The Writing Life

Monday, May 30, 2005

We have a winner!

With the help of a talented author (who I roped into doing judging duties), we have a winner for the contest!

Kate!

Kate's entry is the first one you'll read under the contest heading. The judge thought is was a "great story" and was very sure of her pick, so Kate, you are the winner! I will be contacting you soon about your prize.

Thank you to everyone who entered. I appreciate it most sincerely! It sounds like you all have had some wonderful pets in your lives. You cats are lucky dogs!

Okay, that was really bad. I'm going to stop typing now.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Thank you to the contest entrants!

The contest is now closed and I will announce the results very soon. I thank all of you who entered. I'll be in touch soon!

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Contest!

I've decided to run a contest. The winner will receive either a book I wrote about dogs, or one about cats, or a CD of my original music -- winner's choice.

All you have to do is write a true, humorous story about your cat or dog. It can be about a current pet, or one you've had in the past. Or one you've known at some point that isn't your pet. 250 word limit. Anyone can enter. Just hit the comment button at the bottom of this post and type in your entry (or copy from your WP program, cuz spelling and grammar count).

The contest will end on May 28 at midnight Pacific Standard Time.

Have fun!
------------

Entries received so far:

At 7:51 PM, kate said...
My Kinky Pet Story
I had two cats, Max and Catherine, and a dog, Robin. Catherine was a pound cat but went into heat before I could get her spayed. She fell deeply in love with ...Robin. She totally ignored Max, the male cat and followed Robin, the female dog, everwhere. Robin loved having a normally hostile kitty to chew on and treated the ecstatic Catherine like a toy. I'll never forget the sight of that cat clinging with all four claws to the screen door calling to her one true love, the clueless goofy dog. When she went out of heat, she went back to ignoring the dog or hissing at her. Poor Robin was pretty confused for a while.

At 8:27 PM, Merry said...
My DH says Flint is not very smart. Flint likes to sleep with me. Not my husband, me. One night when Flint had been with us for about a year, he nosed DH to go outside in the middle of the night. DH stumbled to the door and opened it to let him out. Flint wasn't behind him. He came back to bed and there was Flint, next to me in DH's spot. That's not the funny part. The funny part is DH fell for it again the next night!

At 1:17 PM, etaknosnhoj said...
Tinkerbell is a very pretty cat. Tinkerbell has a red sparkly collar and delicate white paws. Tinkerbell walks with a charming wiggle.
Tinkerbell is also, apparently, a boy.
This was lost on me when, aged six, the vet told me my baby girl kitten had an extra feature. As said feature was about to be severely tampered with by the vet, I couldn't see that it made much difference. His name was shortened to Tinker, and he became more effeminate with every passing day.
Now he's an old man of seventeen, and he minces about the house like Hercule Poirot. A very handsome cat with a black coat, immaculate white bib, and white spats, he even has a little black bow tie smudge under his chin. But while Hercule Poirot was a dandy, he was also inescapably bright.
Not so poor Tinker.
This afternoon I watched him fall off the sofa. Recovering his dignity with remarkable speed, he sauntered out of the room. Several hours later, with a candle lit on the table beside my chair, he slunk back in, hoping it was forgotten, to help me watch TV. He's a very helpful cat. A helpful, old cat who just wanted to warm his tail over the candle...
The house now smells of burning cat tail. The funny part is that Tinker hasn't even realised it yet. I'm sure Hercule Poirot would know if his coat was on fire.

At 2:12 AM, Angie the Hippo said...
She gazed into his brown eyes. He had been her best friend all these years, always been there for her when she had felt sad and needed cheering up. Now, as always, he was offering his quiet support. Their faces were so close together, she could feel his breath on her mouth, and she sensed this was the perfect time to let him know how she felt. If only she could find the words to make him understand... And he stuck out his pink tounge and licked her across the face. Apparently she didn't have to find the words after all, her precious DOG knew that she loved him anyway.

At 6:49 AM, Laura said...
A Tribute to a Great Dog...

My husband's family had a dog (a Dandy Denmont--an otter dog, bred for chasing otters, etc...) named Harrance D. Beast, Attorney at Large. Harry Beast for short. He was the greatest dog I ever met. I went camping several times with Mr. Laura's family, to a place called Rye Patch Reservoir. My hubby and I (okay, we weren't married then) took the floating cushions from the canoe, and paddled around in the water with them. Harry Beast sat on the beach, waiting for the perfect opportunity to save...the flotation cushions. He'd rescue the cushion, then guard it from us when we'd try to retrieve it, often pulling it up the beach away from us, with a low growl. He could do this all afternoon. Harry also "saved" a bunch of fish my hubby and his brother caught. They'd left the fish on a chain, in the water. Harry pulled the chain out of the water. My husband lost count of how many times they had to put the fish BACK into the water. At one pitstop, my father-in-law told the dogs to load up. Heidi jumped right into the back of the truck. Harry took a running start, then sat a few feet away from the tailgate, giving "Dad" a look that plainly said, "Well, I gave it the good old college try. Pick me up."

We really miss Harry Beast. He passed away back in 1991.

At 7:13 AM, Tigger2 said...
Way back in the days of yore, when I was a little girl, my sister, brothers and I somehow talked my dad into letting us get a cat (well my sister and I wanted it, I don't think my brothers really cared one way or the other). Having never had a cat, we didn't know what to do. So we treated Misty like a dog. We bathed him every week, took him for walks, and took him camping with us. Every summer we went up to Klamath in Northern California. One day we decided to go on a picnic in Redwood State Park. It's a good thing we had the cat on a leash, because Misty decided to try his skills at tree climbing- on a 300 foot tall redwood! Fortunately the leash was just long enough that my dad was barely able to catch the end of it and pull the cat down. I don't think the fire department would have appreciated that "cat up a tree" call!

He's baaa-aaack

A new person joined one of the music sites recently, and from the start, 'she' bothered the heck out of me. I got a very disturbing vibe from 'her' notes. I've figured out why. Apparently, Stalker Boy has resurrected himself as a Mexican woman who lives on the back of a truck using a stolen laptop. Isn't that special? His horrible imitation of broken English is really a sight to see. His grasp of the language changes with every post. Sometimes, he can barely speak the language at all. At other times, he miraculously finds intricate knowledge -- almost like someone who is used to speaking English! Imagine that? He is so very, very pleased with himself over "fooling" everybody, too. The insanity continues.

CD

I've decided to put out a CD of my songs. At least, I think I've decided to do it. Making the little booklet is a lot of work, and I'll no doubt lose money on it because printing it takes a lot of ink, but I designed a cover I really like. And I did all the work of figuring out how to make the lyric booklet (much tougher than you'd imagine). I'll send one to Mom. And I'll put it in my store on M a c I d o l (lots of spaces to avoid google), so if someone wants it, they can buy it.

Stalker Boy

Stalker Boy has really been pushing lately. He's got a new blog against me (how many is it now? A dozen? Two dozen?) where, as usual, he's railing at the world about his being a victim. And as he always, his "proof" is not what is real, but what his twisted mind sees, using a logic known only to him.

He followed me to a collector's forum a couple of weeks ago, and it fueled his hatred. I haven't had any contact with him for months, so he doesn't get anything from me directly. He must find his ammunition by googling me, and trying to read into things I say elsewhere. On this forum, I asked the guys, who I've known for years, if anyone was in law enforcement. I told them I was being cyber-stalked, and gave a little general background. I didn't go into any of the details. Stalker Boy found my thread and in his paranoid schizophrenic way, he read words that were never written there. He immediately started writing about emails. He claimed that I was a liar and he had never sent me emails. I, of course, never once mentioned emails, because as far as I knew, he hadn't sent any. I got one email (a bizarrely childish thing that claimed the author was a law student studying "internet scandals". I'm not certain how stupid I'm supposed to be to believe that tripe, but apparently the author was idiotic enough to think that sounded real. The purpose of the email was to bully and threaten me, so I merely passed it along to the owners of the music sites, so that they could trace its origin. They didn't tell me anything, but ironically Stalker Boy himself told me that it had the same IP address as his. Oops! Does this mean he sent it? Not necessarily. His boyfriend could have sent it -- a technicality that Stalker Boy probably thought kept him in the clear).

This morning, I got a second email. This one was from Stalker Boy via Amazon. Apparently he wants me to be his "Amazon friend" so that I can buy him things off of his wish list or something. The return address was his, but the content appeared to be Amazon boilerplate. Obviously, I didn't click any of the links. I don't know that he understood the email would come from his address. In truth, I have no idea why he did this. Just another poke, I guess.

1 or 2 emails has never been the problem with him. I'm very fortunate in that way. A friend of mine has postulated that he's gotten in trouble before for stalking, and probably did quite a bit via email. He may have learned that this is a prosecutable offense, and thinks he's "safe" from legal recourse as long as he doesn't send emails. I have no idea if this theory about him is true or not. I'm just grateful that emails are not a big part of his campaign against me.

Another thing he is obsessing over again is some guy named Tom. Way back in January, when this all started, he got some nasty emails from a guy named Tom H.. Stalker Boy shared one of the emails with me, and it was indeed vile. Lots of anti-gay sentiment with some very personal digs that went well beyond the pale. I disagreed with it then, as I still do today. No one deserves that kind of trash in their inbox. Just I don't deserve the same level of trash written on Stalker Boy's blogs and website.

Unfortunately, on the collector's forum, there is a member whose name is Tom K.. He has a different last name, of course, and has no connection to this Tom H. (just as I cannot take responsibility for every person who is a writer, or every person who lives within several hundred square miles of me -- something with which Stalker Boy has repeatedly tried to burden me. If he sees a woman who is a writer or who lives in Southern California, he immediately accuses me of being that other person. Too bizarre). Stalker Boy saw me address the Tom K. in the forum and, in his usual fashion, decided that only one man named Tom exists in the world and therefore any and all men named Tom are the Tom H. who wrote to him. He is crowing about having "caught me confessing" that I know his man-named-Tom H.. I'm sure that's news to the Tom K. on the forum and to the Tom H. who wrote the letter. I'm unsure what my role was supposed to have been with regard to the original email-writer. Was I supposed to have been "Tom H."? Was I supposed to have been some guy's puppet master? Am I supposed to automatically be able to control the actions of everyone else in the world? It's very unclear, though oddly enough, I think he believes it's the latter.

The truth, of course, is that I had nothing to do with any of the things Stalker Boy accuses me of. He desperately wants to appear to be a victim, but I have done no victimizing. I was on two of the three music sites that he later joined. He was disruptive, argumentative, whiny, accusatory, and a source of incredible negativity on the two sites I belonged to. I must assume he was the same on the third (I was never a member there, so I have no idea what he was doing over there). Did I want his disruptive influence to stop? Yes. His constant focus on me, his calling me out, his name-calling, his unwanted responses to my songs, his hatred, his obsessiveness, his false accusations, and a host of other things made it extremely uncomfortable for me. Was I the only one? Hardly. He had the same affect on nearly everyone at both sites, whether he ever singled them out or not (I was the center of his little hate-filled universe, but he is not stingy with his loathing). Did I do anything personally to get him "kicked off"? To the owners of both sites, I passed on the fake law student email. On the first site from which he was ousted, it was the moderators who apperantly decided to excise him. I am not a moderator there, so this is a guess on my part. Was I happy he was gone? Very. He was, as I said, extremely disruptive.

