Building the lie

While many people are having cookouts and spending time with family on Monday, I will be “building the lie.” I’ll be cementing the final bricks in the fantasy world that I’ve created in THE MAGIC QUILT. What fun it is to make fantastic and terrifying events happen. Yet, there is a cost in reality and logic. I can make the Great Wizard Cerulean’s eyes shine with blue light. He can pop in and out of time at will. But I have to explain where he gets this wonderful power.

In writing fantasy, the writer must create a fantasy world (the lie) and then make readers believe the lie is logical and real (the truth). See Writing fantasy: the truth inside the lie. In THE MAGIC QUILT, I have made time travel, morphing into animals, appearing and disappearing and being invisible routine parts of day-to-day life.

Any child who has participated in the fantasy world of children’s books and films, where superheroes exist, a man in a red suit drives flying reindeer, noble lions rule, and kids go to wizard academies, believes the lie. But beyond that, in children’s private imaginary worlds, they can be princes and princesses, plastic figures can come to life and entire armies may do battle on their bedroom floors — all in their imaginations.

It follows then, that it should not be difficult to convince young adult readers that an evil wizard can spew deadly smoke from his eyes or that Katharine can fly?

“Children’s fantasy demands the strictest logic, consistency, and attention to detail. … It is no wonder that the greatest children’s fantasists—Carroll, Lewis, Tolkien—had day jobs in the driest reaches of logic and philology.” From: The Real Reason Children Love Fantasy

My attention to detail is what I hope will make Boston of 1775 real to young adults reading THE MAGIC QUILT. In 1775, everything in the room I write in—the electric lights and the computer, the bottled water I drink, and the climate controlled air conditioning —was as imaginary then, as fantastic, as Narnia or Hogwarts are today. So I hope the mix of magic and the setting in the past will be believable.

In the first chapter where the evil wizard Dr. Ziegawart is introduced, DR. ZIEGAWART IS IN, my writing critique group found several areas that needed to be reworked for logic and consistency. I was tempted simply to hit the delete key because I didn’t want to put forth the effort and energy needed for the corrections. See Motivating the cognitive miser. But after some elbow grease, I think the chapter is now both stronger and more believable. I often find that the hardest scenes to write are usually the ones that I am most happy with.

The chapter opens with Dr. Ziegawart in the form of a cockroach in Katharine’s school cafeteria.
A large roach, as long as a tube of Chap Stick, he clung to a trashcan by the hooks on his six legs, unnoticed by the rowdy students eating lunch in the cafeteria. None of the teachers (who were all imbeciles) or the cafeteria staff (who were about as intelligent as slugs) saw the cockroach clinging to the trashcan, waving its antennae in constant search of a change in air that could mean danger to a small insect.

Following are problems with the logic of the fantasy of DR. ZIEGAWART IS IN and my solutions:
When Dr. Ziegawart morphed into his true form, no one noticed him. I let him be noticed.
Dr. Ziegawart sat down hard on a cafeteria bench that was too small for his large frame, nearly sliding to the floor. “Newts eyes,” he cursed, remembering that transmutations always drained his power.

A cafeteria worker approached him and said in a raspy voice “You, there. You do not have a pass.” With gloved fingers, she pushed her hair net back on her sweaty forehead, spreading something that looked like gravy across her face. “What are you doing here sir?”

The smell of body odor overpowered him. Dr. Ziegawart shivered in revulsion looking at the cafeteria worker’s double chin. “I’m a child molester, just hanging around watching my next victim.” He winked, watching her eyes get round in shock. Before she could react, he touched the silver locket hanging around his neck and …

Why doesn’t Katharine see Dr. Ziegawart when he transmutates from a cockroach to his true form? I let her notice him.
Heartened that Katharine was white-faced and trembling like a leaf in the wind, Dr. Ziegawart was confident that he looked every bit the part of the evil wizard that he was.

Katharine doesn’t seem scared enough when she meets Dr. Ziegawart. I added some physical reactions and thoughts throughout the section.
Unable to open her eyes, surrounded by darkness, Katharine’s stomach churned, threatening to send its contents up. She fought the nausea. Chocolaty laughter floated toward her, wrapping her abdomen in a sick vise. The ugly wizard pointed his gnarled finger at her in the blackness.

Instantly a heavy weight pressed down on her chest. Fear prickled in her throat. She couldn’t catch her breath. Hot … she was too hot. A trickle of sweat ran down her neck, but still, she couldn’t force her heavy eyes open.

