Friday Fictioneers Go to the Dogs!

I hope the title gets your attention. It’s all about the inspirational photo for today’s Friday Fictioneers–the weekly explosion of creativity restricted to 100 words. We’ll get to that in a bit.

I signed up for my first week-long writers’ workshop, the Tinker Mountain Writers’ Workshop in June at Hollins University in Roanoke, VA. It’s a pretty intense schedule, and I’ve signed up for a fiction workshop taught by Pinckney Benedict (Miracle Boy and Other Stories, published by Press 53). I went to his reading at AWP and was enthralled. If I get his workshop (you have to pick a primary and two alternates, in case your primary is full), I know I’ll learn a lot. I’m looking forward to it and can’t wait for June to get here.

When I saw today’s inspirational photo from Madison Woods, I felt very nostalgic for the dogs of my childhood. How could you not love this face?


But, of course, my love of dystopia took over. Here’s a 100-word story I call–

“The Last Dog on Earth.”

Yeah, I have an image to maintain, you know. And all this you see? It’s mine. I’ve peed on every tree, rock, and blade of grass, and no one would dare set paw here.

This is my gig—sitting here, surveying all that’s mine, looking cool. I trained myself not to chase squirrels or gulp my food. Not cool. I’m beyond puppy behavior anyway.

I get a herd now and then to show off my skills. They’re robots, though, and programmed, so it’s not quite the same. But what the hell? You gotta give the tourists what they expect.
——————–
For more snappy, 100-word fiction go to Madison Woods’ blog. Please read all the offerings, leave a comment (writers love it when you love our works), and consider joining us. I warn you, though. It’s addictive, but it’s a sweet addiction and costs you nothing.

Politics Wednesday – Shared Responsibility

At some point in a not-too-distant future, we may pay a high price for waging a war based on lies.

Reams have been written on the problems of multiple deployments into combat zones, and the psychology on this is not a flawed science. Post-traumatic stress disorder is the rule, not the exception. Studies have shown even one combat tour, even a single fire-fight, in a high-fire zone can foster PTSD, and the military culture and, in some cases, the American tendency to turn a face away from mental disorder, leave our soldiers, sailors, and marines without support or acknowledgement.

This weekend when I heard of the Army staff sergeant who left his base, walked to a nearby Afghan village, and systematically executed sixteen people, including nine children, I was horrified and angry. When I learned he was on his fourth deployment in a combat zone, my anger returned to the people who got us into a two-war situation in the first place. This staff sergeant, who returned to his base and surrendered, is allegedly (innocent until proven guilty) responsible for the physical event, but in a way I hold the Bush Administration just as responsible.

Whether some of my fellow Liberals accept it or not, there was a case for action in Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11. However, I preferred Special Operations over “Shock and Awe.” As we’ve seen, the case for a war in Iraq was based on false intelligence and out-right lies. It emerged from the deranged philosophy of neo-conservatism and American exceptionalism and a perversion of global manifest destiny. And for Halliburton’s profit margin.

And now we have a thirty-eight year old man who suffered traumatic brain injury in a Humvee roll-over back on duty in Afghanistan after an evaluation wherein a diagnosis of PTSD may or may not have been covered up because treating PTSD is expensive. And of course the media has to get some “let’s blame the woman” in the mix, speculating that a message the sergeant’s wife sent him shortly before his apparent rampage “set him off.”

The Afghan villagers want the staff sergeant to be given to them, but with the Taliban returning to supremacy there, we all know what that justice would be like. The Army is considering a court martial on site at his base in Afghanistan, which would certainly give the Afghan people small assurance. Because this could be a military death penalty case–very rare indeed–I would rather it happen here in the states and with more transparency than a typical military trial.

I also wish he’d have sitting with him in the dock Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, et. al. There should be shared responsibility for this latest murder of innocents.

I’m sure there are troglodytes out there who consider any Afghan–even a child–an enemy and who will try to justify the unthinkable. I can only ponder about what my father would have thought of this–the man who, for a time, was responsible for guarding WWII war criminals. He would have been disappointed in this soldier, but he would have been outraged at the circumstances that put him in that time and place and mental state.

