I’m writing the first draft of my latest novel, second in a trilogy. It’s been a while since I wrote the initial draft of the first book. I’d forgotten the annoying little quirks of this stage, things like overusing specific words, dropping a plot thread and having to go back and reinsert it in chapters I’d already “finished,” having to rewrite a scene that sounded so great and easy to write in my beat sheet but when I actually began penning the words, the logistics felt clunky. At first I was discouraged, until I remembered that this is common for a first draft. I’ve heard of mythical writers who “get it right” the first time through and never need second, third or fourth versions.

I’m not one of them.

Right now, the only person who sees/hears the scenes when I finish is Bobby; he’s my enthusiastic sounding board and doesn’t hesitate to point out errors or problematic elements, for which I’m grateful. He also provides input when I know what I want to happen or what needs to happen, but I can’t figure out the best way to get there. I wouldn’t think of showing it to anyone else yet. It’s not ready. A first draft is like a painter’s preliminary pencil sketch on primed canvas or the metallic skeleton of a nascent construction project. It is the merest beginning of something that will develop with time. The painter adds layers of color, light and shadow to give her image depth and to provoke emotion in the viewer. The builder adds wiring, walls, roof, doors, and turns an open frame into a museum or a school or a home.

It’s worth noting, though, that the end product—so much more than the sum of its parts—relies on that first effort. Without a sound foundation, a house could collapse. Without a sketch, a painting’s composition could fall apart. Without a good first draft, a novel might end up in the digital trash in favor of a traumatic “do-over.” May the Muses save me from that headache as often as possible.

I think it was Mary Burton who once said in a workshop at the Hampton Roads Writers Conference that she usually gets it right by the seventh draft. I can relate. The first novel in this series went through about that same number before it got to where it is now. I’m a long way from that point in this work, but once I remembered that this is (my) normal first draft process, I became a writing fool. I’ve been ignoring phone calls, forgetting dates, missing appointments. I’m almost at the mid-point of the story, where something significant shifts in the main character’s situation, and I get really excited at the thought of uninterrupted writing time. The characters and the plot points circle in my head most of the day. Bobby makes a point of reminding me each morning to remember to stay in this world and in this time while I’m driving. (Insert honking horn here.)

So forgive me if I make this a short post. Alira (my main character) is just about to step in it big time, and she needs my full attention.

‘Til next week!

Life After Life

By Kate Atkinson
Back Bay Books, ISBN: 978-0316176491
Paperback, ©2013, 560 pages

On February 11, 2010, a young girl is born to a wealthy English family. Due to a snowstorm and blocked roads, the doctor cannot arrive in time, and the child dies.

On February 11, 2010, a young girl named Ursula is born to a wealthy English family. The doctor manages to arrive in the nick of time, and saves the child, who later drowns on an English beach before she’s ten.

On February 11, 2010, Ursula Todd is born to a wealthy English family. Despite a blizzard and blocked roads, the doctor arrives in time to save the child, who grows up to …

Over and over, Ursula Todd is born and dies. These two facts remain the same, while everything in between changes in a variety of ways. Pertinent elements of her life – siblings, location, people who come and go, even pets – reappear again and again, always in different ways and at different times and with different results. Somewhere in the cycle of her lives, little Ursula begins to recognize similarities to things she couldn’t possibly know, and to make mindful changes to her life in an attempt to steer her own course, never understanding exactly why, only knowing that she must. That there is a purpose to her life and she must find it at any cost.

Life After Life is a story about family, about home and hearth, but also about choices and their inevitable consequences. Clearly, the plot accepts as possible the concept of reincarnation, but in a very specific way. Ursula is always born to the same family in the same home on the same day. She always has the same blood siblings, same mother and father. The same employees work in the house doing the same jobs.

If that sounds remotely boring, you couldn’t be more wrong. Not despite the similarities, but because of them. I found myself wondering, each time Ursula’s life began anew, when and how Fred Smith would appear, or Millie, or Lucky the dog, and what picture the tapestry’s threads would reveal this time around. While this is Ursula’s story, she isn’t the only one living multiple times. All the characters are destined to experience intersecting lives. They are tied together in ways that keep them coming back to each other.

For me, Ursula’s experiences provoked contemplation on choices we make every day. What if I turned left instead of right? What if I stayed home instead of going out? On such small decisions, worlds sometimes turn, and Ursula learns this in a very up-close and personal way. Atkinson neatly avoids the cliché of repeating lives, giving an interesting twist to the What If concept. I was absolutely fascinated with the way the author layered Ursula’s multi-life “history,” and delighted in discovering these reappearances each time around. But the tale twists even more when Ursula begins to remember, intuitively, the events that preceded painful or difficult or deadly circumstances from her past lives, and to take action to prevent those same events from happening again. Does it work? Not always, and even when it does, the consequences are perhaps not what she expected, but believe me, that’s no spoiler.

