There are two things I have tried and tried over my lifetime, that I have proved over and over again that I am no damned good at. No matter how I apply myself, and even though every once in a while I have small successes, in the end, the best I can hope for is… mediocre.
Those two things are gardening and cooking.
The cooking part is easily explained. I have a lousy sense of smell and thus a poor palate, plus I’m allergic and/or sensitive to many yummy foods. So while I can follow a recipe, true mastery of the culinary art is forever beyond me. (Which, by the way, does not prevent me from idolizing Gordon Ramsay, and learning from him)
There is neither reason nor excuse for my black gardening thumb. I come from a line of people who can stick pencils in sand and grow palm trees. I can see what others do, I can follow directions, but the ability to grow a garden eludes me. And pray for any poor houseplant who makes it way through my doors. Its days are numbered and it will, without a doubt, meet some sort of gruesome end.
Julia Rachel Barrett, on the other hand, is both an excellent cook AND a gardener. Don’t believe me? Look here and here and here and here. And if you want a good laugh, look here. I won’t post a bunch of links to her articles about cooking, but you can follow her blog for some yumilicious ideas.
Am I jealous? No! Okay a little bit. Mostly I am inspired.
And so today, after watching the extended weather forecast closely, because this is Colorado where sunny, 80 degree days are often followed by three feet of snow days, I decided to make attempt #1,732 at growing something in my garden plot.
First I had to find gloves. In the garage. The old man’s domain. I love the guy, have put up with him for 30+ years, but he is … untidy. (okay, that wasn’t the word I was looking for, but this is a family blog). 48 pairs of gloves and none of them match, but I found some with heavy leather pads so I could clear out the pine straw and pine cones and prickly weeds. (Remember the allergies? I can’t touch many green things.) Then I dumped in some fresh soil and worked it in with a spade.
All I planted were a pair of artemsias, a Russian sage (started from seed in Colorado, so should be tough enough) and a kalachoe. I know, I know, kalachoe is a houseplant. My daughter-in-law gave it to me for Mom’s Day, and the poor thing faced torture and death inside my house, so I figured it would have a much better chance outside. Pray for it.
I also replanted my rocks. I do pretty good with rocks. I’ve only killed six or seven, while the rest seem to thrive.
I don’t know what that rock is, but it about 8 inches in diameter and weighs about ten pounds, twice as heavy as what you’d expect. I pretend it is a meteorite and has traveled the Universe.
Long ago, somebody decide a glass cactus was a good gift idea. It’s not. It collects dust and I can’t count how many times it’s drawn blood when I’ve touched it. So outside it goes to protect the drusy quartz and antique iron birdbath.
I have never been able to find a hose that fits right on this spigot. They all dribble and spray. So I built a dam of nifty rocks (the two in the back are covered in fossilized sea shells) so water doesn’t dig holes or drown the artemsia.
Russian sage grows well in Colorado. You see it everywhere. Drought resistant, doesn’t seem to mind the abuse of insane weather shifts, and when it’s full grown, it’s beautiful and smells great. It’ll bring the bees and hummingbirds. I don’t think deer like the taste. Big plus. Notice the rotting pot? I am enchanted by decay. I love to watch things slowly return to the soil and find the process quite beautiful. It seems like the perfect perch for my little pot of pretty stones.
I am so inspired by how nice it looks, I want to do some more. When I run to pick up dog food, I’ll find some flowering annuals and stick them in. The deer will probably get them, but they’ll be nice while they last.
See, Julia? I can garden, too!
The very best part about watching AMC’s The Walking Dead was all the dishing with my buds afterward. Every week, the emails, chats, and blogs would heat up for in-depth (and often insane) conversations about the characters, the plot lines and what would we do in a zombie apocalypse. Over on Julia’s blog we discussed heroes: Team Shane and I’m Stickin’ To Him. Julia also wrote an interesting article about ensemble casts: Why An Ensemble Cast Matters. Even my friend, Penny, she of martinis and reviewing romance novels fame, got in on the act with her post: “Tonight’s as good a night as any.” Then, after the season finale (which was one of the best episodes of the entire season), my friend, Marina, posted about her love/hate affair with TWD (beverage alert–put down the coffee cup before you read this post): Stagger Back To Me, Walking Dead!
