Getting the Hawk off the Ground

https://115journals.com/2015/04/06/writer-unblocked/ 
joycehowe.com

I am re-posting this blog post about the early stages of writing my mystery Hour of the Hawk, prior to Saturday’s reading with Mar Preston (The Most Dangerous Species) at the Artworks in Pine Mountain Club – 7 p.m. (one of the Written Word Series, a free event).

In the post above, I reported how I finally got started writing Hour of the Hawk, an eco-terrorist mystery, set in the remote mountain paradise of Bear Mountain Place, California. At the time I had written about  3/4s of a first draft- 70,000 wds. Finished, it came in around 105,000 words, which I think is about 280 pages.

“Finished” proved to be a tricky word.

The first revision dealt with logic and structure. P.D. James spent months planning her mysteries, and began writing only when she knew where she was going. John Irving  writes his endings first. When I began with the bear, I knew where the bear would end up, but that was all.  I thought I knew who the villains were. So did my narrator. We were both wrong. One by one, the suspects were eliminated while ever more heinous crimes were perpetrated. At a certain point, I had no idea who could possibly be to blame. Then, one by one, they crept out of the woodwork, a whole conspiracy of them, and each with a different motive for a common cause. I couldn’t keep the whole convoluted plot in my head.

I took a roll of brown paper and drew the plot line, the way I used to ask students to graph short story plots. I eliminated repetition, particularly where the “investigators” – two detectives; the narrator, an older woman; her even older friend and the rock band that is being framed – discuss the evidence they have gathered. I checked for clarity and whether I was giving readers some foreshadowing. It was hard to do that first time around because I didn’t know what was going to happen. I made sure that the characters held up. Were their actions believable, given their personality? One of them, for example, has some degree of psychic ability. Or has been told she has. That was a given. Certain events followed from that. The reader is welcome to call it coincidence.

The edit for syntax and grammar seemed to be completed next, but of course, I discovered it was an on-going process. Every time I reread a  chapter, I find a way to make sentences more concise and punchier- more punchy(?). I was lucky that I had spent 35 years editing students’ writing, although I didn’t feel that way at the time. I would just say that Microsoft Word 2011 has some very peculiar ideas about what constitutes a major clause. I nearly wore out the IGNORE button.

I gave this version to others to read. As reading progressed, two readers got irritated. They would get a third of the way through and I would say, “Stop. Don’t read anymore. It’s awful!” Two others thought I was right. One of them had told me as gently as possible that it was so.

So I went through tightening things up and taking out the archness, the ironic distance, the preciousness. I sent the new version back to my readers. By now they had got 4 versions and 3 “Stop”s. Critic A, as I will call her, gave me the new bad news.: the narrator’s voice was not authentic. Yes, I had eliminated the stand-off-ishness. The narration was more direct. But— the narrator was perceptive and far-seeing, someone who sees into other people’s souls, and that wasn’t coming across. Critic A also had a solution. It involved going to a portrait photographer and having pictures taken, which would suggest the narrator’s character. I did that, wearing clothes she wears in the book.

With one of these photos in front of me, I started again.

 

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Serendipity: contradicting despair #3

Serendipity: the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident

I’m back in the mountain village in South Cal that I write about in these blog posts and in my mystery Hour of the Hawk. joycehowe.com

When I arrive, I usually stay at the house in the pines for the first few nights, before moving to the other mother’s house. The house in the pines is the abode of our children. We are the mothers or the mother-in-laws. They are happily married and my moving after a few days enables them to stay that way.

In the house in the pines, I sleep on a mattress on the floor for the sake of my back. Last night, I was reading Masaryk Station by David Downing, rereading really, but that’s neither here nor there, when a tiny black shape scuttled under the door and flattened itself against the wall.

I processed this information, fixing it with my gimlet eye.

We knew we had a mouse and, apparently, one that could spring a trap and escape. I had mouse experience, although not recently. Mice don’t  seem to climb 14 floors. I knew mice of old as long and narrow, fast moving critters that induced shudders. This mouse was not like that. Sitting, it was more of a triangle with large rounded ears. Cute as all get out.

It was in the right house.  MIckey had been the founder of the feast. MIckey Mouse artifacts and High School Musical Awards adorned the place. Walt Disney’s cute little guy and his immense studio had been in at the rise (and fall) of family fortunes.

I don’t shriek when I see a mouse. Well obviously. Yet I knew that health and safety were at issue. Is there Hunta Virus in Kern County? I knew I had to stop staring into its -oh, what the hell – his eyes. It was not clear who was hypnotizing whom.

“Mouse, mouse,” I cried.

Then as quiet fell, the mouse and I went back to gazing at each other.