Katharine felt a gust of wind. With great effort, she opened her eyes. Sara Revere stood before her, wind blowing from her fingertips. She didn’t understand what was happening. Chills shook her. Her teeth chattered. She was too … too cold. This is what it felt like to die. The thought sent icy fingers of dread to her heart. Lindsey would be helpless without her … Her heart squeezed out fear in little pulses that tightened her throat and throbbed in her temples. Dr. Ziegawart would find her again.

How did the evil roaches get in refrigerator to deposit the poison in the hamburger? Solution: Dr. Ziegawart held the refrigerator door open.
Last night at precisely midnight, one hundred of Dr. Ziegawart’s followers in the form of cockroaches sneaked into the school cafeteria’s refrigerator while he held the door open for them. Dr. Ziegawart had given each roach a poison pill that it shredded with its mouthparts. Using its salivary glands each roach had then moistened the powder with its saliva and swallowed it. The poison mixed in each roach’s small stomach where digestive enzymes turned it into toxic roach scat. If anyone had looked in the refrigerator during the night, they would have seen a carpet of brown roaches fanning their wings and depositing poison scat in the raw hamburger.

Katharine was a messy eater in the original version, which didn’t fit her character. I changed the scene so that her friend Brittney is the messy one.
Dr. Ziegawart watched in satisfaction as Katharine bit into her hamburger. Out of the corner of his eye, the roach saw hefty Brittney squeeze three packs of ketchup on her burger and take a huge bite, cheese and ketchup running down her fingers. Her manners were utterly revolting. It would serve the slob right when she died of poison.

Brittney had not suffered any effects from the poison, simply because she was a character that I added into the scene after it was originally written. I poisoned her.
And as an added bonus, the portly girl wizard that had befriended Katharine sat unmoving. Brittney was surely dead …

Why aren’t other students poisoned? This was corrected with one sentence of dialogue.
“Of course only wizards are susceptible to the poison,” Sara said.

Wouldn’t students notice and remember? Again corrected by one sentence of dialogue.
“I will cast a memory removal spell over this room. Anyone who was in this cafeteria today who is not a wizard will have no memory of the events that transpired here.”

Writing for children and young adults

My writing is diverse, which is another way of saying that I’ll write anything. My strength seems to be writing for and about children, although my heart is in psychological and medical thrillers for adults, simply because I love reading them so much. Give me a day with Tess Gerritsen, James Patterson, David Baldacci or Diane Chamberlain, and I’m a happy woman. I am currently reading the Kathy Reichs series that the TV show Bones is based on.

I digress. In combination with working on my young adult novel, I’ve been writing short stories for adults just to be able to have the satisfaction of completing a shorter term piece while finishing the novel. After reading two of my stories, one of the women in my writing critique group noticed that in both Remission, my first attempt at a medical story, and Mulberry Tree, which parallel’s a teacher’s personal and professional helplessness, that my writing was strongest in the scenes involving children. This gives me pause. Should I be concentrating my writing for children.

While I am pleased with my recent progress on my young adult novel THE MAGIC QUILT, I really wanted my next book to be an thriller for adults. I’ve enjoyed researching 1775 Boston, the setting for the later half of the YA novel. It has been fun writing about the world of colonial America. But writing for children requires a different mind set than writing for adults. In writing from the view point of a twelve year old, vocabulary, parents and the young psyche have to be considered. Yet, it seems that is where my strength lies.

I have had the most success in publishing educational articles, not fiction, which again, gives me further pause. I am passionate about educating and advocating for children and it comes through in my writing. This is a good place for a shameless plug.

What tools should teachers carry in their survival kits?
Find out in my article Methods for success as a middle school science teacher, that has just published in the September issue of Science Scope Magazine. Unfortunately, if you’re not a member of NSTA, you won’t be able to read the article Online.

As an aside:
There has been a long drought here in North Carolina and we’ve broken some records for high temperatures over the last couple of weeks. As a respite from the heat, I’ve had the opportunity to sip chilled white wine, courtesy of my husband, who writes a monthly wine column Ten Dollar Tastings with Harry Calhoun. Kumkani wine has just sent him a half case of wine to taste, and I’m looking forward to contributing my insights.

Signs you are a blogoholic

I was updating my Web site this weekend and as I modified my “works in progress” page, it occurred to me that I needed include writing this blog as part of my “works in progress.” Blogging takes up much of my time and has contributed to keeping me from finishing my young adult novel.