Our obsession reached a point when we were talking about staging a coup against TWD writers and taking over the show.
Need I say that we’re going through some withdrawal right now?
Friends! Zombie junkies! Look what fell into my email box this morning.
You’re a stuffed bunny and it’s the end of the world.
Between you and safety are forty or fifty zombies gorging themselves on the flesh of the living. If you disguise yourself as one of them and try to sneak past the feeding frenzy, turn to page 183. If you grab a tire iron, flip out and get medieval on their undead asses, turn to page 11.
Zombocalypse Now is a comedy/horror reimagining of the choose-your-own-ending books you grew up with. You’ll be confronted with undead hordes, internet dating, improper police procedure, and the very real danger that you’ll lose your grip on reality and wind up stark raving mad.
With 112 possible endings (at least 7 in which you don’t die) the zombie apocalypse has never been this much fun.
Thanks for the head’s up, Matt. Best laugh of the day.
So here’s the history. I’ve read a bazillion romance novels (and wrote quite a few, too). A few years ago, I got burned out and stopped reading (and writing) the genre. Much of the reason for the burn-out, I’m sure, is because the genre was so popular. The trouble with popularity is that it makes publishers more conservative, more inclined to keep publishing the same thing over and over again so then writers have to hustle to fit within the increasingly restrictive conventions while trying to write fresh stories. (which sadly, is not a phenomenon unique to the romance genre) The results of which are stories that have a formulaic feel and similar casts of characters, but are at the same time filled with tricks and gimmicks in an effort to keep readers interested. I don’t like tricks and gimmicks or stock characters. Quite frankly, the trend toward sexier and sexier novels puts more and more emphasis on the sex and less emphasis on the emotion. At the risk of bringing a lot of shit down on my head, in my opinion the current crop of romance writers know a hell of lot about sex, but not much about romance. Without a powerful core of emotion, it’s not romance, it’s a sex book.
I grew up reading Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt, Frank Yerby, and Daphne du Maurier. Classics like The Scarlet Pimpernel, the Count of Monte Cristo, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, were grand adventures, but at their core, they were pure romance. I gobbled up the Bronte sisters and Gone With The Wind. I read the Angelique novels and Forever Amber. I remember vividly when bodice rippers hit the shelves (and yes, m’dears, they were bodice rippers in the most literal sense and I absolutely adored every purple-tinged word). Kathleen Woodiwiss’s, The Wolf and the Dove was the novel that made me want to write a romance novel of my own.
Despite giving up on the romance genre, what always grabs me by the throat when I’m reading other genres, are the love stories. Charlie Huston’s Joe Pitt novels are bloody, violent, and profane, but what holds the entire series together is the love story between Joe and Evie. I can’t imagine any romance hero more romantic than a guy who’ll start a war for the woman he loves. I’m a huge fan of Andrew Vachss’s Burke series. I like Burke for his smarts, for his angst and obsessions, but I love him for his doomed romances with Flood and Belle. I read Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter novels for the monsters and action and craziness, but what really hook me are the love stories between Owen and Julie, and Earl and Heather. And what about Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos and his very tough love affair with Cawti?
Give me a guy who’ll battle gods for his lady and a woman who’ll get up in a horny guy’s face and state, “Prove you’re worthy of me, buck-o,” and that, my friends, is true romance.