My daughter eventually appeared, put her head in and looked down. My son-in-law followed in due course. The mouse sat staring at me.

We talked it over. I didn’t move. We decided to try the spider rescue trick: cover it with a bowl, slip cardboard underneath, carry it outside.

The mouse and I were motionless still. Son-in-law returned with pan and swooped down. Mouse made for the closet, slipping underneath the door. The closet floor is stuffed with laundry baskets, shoes, yoga stuff and more. I asked son-in-law to bang on the door and assumed my tiny friend had scarpered.

Half an hour later, as I returned from tooth brushing, he sallied across the room and back to the closet. Fifteen minutes after that, he re-emerged running toward me. He stopped eight inches away and stared into my eyes.

“You cannot be here,” I told him. He sat listening. “You have to go away, back out to your field.” He didn’t move.

My daughter, who had clearly just woken up, opened the door. The mouse retreated to the portable heater, where he sat in plain view, convinced we could no longer see him.

I gathered my quilt and my pillow and carried them to the living room where I cocooned myself on the suede sofa. I slept like a log and woke up stiff as one.

I was changed of course.

And so good morrow to our waking souls
That watch not one another out of fear (John Donne)

 

 

What Kind of Fish Have I Caught?

Now What Am I Going to Do?  by Sheila Maloney

Why did I decide to write a mystery? Let me see.

I was living half way up a mountain, suffering from a serious lack of sensory deprivation. I was surrounded by extraordinary beauty and bored out of my skull. I had read every mystery available in the Kern County Library down the hill. I couldn’t afford anymore Kindle e-books. And I wasn’t aware of digital loans. I could watch TV only if I crashed in somebody else’s living room. Internet connection could be found only at a cafe, which still wasn’t licensed to serve. Anything. Besides the connection was so slow, it took hours just to buffer.

So not a serious writer. Not driven. Just bored.

On the other hand, I had built my long life around narrative, survived by it, studied it, taught it, got withdrawal if I ran out of it. So why not?

My friends in the mountain village, fearing for my mental health, brainstormed the underlying idea – eco-terrorism. Well meaning ecologists driven over the line by ideology. Or not. Three and a half years and eight rewrites later, back home in Toronto, I published Hour of the Hawk, independently as an e-book and POD (print on demand) on Amazon.

Six months later, 300 e-books have been downloaded. Free e-books. Twenty five paperbacks have been sold, 20 to the author, the others to her friends.

So marketing?

David Gaughran who generously shares his experience in independent publishing, helped me – virtually – to publish my first book, a memoir of childhood, Never Tell with his free book, Let’s Get Digital in 2012. Now I turned to his book Amazon Decoded for finer points on accessing Amazon’s best seller’s lists and his newest Strangers into Superfans. Reading and rereading, I slowly began to refine my idea of my ideal reader.

OMG!

She was a cozy mystery reader!

➤ COZY: One of the ironic strengths of this subgenre is the fact that, by creating a world in which violence is rare, a bloody act resonates far more viscerally than it would in a more urban or disordered setting. READER EXPECTATION:
A unique and engaging protagonist: Father Brown, Miss Marple, Kinsey Millhone. The crime should be clever, requiring ingenuity or even brilliance on the hero’s part to solve. Secondary characters can be coarse, but never the hero—or the author. Justice triumphs in the end, and the world returns to its original tranquility.
Writer’s Digest Oct, 2015

A world where violence is rare -Bear Mountain Place, a remote village in Southern California – check
a unique and engaging protagonist –  Joanna, a 78-yr-old who has trouble recognizing faces, Clara, an 85-yr-old who has trouble seeing and hearing, set out to solve the mystery -check
a clever, ingenious even brilliant resolution by the protagonistadd visionary – check
Justice triumphs, order is restored – of course, with two such sleuths on the case – check

So what’s the problem?

In order to find my narrative voice, I had a number of portraits taken and this is what my narrator looked like. (Phillipa C., Dundas W. Toronto)

Not cozy. Smart-mouthed. Occasionally profane. Prone to black thoughts. Convinced of Samuel Beckett’s rule, ‘Despair young and never look back’.

Gaughran told me to look at “Also Boughts’. (In my case, the term ‘bought’ has to be used loosely.) These included several cozy series including the Cupcake Series, (cozy mysteries often include recipes), several historical mysteries like Mona Lisa’s Secret by Phil Phillips, the Undertaker Series (sounds promising) and Everett by Jennifer Buff, a dark psychological suspense novel.

Oh, come on, Joyce, you did include a detailed description of a birthday dinner preparation in Hour of the Hawk. And it’s true  Clara has six cats, named Jazz, Poirot, Tennison, Sherlock and Columbo. It’s also true that Joanna, who is living with her, is allergic to cats and endures a sequence of 27 sneezes early in the book.