The second stie from which he was ousted was the one I did not belong to, so I have no idea what happened there.

The third site gave him many, many chances. I did pass on that email, but nothing was done. I was told to "ignore him" and that appeared to be the end of it. Months later, I found a link on his music page that led to one of his hate sites. I wrote to the owners of the music site, letting them know that Stalker Boy was using material from their site (things he had found in the forum or on song pages) to write libelous and defammatory websites and blogs about several of the female members. In that letter, I said nothing about kicking him off the music site, or anything even close to that. It was merely an FYI thing. I have no authority to kick anyone off. I am not a moderator or an owner of that site. I am just one of the members. However, on that site, a large group of members contacted the mods and the owners and eventually, I guess they decided that, like the other sites, Stalker Boy was too disruptive. Was I happy he was gone? Very. He was, as I said, extremely disruptive.

When he showed up on the collector's forum, I wrote to the administrator and asked that he be banned. First time I've ever done that. Stalker Boy did not come there as a collector. He did not post in the collector areas. His only agenda was to follow me around the web and spew his hatred toward me. I have been a member of that collector forum for 3 years. He was there 1 day. The administrator told me that the forum does not accept cyber-stalkers as members, and therefore barred him. He then locked the thread. Was I happy he was gone? Very. He had no business being there.

That's the whole sordid tale. In the end, only one person is responsible for his having been banned from all the sites: him. Stalker Boy and Stalker Boy alone is 100% responsible for what happened to him.

He will probably never understand that. He is a professional victim. He cannot see himself in any other light. And a victim must have a persecutor. He arbitrarily chose me. Why? I'll never really know. Only his broken brain knows for sure.

What I do know is that I must face these facts:

1. It will never matter what I say or write; he will only read what his brain imagines.

2. Being wrongly accused is incredibly painful, especially when any activity to clear up misunderstandings will only aggravate and multiply the false accusations. And so I must take it in silence.

3.For five months, Stalker Boy has directed toward me his anger, hatred, insanity, cruelty, mockery, and negativity, and despite my having broken off all communication months ago, that action has had no effect. In fact, his madness and hatred appear to be growing. I have no idea how or when any of this will end. It is out of my hands. Nothing I do affects him. Only the things he imagines that I do or say affect him. I have no control over that.

4. Fear and anger are very uncomfortable emotions for me. I dislike being caught within the grasp of either of them. I prefer to search for the joy wherever I can find it. So far, the only times I have felt at peace about any of this stuff is when I have done the difficult mental gymnastics necessary to find compassion. Sometimes, I haven't the strength. Tonight is one of those nights. I don't want to do what's necessary to find compassion. I just want to work on my book. I wrote this entry tonight as a way of clearing my mind of the mental detrious caused by Stalker Boy's constant, unending attacks. When I am stronger, I will walk the path back to compassion. The more I tread those intricate and tricky trails, the easier it will be to find my way. At least, that is my hope.

And now, as I have to do every day, I must block the undulating waves of psychotic hatred that flow from him, and do something healthy and positive for me. I must write. I must work toward my life goals. I must not allow any of his negativity to enter my soul.

Writing 101: Description Vs. Dialogue

How do you decide whether to illuminate something through description or through dialog? There is no one opinion on this, so I'm going to tell you my thinking on this subject. You may agree, you may disagree, both are fine. The point is to get you thinking about it , so you can make conscious choices.

Either way, the goal should be to write it well. Write good description or dialogue that serves your story, and communicates to the reader. That's where your focus should be.

NOTE: This W101 was adapted from a discussion held on a writing list, and is a bit repetitive in places. So why did I keep the redundant passages in? Because during that discussion, some people had a very difficult time understanding the point. Due to this, I have retained much of the information, hoping that if one section doesn't make sense, another will. Eventually, in that discussion, understanding was reached, so I'm hoping that will happen here, as well.


SETTING A MOOD

I tend not to be very descriptive in my writing. The reason for this is simple: I tend not to like much description when I'm reading. Since I write stuff that I'd like to read, that pretty much explains things.

That said, sometimes description is absolutely necessary. To me, it depends on why it's there, and how it's written. If it's important to set up a mood or to let the reader visualize something, then by all means, go for it. A brief set-up paragraph describing the environment, or the edgy fear of a small town, or the utopian feel of a hidden valley, etc. can be a great shortcut to setting up the readers' expectations, enhancing their knowledge, etc. If done well, it's fantastic stuff.

However, I find that when I read I'm pretty good at 'seeing' things without too many details. So if, for instance, you are going to describe a room in page upon page of minute detail, I really want there to be a good reason for it. Does the tattered sofa with a 3/4" tear by the fourth leg, a small spaghetti stain on the backside of the second cushion and the slightly faded imprint of a rhododendron play a significant role, or are you throwing details at me to dazzle? Are you trying to tell me that the person owning the sofa has limited means and that's why the furniture is in this condition, or does it play no role in your story, but you saw a couch like this once, and you wanted to describe it? Are you focused in your descriptions? And by focus, I mean do you have the story's well-being at heart or are you in love with your own voice? As a reader, I can pretty much tell, you see. And I'm not happy when my enjoyment of the story is suddenly thrust into second place behind the author's enjoyment of her thesaurus.

For example: Let's say your characters pause for a picnic in the Alps. Do you then spend the next ten pages describing, in loving detail and florid word pictures, the view? Why do you feel this is what I, as a reader, want on the page? Would a simple snapshot have told me everything you said and more, i.e. are you merely reporting environmental details using fancy language? What does the view mean to the characters and if it is significant, why aren't you telling me of that significance, instead of describing yet another snowy peak? Sometimes, the view is exactly what needs to be described. And in those cases, I'll hang on every word just like everyone else. But if I start to detect the odor of "I'm so in love with the way I write that you'd best wear sunglasses in this chapter because I'm about to shiiiiine" then I tune out. I'll skim until we get back to the important stuff -- or I'll stop reading altogether, because you've wasted my time. And what is the important stuff to me as a reader? The characters. The plot. The emotions. The interactions. The story. I can order National Geographic if I want photos. What I want from fiction is fiction.

So do I hate description? No way. You give me a powerful, compact description of a new character, and in that description set off fireworks in my brain from the brilliance of your choices, then I will bow before you. There is nothing so wonderful as succinct, telling, brilliant descriptions that communicate in exactly the amount of words it takes to do so.

This is a good place to remember the lesson on economy. Good description is not judged by the number of words, it's based on the mind picture it paints, or the information it gets across. You could spend pages noting every detail about a new character, or you could find some telling things -- things that are important to the character and the story, and that draw an interesting portrait -- and you'll have created a better picture in a short time than all that paint-by-numbers stuff.

And it's not about finding fancy words, or using tons of adjectives. Overuse of adjectives is the hobgoblin of beginning writers. They're a sure sign of someone insecure with her ability to paint a telling portrait or landscape.

For example, you could say a new character has "beautiful, azure eyes, their glowing cobalt staring with haunted warmth." Oy! What a load of verbiage but what have you really established? She has blue eyes. Okay, what else? Well, "haunted warmth" doesn't make much sense, too incongruent, so they sort of cancel each out. Is she warm? I'm not sure, because she's also haunted, and that doesn't sound too warm to me. I think her eyes are blue. Yup, that's what I figured out. Really blue.

"She had blue eyes" establishes the same thing, without all the confusion. But it's not 'pretty' in the starkness of the telling. No dazzle. Do you need dazzle or do you want communication? Both? Greedy, aren't you.

Sometimes, you need to make choices. My best advice (and this is really the best thing you'll ever hear from me) is to err on the side of communication. Don't leave your readers wondering what the heck you just said. The dazzle will come naturally.

Fine, but what if you meant to communicate so much more than "she had blue eyes" with that sentence? Rethink it. First, figure out exactly what you want to say. What was it about her eyes that got you to that awkward "haunted warmth" description? Think it through and figure out a way to say it by concentrating less on words like 'azure' and 'cobalt' and more on the character's emotional state. "Her eyes were a deep blue, like the desert sky as it neared dusk -- still warm from the day's heat, yet losing the battle against the encroaching shadows of the night." Many readers will be familiar with the phenomenon of hot desert days giving way to cold, dark nights. By using this knowledge to aid your description of her eyes, it immediately sets up thoughts and pictures that far outreach the few words you used to describe her. Granted, some people won't like this description any better than the haunted warm azure description. But I personally like it better (though I think it could be improved), and because I'm the author, that's my choice. At least it wasn't just a jumble of words that sound pretty.

I like to call these "thinking descriptions". They're not built from reading a thesaurus, but from a writer thinking about how to communicate her intent in an interesting, yet understandable way. They also require the reader to think, as s/he fills in the image from his or her experiences and knowledge.

They don't have to be similes or metaphors. Overuse of these is as bad as overuse of adjectives. Actions can be descriptive of a character. Dialogue, too. In short, all the weapons in your writer's arsenal are there for you to use, when enhancing your descriptions. Don't rely simply on fancy words. Use interesting, communicative thoughts. If these thoughts include a fancy word or two, no problem. (And please note that it's not adjectives and adverbs as a whole that are bothersome, only their overuse.) The emphasis is still on the idea, not the language.

CHARACTER DESCRIPTION

Characterization is extremely important, so descriptions that involve insights into character are necessary. But again, make it about the character and not your own brilliance. I tend to prefer writers who don't spend a lot of time telling me about a character, but rather put their energy into showing me who this character is by their dialogue and their actions. So traditional character description, IMO, should be kept short and necessary. Give me just enough to intrigue me and then spend your time giving me further clues in other ways.

For example, you could tell me that your character is well organized. Or you could have her do some little action that shows us this trait. Have her jot a note in her palm pilot to return a call at 3:07pm. Have her rearrange a meal served in a restaurant so that all dishes are equidistant from each participant. Give us small things that show her need for order, instead of just telling us that's one of her qualities. It'll stick in the readers' minds much more with a small bit of business than a random description.

WRITING A DESCRIPTION FOR THE SAKE OF A DESCRIPTION

This is one of those "I'm putting this passage here 'cause I want you to see what a furkin' good writer I am and it serves no purpose whatsoever in the story, but it's suuuccchhh a beautiful passage, don't you agree?"

It's probably obvious by now that to me this is one of the worst sins in writing. It is, IMO, an amateur, beginning writer error. When we first start writing, we tend to reach a point where we fall in love with language and our own ability to form a sentence. We fall in love with literary devices and those oh, so wondrous adjectives and adverbs. And in the blush of this new love, we go all out. It's such a trap. We want so desperately to sound like real writers that we go overboard in attempts to dazzle. And the result can be painful, comical, boring, ridiculous, and even, on rare occasions, brilliant. But that last one is by far the exception.