The war—which takes on the nature of a character in its own right—plays an enormous role in the lives of everyone in the book. Atkinson’s done her homework, but does not burden the reader with interesting details that are nevertheless irrelevant to Ursula’s tale. Life After Life is so much more than a historical novel. It’s a tale that drew me in and wouldn’t let go. This is an excellent read that will linger long after the last page is turned.

Living Our Stories

In writing workshops, teachers and advisers (and agents/publishers) all say that regardless of genre, a book’s word count is limited. In science fiction, for example, the standard acceptable word count ranges between 90K and 120K. Given this restriction, it’s important for the writer to confine herself to those words that move the story along toward its ultimate goal. They also drill into our heads the writer’s mantra: SHOW. Don’t TELL.

This morning I found myself comparing this philosophy to Life. We have a limited number of words (minutes/hours/days) with which to tell our story. If what we’re doing at any given moment does not further the purpose of the story in some meaningful way, it’s a waste of that finite resource.

Of course, key to either of these concepts is the fact that the writer must know the purpose of her story, its relevant point. She has to know what it is she wants her book (or her life) to accomplish. Ask any writer what is the goal of her story and (unless she is a writer with years of experience, or her log line is so practiced she could say it in her sleep) you’ll see her expression change to one of deep thought because in life, even more than on the page, refining such a sweeping, sometimes spiritual idea to the limited confines of mere words can present a real challenge.

It’s interesting to note that even if the writer has not defined it, the message of her life is there in her actions when she thinks no one is looking. It shines forth in her passions, in her treatment of others and of the world around her. The meaning of her story is revealed as much in what she avoids as in what she embraces. It is that showing that demonstrates to others what her life is really about far more visibly than her words ever could.

But here’s the big difference between writing and living. It’s expected that writers will draft and edit and rewrite their stories until they get the words right. Life seldom gives us the chance to rewrite our actions this time around. Unless reincarnation is true and we’ll get other tries (during which we still won’t remember the mistakes we made in the last draft), this is our one opportunity.

Writers or not, we’ve all heard the advice that we should make our moments count for something. I admit I’ve wasted far too many in floundering, not knowing what my story is, much less how to tell it. Or in letting others manipulate how I tell my story, as if they know any better than I what that might be. Or by doing completely irrelevant things that don’t help the process in any way, like regret or self-flagellation over things I cannot change. These are like throwaway scenes that I know will be cut from my manuscript in the editing process, so why do I write them in to begin with?

Who knows? Certainly not me. Even now, working a first draft of my second novel, I know that a freshly written scene is first-draft material, and may end up in my digital trash. Sometimes, pointless bits are stepping stones that carry me from where I am to where I want to be. They help me decide which way I want the story to go. They are tentative explorations that are part of the process of clarifying and refining the story’s purpose.

Maybe they aren’t completely pointless, then. I don’t know about you, but even if I have planned my overall point into a story outline (yes, friends, I am at least in part a plotter), weaving its threads into a riveting tale takes time and practice. Just like in life, I try things, make mistakes, go back and try again. Sometimes (like that manuscript that just can’t be fixed), the only thing I can do is walk away and start anew with another story. Every experience, good or bad, hones my skills, tightens my focus, sharpens my message or purpose.

And doesn’t that say something? Because the writers who’ve been there, who know how to cut and edit and trim, who know the process for making every word pack dramatic, meaningful punch, their names linger. Maybe Malala Yousafzai, Martin Luther King, Jr., Graça Machel, Gandhi and their ilk are/were their kin, showing us the point of their stories through the impactful events of their lives.

After all, no matter how many short stories or novels or essays I may write while I’m on this journey, my life is the story that really counts. I hope that despite my mistakes or edits or attempts to rewrite, that tale will have meaning not just for me, but for those whose lives I touch along the way.

The Girl on the Train

By Paula Hawkins
The Penguin Group, ISBN: 9780698185395
Paperback, ©2015, 416 pages

Rachel’s teetering on the edge. Alcoholism and bitterness over her failed marriage nudges her closer every day to total loss of what little she has left. Her only bright spot is the daily commute to London where her train stops at a faulty signal. From there, she can see the back of her old marital home and, several doors down, the house of strangers she’s dubbed “Jess and Jason,” whose lives Rachel has imagined as a dreamy ideal, everything she wanted and everything she lost. But after witnessing a shocking encounter there, Rachel is yanked into the darkness of an alcoholic fugue, a lost night, and a frightening mystery that sends her spiraling into the lives of strangers whose beautiful facades are not at all what they seem.