When we first went to war in Iraq, I wondered how many Timothy McVeigh’s we were creating. Now I wonder how many military men and women are here, at home, operating with a hair trigger. What we need to say to them is “It’s not your fault.” The best thing we can do for them is acknowledge PTSD without being afraid and make certain our Senators and Representatives find the funds to restore their normalcy.

Yeah, that’s going to happen.

Re-Reading

One of the first books I received as a gift was Black Beauty by Anna Sewell. I was six or seven, already in love with horses thanks to my Dad, and I think I read it in one sitting, which probably went well into the night under the covers with a flashlight. I re-read that book so often, the front cover fell off. Literally, and it was a hardback. I still have the book, though I haven’t re-read it in a couple of decades or so. Hmm, maybe I’ll remedy that soon.

Over the years, there have been works of fiction I’ve read and re-read, from Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre to The Left Hand of Darkness and Slaughterhouse Five and many others in between. Re-reading something I love is like comfort food–you know it’s going to taste good, and you know you’re going to eat all of it, but each time is a different experience.

This month for a book club I belong to, I re-read Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale. As I re-read, I realized when I first read it in 1985, it was as a woman’s rights activist. Her dystopian tale of a theocracy in America reinforced the feelings and fears I had then. Sadly, we’ve come back around full circle to the things that make a society, as described in A Handmaid’s Tale, possible, even probable, but that’s not the topic for today.

I realized, as I re-read this book, I was regarding it more with a writer’s eye, which makes sense. In the past two plus years I’ve been focusing more on the craft of writing than anything else. So, I noticed how Atwood opened the story with it already tightly wound, i.e., she starts “in the present” and unfolds the story with hints and flashbacks. In the beginning her descriptions are sparse, but as the story moves forward, the people, the settings, the threads of the story all become richer and fuller. The book’s “ending” is up for grabs–it could end happily or it could be a disaster; it’s up to the reader.

At least, that’s what I came away with the first time I read it. The book actually concludes with “A Historical Note,” which I apparently ignored the first time around, likely because I thought I was in the midst of the history in 1985. The historical note is a continuation of the story, and it’s a bit more optimistic than what you think the real ending is. In the historical note you discover what you’ve just read is a diary or memoir of sorts discovered almost as if it were a relic in an archeological dig. I realized what some criticized as the “herky-jerky” pace of the novel was incredible story-telling. The protagonist was on the run, putting down facts and events as she remembered them. This was an instance where linear story-telling would have made the novel a bore.

In that re-reading, then, for a political book club, I learned a valuable writing lesson. I remembered as well why that book resonated with me twenty-seven years ago and grasped why, this time, it left me a little depressed because, well, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Which books do you re-read? What is it about a particular book that makes you go back again and again–character, plot, setting?

Friday Fictioneers – I’m Back!

As much fun and as much as I learned at the American Writers and Writing Program Conference last week, I really missed doing my 100-word story for Friday Fictioneers. Moreover I couldn’t wait until Wednesday rolled around to see the picture, and, wow, the story popped right into my head. I almost couldn’t wait until Friday.

For a review of a chapbook I purchased at the conference click on: Book Review – Betty Superman.

Here’s the inspiration photo from Madison Woods:

The following story is dedicated to friends who served in Vietnam. By the way, in the story I use a term which some may find offensive, but it is a historically accurate term used by U.S. soldiers in that war.

Reluctant Sojourn

I never liked working on the plumbing in an older house. The cellars and crawlspaces were damp; their fetid smell stirred memories best kept hidden. I needed this job, so I went in.

The day was cold. Fear made me sweat, and the corrugated ceiling put me back in the box where Charlie kept me during my reluctant sojourn in the Hanoi Hilton, the old one, not the Hanoi Hilton Opera there now, a real hotel.

I kept my eyes away from the air hole. If I looked, Charlie would be looking back, like he does in my dreams.

———

For more 100-word stories by Friday Fictioneers, go to Madison Woods’ blog and have a read.