Gradually, we find our own voice, and from then on, things improve greatly. That voice may be rich with description, or it might be heavy on dialogue, or action-oriented, or filled with slow, quirky character insights, or whatever. That voice can be anything. But it is uniquely ours.

Putting in dazzling descriptive passages that have no purpose other than to show the brilliance of the writer is something I take as a bit of an insult, when I'm a reader. Am I supposed to be so stupid that I can't recognize what you're doing? That I can't tell this is meaningless? If you're trying to tell a story, then please tell me the story!

If you write something this brilliant and feel you simply have to include it to show everyone how great you are, it's best to save it for a time when it DOES have significance. Not this story, but maybe in another. Or maybe it can be turned into a poem. Or you can use in a letter to your Mom. Whatever. But include it in a story where it doesn't belong and you risk destroying your pacing. And man, wrecking good pacing is such a crime. Pacing is the thing that makes a reader turn a page. It's the engine that drives those eyes forward from sentence to sentence. It's the rhythm, the drumbeat, the energy of a piece. Is it really worth wrecking that just to show you can describe a tree?



PLEASING YOURSELF VS. WRITER'S EGO

If you feel like saying: "I'm not sure what writing for the sake of writing means. It sounds as though the writer is writing for herself rather than the reader. That sounds good to me." Then read this next section. Otherwise, skip it.

A better way to phrase it is that the writer is writing for ego, to the detriment of the story. In this case, the ego (or the "I'm so wonderful, you simply MUST admire me for this paragraph") gets in the way of the storytelling, the pacing, the characters, or whatever.

Let's say you have Vincent staring at a placid lake after having just been through a battle. You think to yourself, "Aha! This is a perfect spot to illuminate my character by showing the juxtaposition of the blood-soaked warrior who now stares at the serene beauty of this natural setting. I'll show it through his eyes and it will enhance his characterization and set a mood. Double duty. Perfect."

Then you write the passage, but your head soon leaves your goals and you get caught up in describing this beautiful lake. Florid prose full of adjectives, adverbs and wonderful descriptive, sensual words follow. Gosh, but you're doing this well. Look at how gorgeous that sentence is. And that one. It's almost poetry!

Later, you read through this chapter and you run head-on into this section. Instead of forwarding your character, or setting a mood, you've got a long, meandering description of a lake that no longer has anything to do with the story. Does that gorgeous juxtaposition of bloody warrior/placid lake happen? Nope. Do the flowing sentences seem to come from Vincent? I mean, it says right here that Vincent is thinking this. Yet it isn't in his 'voice' at all. Vincent would never in a billion years have these thoughts. It's not the way his mind works. But... the prose! It's so wonderful! I must keep it in so that the people reading it can admire my talent. Who cares if it doesn't fit, if it slows the pace to a crashing halt, if it contradicts everything I've written about my main character -- look at how well I used the word "irenic"!!!! That HAS to be worth something -- I'm keeping it!

And now you've just done something for ego, as opposed to story. That's what writing for writing's sake is about.

Time to move on.

RELYING ON DIALOGUE

Some writers use minimal description and rely heavily on dialogue to drive their scenes forward, to give you clues to character and setting, etc.

Guilty as charged. I'm positive there are people who absolutely hate my work because of this. And that's fine. I do it because to me, communication is fascinating. I adore listening to people speak. I love to hear conversations. I'm interested in the way people talk, the words they use, the sound of their voices, the unique idiosyncrasies, the dialects, the accents, the tone, etc.. My background is as a screenwriter, and in screenwriting, everything has to be conveyed in dialogue and action. There are no descriptions because that's the camera's job. There are no internals, just the actors' faces and bodies. The writer's job is to tell an entire story with dialogue and action. Period. A whole mess of people (the director, the actors, the producer, the techies and so on) are gonna fudge around with everything else. The only thing that really survives from the screenwriter is what was on paper. He said, she said, they did this. And it's a thing of beauty when it survives and you see it on screen and it works because you wrote the right words.

So my tendency, when writing prose, is to go heavy on dialogue (I just love to hear my characters talk) and use that dialogue to give you whole bunches of clues about character, culture, setting, intrigue, romance, plot, pacing, relationships, status, emotions -- in short, lotsa stuff, baby. I'll put in brief descriptions to set mood, or elucidate character, etc. But the bulk is going to be found in dialogue and action.

I would guess that most readers prefer a story that falls somewhere in between an emphasis on dialogue or an emphasis on descriptive prose. It's a continuum and you, as a writer or a reader, fall somewhere on that line. Just because I fall closer to the dialogue end, doesn't mean that's "right". It just means it's right for me. (That, and it makes me feel irenic.)

Not that I haven't played with lots of the points on the continuum. I've written short stories without a single line of dialogue. I've written others that are probably 90% dialogue. So experiment. Find your comfort level. Find your strengths as a writer. Not everyone will like what you do. It's impossible to please every reader. But those who share your viewpoint will love you. And if you do it well, then your range will increase accordingly.

Writing 101: Logic

OBSTACLES

Every story should have conflict. Conflict is an obstacle that must be overcome. Whether the obstacles are found in another character, in nature, or internally, the fight to overcome these rocks in the path of the primary character's growth is what makes storytelling so exciting.

This is why logic must play a key role in any piece of fiction. Overcoming obstacles is only interesting if the obstacles are real, and the efforts to get past them are logical.

For example, if you have Jane come across a boulder blocking her path, there are several ways she can try to get past it. She can walk around it (if there is a way to do so), she can climb it, she might even be able to vault over it. But unless you're writing paranormal with established physics-breaking super powers, she can't walk through it. Nor can she sprout wings and fly over it. Pretty obvious stuff, right?

Yet it's surprising how many writers will place less obvious obstacles in front of their characters and break all the rules to get them past. Why? Because the writer wants the tension and suspense of an obstacle, but not the hard work of finding a solution. Sometimes it's too difficult a puzzle; sometimes the author doesn't think things through far enough; and sometimes, the writer is simply lazy.

I'm going to refer to "lazy writing" often. This is a term I use to describe a variety of 'sins'. Because regardless of what the initial problem is, in the end, it's a writer's decision whether she'll do the work or not. What if the obstacle is too great? Rewrite the obstacle, so that it can be overcome. If you don't rewrite, and leave in the insurmountable obstacle along with a magic solution (something illogical) then you are giving in to lazy writing.

What if the writer simply doesn't see all the problems? After all, everyone makes mistakes; we all have the occasional logic problem slip into our work. Very true. This is an excellent reason for having good beta readers or critique partners (the kind who'll tell you when you've made a logic goof). It's also a good reason to read your work over several times before anyone sees it, so that you might spot the problems before others have to tell you. But if something gets past you and your readers, then your solution might have contained enough logic not to be a problem.

LOGIC IS EVERYWHERE

The world is a logical place. Everything happens for a reason. Sometimes things may seem senseless on a emotional or spiritual plane ("Why did that earthquake have to kill my nice neighbor? She was so kind, it doesn't make sense for her to die and that nasty neighbor to live!" Well, it happened because pressure built up in the fault until the tectonic plate moved, shaking the earth. The good neighbor was in harm's way, the bad neighbor wasn't, the result was logical. It may not be fair, or how we like it, but the logic can't be assailed). Even people behave logically (I'll get to that in a bit).

Because of this, your fictional world must be logical. What about fantasy or science fiction? The same applies. You may have some new rules that require suspension of disbelief. For example, Superman can fly, even though he has no apparent means of propulsion. He can lift a mountain, even though no mountain would be cohesive enough to stay mountain-shaped when he picked it up, etc..

When you start a story that requires suspension of disbelief, you must establish the rules (the logic) then stick to them. Superman can't suddenly make himself invisible because that's not one of his powers. Some outside force could make him invisible, but he can't suddenly have that power when he's never had it before.

If you're on our planet, you need to obey the laws of physics. If you're writing about people, you must make them act like real people. If you put an obstacle in front of a character, the character must solve it in a logical way.

NATURE

Let's use an example to show how logic and physics must be obeyed. Pretend you set your story in a northern winter. It's imperative for you to be consistent with the rules that govern cold winter environments. You can't have ice a foot thick on the lake, but have leaves on the trees and flowers on the ground. Ice does not grow a foot thick without a lot of extremely cold weather. And that means the flowers are dead or dormant, and the leaves have fallen.

The ice had better act like ice, as well. You could land the Space Shuttle on a foot of ice, so we'd better not see anyone falling through it. Ice is cold, it's slick, it's hard. It can be transparent, but more likely it will be opaque at a foot thick. The surface can be smooth, or it can be rippled (if there was a strong wind when the top layer was frozen, you get tiny ridges in the ice. Not 'waves' like on a lake, just a slightly choppy surface. Makes skating tough, but walking is fine). Ice can melt, so be careful putting campfires on it. You can chop a hole in ice to fish, but this is hard work.

Winter doesn't mean you have to have several feet of snow on the ground. Some winters are dry, some are wet. There can be a lot of snow, or a little. In fact, the extreme cold tends to keep snow from falling too heavily. Snow tends to build up much faster in a more moderate winter, where temperatures don't stay in the high negatives for long periods of time. This is how things are and they can't be changed. You have leeway on snowfall, but not on leafy trees and ice-bound lakes.

This is nature -- it's immutable. You can't change its rules to suit your story. Even if the climax depends on there being both a foot of ice on the lake, and yet someone falls through -- tough. Rethink it. Whenever you write yourself into a corner and need to break the laws of logic to get yourself out of it, you have to do the work and retrace your steps until the outcome can happen logically. Otherwise, you'll be indulging in lazy writing.

PEOPLE

How do you write logically about people? After all, we're bundles of contradictions, have free will, and can react differently with changing circumstances, moods, etc.

All true. But let's be honest. How many times have you read a book or watched a TV show or movie and thought, "She'd never do that!" while watching a character do something outrageous. It's because the writer stretched the boundaries of what we know of that character. The writer went too far. The reason? The writer needed the character to do something in order to overcome an obstacle, or set one up -- and he didn't care that it broke the character's logic. That's lazy writing.

Despite the contradictory nature of human beings, we all follow our own logic. Only the insane act illogically -- and even they are working on a twisted sense of logic only they understand. We do things for reasons. It can be the wrong reason, a dumb reason, a mistake and so forth, but initially, there is a logical thought.

Your characters must behave accordingly.

An example: You need tough, CIA agent Jane to be captured by a villain. How many readers would accept it if you had a villain put up his fists, say, "You're coming with me, girlie" and have Jane react in craven fear, begging him not to hurt her? It might be okay if being captured and thought cowardly was part of her plan. But what if there was no plan, and you presented this as her actual reaction after spending half the book talking about how tough she was? No one would buy it. That's not the Jane you created. It goes against everything we know of the character. You may need her to be captured, but you'd better do it in such a way that every reader would believe in it. She'd have to be captured due to overwhelming forces, or a trick, or to save someone's life, etc. Make it logical and it becomes a true obstacle, full of suspense. Make it illogical and your story has lost all credibility.

