Monday, July 14, 2014

Blog Hiatus

I'm announcing a temporary leave of absence from blogging. Keeping up with everything while recovering from my surgery is just taking too much out of me and I don't have much left for blogging. I could keep posting little nothing posts or skipping days, I suppose, but that's not fair to you and it just makes me feel guilty and stressed. Instead, I'm just going to acknowledge that I need to take some time off.

The abstracts and I will be back in four weeks. Enjoy the rest of your summer vacation!

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Flash Fiction: Under the Knife

PROMPT/CHALLENGE SUMMARY: We're actually combining two ideas this week. The first is a flash fiction challenge Chuck Wendig issued on his blog a while back, to write 1000 words in the form of ten little chapters. The idea intrigued me, but I didn't get around to it at the time. Every time I've thought about coming back to it, I just haven't had a prompt in front of me that seemed to fit. The second piece of today's story comes from my recent experience with surgery. Whenever I go through something big and strange, I try to write down my impressions of it immediately afterward. That way I can look back on what I went through someday down the road without having the memories colored by time and distance. When I sat down to write about my surgery, it sparked in my head that my experience was jumpy and this might be the right tale to tell over the course of ten little chapters. So it's not really flash fiction; I'm going to try my hand at some memoir writing today. Aren't you all excited!?!
(Source: Chuck Wendig's blog and my very own life)

CHAPTER ONE

"Are you sick?"

I could barely see our three-year-old's face in the light sneaking under the bottom of the door. "No, Mama's not sick. Mama just has an ouchie in her tummy and the doctor is going to take it out."

Her voice got very small. Very three. "Are you scared?"

I hadn't been. And then the thought that something could go wrong and this would be the last time I ever told her goodnight stabbed me right in the throat. I swallowed it, knife and all, and whispered a lie across the darkness. "No."


CHAPTER TWO

"Mama, you have a gate on your bed!" Our two-year-old stood on tiptoes and grabbed the rail of my hospital bed.

"Do you want to climb up here with me?" They hadn't started my IV yet--might as well let the girls get one last go of climbing all over me. Once I had stitches in my belly, the Mama Jungle Gym would be closed.

"You're wearing a blanket like a dress," the three-year-old observed, crawling over me and tugging at the bow holding together my hospital gown.

"Leave Mama's dress alone, please." My husband caught her little fingers before I had a wardrobe malfunction and flashed the nurse's station.

The pre-op nurse bustled in with a bunch of pills for me to swallow. I gave her my name and date of birth (again) and confirmed (again) what surgery I was having. Ovarian cystectomy, with possible salpingo-oophoorectomy, on the left side.


CHAPTER THREE

Sliding from the bed to the operating table was a challenge, particularly since I have all the coordination of a drunken elephant on roller-skates, but I managed it. "And then I rolled right off the table and landed ass-up on the floor!" would have made a great post-op story though.

The anesthesiologist's face hovered over mine. He held up a sheet of greyish-white stickers. "We're going to put these monitors on you, and then I'm going to give you something through your IV to make you sleep. You won't remember a thing."

He must have started the drip before he said that, though, because I don't even remember them putting on the stickers.


CHAPTER FOUR

I was back in the hospital bed. I got the vague impression of a human-shaped blur in green moving around me.

"Can I get you anything? Some ice chips? Or something to prop up your arm? I know IVs can get uncomfortable. . . "

I nodded, not really sure. My head was a bowl of thick soup. I fell asleep before she got back with the ice chips.


CHAPTER FIVE

I woke again when she pushed a pillow under my arm. Everything was still muzzy and covered in cotton. The pillow thing was nice though, so I didn't tell her I wasn't even entirely sure I had an arm at that point.


CHAPTER SIX

My husband and the girls came back in the afternoon, after some of the fog had cleared out of my head. I was still pretty slushy, but at least I was keeping awake open for more than a few minutes at a time.

My eyes took a fuzzy picture of the girls sitting on the air conditioner by the window, oblivious and giggling as their superfine hair floated above their heads and sunlight glittered around them.