Politics Wednesday–No KO, Again

Willard M. Romney was certain he’d score a knock-out on Super Tuesday yesterday, and, once again, he had to settle for a split decision. In the key primary–and national election–state of Ohio, Romney beat Rick Santorum by just one percentage point. Santorum won Tennessee and Oklahoma, Newt Gingrich won Georgia (not a surprise), and Romney’s hope to lock up the nomination so he can concentrate on President Obama was dashed. Yay!

Romney spun it well, but so did Santorum. And Gingrich again, as he did after Florida, gave what sounded like a victory speech–victory as in “I’m in Bizarro world where multiple third and fourth places mean I won.” Ron Paul, well, you didn’t hear a peep from him, but he’s still there, like the loony relative you don’t send invites for family functions, but he somehow finds out and shows up.

What the results show is that Romney, the pretend conservative, has difficulty winning in the deep south. His Florida and Virginia wins aside–he and Paul were the only Republicans on the ballot in the Old Dominion–Romney has trouble appealing to the voters who traditionally go for candidates to the right of Ivan the Terrible. This could mean the primary battle will extend through the spring and into the summer, if Santorum continues to do well in southern states. Gingrich and Paul show no sign of dropping out of the race any time soon, even though it’s coming down to a Romney/Santorum bout.

I initially thought, yes, let it be Santorum; Obama will cream him. Besides, there’s no way people will vote in Rick Santorum as President. Then, I remembered I felt the same way about George W. Bush, and America elected him. Twice. Granted, Santorum’s social, economic, and policy positions make W look like a, well, Massachusetts Moderate, but if the Republican base can get motivated and if progressives stay home in a huff, Santorum could… No, I won’t put it in print. Just thinking about it will give me dystopian nightmares.

Romney, I believe, will be the nominee, after a long, protracted process that will leave him emotionally spent, and the President will be fresh as a daisy. The polls look good for the President now, but it’s March. We’ve got eight months to go, and we can’t take a single thing for granted. As the Republicans disinter the rotting corpse of the War Against Women and flail its stink about, we need to remember that few Republicans with national presence denounced Rush Limbaugh’s odious words about Susan Fluke; we need to remember that Republicans brought up the Blunt Amendment, which would allow any employer to not cover any medical procedure or medication for any one for any reason. (That was defeated, thank goodness.)

I can’t list all the things we need to remember come Election Day in November, but as a progressive who has been disappointed by some of the President’s policies, I know he has my vote. The alternative is just too dark and reactionary to consider.

—————

One of my readers who thinks I’m an “ultra-feminist” (I am, but it doesn’t bother me.) can stop reading here, so his blood pressure doesn’t elevate.

The shenanigans of the Virginia Legislature–personhood bills, trans-vaginal ultrasounds, etc.–have made national news. Our reactionary-laden legislature seems determined to return us to the 1950’s in terms of many things, chief of which is women’s right to decide what to do with their bodies. It’s something men do without thought–who to fuck, when to fuck, whether to use protection or not–and for some reason don’t want women to do. To protest the legislature’s actions, several hundred men and women held a silent protest this past Saturday at Virginia’s capitol building in Richmond. Several of them stood on the Capitol’s front steps. The governor claims he didn’t send in SWAT, but it’s obvious he did. The police arrested people who were doing nothing except sitting and standing, handcuffed them, and locked them in a bus for nine hours for something that is normally a ticketable offense. (Hello, America; wake up and smell the police state.)

Last weekend at the Richmond protest, there was one sign that said it all for me, that reflects my sense of deja vu, my feelings about having to fight–yet again–to make sure women have the same choices men do, and here it is:

Inspiration

The interview question a writer of any renown hates to hear is, “Where do you come up with your ideas?” or some variant thereof. That’s a process difficult to explain, so it’s easy to say, “From my family,” or “From life.” But those answers are a bit glib, perhaps disingenuous to someone who sincerely wants to know how you do it to enhance their craft.

Every writer has to answer that question–or not–from his or her own background. When I was getting some counseling after my father’s death, the therapist suggested journaling. Yes, I journal-ed before journaling was cool. She told me to, as one presenter at AWP advised, “vomit words on the page.” Many of those journal items became stories in my collection of short stories, Rarely Well-Behavedwhich was published in 2000. Other stories in the collection, however, just “came to me.” Yeah, that’s a technical term.