This remains true of subtler things, as well. Yes, there is leeway in interpretation. But only on things that aren't fully established. If you've made Jane a dismal cook, don't suddenly have her make a gourmet feast. Keep to the traits you've established.

PROBLEM SOLVING

One of the most exciting areas of fiction is problem solving. I know, that sounds really silly. "So... your ideal story is to have two people solving math puzzles?" No, not that kind of problem solving. I'm talking about how characters solve the problems of the obstacles in their path. Yes, again with the obstacles. They are one of the primary, most important parts of fiction, so they're going to get mentioned a lot.

When an obstacle is established -- keeping with the example above, Jane has been captured and now it's up to her partner to save her -- the fun is in seeing how this obstacle is overcome. We want to see the partner think through the problem, battle with each trap and difficulty, and finally come out triumphant. That's cool stuff.

It's the same kind of thing you find in love stories -- Jane and Mike are both filled with need and wanting and pain, and they must overcome their inner demons in order to take that important first step. You'll find it in nearly every romance -- Jane and Tom meet, there is often something keeping them from being totally honest with each other, and eventually they come to terms with their differences, or their secrets and find love. You find it in hurt/comfort -- one of them is injured, the other has to save his or her life with tender care, it's touch and go for awhile, until finally the ministrations have their desired effect. In short, it's in every story told. There is an obstacle (secrets, health, villains -- you name it) and then we watch as they overcome the problems, defeat whatever demons/obstacles are keeping them from fulfilling their mission in the story (from an evil empire to having sex) and at last, we get satisfaction. Or, if it's a tragedy, the obstacle is too great, and they lose.

Because of this, your problem solving has to be the best you can make it. Airtight, baby. No holes. If you have Jane and Mike drowning in a lake then suddenly they're safely in Chicago, you'd better have a darn good explanation of how they escaped the lake. You can't just say "They got out and went to Chicago." The obstacle -- drowning -- was too big for a pat explanation. If you want the tension of a life or death situation, you are required to pay for that tension by problem-solving your way out of it. No short cuts.

BALANCE

That's one of the keys to problem solving -- balance. The bigger the obstacle, the greater the tension, the more your readers need to see genuine, logical, solid problem solving. It's like the difference between buying a scooter and a Porsche. The scooter is a whole lot cheaper, so your wallet can be a lot lighter. You can get by with a quicker explanation for a small problem. But if you want that Porsche, that life or death situation, then you have to pay with lots of logical storytelling. Tip the scales too much in either direction, and the equation is out of balance, throwing a red flag to the reader. "Why did you spend four pages explaining why Jane brushed her hair in the morning? You told us it was because it got tangled while she slept. Why not leave it at that?" Too much problem solving for too small of an obstacle. It leaves that unsettling feeling, like the non-explanation for the lake drowning. The reader feels they missed something, or didn't understand. They're searching for logic and you're giving them an unbalanced obstacle/problem-solving ratio.

COMMON SENSE

Your best friend is common sense. Use yours to the utmost in storytelling. I'm sure you've all heard the advice given to most new writers, "Write what you know." This doesn't mean you can only write about your home town, your activities, your friends and family. It means write about the world as you know it. Use your common sense, your experience, the things you've learned. If you've never known a northern winter, don't trust yourself to understand every aspect of it. If you don't know how ice behaves on a frozen lake, research. Look it up on the web, ask a mailing list, write to the Wisconsin chamber of commerce, anything. Find the answers. Then you'll "know" and can write about it.

Do you have to research every little thing? Not if you already know about it. But if you're making something a big point in your story, and there are readers out there who will know a lot more about it than you, then it's a darn good idea. I could read a story about basket weaving and be fooled by almost anything the writer says. I don't know anything about it. But if you write about basket weaving on a foot of ice, I'm going to be very knowledgeable about that cold stuff under the characters' butts. A few people may know about the basket weaving, so you might just hope none of them read it, and make it all up (that's taking a chance, though. Don't be lazy -- look it up). However, I guarantee that a huge percentage will know about the ice, so that's not something you'd ever want to leave to chance.

Again, it's a question of balance. And common sense.

SUMMARY

Obstacles, problem solving, balance, common sense -- all are served by logic. A well told story makes sense. Making sense means something is logical. It's a simple equation, but it requires you, as the writer, to put in the work. No lazy writing. No trying to get away with something because you need it to happen, or because you hope no one notices, or think no one cares. Readers care. You should, too.

Writing 101: Economy

Economic writing is not money talk, but economy in the sense that, to use a cliché: less is more.

Economy, in any writing, is essential. Economy of words and of scenes. This isn't to say that stories can't be long. Some of the greatest pieces of literature the world has seen have been quite long. Yet those novels also used economy. It's about choices, you see. Choosing your scenes, and your words. Being conscious of habits and working toward curbing the bad ones. Being aware that first choices aren't always best choices.

SCENES

With every scene, ask yourself:

1. Does this scene add anything?

The scene needs to give the reader something new, some information they didn't have before. The scene could drive the plot forward, add to the suspense, strengthen characterizations, fill in background -- it could add anything, as long as it is necessary to the story. The scene is NOT helping if it is repeating what has gone before, is a big tangent, tells us nothing new or doesn't belong to the rest of the story. Yeah, it may be wonderful stuff, but if it doesn't aid the tale you're telling, if it takes the focus away from what's happening simply because you thought of something cool in the middle of writing your opus, then cut it. You can always use it some other time, in some other story.

This even applies if you're writing a sex scene or a mushy scene or some other standard "But they're all alike!" scene. Don't let it be like any others! Don't write a sex scene, some chat, then write the characters having sex again in the exact same way they just did. If you're going to write another sex scene, make sure it adds something new to the story. It has to tell us something we didn't learn in the last sex scene.

2. Does this scene accomplish its goal?

Whatever it is your scene is supposed to be adding, ask yourself: did it succeed? Did it move the plot forward, add to the characterizations or fill in necessary information? Or did you get off track? Lose sight of your goal? If so, go back and rework the scene so that it does what it must do. Meandering storytelling, indulgent prose -- these things can frustrate a reader. Stay on track. You can indulge yourself all you want within the confines of the story you're telling. Truthfully, good storytelling isn't about seeing how often you can indulge yourself. It's about telling a story to the best of your ability.

3. Does the scene begin and/or end in the right spot?

Sometimes, what we write when we first begin a scene isn't necessarily where that scene should begin.

Let's say you have Mary napping in the grass. A bee wakes her up, buzzing near her ear. She shoos it away and begins to think about the problem she's facing. Mentally, she goes through the angles. Debbie shows up, and Mary tells her what she's just been thinking and they discuss it.

Okay. Now look at your scene and think about what you've done in it. Chances are, the meat of the scene is the conversation. Everything that drives the plot forward is there. In this example, there's no new information about plot or character in the napping or the thinking. So why is it there? Cut it. If you need some reference to her napping, then one quick 'did you manage to sleep' question from Debbie would do the trick. Two lines of dialogue replacing a whole chunk of scene describing a snooze. Let's face it: describing a nap isn't riveting fiction.

If the nap is the point of the scene -- perhaps Mary hasn't slept in days -- then that's fine. But in that case, it plays a vital role. That's the question you need to ask yourself: What does this portion of the scene accomplish? If the answer isn't readily apparent, you probably need to edit.

REDUNDANCY

Redundancy is another trap. Like seeing the same word 3 times in a single sentence, redundancy of scenes is just as bad. If you have a huge 'Trevor just saved a town from a wildfire' scene, don't let Gail tell the story of it to a room full of people a scene or two later -- in vivid detail. Cut away. Have her start it or have her finish it or have someone say "she's in there telling the story" but DON'T make the reader wade through a retelling of a scene they just read. The same thing with the scene above: don't have Trevor think through all his strategies and then repeat everything he just thought to Gail. Start with the conversation, and you won't have that problem.

The same thing applies to ending a scene. Don't keep going after your scene has had its say. Heck, I've read whole stories that end at the halfway point, but the author apparently didn't realize the story was over, so it kept going for another 100 pages. I remember one series of published novels that started off brilliantly. I couldn't wait for this author's next book. She was writing a series and each succeeding book was worse than the last. She lost sight of how to tell a story and became far more interested in physical descriptions of the land, and on imparting her research (they were extremely well researched). One book was an entire novel that should have been cut. It added nothing at all to the overall story she had been telling. A whole novel!

Economy. Say it once and make sure what you're saying is new, fresh, and necessary.

WORDS

This goes for economy of words, as well. Most people are aware that repeating words too often is a no-no. But how do you judge if you've overused a word? Obviously, you can say "the" more than once, even in the same sentence. Yet other words would stick out. Rarity is one test. The more unusual a word, the less you want to overuse it. Pretty common sense.

HABIT WORDS

Often, writers will get hooked on certain words and overuse them through habit. This is lazy writing (that probably sounds harsh, but it's important enough to make a strong point. There are a lot of things that fall into the category of lazy writing, and overuse of a word or phrase is a big one). If you suspect that you're overusing a word, do a search for that word in your word processing program [most WP programs have a "replace" feature. Just type in the word, or its root. For example, if you think you've overused "gentle", type in "gentl" so that you'll also catch "gently" and other forms. Then replace it with the exact same word or root. You should get a count of how many times you've used the word]. Compare the number of uses to the number of pages. To use our example, words like "gentle" shouldn't have a high number. Maybe once every 10-20 pages or so. Why? If overused, most words lose their impact. Adjectives are especially prone to this. I just checked the story I'm writing and in 123 pages, I've used some form of gentle 5 times. Roughly every 25 pages. I checked a few other words and there are one or two that I'm going to scan for.

When you scan, you do a 'find' and check each use, making sure that it's the right word. Sometimes, the same word has more than one meaning, and if the uses are spread over two or more meanings, then it's okay to use it more often than those words with a single meaning.

I'm guessing that right now, some of you are thinking, "You've got to be kidding! That's so anal." Remember, you do this when you notice or suspect that a word is overused. Not for every single word in the story! I'm also mentioning this because it might break a bad habit, or make you more aware of a possible problem. It's up to you to decide if there's any value in what I'm saying.

IMMEDIATE OVERUSE

Another problem, and many people are aware of this, is overusing a word in a short space. Repeating it in the same sentence or paragraph. These really stick out.

Most people know about this word trap, as it's fairly obvious. But there is a potential problem inherent in the solution to it! In order to avoid using the same word, writers sometimes reach deep into their thesauruses to find an alternative. And that can lead to some wacky synonyms. "Her fingers closed on the doorknob, the digits gripping tightly, her phalanges tensed and sweating. She felt the round metal handle begin to turn, and her organs of touch gripped it tighter." Lord have mercy, but that's some fine writin'! No, you're not going to fall into that trap. Unless you can come up with a good, solid, unintrusive synonym, don't keep searching for another way to say "finger", search for a way to reword your sentence. This may sound rather obvious, but you'd be surprised how many times people (including me) will sweat and fret over finding that workable synonym, instead of realizing that a simple rewording will solve the problem.

