Sunday, May 30, 2010

It is not the car.

I started this blog one year ago. It amazes me I'm still writing it, or that anyone reads it. The blog friends I've made makes it all worthwhile. I was going to write a whole big blog about it being the one year anniversary but instead I got a call from my sister, Nina.

"Can you come over around noon? I've talked Bruce, the man who overhauled the Buick, into coming out and checking the clutch and the transmission and maybe giving us a driving lesson."

I haven't driven the Buick since that disastrous day in February when I ground the gears and nearly took out a tree trying to turn without any power steering. I drove down to Oregon and screeched to a halt in front of my sister's house. Bruce, the grey-haired mechanic, stood beside an old Rambler station wagon, smoking a Pall Mall. He looked like an ad from the 1950s.

"You ready?" he asked.

"Have you driven it around to see if there is something horribly wrong with the transmission or the clutch?" I asked.

He took a puff on the cigarette, his eyes on me, and flicked it into the gutter, blowing out a cloud of smoke. "There is nothing wrong with the car," he said, his face hard.

I got a chill. "Well, then, sure. Sure. Let's go."

We got in and it took me about ten minutes to get it started. There are more floor pedals than a pipe organ and the levers on the dash and steering wheel are daunting. It finally caught and we jerked out of the driveway and all the way across the street, stopping just short of the curb. For the next few minutes I worked the shift out of reverse and into first. My father hadn't arrived yet and if you grind the gears when your father isn't there, do they make a sound?

With Mr. Bruce telling me when to shift, how fast to shift, when to double-clutch and when to downshift, I did pretty well. I made it back to the house and Laurent became the next student. While they were gone, my sister, Nina, arrived with my parents and we waited until we heard the Buick pull up. Laurent got out and Nina propped herself behind the wheel with a couple of pillows and my mother got into the back. Bruce stayed in the front passenger seat. They pulled out onto the street and headed for the corner.

"That was pretty smooth," I said. "She's doing a good job."

Grind. We could hear it a block away.

My father just hunched his shoulders and sank into a lawn chair. I sat next to him and we listened for the car to return. Neither one of us talked much but when we did it was mostly about the fact that it was starting to rain and he didn't think the windshield wipers worked very well. We waited. And we waited. My father shifted in his seat, looking down the road. I glanced at my watch every couple of minutes.

Twenty minutes later, Nina jogged up the sidewalk. My father groaned and I made the sign of the cross. "What happened?"

"We think we ran out of gas." She panted past us into the garage and dug out a red, plastic gas can. She shook it. It probably contained a half a gallon.

I pulled my keys out of my pocket and unlocked my door. "Hop in," I said. "Where is it?"

"In the middle of main road." The main road is only a 25 mph speed limit and lots of people drive little golf carts on it, so they are used to odd vehicles blocking the street. Mr. Bruce stood behind the car in the misty rain. He thwacked the stick--used to measure the amount of gas in the tank--in his hand while fat drops of water fell from his cap. When we handed him the nearly empty gas can he shook it, rolled his eyes, and dribbled it into the tank.

I grabbed the empty can and motored off to a gas station while he and Nina drove the Buick back to the house. When I returned, he helped us pour the gas into the tank and then he suggested we practice for a little while.

"So, you still think there is nothing wrong with the car?" I asked.

"There is nothing wrong with the car. Only the drivers."

Nina and I plan to drive it in a parade next week.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Don't Give Up and Don't Give In

Source:, Gdansk City Hall

When I began writing The Pirates' Reckoning, I had taken a couple of classes; one from author Carolyn J. Rose, and one from author, Lilith Saintcrow. The problem was that I didn't "get it." I didn't understand what they were saying was wrong with the first few pages I had written. I tried to fix it. I rewrote it dozens of times. After a while, I decided to move on with my book. I could always go back and rewrite the first few pages again.

By the time I joined a critique group, I had about seventy pages written. We'd meet about once a month and read four pages. The group got out their red pens and they'd tell me all the things that didn't make sense, word choice problems ("Melanie, your book takes place in 1805. The word, 'voyeur' is not that old. You cannot use it."), suggestions on making dialog stronger and so on.

It was gruesome. But I continued writing and reading it aloud. Finally, after I'd written well over one hundred fifty pages, I read page sixty to sixty-five aloud. When I finished one of the group put her pen down, folded her hands and gazed directly into my eyes.

"Melanie, what is it about your protagonist that we should like? I feel no connection with her. I don't particularly like her and therefore I don't care about her."