When I write short stories I’m a bit of a seat of the pants writer. I start with a picture, a word, or a snippet of conversation I’ve overheard and expand on it. I let it go wherever it wants, and sometimes that works. My short story “Trophies,” published in the February issue of eFiction Magazine started out as a writing exercise inspired by hand-fishing–from the fish’s point of view. Then it moved to a character with aspects of my brother and my father, and that character did something that a friend’s stepfather did years ago. In the end, the catching-fish-from-the-fish’s-POV got canned (a good thing), and the story got refined and published.

Sometimes the seat of the pants approach doesn’t work. Last year, I wrote a short piece about a tree that falls on a house, in response to a writing prompt from a magazine. The tree’s falling brought out pent-up emotions in a suburban community not unlike where I lived in Northern Virginia. Those hidden emotions boil over, and a slaughter occurs. I workshopped it and got some good feedback, then one person just went off on why I’d written such a “stupid mess.” I was going for quirky, psychological horror, but he excoriated the story, me, and why I’d ever thought I was a writer. Threw me for a loop, I’ll tell you. I haven’t been able to look at the story since, even though I thought it was a good piece of flash fiction. Who knows? Maybe I’ll overcome the clench in my stomach and have a second look at some point.

Almost every Friday, I write a 100-word story inspired by a photograph posted by Madison Woods, and since I’m a more visual person, I generally get more inspired by looking at something than by a word or a phrase. When I see the picture, the story plays out in my head, which is cool, but my mother used to think it was weird.

I’ve learned a lot about craft from the workshops I’ve attended at writing conferences, including the recent AWP conference, but I’ve also filed away conversations I overheard in Kitty O’Shea’s, physical descriptions of some of the unique people I observed, and a great talk I had with a cab driver on the way to O’Hare on Sunday. All fodder for the imagination.

Life, death, friends, family, your physical surroundings–all of them can have a story that needs to be told, so tell it.

What inspires you? Are you a story planner or a seat of the pants writer? Do you see the story in your head, or does it just come from the fingers on the keyboard?

AWP Day 3

As you read this, I’ll be making my way to O’Hare to head back to the Shenandoah Valley. I loved being in Chicago. It’s been a long time since work took me there for a two-week period, but I’d forgotten how much I love city skylines. Yesterday, we had low clouds and snow flurries, and it was cool to see the tops of skyscrapers disappear into the clouds. Lake Michigan was gray and chilly looking, but as much as I love my mountain view at home, Chicago is a beautiful city to gawk at.

I loved being around so many other writers–overhearing the bar conversations was a high point of my day. Writers talk about their characters as if they were real people, and I was glad to see that wasn’t eccentric. They talk about craft and rejections and where is the idea for their next book going to come from–all the things that I can relate to, and that’s comforting. But, let’s see how Day 3 went for me.

BTW, if you get to Chicago, go to Kitty O’Shea’s, an Irish pub in the Hilton on Michigan Ave. Great pub food, great beer, great Irish history decor. I had lunch there every day and wish I could transport it to the Valley.

“Connecting with Readers via Your Website and Social Media” appeared, on paper, to be a promising seminar for first thing Saturday morning. I’m not as self-conscious about technology or social media as many of my contemporaries. I was too much of a Trekkie for that. I built a computer in the early 1980’s and was on-line with CompuServe (remember that) at about the same time. Still, social media was something I initially regarded as being for “the young folks.” (Amazing how we reach the point where we sound like our grandmothers, isn’t it?)

I started using Facebook for the typical reason a white female over 50 does—to keep up with her grandchildren. Then, I moved to where they live, but I stayed with Facebook because I found that writers had Facebook pages, and I could pretend to be friends with them. I consider myself still a dabbler in both Facebook and Twitter, though I’m learning how to use each to better benefit for my writing life. I’ve blogged for a couple of years now, and I rather like “following” on Twitter some of my literary icons—Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, and so forth.

Since I’d like to be more than a dabbler in social media, I went to this seminar eager to pick up useful tips. And I did—from the last panelist. When a seminar on how to use social media starts with a panelist who tells you she turned down the offer twice before accepting, that she has a YouTube channel which she doesn’t update, that she doesn’t Tweet and doesn’t update her Facebook page, and has a website that she generally ignores until a book comes out, you begin to think it might be a waste of time. I’m leaving off the names of the panelists for a reason.