REDUNDANT PHRASES

The obvious repetitive errors are easy enough to understand, but there are subtler errors that add up to trouble. One of these is redundant phrases. 'She had a smile on her face.' Uh huh, and exactly where else would a smile be? There's no need to tell us that a smile is on someone's face. Or an expression either. How many times have you seen, "The expression on her face was comical, as was expression on her knees -- though the expression on her stomach was perturbed, because her butt was smiling." It's like saying "her mind thought" or "Her ears heard", "Her eyes saw". Be careful of these subtler redundancies. You'll be surprised how often they can creep up on you.

Bottom line: Be aware of your word use, and build your scenes with purpose and ECONOMY.

Writing 101: Creating Interesting Original Characters

To me, one of the most important things you can do in any story is create interesting, memorable characters. This is where the true heart of a story is. What can be done to make original characters enhance your story, whether minor walk-ons or costars?

One of the key things to remember is that it is more important to let the reader know what kind of person a character is, than his shoe size, or the color of her hair. I'm not saying physicality isn't important. Sometimes, your character can really come into focus from a physical trait. But even then, you're still on the surface. True characters are the sum of their parts.

BACKSTORY

Many writers fill in the backstory of a character (the things that made up his/her life prior to the beginning of the story) by writing up a brief character sketch. Here's where you can put the physical description, likes and dislikes, hobbies, interests, education, ambitions, flaws, idiosyncrasies, childhood, etc. Chances are that if you fill in the backstory with enough detail, your character will nearly jump off the page.

UNIQUE TRAIT

One thing that I've found extremely helpful is giving all characters, from the tiniest bit part to the central players, some interesting or unusual trait, or 'hook'. For example, I wrote a story once where this very fierce soldier, a captain of the guard, appeared to be rather stoic and stereotyped. So to dispel that cardboard image (honestly, could it have been any more clichéed?), I gave him a gap in his front teeth. Every time he smiled, he had the habit of sticking his tongue into that little gap, giving him the appearance of almost childlike delight. This was so incongruous with his stern image, that immediately, I knew a great deal more about my captain than I had before he smiled. I knew he had a sense of humor, and a big heart, and enthusiasm. He was devoted to duty, but cared about people first and foremost. In fact, he grew all sorts of interesting traits, simply because of a gap in his teeth.

You can take these traits from any source, and the world is full of them. Think of a friend, for example. Ever hear anyone say, "Oh, that is SO like her!" Chances are, that's a unique trait being discussed, and fully stealable. Observe strangers in a park and make up personalities for them based on their walk, clothing, or gestures. Or think of an actor and use one of his or her traits. Heck, you could even use your pet as a source! Every animal has a distinct personality, so there's no reason your seductive villain can't slink like a housecat, or your villain can't bark his words.

JUXTAPOSITION

Like the gap-toothed soldier, the juxtaposition of seemingly incongruous traits can be a wonderful source of material. Experiment a bit. Play against type and see what you get. A villain with a lisp. A heroine who likes to play word games. A nasty CEO who cares deeply for animals.

Another trick is to think of something unusual, a physical trait, a bit of background info -- any source will do -- and then use that as a starting point to build your character. You can even take this one step further by giving him a trait, let's say you have a villain who has beautiful hands, you build the character around it -- he is fastidious about what he touches, is always clean, manicured, dresses well, dresses his minions well, etc. -- and then you can take away that original trait (the beautiful hands) because it's no longer necessary. It was just a place to start, to get those juices flowing.

WALK-ONS

If the character is in a minor role, pick one characteristic and use that. Don't overload them. And keep it small, nothing too overt. In movies, extras learn to avert their faces, or try to become 'invisible', because anonymity is the bread and butter of extra work. So if you have a walk-on part, a laborer, make him a person, but keep it small. Maybe he has an unusual vocal habit (maybe he's redundant. "I saw them come in. They were here. Came in right through that door, they did." This would be annoying if overused, but in a small part it can be an effective shortcut to an original 'voice', and even make him seem a bit folksy, or dull). Just don't fall into the trap of using the same trick on every extra. If one laborer talks like a bumpkin, that doesn't mean every person in every story you write should speak the same way. Keeping it small doesn't mean getting lazy.

To use another illustration, let's say Annie the waitress enters wearing an enormous 3 foot high hat. She takes the order, apparently oblivious to the tower on her head, brings the customer her food then walks away. If that's Annie's only bit, the only thing she's there for, then the writer had better have a darn good reason for that frigging hat! Otherwise, it's annoying (the reader thinks s/he missed something) and it's also really stupid. (note: comedy is an exception. But that's another discussion)

Speaking of hats...

HAT COLOR

One of the most important things to remember about your dominant characters is complexity. Don't give your villain a black hat. Don't make him or her all evil, or just mean for the sake of mean. The closer they are to that description, the less interesting they are. Make your villain complex and conflicted. A nasty villain with sympathetic roots is one of my personal favorite types of villains. The more understandable and sympathetic the backstory, the more nastiness you can get away with.

Always keep this balance in mind when creating a villain, or a hero. Heroes need flaws, villains need good points. Let's take the example of the villain who loves animals. Imagine some despot running a small country, cutting down women and children without a thought, yet he goes to extreme lengths to save a bunny from being squished by a car. And when he pets a dog or mends a bird's wing we see tenderness and caring and genuine concern and suddenly our villain is a whole lot more complex. Humans aren't all good or all bad. We're mixtures.

Just as villains need dimensions, so do heroes. Don't make your leading man and/or lady be so utterly perfect that no one will be able to relate. Give them a bad habit or two. Put some chinks in their armor. Make them interesting. The more interesting they are, the more we care about them, and the more we want them to be okay. However, don't make the mistake of going too far. If your hero is handsome but so darned disagreeable, arogant, and hostile that no one would want to be around him, then why should anyone root for him?

NAMES

There is a general rule that not only do you never give the same name to two people in a story, you don't even start the names of your characters with the same letter. Keeping in mind that storytelling is communication, you want to give your reader as many breaks as possible when it comes to keeping characters straight.

Story One has Alva, Amy, Aaron and Allen as secondary players. They're all introduced at roughly the same time, and all have about the same size role. Ouch! Keeping them apart in your readers' minds is going to be one tough task.

Story Two has Betty, Calvin, Diana, and Eric. None of these names starts or ends with the same letter. They all sound distinct, but are easy to say and remember. The reader is in much better shape here, just from the names alone.

When you're writing about different cultures and places, and you want to use names generic to that time and place, names can be very confusing. Be especially on guard. Make them pronounceable, easy to tell apart, and memorable.

DIALOGUE

Your characters can really come alive in dialogue. The most important aspect of this is "voice". Everyone has a unique voice (and I'm not speaking of physical sound, but the way we say things, including accent, syntax, word choice, use of idioms, etc.). One of the quickest ways to delineate characters is to give them a unique voice.

Think of it this way: when you watched TV, each character's dialogue is distinct from the others. Phoebe wouldn't say the same things Monica would say on Friends. Capturing voice is about hearing the differences and translating that to the page. The things a character says and the way she says them, are very much a part of who she is. When writers don't mirror this in their dialogue, it shows. Ideally, one should be able to tell who's talking without giving an attribution (she said) every time. Often, this isn't the case. The lines are interchangeable, and the writer has lost one of their best character weapons.

Every character in your story should have unique a voice. This doesn't mean everyone should speak in dialect, the differences can be more subtle. For example: If what you want to say is, "The cat is in the tree and we can't get her down", there are a number of ways to get this information across.

A: "The cat's treed. No way to get her."
B: "The cat has managed to trap herself high in the boughs, and we've found her to be unreachable.
C: "Cat's up there. I'm not."
D: "The cat is in the tree, and there appears to be no possible rescue."
E: "Damn animal. Up in a tree. Well, she's gonna hafta stay there."
F: "What are we going to do? There's no way to get a cat out of a tree!"

And so on. Many ways to say it, many ways to shade it. Some have slightly different meanings, but most give you the same information about the cat, the tree, and the efforts to save her. But the voices are all different.

CHARACTER'S PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION

When it comes to describing your characters physically, we all have our preferences. Personally, it drives me a bit batty when, after something has been established, it continues to be repeated throughout the story. Constantly describing the color of eyes or hair, the size of someone, etc. takes all the 'power' out of the description. It becomes something easy to ignore.

So how do you bring back the power into these descriptions? Use them when they're important to what's going on. When they mean something. Don't constantly repeat, "blue eyes met green" or some variation of the same. The writer really doesn't need to constantly tell us what color eyes each character has, once it's been established. If you want to make note of the eyes, it's far more interesting to tell us something we don't know. What emotion are they showing? Are they laughing, sleepy, worried, passionate, showing crinkles at the edges, squinting in sunlight, and so forth. If they have changed colors, that's worth mentioning because it often denotes emotion. (My eyes change colors very noticeably, and it's often a barometer to what I'm feeling.) Always think in terms of giving the reader new information, not repeating something they already know.

There is also debate about describing your characters upon introduction. Personally, I hate doing it, because it tends to sound like a laundry list of attributes. But sometimes, one needs to, because many readers like to get a mental picture. Make this description an important decision. Don't just describe them, think of ways you can work it into the story, or make it more natural. And if you can't, then don't overdo. Give the basics and let the rest come out gradually, as the story is told.

If your character has something unusual in his/her physical description, use that as a way to describe your character without that laundry list feel. As an example, if she has a bad leg, you can draw that mental picture with that as a starting point.

"Jane eyed the stairs, then took a deep breath. Holding the rail tightly, she placed her right foot on the stair, then brought the left level to it. The crease between her eyes, chiseled by years of pain, deepened as she repeated this slow progress, step by step. Soon, her left hand gripped the railing above her right, as more and more of her weight was held by her muscular upper body, freeing her weak right leg of its burden. Finally, with one last push, she'd arrived at the top step."

Sure, you don't get eye and hair color from this, but you do get the beginnings of a picture. Something you can add to when Jane meets other people, looks in a mirror, and so forth. When it's important, another trait can be mentioned. Maybe she has startling blue eyes, and although she's convinced all anyone sees when they meet her is her disability, in truth, the majority are struck by these wonderful eyes. A character could say as much, and Jane can learn something (and so will your readers). Much better than just saying "she has blue eyes."

SUMMARY

Building interesting characters is very much like building an interesting story. It's important stuff when writing. And it's wonderfully exciting when your readers start to talk about them as if they are real. Just as people you meet can be fascinating, each with their own life stories, so must your characters be. Give the readers a trail of clues and insights into who they are, make them interesting enough to care about, and you've succeeded in creating wonderful, original characters.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Writing 101: Sentence Variety

WHAT'S WRONG WITH THIS STORY?

It's often subliminal. You're reading a story and you get a vague sense that there's something choppy and abrupt about it. Or perhaps you find yourself reading sentences over and over again, trying to follow the logic through a maze of phrases. Or maybe you sense something almost childlike in the rhythm of the sentences.