Why? Blogging provides instant gratification — people see what I write immediately. There are no rejection letters and no waiting to get my work published. In contrast, when I work on my novel, I have nothing to show at the end of the day. The document sits in a file on my computer, read by no one but me. Sections of it may be brilliant, but parts are not ready for anyone to read. I’ll have to wait until it is finished and marketed out to an agent to see it in print.

Blogging is different. I can post in just a few minutes and read what other bloggers have to say in that same few minutes. It is a powerful addiction.

So here I sit with the notes for my young adult novel spread over my desk, with the document open to the chapter where I left off. But I find myself distracted and decide to write about spending too much time blogging. Meanwhile I haven’t touched my novel, haven’t moved the curser — it blinks, waiting.

Signs you are a blogoholic
1. You think to yourself, “Am I spending too much time blogging?” And then you blog about it.

2. You find yourself thinking, I can’t wait to blog about this, while brushing your teeth.

3. You can only keep track of which day it is by consulting your blog.

4. You have more blogger friends than real life friends.

5. You find yourself having amazing relationships with people in far-away places like Jakarta, Tasmania, and Scotland.

6. You meet new people, and really resent the lack of an “About” page attached to their forehead.

7. A friend tells you enthusiastically about their new blog and you cringe when they scribble down an address with “myspace” after the three w’s.

8. Your mother doesn’t call anymore, she just checks your blog.

9. Instead of chuckling at humor, you actually say “lol” outloud.

10. Your home computer has a serious hardware failure. You break out in a cold sweat and try to Google for a local repair place.

11. You walk around in a daze because you wouldn’t let something as insignifant as sleep interfere with your RSS feeds. (When you do go to bed you find yourself lying awake wondering if your server is connected).

12. You spend so much time doing blogging tasks that your “real writing” ends up falling by the wayside.

13. You get more “comment waiting for moderation” e-mail messages than spam.
14. Your lifetime goal is achieving a page rank of 10.

15. You keep a blog ideas notepad in your car and you write in it, putting your life in jeopardy on a daily basis.

16. You quit your day job because it is interfering with your blogging. (Money is so overrated).

17. You gain weight because you can’t get away from the computer long enough to do something as insignificant as going to the gym.

18. You clothes don’t fit, but you don’t shop for clothing because it will take away from your blogging time (you haven’t shopped for food anyway, so your clothes will soon fit).

19. Your first thought when you looked at your vacation pictures is which will look best on your post about your vacation.

20. You include ownership of your blog in your will.

21. You finish reading this and go make a post with your own additions.

Developing characters through experience

Yesterday, after I went for a morning swim, I locked my keys in the car, followed by a comedy of events that made me an hour late for work. After getting grease and dirt on the front of my new white, wool pant suit while trying to find the magnetized set of keys that I keep under the car, I drove onto Interstate 440 going the wrong way. (The interstate is not known as the baffling beltline for nothing). Signs are labeled inner and outer beltline, north or south, which doesn’t help me to know which will take me east to Durham. So I pulled off 440 and got back on only to be funneled in the same wrong direction away from Durham. I took the next exit trying for an alternate route on 70, but instead got lost in Durham. But that’s not the reason that I added this category to my blog (Life Comes at me Hard).

Yesterday, life slammed me hard. Wham! Right into my past. I haven’t seen my father in ten years. During that time I’ve talked with him only twice on the phone, once two months ago and once yesterday. When people ask me if I’m close to my father, I say no. I never expand upon that unless someone asks. Usually they don’t, and when they do I almost never tell the whole truth. It has taken me years of therapy to reach the level of denial I thought I had achieved. See my essay: Yes I Have a Therapist–and I Believe Everyone Should.

I thought I had worked through my sadness and anger toward my father. I didn’t think I had any feelings for him left. Then I got the following e-mail from my aunt, my father’s sister.

I just talked with him (my father) on the phone. He does not have email because he is not able to use it. He has a walker with a seat on it and a wheel chair. He went to the doctor again. The doctor said the radiation killed 20% of his nerves. He is like a very old man. He has not been out of the house for 2 months. They simply cannot get him into the car. He is very helpless. He sleeps in his chair. He would like to hear from you girls. He says he can’t get well unless God heals him.