The others at the table stared down at their pens, picked lint off their sleeves or fixed their gazes on a crack in the plaster. No one defended her. If no one liked her after sixty-five pages, then no one would continue reading.

Here is my interview with myself:

Whoa....was that difficult to hear?


Did you give up?


Did you start another book?


Did you continue writing?

Yes. It is what I do, even if it is dismal. I worked on short short stories.

Did you drop out of that critique group?

Goodness no. What courage it took to tell me the truth. These were the very people I needed if I wanted to improve. Well, okay, so the truth is...I considered it.

What happened to The Pirates' Reckoning?

The characters plagued me. They picked at me. They usurped my thoughts. They stole my ability to write anything else. The longer I tried to ignore them, the more vocal they became. You've done well over a year of research to be able to write about a woman on a Royal Navy ship, they said, now write the dang book.

So what did you do?

I went to the beach. I painted the living room. I thought about my attempts to knit and decided never to try it again. I scuffed my feet as I walked for the next six months.

Then what?

I began to rewrite it. I took it from third person to first person. A few of the things Lilith and Carolyn had tried to pound into my head came knocking again, just outside my memory. Just outside my ability. By the time I rewrote sixty pages, I decided to take Carolyn's Novel Writing Boot-camp again, as a remedial course. Things made more sense the second time.

Did your critique group see a difference?

I didn't read it to them. I read other things to them, the short stories, articles. I got an article published because of their fabulous critique. But meeting only once a month and reading four pages wasn't enough. Although it broke my heart, I dropped out of the first group with the stipulation that I really wanted to keep in touch. We see each other at the monthly Vancouver Writer's Mixer. They will always have my love and affection.

After finishing Carolyn's second class, a group of us formed a new critique group. This group wanted to meet once a week, and we each read seven or eight pages a week. We were all about the same level when we got out of the class and we have all learned together. All of us have finished at least one book and we even welcomed an additional member of the group who is going gang-busters on her historical fiction.

You think changing to first person made it a better book?

I think I'm used to writing first person. I felt myself get closer to the protagonist. I'm there in the scene when I'm writing it. After writing a scene late into the night where the ship is tossed about in a storm, I actually suffered motion sickness when I went to bed.

But taking the remedial class really helped, too.

Does the new group like your protagonist now?

They say they do. And my beta readers smile when they talk about her.

Do you have any advice for other writers?

Phfffft. I'm sure they have better advice they could give me. But, having said that, as Lilith said, writing is like playing the piano. Very few can do it well without taking lessons and lots of practice.

One last question, why is your kitchen such a mess if you don't cook?

That's actually smoke damage from the fires I started when I used to cook.

Thank you for the interview. I think your book is great.

Thank you. It was nice being interviewed by you.

Editor's note: We are watching Melanie Sherman very closely to see if the self interview is something we should worry about.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Men and Women Think Differently

Artist: Auguste Bigand (1803 to 1876)
Title: TĂȘte de vieille femme

I'm no longer working in a closet. Although I miss the red fire extinguisher, there is much to be said for a cubical. I attended a class taught by the New York Times Best Selling Author, Lilith Saintcrow, in which she said to practice writing dialog by listening to people around you at places like an airport, coffee shop, grocery store. It wasn't so much that she suggested eavesdropping, so much as we were to note reflections in voice, mannerisms, facial expressions, and reactions.

I'm kind of an expert at overhearing conversations. I like to think it is because I'm a writer, but there are some (most of them relatives) who say it is because I like to stick my nose in where it doesn't belong. I'm going with the writer explanation.

Being in a cubical is fodder for blog posts. Really. Even for a non-writer, one can hear every word of every conversation in every surrounding cubical. For me it is torture. My fingers itch to take notes, not on a personal level, but as copy for an article.

For instance, today the woman next to me, whom I'll call Ronnie (not that she reads this blog, but just in case someone else does who knows her) was talking to another woman I'll call Angel.

"Men and women think differently," Ronnie said.

"In what way," Angel asked.

"Well, you know how women worry about aging?"

"And men don't?" Angel clipped, ready to defend a woman's right to worry about such things.

"Yes, they do, but in a different way. Women tend to worry about getting gray hair, wrinkles and lines on the face, age spots and sagging boobs."

"Oh. Well, yeah."

"Men worry too, but not about the same things. Last night, at our baseball practice, my husband said he has been thinking about having to join the "Over Fifty" team eventually."