Chances are, the writer isn't paying attention to sentence variety.

It's easy to do. As a writer, you get into a pattern, and start writing in the way most natural and easy for you. The problem is that you can ruin the pace and appeal of your story even with something as subliminal as this.

CHOPPY SENTENCES

They're short. They're abrupt. They're easy to read. They're simple. And that makes your message seem simple. Not a bad device in a fight:

-------------
From the left came a crashing blow. Her jaw exploded with pain. She tried to guard herself. One arm came up. Too late. Death came quickly.
-------------

The sentences themselves take on the aspects of the fight. Sharp blows, staccato movements, the simple, unadorned reality of a fight to the death. But if your whole story is told in this fashion, it wears on the reader. It can be exhausting.

A tip: Read a passage out loud -- you can hear the staccato rhythm when you do this, so it's an easy check. And it's something that needs to be fixed.

RUN-ON SENTENCES

Sometimes, we want to convey the complexity, and the grandeur, of something so sublime, so wondrous, that we take our time in the telling, allowing our thoughts to dribble out in lethargic phrasing that appears to go on endlessly, never stopping, never pausing, just flowing unimpeded as we attempt to capture in words the uncapturable beauty of nature, the complex threads of two hearts intertwined, the somnolent creak of time as it meanders across the clock, or perhaps we're just idiots and can't figure out when to stop writing a sentence. Phew.

There are times when a run-on sentence is exactly what you want. You want the complexity of the situation to be reflected in the complexity of your sentence structure. William Faulkner wrote a book called "The Bear". In it, the first couple of chapters took place in the wilderness. There, the language and the sentence structure was simple. They reflected the purity and the genuineness of nature. Straightforward and real. The last chapters were set in the city. And to reflect the chaos of man's creation, he wrote it in run-on sentences that would go on for pages at a time. The language was complex and convoluted, the sentences were mazes of intricate meanings. It was a terror to read (especially if you were in high school and thinking of more important things like getting a date, or a part in the school play. Stop me before I tell you about the two mean boys who hung out by my locker and called me names).

You're probably not going to write sentences that last a page, let alone a chapter. Faulkner was doing it on purpose, but here's a word of advice: don't.

Run-on sentences are often confusing and when the reader gets jumbled and lost in a sentence, reading it over and over again trying to figure out what on earth you were trying to say -- that's a bad thing. You've lost your reader. Anything that takes someone out of the world of the story is something to avoid. [you're in the bedroom, Gorgeous Guy leans closer, his eyes half-closed in smoky desire -- d'oh! You're sitting at your computer and your left butt cheek itches and your eyes hurt and what in @#$#@$ tarnation is the author trying to say in this convoluted mess of a sentence?]

A tip: Again, read a suspect passage out loud. If you run out of breath (a normal breath) before the end of the sentence, chances are it's too long. And if you can make it, but by the end you sound like you're toking pot and rushing all the words together -- that doesn't count as doing it in one breath -- it's still too long. Divide it into two sentences. Chances are this won't even be difficult, because usually those overly long sentences are just two or more ideas smashed together.

SENTENCE BEGINNINGS

Few things are as awkward and childlike as someone who writes without any variety when they begin a new sentence.

-------------
Mary came to a turn in the path. Mary didn't know what to do. Mary thought about it awhile, so finally Mary decided to take the new route. Mary didn't know what she'd find, but Mary hoped it would be okay. Mary took a deep breath. Mary started on the new path.
-------------

Okay, so that's really obvious. Mary, Mary, Mary. Stop it. But what about this?

------------
Mary came to a turn in the path. She didn't know what to do. She thought about it awhile, so she finally decided to take the new route. Mary didn't know what she'd find, but she hoped it would be okay. She took a deep breath. Mary started on the new path.
------------

The problem isn't just repeating "Mary" all the time, is it? No, it's starting each sentence with a proper name or pronoun. The structure of the sentences is almost identical. It's much more interesting for a reader (and denotes much more maturity in the telling) if you get some variety in your sentence structure. Start some with prepositions, others with verbs. Mix them up, think of interesting ways to tell your story by manipulating the sentences.

----------------
A turn in the path stopped Mary. She didn't know what to do. Thinking carefully, she decided to take the new route. She didn't know what she'd find, but hoped it would be okay. Taking a deep breath, Mary started on the new path.
----------------

A tip: It may sound strange, but it's not a bad idea to randomly pick paragraphs of your stories and write down how each of the sentences begin. Noun, prepositional phrase, etc. Then see if you're building habits and patterns that need changing.

SUMMARY

Variety is the key. Short sentences, long sentences, simple and complex. Starting them differently, ending them differently. And all of this needs to be as seamless as you can make it. Don't draw attention to your 'artistry'. Don't fall in love with your verbosity, or point out your cleverness by throwing in something that sticks out like a sore thumb just because you think that'll give the appearance of variety. It has to be a part of your style, invisible, yet beautiful in that the result of this hard work translates to a rapt reader.

Everything you do when you write is an attempt to lead the reader from one sentence to the next. Sentence variety will help you achieve this goal.

My new book is here!

I received the copies of my newest book from my publisher today. It turned out absolutely gorgeous. Beautiful watercolor illusrations and fabulous book design from my publisher. I'm so pleased with it.

Compassion

I've recently been faced with a difficult situation. An individual burst onto several online sites in rapid succession and immediately began to make trouble, start fights, and paint the forums with drama and fits of rage. Each site deals with this sort of individual differently. But there is usually a consenus reached by the moderators that the new poster's presence is not right for the site. I'm not a moderator on any of the sites. In fact, I don't even belong to one of the sites. But for a reason I've yet to figure out, the difficult individual picked me as his personal arch-nemesis. He blames me for every bad thing he caused, for every negative reaction he has stirred, and for every consequence of his actions.

At first I was angry, because I didn't understand what was going on or why he was doing this. He would accuse me of terrible things that I didn't do. He would claim to have proof that I knew people that I'd never heard of. He would fly off the handle at statements I never made. He would call me evil and cruel when I tried to help him. It was an incredibly confusing and frustrating experience.

He turned his website into a tirade against me and then signed up for half a dozen blogs, all of which are dedicated to crucifying my character. He even assigned me "minions", i.e. people he thought I somehow controlled, even if I barely knew them or had never even heard of them.

I began to fear for my safety, as it was all so out of control and over the top. And still, I kept searching for the reason why.

The other day, I decided to do some research. I went back to the very first posts this man made (most of which I hadn't seen). Then I read the very first interaction between us. There was a contest on the site in question and the individual had read the rules incorrectly. He was arguing with everyone based on this incorrect reading, so I chimed in, politely pointing out that he had made an error in reading the rules. He exploded.

At the time, I hadn't any idea that this would begin a single-minded campaign of bitter back-stabbing and character assassination. I wish I knew then what I know now.

As I re-read all those old messages a bizarre but indisputable truth broke like water through a dam. There was one constant in all the online fights and arguments in which he took place. He always misread the notes that 'set him off'. Just as he misread the contest rules, every single time he erupted, he was arguing about something that wasn't written there!

An exaggerated example would be if I posted, "There's a lovely blue sky today", he would respond by screaming at me for hating trees. One does not lead to the other. His responses were to statements that only he could see. When I realized that this was the basic problem, it became achingly clear to me that the individual was not sane. Whether it's a chemical imbalance, or some crossed wires, he doesn't see the world in the same way most of us do. He does not follow the logic that the sane know and follow. He has a completely different kind of "logic" in his head. It's not one you or I would recognize, but to him, it's very real.

With this realization, I began to get an inkling as to why he was in such pain all the time. His suffering was almost palpable and finally, finally, I understood. I also realized that no matter what I said or didn't say; no matter what I did or didn't do, it simply wouldn't matter. There is no way to stop the juggernaut of his insanity. There is no way to defend my character against the ravings of a mad man. There is nothing I can ever do or say that will stop him!

So I had a choice. I could continue feeling angry and frustrated, or I could put those feelings aside and instead feel compassion for his pain. And suddenly, I knew that there was only one choice. That ultimately, compassion is the one, true choice in a situation like this.

It is not the easiest road. It is natural to react in hurt, anger, and frustration when seeing one's name sullied, dragged through the muck and mire, and called every imaginable name, assigned every base motivation, and accused of countless unspeakable acts -- none of which are true. I will not go into his accusations here -- you can read his blogs for that -- but there is very little truth in any of it. He, of course, thinks it all happened, just as he read words and ideas in posts that were never there.

Another great truth came to me as I struggled with this. To get past this, and to embrace compassion for the pain of another, I first had to have compassion for myself. I had to face those things that I had done, and forgive myself for them. I didn't get him kicked off any websites, but in my heart, I had wanted him gone. I did report some of his grosser transgressions to the moderators, but there was never any response other than "Ignore him". Everyone kept telling me to "ignore him." I tried that, but it didn't work. In fact, it appeared to inflame him further. He didn't stop; he just got louder.

So I had to forgive myself for wanting to feel safe and wanting the attacks to stop. I had to forgive myself for wishing him gone. And when he had pushed and pushed and pushed, and told lie after lie after lie, I had to forgive myself for having unkind thoughts about him.

And when I found compassion for myself, I was able to find compassion for him. He is in so much pain. He suffers so much. Even his soul seems to weep and I find myself praying that he can find surcease from his sorrow. I pray that he finds his way to a doctor and gets the medicine he needs to balance the chemicals or fix those faulty wires. I pray that he can find somewhere where he feels loved and needed and necessary. Where he can develop himself into the vision he has of his future. I pray that his suffering is replaced by joy.

I pray also that he is not a danger to himself or to me. I don't know if he is. I am not a fool, and therefore I will do what is necessary to protect myself. But I'm praying that he never does anything that could cause either of us harm.

I don't know that anyone will ever read this message. And unless I put his name in here, I doubt he will ever find it. I don't want to name him, because I fear that could be harmful to him. I will not do what he has done to me. No one deserves what he has done to me. Not even him.

Trace and Ilsa

In May of 1991, I decided to get a kitten. I had a new apartment; I wasn't with Bob anymore; I got my own place and he got custody of the cat. A pet adoption service, Lifeline for Pets, was holding an adoption day at a local pet shop. I went early. As each new batch of kittens came in, I looked them over eagerly. I talked to them, held them, cuddled and waited for a sign. Nothing. Where was my cat? Bob had come with me to help me look and he went back to his apartment having recognized that I was going to be there all day.

After hours of looking, I sat down on some sacks of food, despondent. I could have sworn my cat was supposed to meet me there that day. Cats are like that -- they have powers we can only imagine. And I had received a clear message to be there.

As I sat pondering the fact that maybe I'd just eaten some bad chicken and it had never been a message at all, I looked up. Clinging to the wire of her cage was a tiny black kitten with a white stomach, four white paws and a paintbrush at the end of her tail. Never saw a tail like it before or since. This black tail had a bright white tip and inside the tip, was a coal black center. I watched as this tiny acrobat climbed the walls of her cage, getting higher and higher, reaching for the wire ceiling just because it was there. The rest of her littermates were fast asleep, but this little one would have none of that. Not when there were things to explore.