Indeed, several of the first few panelists confessed their fear of, distaste for, and dread of websites and social media. One said very little on the topic but used the opportunity to do a reading of a self-indulgent essay about seeing the wild ponies from Chincoteague—then alluding to the fact his walk along the poop-laden beach was in Maryland. (It’s Virginia.) His social media connection was that a Facebook follower had mentioned his work had taken on a depressing tone and that make him examine his work. Really? That was it?

The final panelist, whose time had been shortened by the others’ going over time and not understanding how to use the laptop provided to display websites on a screen, was the only one to give practical tips and suggestions:

  • Use only the social media you’re comfortable with; don’t try to do it all
  • What social media you do us should be a facet of your personality; just remember nothing you say is private
  • Use Facebook and Twitter as your water cooler if you work from home; they help to keep you from being insular
  • Recognize you might discouraged by posts and Tweets from other writers about their success; don’t be bitter or jealous but be fulsome with your congratulations–you never know the connection you might make
  • The more you give–compliments, praise, congratulations–the more you get from social media
  • Since it’s so easy to create a website, do it now! Even if you haven’t sold a book yet, do book reviews of others’ work, link to writing websites or writing contests or even other writers’ sites
  • If you love an author’s work, use social media to connect and tell him or her so
  • If you’re not comfortable with social media, make certain you approach publishers who will help you, not reject you because you don’t have a platform

Next year, he should do the whole panel, and that would improve its practicality. My first, small disappointment of the conference.

I’m avoiding the Book Fair today because I’ve no room left in the single suitcase I brought. As it is, United is likely to charge me an overweight fee for it in addition to its usual $25 rip-off, I mean, baggage fee.

Because a computer problem at my hotel kept me from printing out my boarding passes and the subsequent 20 minutes on the phone with United Airlines, all the afternoon sessions I wanted to attend were SRO, or sitting room only as well. I didn’t want to subject myself to that indignity, so another quiet afternoon writing, followed by packing to go home. Is it time for that already? I just got here. I’m having too much fun, and now I have to go home? As far as I’m concerned this could go on a few more days—or someone needs to invent that time machine so I can go back and attend all the seminars I wanted to attend in the same time block.

Yep, I’ll be in Boston next year for AWP13.

AWP Day 2

Because I exhausted myself on Day One of AWP, I decided to ease up on Day Two and spend a lot of time (and money) in the Book Fair. I did start the day with two seminars, on opposite ends of the literary spectrum.

“The Fiction Chapbook–A Sleeper Form Wakes” was nothing less than fascinating. For those of you who don’t know what a chapbook is but don’t want to Google it, it’s a small, self-contained book originally produced to fit in the pocket. They started out as the precursors to the printed, bound book we would recognize today, but as societies became more literate and wanted to show off that fact, novels became the rage. Chapbooks became a form of publishing poetry. My high school English teacher loved chapbooks, and when we had the poetry unit in American Literature, we had to make a chapbook of our poems. Since I’m not a poet, I probably tossed it away as soon as I got a grade on it. Silly me.

Chapbooks have now become a hot, new way to publish short fiction in limited runs. That makes them popular for for-profit presses as well as an excellent way to introduce an author to an audience. Chapbooks are especially ideal for flash fiction. The panelists–Nicole Louise Reid, Eric Lorberer, Diane Goettle, Kevin Sampsell, and Abigail Becket–are all publishers of chapbooks and are enthusiastic about this new direction in publishing. Their enthusiasm must have been contagious because I stopped by their tables in the Book Fair and bought four chapbooks: Field Guild to Writing Flash Fiction, edited by Tara L. Masih; Betty Superman, by Tiff Holland; I Take Back the Sponge Cake by Leon Erdrich and Sierra Nelson; and an anthology of chapbooks, They Could No Longer Contain Themselves by Elizabeth J. Colen, John Jodzio, Tim Jones-Velvington, Jean Lovelace, and Mary Miller. I’m looking forward to delving into them.