My husband looked stressed and relieved at the same time, like maybe the creases in his forehead had gotten stuck during my longer-than-expected surgery and now his face couldn't relax all the way even though maybe it wanted to.


CHAPTER SEVEN

"You made some extra work for me yesterday." My doctor said after checking my incision.

"Yeah, I heard you had to take the ovary and tube," I said. A couple of the nurses had told me that. In quiet comforting tones, like they thought I would burst in hysterical sobs at the news.

No big deal, I thought. I've got a spare.

Maybe I would have felt differently if I hadn't already had two miracle babies.

"The cyst was bigger than we'd estimated. It was huge. Like a small football." She held up her hands to demonstrate.

Because apparently likening something she'd just removed from my body to sporting equipment wasn't quite enough.


CHAPTER EIGHT

My hospital stay was fine. People always bitch about hospitals, but I guess I'm just lucky. I was there for three days. It probably could have been a week or two before I'd have gotten twitchy.

My nurses were nice. The food was good. The bed was comfortable. I slept really well. (Though I suspect the painkillers would have seen to that no matter what the conditions.)

It was almost relaxing. Aside from the fact that sitting up too fast hurt like hell.


CHAPTER NINE

I leaned into the recliner, making myself go slowly even though I wanted to flop like a broken marionette. The doctor told me my recovery would be similar to a c-section, but without the added complications of taking care of a newborn.

Translation: it'll still hurt to do so much as take a deep breath, and you won't even have an adorable baby to distract you.

The three-year-old climbed onto the couch next to me. Apparently my husband had already explained the new no-climbing-on-Mama rule. "I'm going to help Daddy take care of you," she declared.


CHAPTER TEN

"Are you still having a lot of pain?" my doctor asked a week later.

I shrugged. "It's a little better every day. As long as I don't push it, it's really only the transitions that hurt. Getting up is tough, but once I'm on my feet, I'm fine."

She patted my arm and nodded. I guess I'd given the right answer. "That's good. And we got the results back on your cyst. It was completely benign. No cancer, as expected."

The paper underneath me crinkled as I relaxed, the last little stab of fear letting me go.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Renee's Reading: 2014-06-28 through 2014-07-04

Another week with just one book review. This recovery stuff is tough. I've been spending a lot more time sleeping than I expected, which would be awesome if I was just relaxing but instead it's because the healing and the painkillers are leaving me pretty much good for nothing else. It took a lot of determination to keep myself awake long enough even get through this one book and I was already halfway done with it when the week started.

The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak
The extraordinary #1 New York Times bestseller that will be in movie theaters on November 15, 2013, Markus Zusak's unforgettable story is about the ability of books to feed the soul.

It is 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and will become busier still.

Liesel Meminger is a foster girl living outside of Munich, who scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she encounters something she can't resist--books. With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, she learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement.

In superbly crafted writing that burns with intensity, award-winning author Markus Zusak, author of I Am the Messenger, has given us one of the most enduring stories of our time.

I had a very mixed reaction to this book. I liked it in many ways, but I found also it very unsatisfying.

I suppose a lot of that comes from it not being my usual kind of read. I'm not big on literary fiction. I read most of the time for entertainment and enjoyment as well as intellectual stimulation and I like best those books that stretch my mind and imagination in equal measure.

Literary fiction seems to run more toward writing for the writing's sake rather than the reader's. Books that are there just to be there don't really do much for me. I'm not saying every book needs to be a ripping good yarn or anything, but the story should, in my opinion, at least be mildly compelling.

This book, unfortunately, took me three months to finish. On a technical level, the writing was beautiful. Zusak does have a way with words, a talent for turning clich├ęs sideways and presenting description in unexpected terms. It just couldn't hold my attention. When faced with downtime and my choice was to pick up this book and read a little more or to do just about anything else, 90% of the time I chose the something else.