I asked to hold her. The moment -- the very instant -- she touched my hands, I knew she was mine. And she knew I was hers. She adopted me quite clearly and wasn't going to let me go. Where other kittens had squirmed, this one snuggled and purred. Where others looked at me like a stranger, she looked at me as an old friend. I had my new best friend. Time to go.

But something held me there. As I was petting the black kitten, I looked up and saw the most adorable face I'd ever seen in my life. A little grayish puffball with black and white striping, she resembled her sister in many ways. She had four white paws and a puff of white (without the drama) on the end of her tail. Her eyes were huge and they stared at me, watching my every move.

I asked to hold her. Dammit! I came for ONE cat. And now I had two and I didn't know which was my kitten because they both claimed me, they both purred and cuddled, they both looked at me with unconditional love.

"Take them both," said a female voice.

I looked up to see the woman from Lifeline For Pets, standing over me, a knowing smirk on her face.

"Oh, no. I just want one," I said quite firmly.

"Yes, you told me. But we only do this on the weekend, and we need people to give foster homes to the kittens in between adoption days. If you'll just keep the extra -- whichever one that is -- until next weekend, you'd be doing us a huge favor."

You're laughing, I can hear you. But I was so blindly in love that I was willing to accept anything even close to logic, as long as I got to take both of them home. So I agreed. Foster home. Juuuuust a week. I signed the papers for both. Paid for both (donation, refundable next weekend). Got supplies for both. But I was only going to keep one kitten. Yup.

I called Bob, told him what I had done and he said, "I can't believe you got TWO cats!"

"I have one, the other is a foster cat."

He laughed for quite some time then managed to say, "Just keep telling yourself that."

Later that night he called, asking me how many kittens I had. "Just one, but I can't figure out which one. The lady at Lifeline said this would help me decide, by taking both, but it's really tough."

The next morning he called again, asking me how many kittens I had. "Two. I was a fool. Leave me alone."

It was probably, in all my life, the least foolish thing I've ever done. These two kittens gave me unmeasured doses of love and laughter and cuddles and kisses. I could be in the deepest depression, look at Ilsa's face and I'd be uplifted. I could be wrapped in dark clouds, hear Trace's tiny cry and that's all it would take.

Trace (the black cat with the dramatic tail) and Ilsa (the world's sweetest face) and I (the human) spent the next 5 years in a 3-way love affair. The two sisters groomed each other (and me), slept in a kitty ball (a tangle of limbs and tails that made me smile every single time I saw it), played with their favorite toy (me) and gave my every waking day comfort, affection, and laughter.

Ilsa owned the bedroom. It was her domain, and she summoned me there like the empress she was, when she wanted attention. It was no good to pet her in the living room, only the bedroom would do. Treats? They must be served on a down comforter. Games, toys, kisses, rewards, anything and everything counted only if it was done in the bedroom.

There were times when I would be diligently working on the computer for hours, rarely looking up, just concentrating on that day's project. Something out of the corner of my eye would eventually steal my attention. I'd look down and there was Ilsa, sitting patiently, staring at me, giving a small cry (actually, she would say my name. In cat. I can always tell my name). She would get it in her mind that I simply must come lavish attention in her throne room. The way to get me in there? By enticing me with toys. Every toy she owned would appear next to my computer chair, regardless of its size. She would find them, carry them to me, and stare at me, waiting for me to notice. One toy in particular was her "talking toy."

Trace and Ilsa both had a talking toy. No, the toy didn't talk. The cats did, through these toys. When either of the talking toys appeared, its owner had a serious matter to discuss. Immediate petting was called for, treats had to be served, and games played. In every way possible, I had to instantly reassure the bearer that she was the center of the universe.

The talking toys were also magic. They could conjure me out of thin air if I'd left the apartment. Many a time I'd go to the store, return and find that Trace's talking toy was on the couch, or Ilsa's was next to the computer. Anywhere I usually sat was fair game for a talking toy to materialize. They were magic. I know because every single time they appeared, I returned home.

When Ilsa was around five years old, she began to sneeze. The vet called it a sinus infection and gave her antibiotics. But she continued to sneeze. There were a lot of trips to the vet. And lots of vets (they were having a staffing problem). Ilsa was getting more and more tired of it. Medicines and poking and prodding and well, a girl can only take so much. Yet another vet walked into the examining room and he decided to take a sample from Ilsa's nose. He had one of those long q-tips and he started to go for her when suddenly, half the q-tip just vanished. I mean it was there and then it wasn't. Startled, the vet, his assistant and I all looked around -- on the gleaming steel table, on the floor, on our clothing, it was nowhere to be found. Then as one, we all looked at Ilsa. Very deliberately, she spat out half a q-tip, and then glared at the doctor. That was that. Nobody needed a talking toy to hear that message.

It took several vets and well over a year's time, but eventually, after a tiny growth was found in her nose, we got the correct diagnosis: Ilsa had a rare fungal infection. I gave her medicine, and it seemed to go away. A year passed. She started to sneeze again. More medicine. Three months clear, and then the sneezes. This continued. Each time we gave her more medicine ($500 a month the damn stuff cost) yet it was less effective each time. Then she grew listless and sickly, I raced her into the vet and she was diagnosed with chronic renal failure. The fungus had ruined her kidneys. She now officially had two fatal diseases. What an overachiever.

I have a friend who says our pets take on difficulties so that their owners won't have to. So if a cat or dog gets ill, they're taking on a disease that would have struck their owner. Not the same disease, but something equally bad. If so, Ilsa took into herself two deadly illnesses, so that I would be okay. Do I believe this theory? I don't know. I wouldn't put it past Ilsa to have done it, that's for sure. There was no creature on earth, animal or human, who looked at me with the kind of love those two cats held in their gorgeous green eyes.

But lofty theories really don't help the down and dirty practical side of caring for a sick pet, do they? Renal failure means only one thing: I had to learn to give Ilsa subcutaneous fluids. I lived alone so there was no one to help, and she fought me for a full week, unwilling to undergo the process (needles poking, water flowing between her skin and muscles, she hated it). Finally, I talked to her. Told her I needed her help. Had to have her help if she was going to live. The next time I tried it, she sat quietly and let me do it.

With the help of the sub-q fluids, the kidney problems were temporarily at bay. The doc said we caught it early, so she had another 2-4 years, with care. Care? No problem. I had all the care in the world.

For almost a full year, we lived happily, the three of us. I had a business taping audio books for amateur writers. I would sit on the floor, talking into my microphone and usually had two cats curled up in my lap as I did so. Trace and Ilsa talked on almost every tape, being just like me, they were total hams. Ilsa was especially fond of interrupting taping. Her small cries (my name again) can be heard on every tape I've ever done. I think she wanted to join SAG and AFTRA, so she was working on building her resume.

So the year passed, but all was not bliss. The fungus was still there. And this time, it launched a major offensive. Now came the worst of times. Like a cancer, this fungus grew in the membranes, causing tumors. It was out of control. We tried a new medicine and it almost killed Ilsa. We went back to the old meds, but they had lost their effectiveness entirely. Something else had to be done. Half her nose was blocked with a tumor and I was told that the next step was laser surgery. An expensive proposition. I needed money and fast, in order to give Ilsa her operation. So I killed my business so that I could get as many orders as possible and therefore get her taken care of. It worked. I made around $15,000 in three months – enough to pay for Ilsa's medicines, surgeries, and supplies.

In early December of 1999, she had laser surgery. It left her with half her nose intact, but a hole in the other side. The hope was that the fungus wouldn't be able to regrow very quickly. But within two short weeks, it was not just regrowing, it was doing so faster than ever before. Now we needed the nosectomy -- a complete removal of her nose. Horrifying. And the last chance. If this didn't work, there was nothing more. We'd already exhausted all the medicines. The holistic vets had nothing for her. Acupuncture, herbs, nothing would help. The nosectomy was it and there were no second chances, surgically.

So in January of 2000, I took her to the hospital. When I picked her up I recoiled. I actually recoiled. The surgery had left her looking like something out of a horror movie. She had a permanent snarl, with half her upper lip gone, a huge sore where her nose used to be, and eyes... well, eyes filled with love. She was still my beloved Ilsa and the rest could be ignored. I took her home and continued to care for her. Giving her sub-q's every other day, growing cat grass (a favorite treat), loving my little Quasimodo kitty.

And everything seemed to be okay. The vet said that no sign of the fungus had recurred at her two month check-up. He gave her a clean bill of health. I went home pleased beyond measure. I'd bought her some time. You see, she never acted sick or hurt or in pain. She played with her toys, snuggled, purred (it was a horrible sound, with no nose, but it wanted to be a purr. Took me a bit to figure it out, but it soon became music to me). She was a happy cat in every way, other than the damaged face.

In July of 2000, I noticed that her face was changing. The area around the wound, which had been healing nicely, started to bulge and bleed a bit. Tumors. Growing again. Out of control. Getting worse every day. Huge, scabbed, elephant man misshapen areas by her mouth and under her eyes. Oh no, no, no. I knew what this meant. Oh no, no, no.

I sat there, trying to decide if I had the guts to let my friend go. I knew what the vet would say. I had to hold her food for her to eat. I have to hold a cup for her to drink. The tumors were in the way. And they were growing.

I'd been waiting for two things. One, I had some money coming in but it wasn't there yet, and I couldn't afford the vet without it (he wouldn't bill or treat on credit). But that was just my excuse. The real reason was because I couldn't do it. I couldn't face letting her go when she still played with her toys, drank watermelon juice off my plate, ate her kitty grass and k/d pellets, summoned me with her talking toy -- in short, acted like a happy, healthy cat. I told her that she needed to tell me when she was ready to go. I would listen to her, I said. I couldn't do it unless she asked me to.

She didn't ask. When we went to the vet, he said, "I only kill animals when they're ready to die. Ilsa is not." Oh, joyous day!

The months crept forward, and Ilsa grew more frail. The tumors were still growing, but when I took her back to the surgeon, he turned me away. There was nothing he could do.

December of 2000 rolled around and I prepared for my annual trip to Wisconsin, to visit my family for Christmas. I arranged to board Trace and Ilsa at the vet's. Ilsa still needed her sub-q's, and a lot of care. I figured a vet would be the best person to take of her.

I went to the airport on Thursday evening for a red-eye flight. Unfortunately, the plane was grounded due to fog. After waiting for about 8 hours, they finally sent us home early Friday morning, with tickets for Sunday's flight (Christmas Eve). Later that Friday, I went to the vet's to visit my cats. I couldn't take them home because the vet was closed on the weekend and there'd be no way to return them before my flight on Sunday. So I played with Trace and Ilsa on the floor of the narrow space where the boarding cages stood. Both were overjoyed to see me, and Ilsa appeared happy and content. I hated saying good-bye, but the vet had to close.

I flew home on my much-shortened trip, and returned to L.A. on Thursday, the 28th. I had an absolutely terrible case of the flu, and felt barely alive on the flight. When we finally landed, all I could think about was picking up my cats and going home to my bed. I had a temperature, a raging sore throat, and no voice at all.