The next seminar I went to sounded right down my alley. I love apocalyptic writing. From Harlan Ellison to Margaret Atwood, I savor these stories of what would happen to us as humans were the unthinkable to happen. “Apocalypse Now: A Multi-Genre Reading of Apocalyptic Literature” featured two prose writers and two poets who have written about the end of the world. The poets were Brian Barker (The Black Ocean) and Judy Jordan (Hunger), and the prose writers were Pinckney Benedict (Miracle Boy and Other Stories) and Kevin Brockmeier (The Illumination).

I’m not known to collect poetry, unless it’s Seamus Heaney, but Barker’s reading, from The Black Ocean, of his poem, “Gorbachev’s Ubi Sunt from the Future That Will Soon Pass” was so dramatic, I went right to the Book Fair and bought it. The same with Miracle Boy by Benedict. And I got them both signed.

Jordan’s reading of a long poem about the time she was homeless was, she admitted, not technically apocalyptic, but the raw dread the poem evoked could have portrayed the end of the world. It was transportive. Brockmeier brought us the unusual concept that whatever has happened to the world makes our pain shine literally from us. He only read an excerpt, but it was easy to envision how the illumination could become too bright for us to look at.

The Book Fair could stand alone. I never knew there were so many literary magazines and specialty publishers, and, so, there are twelve new books to add to my already-laden shelves. But, where else could you find a fascinating book entitled, From Three Worlds: New Writing from Ukraine?

Then, my feet said, enough, and I retired to my hotel room to do exactly what this conference is all about–write.

AWP Day 1

Sorry, no Friday Flash Fiction today. 😦

The 2012 Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference in Chicago is exhausting, exciting, stimulating, tiring, fun, overwhelming, and a lot more descriptors than I can’t think of because I’m, well, pooped. But it’s a good kind of tired. Why? I’m surrounded by 10,000 fellow writers and a book fair bigger than any I’ve ever experienced. I may need to buy a second suitcase to get the books I’ve bought back home.

There are dozens of workshops each day, many of them so tempting you need to be three, or five, people to get to them all. Though many of the workshops are geared toward people who teach writing in high school or college, there are plenty for the rest of us.

On Thursday, I started a marathon day with “The Long and Short of It: Navigating the Transitions Between Writing Novels and Short Stories.” The panel was composed of writers who’d either gone from short stories to novels or vice versa. Moderated by Bruce Machart (The Wake of Forgiveness, Men in the Making), the panelists were Hannah Tinti (The Good ThiefAnimal Crackers; Tinti is also the editor of the online literary magazine One Story), Melanie Thon (Sweet Hearts, Girls in the Grass), Erin McGraw (The Seamstress of Hollywood Boulevard, The Good Life), and Kevin Wilson (The Family Fang, Tunneling to the Center of the Earth).

The key thing I took from this excellent seminar was that you can’t think of novels as expanded short stories nor short stories as shrunken novels. I’d always felt that way; I just hadn’t had it articulated so that I grasped it. The panelists were in agreement that they fret over short stories more “because every word is a potential for a mistake.” Writing novels are more “low gear,” and you have the luxury of knowing you can have “extra words” as a cushion. The panelists disagreed on switching between the two. One described himself as linear, having to finish a short story before he can move on to a novel. Another moves between novels and short stories in progress, using each to counter spots in the process where the work has become bogged down.

Another thing I could relate to was starting to write and not really knowing where the story is going–or the flip side, thinking it’s going one way, and it strikes out on its own. My recently published short story, “Trophies,” started out as a fun exercise describing, from a fish’s point of view, what it’s like to be caught. The story then went to a place I’d avoided writing about for many years and was much different from what I’d originally intended. It was nice to know I’m not odd that way.

Next came “Thinking with Your Own Apparatus: Fiction Writers and History.” Joyce Hinnefeld (Stranger Here Below) moderated Eugenia Kim (The Calligrapher’s Daughter), Dolen Perkins-Valdez (Wench), and Nalini Jones (What You Call Winter), all authors of non-contemporary historical fiction.