The three main characters—Rachel, Megan and Anna—reveal themselves in layers. The further I read, the more I understood them. The more real they seemed. Each is flawed, as are we all. Yet theirs are basic human needs and emotions to which we can all relate. While I cringed every time Rachel reached for a gin and tonic or a bottle of wine, I sympathized with her pain. I cheered for her when she tried to stop, and felt disappointed when she slipped. And I strained with her to remember what happened that fateful Saturday night. Megan and Anna, too, struggle with demons and secrets that compel them to act in detestable ways, yet I felt compassion for their fear and grief and loss.

Hawkins incorporates, with brilliant results, the fallibility of memory and makes good use of the unreliable narrator in this gripping tale. No one is who they appear to be, and when one of the characters goes missing, everyone else seems guilty. As a writer who is always learning to improve my craft, I was awed by this author’s ability to thread suspense into the narrative, slowly at first, then twisting it harder as I got deeper into the mystery. This is no simple murder mystery. Each of the characters’ stories has its own revelation, some more than one, and even though I correctly guessed who committed the act by two thirds of the way through (if not sooner), there remained plenty of surprises I never saw coming.

The train is an apt metaphor for Hawkin’s thriller, since the murder at its heart careens through the predictable lives of its characters and shoves them all off the rails in a tangle of lies, suspicion and fear. Every incident in the story is connected, as are the cars on the commuter line. Rachel’s life, already unstable, hurtles out of control like a speeding train. Even her blackouts fit the simile, especially the single image of hovering beneath the railway overpass with dirt under her nails, blood on her hands and a cut on her head, and no clear memory of what any of it means.

I sat up half the night reading because I couldn’t put this book down. I’d like to be able to point out the weak spots in the story, but honestly I was so caught up in its thrill that I failed to notice any. It would be a real accomplishment for any writer, but Girl on the Train is a debut novel. If this is any indication of what is to come, I’ll be watching for future releases from Paula Hawkins. An excellent read.

Smudging My Words

Southeastern Virginia got hit with a bad snowstorm last week, one we locals are calling “Snowpocalypse 2018.” While I personally did not go outside with a ruler or anything, friends posted photos on Facebook where their yards were more than 12” deep in places. Those of you in more northern states may laugh and call us lightweights, but the truth is that our local area has no reasonable mass transit that can take the place of cars for most commuters, nor adequate equipment to mitigate bad road conditions for drivers so that business can proceed as usual. We just don’t get enough snow every year to make such purchases necessary. So when we do get the one (or maybe two) bad snows each winter that cover our roads with snow and ice for a day or two, many business just shut down.

Thus last Thursday and Friday turned into “snow leave” for my small office. Needless to say, I was as excited as a kid with a snow day, especially knowing I could use that time to work on my novel for four days straight. Then Smudge got sick on Saturday and despite the awful conditions of the roads, we ended up at the emergency vet, a twenty-minute drive that took us forty-five minutes to cover.

Don’t panic … all is well, now. But sheesh, when our boy is sick, I can’t think of anything else. Ya know?

I don’t have any two-legged children, though our grey furbaby demands his fair share of time and attention. He hates our office, with those metal clicky things (computers) that keep us so preoccupied that we don’t jump at his every meow. Sometimes it’s impossible to get anything done in the office, which is why I have a laptop. He is more amenable to my computer work if I am on the couch, where he can sleep next to me (touching my leg, if at all possible), or make pancakes on the cushion beside me. Every now and then he will wake and pat me with his paw to say, “Don’t forget me, mom,” or “I need hugs RIGHT NOW, mom.”

He’s a talker, too. If we ignore him too long, he’ll walk all through the apartment making his displeasure known to all (including the neighbors).

So when we left him at the vet yesterday, I planned to come home and use the time to get ahead of schedule. You know, type uninterrupted for as long as I could while he was otherwise occupied. But that’s not how it happened. I couldn’t stop worrying. He’s an old boy – almost 17 years – so at this point anything could go wrong, and take him from us before we’re ready. Instead of working Saturday, we spent the day on the couch distracting ourselves with mindless television, namely “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries,” on Netflix. Only Sunday morning, after the vet called to say he was better, did I get back to work. I did make my target word count for the day, but after we picked Smudge up that evening, we spent the rest of the evening with him. I’ll probably do the same thing tonight. He’s not back to himself just yet, and his need for comfort has to come first.

Writing is important, yes. I try to do it every day. But some things will win out every time over my characters’ voices. Family is at the top of that list, and Smudge is definitely family.