I've been giving it a lot of thought, because this story should have been compelling. This is a coming-of-age story about a girl in Nazi Germany. She's living out the very normal human story of adolescence in the midst of terrible danger. There are complex questions of loyalty and humanity there being mixed up with the boy next door asking for a kiss. That's a big, dramatic premise with a ton of potential on just about every level.

Plus, there's a lot of discussion in this novel about books and words and their ability to challenge and change us. I'm a writer and I love words and I believe very strongly in the power of them. So this novel should have appealed to me in that way too.

But ultimately it just didn't. And I think the culprit was Death.

Many people have complained about the "spoilery" way Death tells the story, but I didn't have a problem with that. The story is presented as a recollection and we rarely express our memories in chronological order. We don't usually bury the lede when we tell people our stories and I feel like Death would certainly think of people first in how they died and then second in how they lived. The "spoilers" didn't seem as much like spoilers to me as a function of Death's character.

(Plus, this is a story about life in Nazi Germany being told by Death. If you went into it expecting everyone to live happily ever after, wow did you pick the wrong subject matter.)

No, my issue with Death as the narrator is that he kept pushing me away from the story. The Book Thief is "about" Liesel, but it's really more Death's story than hers. As I understand it, he's trying to relate his time during WWII to us through Liesel's story, which I felt was a unique approach to the idea. And as a narrative device, it was very well done. Death's voice is very clear and his way of looking at things is just unusual enough to seem alien without being completely inaccessible.

But the use of Death as the narrator also wedged a huge amount of distance between Liesel and the reader. I wasn't as interested in her tale as I wanted to be because I wasn't close enough to connect with her. And Death, having been written as something "other", was also disconnected, leaving me with nothing to anchor my interest in the story.

WWII was a horrible moment in history and the fact that people continued to live and grow and sometimes even thrive in that time says amazing things about the very nature of humanity. Books can transport us into those moments and teach us things about ourselves in a way that nothing else can. I wanted this book to sweep me into itself, to make me relate to the characters and connect to them on an emotional as well as intellectual level, and come back questioning things about my own life and experiences. But it didn't. That narrative distance, while novel, kept me firmly outside the story.

On the rare occasions that Zusak did manage to close that distance and actually let the reader feel the story, it was brilliant. There was a scene at the end that had me tearing up. So the potential was certainly there. But for most of the story, I wasn't involved in Liesel's journey and I just didn't care.

Overall, I think it was a very well-written novel and it could be a good tool for study and discussion in an educational context. As a writer, there are bits and pieces of description that I want to take home and examine. But as a general work of fiction, it wasn't a very compelling read.


I'm really curious to see if any of you felt the same or if I'm alone in this reaction. Have you read this book? What did you think of it?

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Genre Assumptions and Expectations

I remember telling someone once that my ideal bookstore would have no labels on the shelves. Everything would just be lined up in alphabetical order by author's last name, with no divisions made between romance or horror or science fiction. Heck, I'd even put fiction and nonfiction on the shelves together, because I liked to read a little bit of everything and I didn't mind having it all jumbled up. In fact, jumbled up would make it easier for me to graze.

You don't have to tell me that, shy of actually opening it up myself, my ideal bookstore is never going to happen. Even if I did open such a bookstore, most of my customers would likely recoil in horror upon seeing the mixed up shelves. Most readers aren't like me; they don't want to read a little bit of everything.

Genre classification is a sales thing and I do understand its purpose. It's there to make it easier for the reader to walk into the library or bookstore and find just the type of book they want to read without having to look through every book out there or even talk to a human being if they don't want to. You can argue all you want about whether this is good or bad, but I don't think that really matters as the idea of classifying novels by type is pretty much well established and here to stay.

In some ways, it's good. I mean, as a reader, I get pretty ticked if a book turns out to be vastly different from what I was expecting. If I'm in the mood for a light happy romance about a sexy pirate, it is kind of nice to know I can go to the romance section and pick up one of about a bazillion books with a sexy pirate on the cover, and a sexy pirate will be ready and willing to take me on a wild adventure. My interest and my expectations match the experience and all is well.