Angel laughed. "No kidding? My husband came home from a fishing trip this weekend and told me he's afraid he might only have 20 or 30 fishing trips left in him."

Oh please. I worry about being attacked by bears. Some day if all I'll have to worry about is where on my scooter to strap the saddlebag for my oxygen tank, I'll think of it as a plus.

And why is it that men actually look good with white hair?

Okay. Time to get back to sending out query letters.

Saturday, May 22, 2010


English: Brood care of the Black Redstart
Nominated for Picture of the Year 2006
Photo by Stefan-Xp

My friend, Sandra Tucker, and I were discussing the birds in the previous entry the day after I posted. She said, "Can you imagine what happened when they got back to the nest?"

Wow, that is almost like saying "What is the worst that can happen?" to a writer. It was as if she straddled a Harley, hooked her heel on the lever, raised her body up and came down on the kick-start, firing the noisy engine into pulsating life.

So, the mommy bird arrives back at the nest first. The babies scream out their fear at being left alone. "Mommy, Mommy, where's Daddy? Why did you leave? I was scared."

The mother perches on the edge of the nest, offering comfort to the babies, but her head swivels back, searching the sky. "Hush now, my sweet ones, it will be okay." Her voice warbles with her own fear. Minutes tick by with only the sounds of her babies' soft whimpers and the drone of commuters rushing home in their automobiles. "It will be okay," she repeats. Perhaps she'll believe it if she repeats it often enough. She smooths out her wings and focuses her attention on the babies, cooing to them.

Then she hears it; the frantic flapping of wings displacing air. She jerks to attention and swings her head around, her wings spread over the defenseless babies. The small, sleek, brown body of her precious mate beats his way to her, unharmed. Triumphant. Joy fills her and she jumps to the edge, leaning toward him, beckoning him. He circles once, twice, flexing trim wings, puffing out his handsome breast, the sunlight catching the hint of color in his plumage. He lands on the opposite edge. The babies go wild, their rapture evident in their jubilant chirps.

"I was so afraid," she says, taking a few deep breaths.

He laughs and heaves a sigh of his own. "Yeah, when I saw that shadow cross the nest, I've got to admit my own heart went pitty-pat."

She smiles and moves around the edge, closer to him. "You were wonderful. So brave, so fearless. You saved our babies."

His beak dips into his wing and he picks out a bit of twig. "You weren't so bad yourself, my sweet. You jumped right in, chasing that filthy miscreant without any concern for your own safety."

She stiffens and shakes her head violently. "He threatened my babies. Nobody threatens my babies while I've got breath in my body. But, you were so on top of that pirate, like a warrior. Like a hero." She swoons nearer to him.

He dips his head toward her as the babies quiet down and watch their parents. "I guess we make a pretty good team."

"I guess we do."

They snuggle for a few minutes and smile at the babies. Then he straightens up. "Hey, do you mind if I go over to the wren's house? I want to tell them what happened."

She presses her beak together and hops into the nest, arranging her wings over the babies. "Sure. Go ahead. I've got things covered here."

Monday, May 17, 2010

Learning Little Lessons

Photo by Forest and Kim Starr

There are so many lessons to be learned. Sometimes teachers appear when you least expect them. I had the incredible luck to watch a dramatic scene at a stoplight today. As the wind carried a big, black crow in nearly a straight path, two small birds zigged, zagged, and harassed the predator, zipping up from behind, crashing into the beefy black wings, plucking at its tail, nipping at its head. The crow hunched his shoulders, and flapped them off, staring straight ahead while thrashing his way to safety. After a tenth of a mile, one of the small birds broke off the pursuit and beat frantically back the way she came, while the other continued his desperate dog fight.

Another tenth of a mile and the crow pulled out in the lead, his feathers ruffled and air whipping over them, his head still tucked in a defensive position. He slowed when he realized his enemy dropped back. But the small bird had been watching for that and heaved forward for another onslaught. The black jounced ahead, his wings cutting the air, buoyed by sleek aerodynamics while the small one pulled back and watched for a several fleeting seconds.
When he was satisfied the crow was in full retreat, the small bird turned and raced at full speed back the way he came with an economy of motion and an abundance of grit.

Even when a task seems too daunting, if you just keep at it you can accomplish anything.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

It is the Little Things

On my way to work on Thursday I saw this. I had to slam on my brakes, hang a U-turn, cut a left and jump out of my car to get the camera out of the back. As it turns out, this baby didn't want me taking its picture, because it turned it little backside to me and did this.