After reading the e-mail I found myself crying while driving to the swimming pool. Hence my confusion while driving around in circles after swimming. My father has recovered from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. But after the tumors were removed from his spine and he endured the chemo and radiation that was necessary to treat the cancer, his muscles have atrophied from lack of use.

I pictured my father, the man who raised me, the man who abused me, now in a wheel chair unable to leave the house. Maybe he deserved it. Be he was also the man who took me on 30 mile bike rides as a little girl, who played endless card games with my sisters and me, never tiring of our games, who played softball with us in our backyard. That active, energetic, youthful man was sleeping in a wheelchair.


That blast from the past could be the key to my writing success. As a writer I can use my bad relationship with my father to develop the new women characters that I create. Because girls model our male romantic ideal on our relationship with our father, he teaches us how we should expect to be treated by males when we get older. He teaches us by the way he speaks and acts toward us and the women in his life. It is from our fathers that girls learn lessons about the world of males. From her father a woman gains first-hand knowledge of how ordinary men think, act and speak.

Fiction writers must create imperfect, flawed characters because that is the way people are.

Most of the women characters I relate to in the books that I love to read are flawed, like myself, many due to their childhoods. In David Baldacci’s Simple Genius the lead female’s personality changed due to an event from her childhood. I can’t spoil the book to say what it was. In Kathy Reich’s series of books that the TV show Bones is based on, the lead character, Tempe, is a divorced recovering alcoholic who has trouble with relationships.

So, I can create a woman character who does not have a loving dependable father. This imaginary person may actually seek men who deny her needs or reject her. She may always be haunted by the thought that she is unlovable. To compensate, she may become sexually active prematurely or she may fear intimacy. She will be imperfect and readers will be able to empathize with her.

When she drives onto the baffling beltline going the wrong direction, or locks her keys in her car because her sick father is on her mind, readers will believe in her. When she looks in her rearview window, readers may see themselves.

Motivating the cognitive miser

It has been a busy summer so far. I’ve spent a week in Key West, then a week in Atlanta on business and finally had a wonderful visit with my daughter and grandson here in Raleigh. I allowed myself to break my writing schedule during these activities, but now I’m more determined than ever to make the final edits to my young adult novel.

I’ve found a writing schedule that works for me, after several unsuccessful tries (over the course of a year) to fit writing into my busy life. Back in December I thought I had solved my scheduling problem. I made time to write. I pieced together hours in the evenings and on weekends. I even wrote an entry titled “Finding time.” But I wasn’t productive. I would walk away from the computer disappointed, having accomplished little. And when my husband asked, as he frequently does, “When will your novel be finished?” I had to admit to myself, maybe never. And then I chastised myself. I’ve read about other writers who wrote their first novels while working full time. Why can’t I?

Then one afternoon at work, I was reviewing at test question about the conservation of energy and the solution hit me like a bolt of lightning. My internal Scrooge had been conserving my mental energy. It isn’t finding time to write that is the problem at all. It is finding the energy.

If humans are cognitive misers, and I know that I am, then we expend the least amount of amount of mental effort and attention possible, and that includes channeling our mental effort into spinning a yarn or two. We run out of steam to do what is important to us: write. When I expend my mental energy throughout the day on errands, and even the day job that pays my bills, Scrooge comes in and shakes his mental finger. He says you will not plot, build characters, build scenes or think creatively. I won’t let you. It takes a great deal of mental effort to write that tough scene or rewrite the paragraph that just isn’t working.

And then I ran across this E-book: Tame the Day Job Monster! Find the Energy to Write and Work. While I didn’t download the book, I enjoyed reading the first chapter for free. Tame the Day Job Monster is all about finding enough energy to write – while you also work for a living. If you’re just too tired to think about writing anymore, it’s time to get the day job under control.

While I find my day job rewarding, and am happy developing tests, I think when I reached an energy balance between work and my writing I began to be more successful and happier. I’ve modified my writing schedule so that I’m writing in the morning before work two or three days a week. That works for me. I am a morning person, so my cognitive miser is a little more willing to allow me the energy to think creatively first thing in the morning.

I am optimistic that I’ll actually finish my young adult novel in this lifetime. And I’ve accumulated so many ideas for stories during my writing hiatus: the car that my coworker told me about with the speedometer that only works if the lights are on, but you can’t tune the radio unless the lights are off. That would make a spooky story. Or the man sitting across from Harry and I at Abbondanza Italian Restaurant in Key West, too drunk to eat. His story would be interesting to tell.