That’s a rather long-winded intro to what I truly want to talk about. See, I’ve been having conversations with a friend of mine, Julia Rachel Barrett. She writes mostly erotic romances. I’ve never been a fan of erotica. Lady Chatterly’s Lover and Robin Schone’s, The Lover, are the only erotic novels I count as faves (and they’re faves for reasons other than their eroticism). I like to read on intellectual and emotional levels, and I don’t particularly care for novels that have a physical effect. That’s not a judgment, just a preference. Anyway, despite Julia’s and mine divergent tastes, turns out we’re both hard-core romantics. I sent her some of my Harlequin Intrigues and she sent me a novel of hers, which wasn’t erotica, but a paranormal romance. Turns out she really liked one of my books, but the other is scaring the piss out of her (I’m very sorry, Julia). I really liked her book. Only it had one of those unintended consequences. It gave me a lightbulb moment. Or, more accurately, a “duh” moment.
Indie publishing is where I can find romances I love.
The novel Julia gave me was Incorporeal, a paranormal romance she indie published. In it she asks a most intriguing question: Is happily ever after possible when you fall in love with a ghost? Such a question goes straight to what makes writing and reading most fun for me: Dangle hope in front of characters, and then when they grab it, squash them like bugs. Heh. When I finished reading the novel, I had two thoughts. One, I really liked the story and I’m glad she’s writing a sequel, and two, no traditional publisher would have touched this because it doesn’t have stock characters and it doesn’t fit within the conventions. It is a very sexy book, but it’s emotionally charged and the emotion drives the story and that makes it a most satisfying romance.
Because romance has been on the back-burner, it hadn’t occurred to me to seek out self-published romance novels. But there have to be writers out there who are writing old-school romances (old-school, for lack of a better word). Stories that focus on emotional issues instead of sexual hijinks. Stories that ask intriguing questions and contain true suspense that rises from what look like impossible or unbearable situations. Maybe I can find heroes who battle gods for love and women who are womanly enough to insist those guy-guys act like real men.
(sidenote: as the romance genre rose in popularity and gained power in the marketplace, it was attacked and derided from almost every quarter to the point where many fans were shamed into using book covers so people couldn’t see them reading those books. My theory for the real reason behind the visceral reaction is that in romance novels the women always win. Chauvinist and sexists do not like that one little bit.)
So where does the bad influence come in? I thought I’d given up on writing romance novels. Truly. That ship had sailed. I’m writing other things, exploring other forms and genres. Only now, between the discussions with Julia and reading some romances, the fire has been rekindled. It wasn’t the genre I was sick of, it was the battle to fit my square ass into publisher defined round holes.
I don’t have to do that anymore. I can write old-school romances of the type I love and maybe, just maybe there are readers out there who’d like it. I can find old-school romances to read, too, in the ranks of the self-published.
So thanks bunches, Julia. You’ve exposed my inner romantic and kicked her out of the closet and back into the world.
Discovered: via conversations with the author
Purchased on Amazon for my Kindle, January 17th, 2012, $.99
I resisted ebooks for a long time. I’ve been using a computer for writing since the 1980s, but that doesn’t mean I like reading on the things. I spend enough hours in front of a lighted screen to turn my eyeballs into quivering jelly. And they expect me to read for pleasure on a computer? Besides, I love printed books. I love everything about them from the way they look to the way they smell. Reduce a book to bits and bytes? No way.
But then I got interested in indie publishing and I had to see what the fuss was about. So I bought a Kindle. I will not say it was love at first sight. It wasn’t. It’s not the same thing as reading a printed book. I had to learn how to maneuver it to use it properly (and at my age, there is a measure of resentment anytime I have to learn to do something I’ve been doing just fine for decades). I did get used to it. I know I’m entrenched now because just last week I was reading a rather weighty tome while lying in bed and my hand cramped because of the awkward way I had to hold the book. I thought, “Shees, this wouldn’t have happened with my Kindle.” I’ve also discovered that the Kindle is much better for reading while I cook (Cooking bores me, so while things are simmering or steaming or whatever else that involves just standing around watching pots, I read a book. The Kindle, bless its sturdy plastic casing, takes splashes, spatters, greasy fingers and cake batter in stride. Additional bonus, my cats don’t chew on the Kindle and while they do like to lie on it, they’ve yet to figure out how to do it harm.)