If I opened that book and found a gruesome adventure novel about murder and pillaging on the high seas and chalk full of the disturbing and brutal conditions actually involved in most piracy instead, I'd be pretty unhappy. Even if it was a great story, it wouldn't have been what I wanted. So in that way, all the focus on genres can be great.

At the same time, I think genre classification can be dangerous too, because it shortcuts our thinking sometimes. It can become a crutch. I know I'm guilty in recent years of reading in only one or two categories because I'm comfortable there and it's easier than seeking out other types of books. In fact, I had to make it a project of mine this year, really trying to focus on reading outside my regular genres, and even still I find myself going back to the same spaces more often than not.

Plus, sometimes with genre there comes a kind of laziness in the writing. This plot point doesn't have to make sense because it's scifi, so technobabble! Or you might find a main character has lived a ridiculously sheltered normal life, having never expressed any interest violence, darkness, or blood, but of course she just happens to like getting bitten and having her blood sucked out, because the hero turns out to be a vampire and that's sexy. Um. . . what?

And whether we mean to or not, genre can also be used to send a message. How many romance novels are there out there that depict the alpha hero essentially stalking, controlling, and otherwise abusing the heroine? But it's okay because that's sexy in a romance novel. Never mind the fact that if you put the same behavior in a thriller, you've got an instant bad guy. I worry about how something like that, the fact that we accept stalking and abuse as "romantic" contributes to things like rape culture. Would the concern be the same if the book didn't have that genre label slapped on top of it?

Don't mistake me. I'm not suggesting these stories are all bad or that we should be censoring or anything. I believe that all stories are good in the general sense that they have the right to be told and heard and responded to. But I do sometimes wonder if we've gone a little overboard in the name of labeling and classifying everything. Maybe my mixed up bookstore idea wasn't such a crazy idea after all.

What about you? Do you like having every split up into genres? Or do you think they do more harm than good?

Monday, July 7, 2014

Abstract Thoughts: An Unexpected Research Opportunity

Writings of the Muse
As you may already know, it having been mentioned on this blog last week, Renee has recently had to take something of an unexpected leave of absence. All is well at the moment, but she did spend some time at the local emergency room a few weeks ago and last week she needed a bit of surgery.

She took her computer to the hospital with her, thinking the downtime would provide a nice opportunity to get some writing done. The painkillers had other plans and she instead spent most of her downtime sleeping.

But that doesn't mean the time was all wasted, professionally speaking. The timing was somewhat serendipitous.

You see, the victim in Guardian happens to have been a nurse. Several of her friends, and thus potential leads and witnesses the main character encounters during her investigation are also nurses and doctors. Renee and I are working on writing a number of those investigative scenes now.

And thanks to her many recent hospital hours, Renee has spent a whole bunch of time talking to a wide variety of medical professionals. Because she's a clever girl sometimes, she made an effort to rise above her introverted nature and chatted with them quite a bit about their lives.

It helped that apparently painkillers, in addition to making her sleepy, also make her quite chatty. Who knew?

We didn't plan it this way. The characters in question have all been hanging out here in Renee's imagination since long before her current medical issues developed. And I'm not saying that any of Renee's doctors and nurses will be walking onto the pages of Guardian anytime soon.

But there might be bits and pieces. A funny conversation overheard here, an interesting description there. The sights and sounds of the different parts of a hospital. The smells. That kind of thing.

Whenever people ask writers where they get their inspiration, I have to just shake my head and chuckle. Inspiration is everywhere, people. You just have to remember to look for it.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Flash Fiction: Mom's Morning Tea

PROMPT/CHALLENGE SUMMARY: It might look like there's a theme going on with this post and last week's, but I promise that it wasn't intentional. (Which I suppose might actually be worse. . . ) I wrote this one a little while ago on one of those days when I just really felt like I needed to finish something. So I gave the random writing prompt another go and eventually came up with "250-300 words / female character - under 18 / brewing tea". That sounds. . . short and potentially sweet. Or not. *evil grin*
(Source: The Almost Totally Random Writing Exercise Generator)

My family has an unofficial morning routine worked out, all of us dancing around one another so everyone can get a hot shower and then get out the door on time. I'm always awake first; I eat my cereal in the half-dark before anyone else gets up.