You, Joyce, are a terrible snob. Like most English Majors. Look how long it took you to lower yourself to reading mysteries. You were 67 when your friend Anna said she was reading Donna Leone’s Detective Brunetti series set in Venice. (A lot of Italian cooking there) Only then did you admit a reader could not live by Booker Prize alone. Since then you have devoured P.D. James, Ruth Rendall/Barbara Vine, Elizabeth George, Peter Robinson, Ian Rankin, all of the Scandanavian mysteries – even Jo Nesbo, as well as Icelandic, Michael Connelly, Lee Child. Etc. Now you have had to branch out to espionage novels. You have had repeated escapes from truly awful cliched books, some of which you actually undertook to review. Get over yourself. Admit you wrote a cozy mystery.

“Can I still keep the cover? (Jeremy Von Caulert, BLack Sunset) I love the cover. I’ll have to rewrite the blurbs. Okay, Okay, but only if I can call it a cozy mystery, plus.”

Hour of the Hawk  Chapter One: Too Many Bears

The bear came down from the mountain in late afternoon. She wasn’t hungry. She had eaten well, but she was missing the cub.

She turned at the bottom along the well-worn path, picking up the scent of honey in the distance, and closer up, traces of many other bears, including the cub. The cub was old enough to manage on her own now. There would be a new cub in winter. She was almost there when another darker smell stopped her in her tracks. Blood. Bear blood. She took it in. Not just any bear blood, her cub’s blood.

The man got home from work early. He was the boss. He could leave when he wanted. This bear thing had him all upset. All he had wanted to do was help his fellow creatures. They were hungry and starving in this four-year drought.

To continue reading sample https://www.facebook.com/joyce.howe.75

joycehowe.com

 

 

 

 

 

Should You Hunt a Doppleganger?: Redhill’s Bellevue Square

Trinity Bellwoods, the model for Bellevue Square

In Michael Redhill’s Bellevue Square, Jean Mason decides to track down her double/look-alike/doppleganger. One of the customers at her bookstore reports he has just seen Jean with shorter hair and in different clothes in Toronto’s Kensington Market. He reacts violently when she denies it, and, eventually is found hanging in his apartment. He’s not the only one who sees the double and ends up dead.

Jean sets out on a quest to find this other woman, who’s name is apparently Ingrid Fox, and who, it turns out, is a mystery writer.

I felt almost uniquely qualified to understand this book. (Not quite unique because my reading partner, Georgia, has the same sort of qualification.)

I can intentionally look at my image in a mirror, but if I inadvertently catch a glimpse of myself, I have to avert my eyes instantly because that’s not me I’m seeing. If I keep looking, I zone out or become dissociated. It’s as if the image is hypnotizing me. And, yes, I have had therapy. I have discovered hidden parts of me, particularly one – D, who led a life I didn’t remember. Not a very fun-filled one. A sober cult-ish life devoted to foretelling the future and trying to keep other cult-ish people out of trouble. With pretty much zero success! Knowing the future apparently does not change behavior.

Once I discovered D’s existence, I still had a long way to go before we got integrated enough that I stopped getting up in the middle of the night and putting on robes.

One thing I always knew was that I couldn’t just get rid of her. I had been assured that I was not psychotic -at great expense- but I always sensed that I could become mad if I tried to cut off D. or any of her lesser sisters.

Jean has a somewhat different problem, autoscopy. Something is wrong with her brain, somewhere between the temporal lobe and the ear. (There are several people with damaged brains in the story, oddly in the same area.) This disease causes sufferers to externalize their self-image.

In an effort to achieve integration (my interpretation), Jean begins neglecting her bookshop, her two sons and her ex-policeman (or actual police chief) husband Ian to search for Ingrid. She does this by sitting in a park, Bellevue Square, where Ingrid has been sighted. There she relates to the park’s habituées – eccentric, drug-addled, mad but lucid and just plain mad.

But she doesn’t find Ingrid. Not until the end of Part 1, when Katarina, who sells pupusas in Kensington Market and was the second person to report the doppleganger is shot. Jean is the main suspect. Only then does she spot Ingrid crossing the park. As she follows, Jean wonders if Ingrid is “the harbinger of her death”.

Then we discover Jean is actually a university lecturer who has vanished from her classes, and her husband, Ian, seems to have a problem with her owning a bookstore.

Things get weird. Jean has a mirror experience: she sees herself but she’s not in the room. While she gets closer to Ingrid -entering her home and making a gorilla sandwich for Ingrid’s daughter, and discovering Ingrid has a boo-boo in her head – she gets farther from herself. Finally, she ends up in a hospital bed, coming out of unconsciousness.