Kim and Jones write about their mothers’ cultures, Korean and Indian respectively, and they described the issues arising with not being immersed in that culture until they decided to write about it. Perkins-Valdez, who writes about African American slave women in the Civil War era, described an emotional trip to the Museum of the Confederacy for research. All emphasized the need for research and accuracy–because someone, somewhere will find the tiny error in language that slipped past. They also urged writers not to forget the characters amid all the historical detail–historical fiction “captures a feeling” and the reader has to like the history but must care for the characters.

After lunch, I attended “What I Wish I’d Known,” a panel of newly published authors who discussed the process each underwent to become published. One thing is for sure–none of those processes were the same. Rebecca Rasmussen (The Borrower) wished she’d known, since her book was about a librarian, that she should have run it past a librarian. The librarians who have read it, she said, have loved it, but they’ve pointed out all the things librarians don’t do.

Jeffrey Stepakoff (The Orchard) started out as a playwright and screenwriter, and he wished he’d known just how much he had to do to “sell” his book inside the publishing house, i.e., cultivating relationships with the cover designer, the marketer, etc. Nor was he prepared for readers having such direct access to him as a novelist, rather than a screenwriter.

“Don’t listen to conventional wisdom about what you should be writing” was what Elizabeth Stuckey-French wished she’d known. Her three books–Mermaids on the MoonThe First Paper Girl in Red Oak, Iowa, and The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady–afforded her different publishing experiences, but she came away from all three understanding that editors and agents do what they do because they love books. However, writers have to remember those editors and agents are also business people, not your BFFs.

Kim Wright (Love in Mid Air) was surprised at how much promotion she had to do for her first novel, though she enjoyed the process of being the primary advocate for her work. She cited her “writer’s paranoia”–she looked around her publisher and was convinced, as a new author, she wasn’t getting the same support as more established authors. Then, she found out the established authors thought she was getting more attention than they were! She especially wanted to dispel the myth that once you get that first book sold, you’re in like Flint. No, she said, “you keep having to go back through the door, as if it’s the first time.”

All the panelists agreed that hindsight on the publishing process for them was 20/20.

The final workshop of the day for me was “There Will Be Blood: Violence in Fiction.” Because I write espionage fiction, I wanted to make certain I was setting the right balance, i.e., that the violence was critical to the story and not gratuitous. The panelists were Alexi Zentner (Touch), Antonya Nelson (Bound), Benjamin Percy (The Wilding), and Alan Heathcock (Volt), and each emphasized that, often, the “invisible violence” is the most shocking or startling, that you don’t have to go for the blood and guts. Nelson said, “You can be more menaced by what you don’t see.” Holt said that violence in fiction is a lot like a sex scene in fiction: “It can be coy, clinical, or creepy.” Yet, they all emphasized that if the violence is “inauthentic,” it isn’t worth reading–or writing. As long as you don’t use violence as an end, it can be a critical part of the work. Another thing I’m getting right, apparently.

The day wasn’t over yet. That evening was the keynote address of the conference, and if I went to nothing else for the whole conference, I was going to this. Margaret Atwood, the premiere author of dystopian fiction, was the speaker. She began with a greeting to “all my Twitter followers,” which got a big round of applause. There were a lot of us in the audience. Atwood was funny, charming, and informative in a brief re-telling of her writing life. The 73-year old laughed at the recurrent rumor that she had died but emphasized that you have to write to maintain your relevance. In her case she’ll be relevant for a long time. It’s always great when someone you admire lives up to your expectations. As she left the stage to applause, she lifted the arm of the sign language interpreter and had her take a bow with her. A classy lady.

A long, but fulfilling first day. And tomorrow is another one.

Politics Wednesday – Feminism, NASCAR, and Danica Patrick

Maybe the brouhaha of the past few weeks over contraception, transvaginal ultrasounds, and aspirin between the knees has put my inner feminist on edge. And rightly so. The “battles” of access to contraception so you don’t have to opt for an abortion and women having say over what goes in their bodies, I thought had been fought and won a long time ago. Regardless, I’m ultra-sensitive to any hint of gender inequality lately.