The very best thing I’ve discovered, thanks to my Kindle, is the resurgence of short stories. I’ve always loved short stories. It seemed like every magazine I read as a kid had at least one piece of fiction in every issue. There were zillions of monthly and bi-monthly magazines devoted to genre fiction. The very best writers, the mega-writers, wrote short stories for the top magazines. Writers could make nice livings just writing short stories. That changed. Magazines realized they could make more money with advertisements than they could with fiction. Genre digest after digest folded or merged and eventually became sad little shadows of their former selves. Rates for writers dropped. Publishers decided novels were the money-makers and yeah, some writers were able to publish collections, but usually only after they’d become bestsellers with novels. Short stories faced the fate of poetry. Something only artists did, in their spare time, when they weren’t working a “real” job and nobody was expected to make a living at it. If a genre writer was bursting with short stories to tell, his options for publication were limited. He could write novels and hope his publisher took him seriously enough to invest in a collection. He could hope to be invited to contribute to an anthology. While short stories are still being written and published, they aren’t the ubiquitous purveyors of ideas they once were.
From a writer’s perspective, short stories are pure delight. Other than the requirement that they be, you know, short, there are no hard and fast rules. Short stories can be tightly plotted or dispense with plot altogether. They can be snippets, character studies, an exploration of a single, “What if?” or a slice of life. Short stories are a great way to play with a style or just have fun with language. Short stories are about ideas. Big, small, important, trivial, dark, light and everything in between. Hell, Ernest Hemingway supposedly a short story in only six words:
“For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”
Unfortunately for writers, as the markets dried up, writing short stories fell into almost hobby status. Forget finding a market that paid good money, try finding one that paid at all.
Then came the rise of indie publishing and ebooks. Writers have discovered a whole new market by publishing short stories direct to readers. Writer after writer is indie publishing collections and stand-alones, all for a very low price. Because they can make money at it, they have incentive to keep doing it, which means the variety and selection will continue to improve and everybody is happy.
This reader thanks them and Kindle and Amazon and every other outlet that makes it possible for me to find short stories. In the few months I’ve had my Kindle, I’ve purchased a ton of singles and collections. A few of the stories were freebies. Gifts by writers to their readers. I haven’t paid more than five bucks for any of them (and no, I don’t need to hear from you jokers asking how many novels that has led me to purchase, so how much money am I actually saving, hmn? Just shut it.)
The .99 cent short story is pure heaven. Because the cost is so low, I’m comfortable trying out new-to-me writers. I can explore genres that have been neglected by publishers. I no longer have to buy a hardcover at twenty bucks for an anthology in which I’ll probably only find one story worth reading. I really like that a lot of my favorite novelists are taking advantage of ebooks to put out short stories.
Here are a few I’ve really enjoyed:
Weird Fantasy: Irregular Creatures, collection by Chuck Wendig.
Horror: Blood is Red, collection by Scott Sigler
Horror: Specimen 313, by Jeff Strand (FREE!)
Zombies!: The Undead: Zombie Anthology, by David Wellington and many more.
Psycho Horror: Head Cases, anthology by Scott Nicholson and many more.
Horror: Pickers and Pickled Punks, collection by Marina Bridges (I’m biased here since I edited this collection, but they are really good stories or I wouldn’t have edited them)
Literary: House of Skin, collection by Kiana Davenport
Mystery: The Burglar Who Dropped in On Elvis, by Lawrence Block
Women’s: Is It Spicy?, by Julia Barrett
Mystery: The Night and The Music, collection by Lawrence Block
Not every short story or collection I’ve found has been a winner. But I have unearthed enough real treasures to turn me into a short story fiend all over again. Thank you, Kindle.