My reading partner, Georgia, said initially that she must be too stupid to understand the book. Then as we talked, she hypothesized that everyone besides Jean was really Jean. Even Jimmie, whom she breaks out of CAMH, the mental health clinic, and who goes with her on a long hazardous flight to a northern woods. There he seems to abandon her and she finds herself more than ever lost.

Obviously, the book is about identity and fluid identity at that. Jean is following breadcrumbs in a quest for herself. Does she succeed? Maybe the next book in this three part series Modern Ghosts will tell us.

I am a little worried about Michael Redhill, considering what happens to Inge Ash Wolfe in the novel, since that is his pseudonym when he writes mysteries. Maybe he just integrated Inge and Michael and all will be well with one author identity.

Bellevue Square must mean something. It won the Giller prize of $100,000. Perhaps Georgia, D and I aren’t up to the job after all.

Full Disclosure: Initially, I published Never Tell, my e-memoir, under the pseudonym of Joyce Hood, as I did this blog. I have reverted to Joyce Howe, now that all the cult-ish types are either gone or toothless.

Coming soon to an Amazon near you Hour of the Hawk, a mystery by Joyce Howe

 

Where Did You Go Joe Dimagio? part 2

The bear came down from the mountain in the late afternoon. She wasn’t hungry. She had eaten well, but she was missing the cub.

Thus I began my mystery in the summer of 2014. I was temporarily marooned in a hot hotel room. I could see the mountain from my balcony so why not weave it into my mystery. I wrote and wrote. Various things happened. I found myself writing in widely different rooms with different scenery and colder temperatures. I ended up in another place I never expected to be, on the 14th floor of an apartment building. In a suburb of Toronto! There I discovered I was ready to publish my second book.

So, find an agent, find a publisher. I had the tools: books that told me how to write a killer query letter and three kinds of synopsis. An almost up-to-date copy of Jeff Herman’s comprehensive list of both. It’s a fat book, so the  one before that and the one before that, etc. had gone into the recycle bag.

Somewhere I still have a collection of rejection letters for my previous book, most formulaic, but at least one from an agent called Victoria dissecting my character. So self-publishing again, an ebook but now, hurray, a paperback, print-on-demand.

Things had changed since 2012. My nephew is now capable of designing a cover and a website. (Sorry Stewart Williams) I can now format my own book using Vellum. (Sorry 52 Novels) I can now use Twitter to access help self-publishing. I am following  half a dozen companies that gave me advice and offer to publicize my work. Among them is Book Marketing Tools, more than generous with free information and advice.

Helpfully, they inform me that 6,500 books are published every day. What do I care? Last year I declared an income of $120 from my writing, with a net loss of only $571 (all figures Cdn). Clearly, I’m on a roll.

I had looked at Book Marketing’s time-line for how to prepare for a book launch earlier, but now I downloaded an up-to-date one and set about reading it in front of that floor to ceiling window on the 14th floor.

I wish I could say that it left me laughing. I wish I could say I didn’t go for the Alan key to remove the locks that kept my windows from opening more than 4 inches. Evidently, I should have started marketing this book long before it became a gleam in my eye. Ideally, the week I was born.

Book Marketing sets off its timeline a year before the book launch. It  continues with a list of tasks to perform at  3-4 months, 2 months, one, etc., climaxing with a book launch party. The list assumes I have many friends. I have maybe 6, several of them relatives, two even older than me, several living many thousand miles away. One of my friends refuses to read the book, which focuses on eco-activists, because an animal dies-off-stage and before the action starts. Only my niece and my son-in-law stuck with me through the endless revisions, and even son-in-law could do so only because I read it aloud into iTalk and put it in a shared dropbox. (He has a long commute.) I am extremely grateful for the excellent advice I got. But…

There’s a strategy that’s been around for 20 or 25 years. Artists are encouraged to draft their friends into their marketing process. Thus I was instrumental in getting a friend a show hung in a club I belonged to. I thought I had already done my bit by buying more of her canvases than I needed. Then I found I was also expected to serve refreshments.

Exactly why would anyone from that group of six people want to become my ‘street marketers’? And are they actually expected to knock on doors?