I dragged my body into the vet's and whispered that I was there for my cats. They told me to wait. It seemed to take forever. I kept begging them to just give me my cats so I could go home to bed. They said I needed to wait until the doctor had arrived. They hadn't expected me so early. I didn't see why I needed to talk to the vet, and again, begged in my whispery rasp that I wanted my cats immediately.

They took me into a small office and handed me a telephone. The vet was on the other end. He "regretted to inform me that Ilsa had died just a couple of hours ago."

While I was on the plane.

Flying home to her.

But she didn't know I was coming home, and couldn't hold on any longer.

My darling, adorable Ilsa was dead.

They asked me if I wanted to see her, and I said yes. They led me into a room and there she was – her frail body and ruined face lying lifeless on a metal table. Her fur was still as soft as I remembered. But her spirit was gone.

I took Trace home and wept for days. Trace refused to eat, or leave my side. Her sister had died in the cage they had shared, and I could only imagine how traumatic that had been for her. We were both wrecks.

What I didn't know at that time was that my lost voice was not due to the flu, but rather to something else. 2001 was my "Silent Year". I had no voice at all for a week, for a month, for several months – it was just gone. I had a persistent, racking, dry cough that drove me out of my mind. It was so violent I threw up several times a day, dislocated a rib, and had numerous strained muscles. My life had become a living hell.

I took solace and comfort from the presence of Trace. She was my anchor. She was my constant, loving companion. Her eyes never held anything but unconditional love. We clung to each other, the two of us.

As the months of silence stretched on, the doctors and the specialists were ready to give up on me. They tried everything – CT scans, MRI's, even exploratory surgery. No one could figure out what was going on. The surgery told them that my throat tissue was so swollen, it was sitting on my vocal chords. That's why I couldn't speak, had difficulty breathing, and coughed constantly (that horrifying dry cough where I was literally trying to cough up my own throat tissue).

After every test had been made and the doctors threw up their hands in defeat, I had a choice to make. I could go on being depressed (at that point, I was in a very deep depression and had been for months), or I could decide to rejoin life. I chose the latter. Within a week of this decision, I managed to find the source of my illness. That's right, me. All by myself. Without the doctors, and their useless tests.

I discovered that I was allergic to the blood pressure medicine I had been taking (which had been switched in late December of 2000). Not one doctor had ever thought to check my meds. Not my GP who had prescribed the damn things, or the specialist, to whom I'd given a complete meds list on my first visit. As soon as I got off that poison, my throat and voice slowly began to heal.

With that crisis passed, Trace and I could return to the land of the living. The next years were healthy ones for both of us. I lived alone and worked out of my home, so we were always together. As she grew older, she became more and more affectionate, always wanting to be held and stroked, and talked to in that special voice that I reserved for her alone.

She loved to be brushed with her Zoom Groom (a funky little plastic brush that must've felt like heaven on earth). At her insistence, I brushed her several times a day. She had rituals that I always indulged. If I was on the couch, she wanted to be brushed. If I was at the computer, she would drape herself across my chest and purr while I rubbed her belly, and she kneaded my arm with her paws. We made it all the way to December of 2004 without her having any problems at all. Such a healthy cat. None of Ilsa's medical woes ever touched her. The only times she'd ever seen a vet were during annual checkups.

But late in 2004 I noticed that she was drinking more water than usual. Having seen these symptoms in Ilsa prior to her renal diagnosis. I knew that I had to get Trace checked out.

The vet (yet another vet, a woman this time) took an x-ray and showed me that one of Trace's kidneys was tiny and atrophied. She didn't know if this had just happened, or if Trace had been living on a single kidney her whole life. As worrisome as this was, the vet also told me that although her numbers were a little high, she wasn't in the danger zone yet. That one working kidney was still doing its job. I didn't need to do sub-q's or anything all that drastic. I just had to change her diet. Trace had been addicted to Fancy Feast (Savory Salmon) and that wasn't any good for her. So we struggled with that one for a while. It was a battle of wills as she refused to eat any of the vet-prescribed foods. After a week of protest, and yet another variety (Science Diet Senior formulas) hunger won out.

All was well until early March, 2005, when she stopped eating again. At first I thought she was just pining for her Savory Salmon again. But after a few days, it seemed different. She didn't look good. Wasn't acting quite like herself. There were subtle signs, but to one as attuned as I was to her every mood and action, they were there.

I took her to the vet March 5, and by that time I was afraid. She really wasn't acting herself at all. The vet took a blood sample and we found out her number had skyrocketed. It was time to do sub-q's.

Once again, I fell into the routine of heating the Ringer's solution, holding my cat, putting a needle under her skin and letting the liquid flow. For a cat who had never had to endure anything medical, she was surprisingly well-behaved. Then again, it shouldn't have surprised me at all. We had such trust and faith in each other; we had such a strong, endurable bond of unconditional love, that it was impossible for either of us to ever feel anything negative about each other.

She just sat there and let me do it. A sharp meow was the most she would do. Otherwise, she would purr while I stroked her head and let me do whatever needed to be done.

After the very first sub-q, within an hour, she was her old self again. It was amazing. Not a thing seemed wrong with her as she leapt about, playing with a piece of yarn, or jumped into my arms for a belly rub.

The vet had given me some pills to stimulate her appetite. She wasn't as accepting of the pills as she was of the sub-q's. I managed to get a couple in her (and they really helped), but as the week progressed she got wise to my wicked pilly ways and continued to best me in the battle.

The morning of March 14 was like every other morning. It was a Monday, and I had decided to run an errand to the vet's to get a pill shooter (a device that looks a bit like a syringe. You put a pill in one end, put it in her mouth and push the plunger. The pill goes down and she never knows what hit her) and some more needles.

I did a routine check of my bank account first and was shocked to see that my checking account had been drained of funds. Someone had stolen my bankcard number (I don’t use credit cards, just a bank card) and spent all my money, and a lot more, gambling online.

I called the bank, talked to the fraud dept. and got their assurance that they'd clear it all up within a week. I grumbled away about this for a while, then called the vet to see if they had a piller. They did. While on the phone, I told them about what had happened to me, because I needed to buy less than a full box of needles. I only had $10 in my wallet, and a box cost $25. They said that was fine.

Trace was sleeping in the bedroom, so I gave her a quick pet and good-bye and went to the vet. The errand didn't take long, and I was back within 20 minutes. When I walked in the door, Trace was sitting in the middle of living room, looking like she could barely hold herself upright. I picked her up and she seemed to settle down a bit. I decided to try out the new piller, since I had her captive, and although she fought it, the piller won.

However, a few minutes later she began to look listless again. I figured she needed a sub-q. I'd been doing them around the same time every day, and it was due. I did the prep, grabbed her and gave her the sub-q. But when I finished, instead of leaping off of my lap as soon as the needle was pulled out, she just lay there, unable to move.

I started to panic, wondering if I'd done the sub-q wrong. Whatever the cause, she looked very sick. I grabbed the phone and called the vet. They assured me that it wasn't the sub-q. I told them I needed to bring her in. They hesitated. They knew that all my money had been stolen – I had told them. And now they didn't want me to come in because I had no way to pay them that day.

I argued, I was put on hold, more arguing, then I was given to someone else and promised them that I would get the money. I told them I'd borrow it from my Mom – I would do anything, but I had to bring in my cat because she looked very sick.

Finally, they let me come in. I drove over and the small parking lot was full. There was nowhere to park at all. I finally parked illegally in an alley and raced the cat into the office.

"Is she still breathing?" they asked.

I gave a quick check, and said yes. Someone grabbed her carrier from me and whisked her into the back. I ran outside to park my car legally, then returned to the vet's office. I was sent to an exam room and waited nervously for the vet. She told me that Trace was very sick. She was panting like a dog, and that's a very bad sign in a cat. She wasn't sure what was wrong – it could be a heart problem, or kidney failure, or cancer, or whatever it was, it was going to be bad. They put Trace in an oxygen tent to try to stabilize her so they could take an x-ray. I was sent home to find the $600 I'd need to pay for a day's care.

The vet called around 7pm to tell me that they had gotten the x-ray and everything looked fine. No cancer, the heart and lungs looked healthy and her best guess was that Trace had had a panic attack. Although this sounds crazy, I understood how it could've happened. We were so tied to each other, that Trace would often protest loudly when I left the apartment. I used to have a writing partner and she told me that sometimes when I left to run an errand, Trace would wander aimlessly through the apartment, carrying her talking toy and meowing at the top of her lungs in a desperate, other-worldly sound. It used to freak my friend out.

Perhaps Trace hadn't realized I'd left and when she came out of the bedroom, she had panicked. Or perhaps this explanation felt a lot safer than all those deadly diseases the vet had talked about.

The vet did say that her temperature was low, and that wasn't good, so she was being sent to an overnight vet who could watch her until the next morning.

At 9:30 pm, I called the overnight vet to get an update. Trace's temperature had gone up half a degree, which was good news, but they still had her in an oxygen environment, just in case.

Still, it was great to hear she was improving.

At 11 p.m. the phone rang.

"We're very sorry but a few minutes ago Trace went into cardiac arrest and expired."

And that's when my world collapsed. She was dead. Just like that. I didn’t get to say good-bye, or hold her and tell her I loved her. I wasn't there with her. She was in a strange place, feeling so terrible, and then she just... died.

I raced down to the overnight vet's place and they brought her body into a little room. Her eyes were open, and she was still warm. I couldn't believe she was dead. I stroked her fur and I swear I heard her purr. I watched her and thought I saw her breathe. I cajoled her to just get up. Begged her. Pleaded with her. Wept into her fur. She couldn't be dead. It wasn't right. It wasn't fair. She was getting better. She was fine that morning. The last time I saw her alive was that quick look into her carrier to assure the other vet she was still breathing. I never said good-bye. I just handed some guy the carrier. That was it. My last moment with her.

The tears just wouldn't stop. I finally dragged myself away from her (and was corralled by someone wanting to know how I wanted to pay my bill – I told them arrangements had been made with the other vet. I really wasn't in the mood to argue about money at that point). Somehow, I managed to drive home.

And when I walked into the apartment, it was silent and empty. That second heartbeat was gone. Those loving green eyes no longer sought me out. There was no warm bundle of fur to comfort me in my grief. This wasn't going to last for hours or days – this was forever. I'd never have her in my life again. I'd never get to brush her, or talk nonsense to her, or play games with her. There would be no more cuddling in front of the TV or purring belly rubs at the computer.

Her echoes are everywhere in my home. Her toys, her plates of treats, her dishes, her litter box, her favorite sleeping spots and bits of shedded fur form a tapestry of her non-presence.

Little by little, tear by tear, I'm doing my damnedest to accept that she's really gone.

****

In May of 1991, I decided to get a kitten. Instead, I got two. They were Trace and Ilsa. They were some of the best friends I've ever had. Their presence enriched my life. Their spirits will live forever deep in my heart.