Eventually, Dad will shamble out for some coffee. My parents don't eat breakfast. Apparently it's only the "most important meal of the day" until graduation.

We make small talk--well, he talks and I mostly don't answer--until his first cup is gone. Then he turns on the burner under the teapot, sets out a mug and a teabag for Mom, and is gone, off to claim his allotted shower time once she's done with hers.

Their choreography is elaborate, him getting ready in bits and snatches around her endless parade of primps and preparations. Dad could probably go from dead asleep to out the door in under five minutes, with four of those devoted to drinking his coffee, but she won't emerge from their bathroom for at least an hour.

She can't even drink her tea without full makeup and styled hair. She got her eyeliner tattooed on last summer, so she'll never be caught without it.

Oh, sorry, I mean because it's more convenient.

The teapot starts to whistle and I carry my breakfast dishes to the sink. It shrills on, getting louder all the time, as I rinse out my bowl and cup. Eventually, just before she starts cursing and comes galloping out to get it before it wakes my sister, I flip off the burner and fill the mug Dad left behind.

They've never asked me to make the tea for her, but sometimes one of them will say thank you.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Renee's Reading: 2014-06-21 through 2014-06-27

Because I knew I was going to be in the hospital this week, I spent most of last week running around with my hair on fire trying to get everything ready beforehand. Because, you know, when you're recovering from surgery, it's important that the house be perfectly cleaned and all the laundry be caught up. . .

Anyway, I was busy last week and so I only managed to read one book. :-(

But it was a good one! :-)

Until We Touch, by Susan Mallery
After a family tragedy, former football hero Jack McGarry keeps the world at arm's length--a challenge now that his PR firm has moved to neighborly Fool's Gold.

Larissa Owens knows where she stands--Jack's her boss, not her boyfriend. No matter what her heart says. But then Larissa's big secret is revealed. . . by her mother!

When Jack discovers Larissa's feelings, her touch suddenly becomes tantalizing, and he's not sure he wants to resist. But if he gives in to desire, heartache is sure to follow. Friendship or true love--will Jack go for the ultimate play?

Three Susan Mallery books in three months. Whew! I just found this series last year and binge read the whole thing in one go, so I'm not used to the back-to-back release structure yet. I can't decide if I like it or not. I mean, yay for another fun new book to read, but I feel like I just reviewed the previous title last week.

Oh, wait. . . that was just last week.

Anyway, since this has apparently been the regular pattern for this series for a while now, I don't suppose my mental floundering is going to make a darn bit of difference to anyone, so let's just move on with the review.

This wasn't one of those powerhouse drama romances that's all instant attraction and uncontrolled emotion. Jack and Larissa have known each other for too long and neither one of them is emotionally available enough at the beginning for something like that. Compared to some of the other novels in this series, their romance felt almost. . . klutzy. There aren't really big fireworks here; they just sort of stumbled into being in love with one another.

I needed something light and fun to relax with and this book hit the spot. There were some good bits of humor, a healthy dose of sexy, and just enough sweet to balance the whole thing out. This was a nice easy read that made me smile.


I feel like I ought to have more to report here. I know one book in a week is plenty for most people, but I'm used to having three or four reviews to write. Oh well, one is better than none and perhaps next week will be better. How's your reading life these days? Spot anything interesting out there on the shelves?

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Nothing to See Here

As you may or may not have heard, I'm clocking a little hospital time this week, so there's no blog post today. Sorry!

In related news, I optimistically brought my netbook with me in the hopes of getting some work done during my medically mandated down time. Of course, once I'm done with the pain killers I might discover I just wrote 10,000 words about snakes with blonde hair. . .