I am called upon to seek endorsements from other writers. “Dear Margaret Atwood, You don’t know me but I am a young beginner novelist and I would like you to take four or five hours to read my mystery. I expect you to do this because I have read all your books and taught Surfacing to my Can. Lit. class…” Dear Peter Robinson, You don’t know me, but we both live in the Toronto area and my ex-husband came from Yorkshire, (where your Inspector Banks does his sleuthing). And I make an excellent Yorkshire pudding. I could drop one by, but it would be better if I came to your house for fear of it falling. I could bring my new mystery..” “Dear Mar Preston, You met me once in the lobby at the Pine Mtn. Club. I have set my mystery  Hour of the Hawk in the same town as your book The Most Dangerous Species and there are striking coincidences, although honest, I wrote my book before I read yours…”

How am I doing?

But this is mean. Book Marketing Tools just wants to help – and possibly to sell me advertising space on Twitter.

Agents demand to know if we indie writers are up to editing, proof-reading, printing, publicizing, all those things a real publisher does. Well, yes, if Book Marketing Tools has anything to say about it?

 

 

Where Did You Go Joe Dimagio?

Have you had the experience of meeting someone after years apart and feeling that no time has passed. You start up your friendship right where you left off, all those years ago. Me too.

I went away a year ago. Part of the reason can be found in my last post. I was about to lose my decade-long home. The other reason can be found in my Dec. 15, 2015 post, Getting the Hawk off the Ground. The picture said it all. I had to rewrite my mystery, Hour of the Hawk.

I last posted in Sept. 2016 – A Gold Finch This Morning. I had just finished reading Donna Tartt’s book The Goldfinch, and had been greatly heartened by her description of terrible depression, my own default setting. It had made me laugh, horrible though it was: it was so dead on.

“This was a plunge encompassing sorrow and revulsion far beyond the personal: a sick, drenching nausea at all humanity and human endeavor from the dawn of time.” (863/1427- on my iPad). Theo goes on to enumerate all the futile actions we indulge in -playing, working, having babies, redecorating, reading restaurant reviews…

Happily, I can report I am not homeless, although I am writing this in my favorite Starbucks. My resourceful sister took me in hand, announcing that I needed to live near her and her daughter because of my advancing age. Any day now, apparently, I will need a zimmer frame and a tag pinned to my coat, giving my address and saying, “If found, please return.”

Georgia lives in Mississauga, a suburb west of Toronto. I had lived there 15 years before. As a young married woman, I had lived in Scarborough an eastern suburb. I had already done my time in suburbs

But Toronto rents for a one-bedroom were $900 to $1000 more than I was paying for my two-bedroom, rent-controlled home. In Mississauga, we found a one-bedroom on the 14th floor for only $500 more. The library, recreation center, pool and park were one long block away. And I could count on invites to dinner every week.

So I moved, got rooked by the movers, lost things – some didn’t make it onto the truck, some unpacked by others- I had to get niece to come back and find the battery box, and just generally lost my mind. Getting groceries from my car and up to my eerie flummoxed me. Ditto doing laundry on the ground floor. My muscles took turns seizing up. I discovered that reading in bed not only helped with that, but had the additional benefit of a floor to ceiling window on life in the burbs: a major thorough fare, two schools, parkland, a community of houses and the front door of the building.

I hated it. Of course I did. I could see all the way to Lake Ontario and, on a clear day, half way across. I wasn’t God. Why would I want to do that?

I wanted my green old neighborhood with the crazy Polish woman next door, who persisted in thinking that I understood her rapid Polish, and had the ability to influence my landlord. I missed the maples and the deer that lived in the oak savannah next to the river. I missed the kids on the other side of my house. I missed the “girls” upstairs. I could hear all 4 of them in my place.

In the new place I had a wood burning fireplace. I had a gym on the penthouse floor and a sauna. In the brief summer I had an outdoor pool. I got to go to house parties where beautiful African Canadian and Muslim children softened my heart. I was in a minority. Let’s just say that Donald Trump would not approve. Even the province of Quebec in my own country would look askance, although we have no burkas, just a lot of very colorful hijabs and African prints. The West Indians and Haitians fill the halls with lilting English and distinctly un-Canadian French. And, of course, I got to go to dinner two blocks away.

Well, okay.

I got the place in order eventually, sat down at my desk in front on another floor to ceiling window, and pulled up version 7 of Hour of the Hawk. It was as usual, completely silent in my tower. And warm. Did I say warm? Those windows face south

Version 8 coming up.

Next post: Getting the Hawk off the Ground 2017.

 

 

A Goldfinch This Morning

goldfinch

MAY TRIGGER DEPRESSIVES.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/oct/17/goldfinch-donna-tartt-review

I borrowed an e-book version of Donna’s Tartt’s The Goldfinch from the library. (Still pretty amazed I figured out how to do that, but a rent crisis made it necessary.) This morning, I arrived at 870/1427. In this passage, the protagonist Theo Decker, who suffered a terrible loss when he was 14, as well as a remarkable, if dodgy, gain, is now 26. He decides to wean himself off his drugs of choice, Oxycontin 80s, et al. These enable him to carry on a successful life, whereas alcohol, his father’s drug, or heroin would not. So he says. (This does not reflect the views of the writer who has trouble with 100 mgs of Sertraline.) The physical withdrawal is bad enough, but after that comes the DEPRESSION.