Now, you might wonder why I’d be surprised at juvenile remarks aimed at newly minted NASCAR driver Danica Patrick by male NASCAR fans. It’s sadly true that my racing buds are notoriously gender-equality challenged.

Patrick, who raced a limited number of Nationwide Series races in 2011, often had trouble fitting in the No. 7 GoDaddy car fronted by JR Motorsports. Other male drivers were in the car when she wasn’t, and though most racers are not big guys, she had to deal with issues of being able to reach the controls. (As a woman pilot, I struggled with the fact that most small airplanes were built with tall, long-legged men in mind, so I can empathize.) There was an exchange on the radio last year with her complaining about being hot while moving slow on a caution (remember, most of her racing was in open, Indy-style cars) and her crew chief explaining to her how to use her hand at the small, side window to “cup” a breeze into the car.

“I can’t reach it,” she said.

The color commentators proceded to make comments about how she needed to learn how to take the heat,  their premise being the spoiled, Indy driver, famous for her allegedly prurient GoDaddy commercials, shouldn’t be in the car if she couldn’t hack it.

Now, Patrick is far from perfect or from being a top racer. In her Indy Car career, she had but one win, in a little-known race in Japan, but she did have a lot of top 10 and 15 finishes. More importantly, she never gave up. When she acted with the aggression male drivers ooze, she was a bitch. When her soft side came out–weeping over Dan Wheldon’s death last year–she was too weak-willed.

Patrick gets the attention because she’s in a sport that has admitted few women then excoriated those who did get in. She’s a different type of female racer–she can take it and dish it back. She has been known to climb from a wrecked car, toss her helmet aside, and corner the perpetrator of the wreck on pit road–just like, say, Kyle Busch. So, the men of NASCAR Nationwide and Sprint Cup need to understand she can give as good as she gets.

In 2012, Patrick will be a full-time Nationwide Series driver for JR Motorsports, owned by Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and his sister, Kelli, herself a former driver. Dale Sr. once remarked of his three children who raced–Kelli, Kerry, and Dale–she was probably the best. Kelli Earnhardt is a shrewd racing businesswoman, having made JR Motorsports one of the premiere owners in Nationwide in just a few years. She brooks no nonsense from her drivers, her brother included. Kelli has indicated that before Patrick became a part-time employee, she only knew her by reputation, the one perpetrated by mostly male racing sports journalists. When introduced to Patrick, Kelli found her a modest, caring, congenial person, willing to work hard and take instruction. In other words, a model race car driver. Patrick will also drive in a limited number of Cup races for Stewart-Haas Racing, including the Daytona 500.

Patrick isn’t going to take NASCAR by storm in one year. She will have failures–big, obvious ones–and she will have modest success, like any driver male or female who’s come before her. As someone who was a fan of the amazing Shirley Muldowney, I’m looking forward to rooting for Patrick this season. Hey, I’m a Dale, Jr., fan; I’m accustomed to disappointment.

So, I was excited to see Patrick had won the pole for the season-opening Drive4COPD 300 Nationwide Race this past Saturday at Daytona. “Winning the pole” means having the fastest time around the track in qualifying, so she was faster than everyone else–all men. Some of that is the car–perfectly tuned and balanced. A lot of it is the driver.

Then, came the juvenile remarks–“Heh, heh, that’s not her first ‘pole.'” Or the insidious–“Ah, the guys were told to slow down so she could get it. It’s a publicity stunt.” The prurience or sour grapes aside, she deserves a chance, like any other driver.

Though it has expanded its outreach to minorities and has some Hispanic and African-American drivers in its smaller, local racing series, NASCAR is still way too white and male where drivers are concerned. That will change. It is changing, far too slow for some of us, but change is incremental. And I’ve been a fan long enough to remember when drivers of a particular era said similar disparaging things about black drivers trying to break into NASCAR.

Patrick’s drafting partner nudged her a little too hard a few laps before the midway point of the Nationwide race, and after contacting the wall, she had to go to the garage for extensive repairs to the car. She re-entered the race 49 laps down with 30 laps to go and finished in 38th place–not last but not the win she coveted. Two days later, a massive wreck on lap two of the Daytona 500 again sent her to the garage, but she returned, 63 laps down, to finish 38th in a field of 43.