Everyone is a critic.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

What is the worst that can happen?

I bought a Garmin GPS at Walmart a few weeks ago. I feel so 21st century. Except, it doesn’t work well. Well, once you get the address punched in it works just fine, but getting it entered is a serious nightmare. I have to pound on the “Done” button like I’m driving a metal post into solid rock. I already took it back once and the new one is just as bad as the first. I’m really wishing I had selected the Tomtom.

I mentioned this to a friend and he shrugged and said, “Take it back again and get the Tomtom.”

“I can’t take it back again. Plus I've actually used this one and entered several addresses into it. Certainly they would refuse to take it back now.”

He rolled his eyes. “Take it back anyway and ask for your money back. What is the worst that can happen?”

People who ask that question do not write fiction. I sat forward and gripped my coffee cup. “What is the worst that could happen? I’ll tell you what the worst is than could happen.”

I placed the porcelain cup on the little coffee table and settled back in the wing-backed chair and told him the following scene.


I walk into Walmart and the clerk recognizes me.

“Didn’t you return your Garmin once already?” she asks, her eyes dropping to the GPS box.

“Yeah,” I say and heat infuses my cheeks. She sees it and presses home an advantage.

“So what is your problem with it this time?” Her eyes narrow into a glare.

“Same thing. When I press the “Done” key, nothing happens until I pound on it a dozen or more times.”

“Have you thought of reading the instructions this time? I noticed last time the instruction booklet hadn’t even been removed from the plastic bag.”

Thundering fires of Hades. Why hadn’t I thought to open that dang bag? I shrug and look past her at the shelves holding returned items and focus on something. She turns to see what I’m staring at and I rip open the box and attempt to open the instruction booklet bag. Her hand slams down on mine.

“Ha,” she says and her lips form a thin smirk of a smile. “I know your type.”

I hate being a “type” so I shake my head back and forth with earnestness. “No, no. I’ve seen a friend use his GPS, so I already knew how to use it.”

“If you knew how to use it, you wouldn’t have to return it a second time, would you?” Her hand disappears under the counter and reappears. A burst of light momentarily blinds me. She turns the camera around and shows me the picture of myself with my double chins and squinty eyes and the remnants of splotchy red color.

“I’m going to post this in every department. And then I’m going to enter it on “People of Walmart” website.

I’ve seen that site with people wearing pants that don’t cover their butts and shirts that end just before the bulging belly fat. Horrified I beg her not to post my picture on that site. Her head tilts and that drippy smile widens. With a breathy whisper she asks, “How are you going to stop me?”

Panicked and desperate I stammer out, “Okay, okay I won’t return this, okay?”

Foam forms in the corners of her mouth. “Not enough, Melanie Sherman.”

I reel back in horror. She knows my name. How does she know my name?

“Yeah, I remember your name from the first time you had the audacity to return the GPS."

“Okay, I won’t return it and I’ll pay you ten dollars.” I dig into my wallet.

“Not good enough,” she says. And then she recites my address. “Yeah, I got that off the one you returned. That was careless. Now we know where you live. And we know where your parents live."

It was true. I had picked up my parents for an outing to Walmart and entered in their address in the Walmart parking lot. The threat isn’t even veiled. She is telling me I’m going to “pay” for trying to return the devise.

“Okay.” My voice shakes. "How about if I just give it back and we’ll call it even. You don’t even have to give me my money back. You can just keep it.”

She fingers the box, spins it around, taps it with a fiery red nail. “Give me all your credit cards and cash. Oh, and that watch. I like that watch.”

“Okay, the GPS, the cash, my credit cards and the watch.”

She stares at me for a moment and her eyes drift down to my sunglasses dangling from my shirt. Her gaze raises slowly until it pierces mine. “And the sunglasses.”

I gulp. “They’re prescription. I can’t drive without--”

She picks up the phone and dials a number. I can hear the ringing in the earpiece. A husky voice answers. “She came back. I told you she would. You still have your gun?” she says into the phone.

“Okay, you can have the sunglasses,” I spit out, shoving them across the counter with my wallet and watch.

She grunts. “Okay, you can go. Just remember we know where you live.”


When I had finished describing this scene to my friend, he drained his coffee and nodded. “Yeah, maybe you just want to keep it. How often do you have to enter a number in the thing, anyway?”

Don’t ever ask me what’s the worst that can happen.

Editor's note: The above scene at Walmart is a random work of fiction.