“This was a plunge encompassing sorrow and revulsion far beyond the personal: a sick, drenching nausea at all humanity and human endeavor from the dawn of time.” (863/1427- on my iPad). Theo goes on to enumerate all the futile actions we indulge in -playing, working, having babies, redecorating, reading restaurant reviews…

Elsewhere I have confessed to a black sense of humour. I embrace Beckett’s advice to a young writer, “despair young and never look back.” except I tend to apply it to life in general. So these few pages cheered me up and made me laugh.

My 80 yr-old-body had hobbled out of bed this morning with full awareness that today more strangers would file through my apartment. Eventually, one of them would buy the triplex. Very likely, they would then evict me. My place is the only unit renovated. The only available apartments are $200-800 more than mine. (We’re having a really big real estate boom in Toronto.) I try to remember that “in my father’s house there are many mansions”, but getting into those seems too radical altogether.

So I’ve been ruminating on divorce, recession, illness, housing bubbles that burst, and those that haven’t yet. But this despondent passage in Donna Tartt’s book was so beautifully written that I didn’t care.

Goldfinches, especially painted ones, do not have voices like nightingales or mockingbirds. They twitter as they swoop, parentheses of bright flashing light.

 

Getting the Hawk off the Ground: editing a mystery

db exp:hatThis is the 4th in a series of posts about writing my mystery Hour of the Hawk. See links to the others.

https://115journals.com/2015/04/06/writer-unblocked/

https://115journals.com/2015/11/03/getting-the-hawk-off-the-ground-writing-a-mystery/

https://115journals.com/2015/11/07/getting-the-hawk-off-the-ground-editing-con/

At a certain point in the editing process, I began working on a more authentic voice. In Hour of the Hawk, I was using a first person narrator telling the story in the past tense. Past tense lends distance. First person doesn’t. Because my narrator, Joanna Hunter, had a history similar to mine, one of my first revisions had been aimed at eliminating quirks and ways of speaking that were more me than her because, of course, we were different people. I liked the new, sparer, less elliptical, more direct voice. Then I got the bad news. The voice was not authentic, which is to say, uninteresting. “A lot of it was only mediocre,” said Critic A.

So glad I keep my kitchen knives sharpened to a gleaming edge!

My authentic self was fascinating, she added, and so, therefore, was Joanna’s. Where was my effervescent personality, my wicked sense of humour? I needed to let things fly. Characters hooked readers and made them read on. And I needed to love all my characters, even the irresponsible guy who put honey in a tire swing to attract bears, and ended up getting killed by one.

I wrote the beginning again. I sent it off by email. “Not working yet,” replied Critic A. I went back to work. Several weeks later, I knew enough about Tom Braddock to write a book on him alone. He had a Chumash great grandmother and a college football career, as well as three kids, and an articulate, wife who worked at a Bakersfield hospital. Most of all, I liked him. He passed muster.

But Critic A had more to tell me. I needed to create a relationship with my reader. Joanna, for example, knew what it means to age. A person could be spiritual and loving but also skeptical and cynical. That reminded me of one of my favourite sayings: Samuel Beckett’s advice to a young writer, “Despair young and never look back.” I find that hilarious, especially with a glass of Guinness. (My biological grandfather was Irish, I have just discovered.) The notes I jotted down from that long distance conversation also include the words,”dangerously compassionate”. Don’t ask me.

So I went to see Phillipa C. on Dundas W. in Toronto and arranged for her to take a series of portraits. I brought along props. I thought I would be painfully self-conscious. I wasn’t. I have done enough acting to know how to slip into a character. When I saw them a few days later, I learned more about Joanna.

I knew she wore jeans and a cowboy hat. I’d forgotten the leather jacket. I knew she was the survivor of a dangerous family and had cop phobia. (Does knowing about a crime make you guilty?) I knew she had a rock and roll side, a toughness she could trot out driving on dark desert highways. She was capable of salty language and had once been taken to the principal by a senior student. Poor fellow had aggravated her while she was on top of a ladder adjusting a bulb high in a TV studio. Joanna also saw the world through the prism Shakespeare’s plays and the St. James Bible. Her heart had been broken more than once in a been down so long it looks like up to me sort of way. And she caught glimpses of the future from time to time, and could keep track of dead people. I went back and added this point of view in brief reflections throughout the action.

By now Critics C and D had finished reading the book. They were satisfied. Not about to sort through it again for such gems. Critic B plays golf a lot, and Critic A was now deeply into her own writing. I wait on tenterhooks. In December, we will be together in Pine Mountain Club, and we will sit down to sort our book out.

Meanwhile, Critic A/Writer B had a small breakdown on the phone because she couldn’t find her authentic voice. I thought of her horizontally stripped stockings and her three print  outfits. I thought of her exuberant dancing in hiking boots on the golf green. Only children dared enter her orbit. I said try zany. Then discovering that Roget regarded that as an insult, I came up with a list: joyful, full of life, eccentric, empathetic, outside the box, dangerously unpredictable, aggressive, digressive, diverting, out of left field, hippy, unexpected, nuclear powered love and empathy generator which heals on contact.

From what she’s read to me, she’s getting on better now.

Square One Writer’s Block

The Writer by Mendelsohn Joe, 1982

The Writer by Mendelsohn Joe, 1982

Okay, I need a new direction. Writing the blog post on Cockroaches took three days and was absorbing. I had to go back through it on my iPad reminding myself of names and sorting out the red herrings from the real resolution. I neglected to say in my review that the plot was not memorable.

The difficulty arrives from the fact that I’m more or less stuck here in a mountain village in Kern County, California far from Toronto, as a result of a family illness. There are days when I am superfluous to need, but then again, a relapse occurs and I’m fully involved. I don’t even have time to think. Other days like this one, I am at loose ends despite bear incursions.

Because I’m a big reader of mysteries, several people have suggested that I write a mystery. I thought about it.

Okay… I’d need a crime, a locale and a detective. I could set it here in this mountain village. Wait Mar Preston has already done in Payback, although I didn’t recognize the happy, friendly village I know in the misanthropic town she depicted. Besides hers had a town hall, whereas the real place has only one centre of administration, the club house. This village is unincorporated. In other words even its roads are private property and privately maintained. The streets are patrolled by security guards, although the sheriff rides in for serious matters. So I suppose I could write a truer picture of our remote mountain valley.

Then I’d need a crime. Darn. Something bad would have to happen. Something seriously bad. What stops me there is my own personal experience. My father had a way of being on the edge of seriously bad stuff. After his death, three different police forces spent $1,000,000 trying to figure out exactly what. I can only say it was not worth every penny. Even if he did look exactly like the police drawing. (See home page for ebook.)

Most of all, I don’t have a scientific background except for Biology 101 which taught me how to dissect a pig embryo. I suppose I could make it all up from my extensive reading and my watching of CSI, but I am loath to do so. It’s possible that television writers take liberties with fact. And I have no experience of group work in policing.

I could write about group life in a high school prep room. Pretty cut-throat especially before smoking was outlawed.

Actually I could depict two older women, who have no investigative qualifications except curiosity. And mystery reading. One of them, the elder, would be irrepressibly garrulous, a little deaf and charmingly dotty who could worm information out of a stone wall. The other an ex-English teacher, more reticent, but with a mind like a steel trap. I suppose Clara would want a slice of the royalties. Anyway, that sounds too fey and Agatha Christie has already captured the market.

I’m reminded of the conversation between the writer and the doctor at a party. Doctor: When I retire, I’m going to write a novel. Writer: And when I retire, I’m going to take up medicine.

So, no, I think not.

I could find another indecipherable novel like The Luminaries, study it carefully and blog about it. The Luminaries post draws about 150 hits a week, once 164 in one day. Any suggestions?

I have embarked on the project of following The Outlanders by Diana Gabaldon on Starz and reading the books, but those stories are pretty decipherable. They are historical romances, no matter what the author says.

I could start writing a memoir about this illness, but the patient will write her own as and when.

For the time being, I sit here on another sunny warm day on the edge of the pine wood, writing a blog about my inability to get a good idea. I swear I’ve marked a hundred “personal” essays from students just like this.

Help!

 

 

 

Jo Nesbo’s Cockroaches

cockroachYesterday I heard a friend describe her first apartment in New York City in the early 80s, shared with two other dancers, set amidst abandoned buildings south of Houston. She slept on the floor of the pantry. She would come home, turn on the lights and actually hear the cockroaches scuttling away.

One of life’s great philosophical questions is – to squash or not to squash. Squashing entails cockroach juice. What’s that trick with boric acid along the baseboards?

When Harry Hole (holeh) arrives in his tiny apartment in Bangkok, he observes a cockroach as big as his thumb with an orange stripe on its back. He notes there are a three thousand different types and that that for every one you see, ten more are in hiding from the vibrations of your feet. For the moment, he regrets his sobriety.

Jo Nesbo published Cockroaches in 1998, his second book after The Bat, set in Sydney, Australia and before Redbreast. It has just been translated and published in English. The comments on Goodreads range from ecstatic to so-so.

My sister, Georgia, collected all the Nesbo books, except Cockroaches and gave them to me one Christmas, suggesting I start with Redbreast. When I got around to reading The Bat, I thought I could have started with it. The real hook is the developing character of Harry Hole and my only problem was that I hate reading about drunks. I was happiest with the books where he pulled himself together at least a little. Which he does in Cockroaches much to the dismay of the government in Oslo.

Hole has been selected to go to Thailand to investigate the death of the Norwegian Ambassador in a Bangkok brothel, partly because of his international success in Australia, but mostly because he is back to drinking. He has forsworn Jim Bean to make do with beer at Schrøders, where he can down nine, and still mess with Wooler, walk home and turn up sober for work next day.

Dagfinn Torhus, Director of Norway’s Foreign Affairs doesn’t even know why it is so urgent to keep all news of Atle Molnes stabbing death under wraps. Bjorn Askilden, Secretary of State, may know, having been briefed by the prime minister’s office. As the Police Superintendent bullies Bjarne Moller, head of the crime squad, into supporting the choice of Hole as lone investigator, we learn only that trust in the P.M. is all important. His centrist government of the Christian Democrats  supports family values, is anti-gay, anti-civil union and prone to wearing yellow suits. Moller has kept Hole out of trouble more than once and seriously doubts the wisdom of choosing him to go to Thailand, but clearly this is a political decision.

Harry has troubles of his own. His mentally challenged Sis has been raped and had an abortion, but the police have dropped the case. He agrees to fly to Bangkok, only if he will be allowed to re-open the case when he returns.

He flies drunk. But with Vitamin B in his bag. He was able to get sober in Sydney by using it and although he doesn’t acknowledge it, he has made a decision for sobriety again.

In Bangkok, he meets the police team he will be working with, headed by a very tall, completely bald half-American, Liz Crumley. The rest of the team are Thai, Nho who is young, Sunthorn, baby-faced and the oldest, Rangsan, always hidden behind a newspaper but spouting key ideas.

The back story of prostitute Dim, who discovered the body, actually opens the book. She plies her trade posing as Tanya Harding -“Skates go on after panties come off.”

Harry soon meets his nemesis Woo – a freakishly large enforcer- and according to custom, Woo throws Harry off a balcony.

The murder weapon is a very old knife embedded with coloured glass but greased with reindeer fat. Obviously the murderer is Norwegian. Is it the unsatisfied wife, Hildes Molnes, or even possibly the ambassador’s seventeen year old, one-armed daughter. Is it the victim’s Chargé d’affaires, Tonje Wiig? Is it his receptionist Miss Ao? Is it his seemingly loyal chauffeur, Sonphet? Is it the loan shark who holds the ambassador’s $100,000 gambling debt? Is it Roald Bork, spiritual shepherd of the  Norwegian community? Is it Ova Klipra, the wealthy contractor who lives in a former Buddhist Temple and who can’t be found. He finds you. Is it the ex-intelligence officer Ivar Loken, known as LM (living, morphine)? Is it Jens Breeke, currency broker for Barclays Thailand? And what does all this have to do with photos of a man having sex with a child, taken through a window?

We learn a good deal about the sex industry in Bangkok, including Dim’s enrty into it. Brekke treats Harry to a rundown on katoy, trans-sexual prostitutes -a head too tall, a touch too provocative, too aggressively flirtatious and too good looking – including the drawback of surgically constructed vaginas.

We learn a good deal about currency trading and how to make a bundle.

We are treated to a bloody, no-holds-barred boxing match as well as a cockfight and yes, only one cock survives. (You have to admire the lengths Nesbo goes to in his research.)

Most of all, we learn about paedophiles. Disgusted by the photographs, Harry calls home. He calls home much too often for Torhus and Moller’s liking for they are alarmed at his zeal in solving the crime. This time, Harry talks to Dr. Aune, his therapist. There are two kinds of paedophiles, he is told: preference conditioned and situation conditioned. Both may have been abused as children, but the former starts in his teens, adapting to the child’s age, although sometimes playing the role of kindly father. (My own father fitted this category.) The situation conditioned paedophile is primarily interested in adults and chooses the child as a substitute for an adult he is in conflict with.

So, huuuum, what do the cockroaches symbolize? Are they good after all, as Runa asks? And do you ignore them as Oslo wants, arrest them or squash them?

(I bought Cockroaches on iTunes $15 !!! and read it on my iPad.)