Christmases Past: an excerpt from “Flashbacks (an unreliable memoir of the 60s)”

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Christmas was always a big deal for my family. My mother might not have believed in the God of the Catholic Church (or any other conventional definition of “god”, for that matter), but she knew what joy was and how to expand it, how to transmute it into a living thing. Any occasion would do, but Christmas made it easy.

Preparations began after Halloween (another favourite holiday) and inched its way through carefully orchestrated stages to a crescendo of barely-contained excitement and anticipation; a stringing together of traditional customs and zany, goofy rituals she created, into a seamless fabric of happiness.

There were coloured-paper and threaded popcorn-and-cranberry chains and handmade woolly socks in red and green that joined with Santa Claus traps[12], rewritten Christmas carols, and stories featuring our own imagined characters “The Christmas Piglets”[13].

There was the annual and always theatrically overdone production of whatever Shakespeare play, ancient fairy tale or historical event my mother felt inclined to that year, invitations to which evenings were much sought after by friends, and then it was strangely echoed by attending Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.

There was the deliciousness of tortierre, sweet potato pudding and turkey with sage stuffing, the magic of Japanese oranges, the heady sweetness of chocolate Santas, the buzz of Secret Projects and the sudden arrivals of long-lost friends from parts unknown.

And then, there was The Day itself which never disappointed, and there were all the days leading up to it that created a sense of both chaos and order, equally amazing in their turn. It was, in short, the best time of the year because she made it so.

 

Footnotes

[12] These were mousetraps, carefully decorated with glitter and ribbon, and baited with bits of candy cane. When I was very small, my mother would spring the traps after I was in bed, and use my father’s galoshes to make ashy footprints leading from the fireplace to the tree and back again. Apparently, I went utterly insane with joy at the sight of this on Christmas morning.

[13] I can’t describe this. Trust me: they were loud, vulgar, lovable and occasionally sort of gross

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Who’s in charge here anyway?

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I’ve written before about how I think a lot of writers ask the wrong questions.

Like here: https://morgansmithauthor.wordpress.com/2017/02/25/how-should-my-character-die/

It’s a serious problem.

Because it feels as if the writer asking thinks there is a “right” answer to things that someone who is not the writer should be able to tell them.

From “What should I name my Main Character?” to “Should the villain be allowed to have a pet?” – writers keep asking other people to do some serious heavy lifting for them.

First off, there is rarely One True Answer to any writing question…even the thing about “Use ‘said’ as your only dialogue tag” comes with editorial caveats, because there are occasions when that is not the answer at all. (But – mostly it is. Never mind what your grade nine English teacher told you. Unless they were a working editor for a major imprint, they have no more idea what editors like than you do, and very likely, a whole lot less.)

The writer should LOVE naming characters (and have an idea about how to do it. I mean, at the very least, you can google baby name sites, right?).

Writers should know their villain so thoroughly that they know that the meanie has a cat named Jewels and that Jewels is the only being on earth that Miz Nogoodnik cares for.

They should not be asking someone else to make those kinds of decisions for them.

The problem might go a lot deeper than the usual response I get when I raise this issue. Most of the time, I am chided about being uncharitable and too demanding when I point out that the whole joy of writing is in deciding for yourself about these exciting bits of trivia, and in the way that those bits inform not merely the characters, but the theme and the plot.

I am told that “beginners need help, not criticism”.

And – as you might have guessed – I beg to differ.

What concerns me is not that beginners might get discouraged by my words. Since every one of them assures me that not only have they known in their bones that they were a writer since they were in diapers, but that writing is as to breathing for them – they simply could not exist were writing to be taken from them – I am certain that no words of mine can deter them from their path.

 

What concerns me is that they think that someone else can and should be able to answer these kinds of questions, which suggests that they see “story” as some kind of analyzable, quantifiable *formula* that can be worked out, parsed, and then faithfully reproduced.

 

What concerns me is that they view writing not as an exploration of their own internal soul as a metaphor for the eternal human condition, but as yet another advertising algorithm that can be “mastered”.

And that’s not where any of us want this all to go, is it?

 

How’s the weather out there?

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There’s a piece of advice that gets traded around on writers’ FB groups, attributed to various famous authors (but mostly Neil Gaiman) that “beta readers” can tell you what is wrong, but editors tell you why and then how to fix it.

And I always nod and not comment because my tried-and-true betas are really good about this: they’ll note that something seems off (and even say, in comments, that they have a PhD. In whatever, and can offer details if I need them, but leave the subsequent queries up to me). They know better than to tell me *how* to write it.

But, then again (keeping in mind that this was the first run at the scene, in the first draft of a novel):

One time, I threw out a general request for some people with some experience in something to read a short snippet and tell me if the terminology was all right, and if it “felt” realistic enough.

Most of the people that responded ignored the specifics of the question and jumped in with anecdotes that were not even slightly pertinent, given the parameters I asked for.

Most gave me advice about what the characters “should” do, ignoring the fact that – being a short excerpt with no surrounding context – I hadn’t asked for solutions to avoid the situation, but for whether or not, given some poor decision-making, the feel of the scene was accurate.

I pointed that out.

I got two more people chiming in with what the characters ought to have done to avoid the problems.

And then, several people gave me contradictory advice, anyway, which suggested to me that perhaps some of them knew a whole lot less than they thought they did.

But the real kicker was that one person gave me a long screed that was essentially an edit. They objected to a descriptive phrase, not because it was inaccurate, but because it seemed out of place to them. They ignored the really salient details, and gave advice about a different environment that I specifically said this wasn’t. They felt that the reader would need to know a lot of details that are, in fact, treated much earlier in the chapter, but were not germane to my writer’s dilemma or to the question I had posed.

It was also an edit that suggested that they would hate, hate, hate my books because frankly, in no reality whatsoever would I interrupt a scary, life-threatening action scene to deliver a lecture on meteorology and how storms form over the North Atlantic (which is not where my characters were, anyway.)

My instinct is this: that open queries are a mistake, and that people need to read those queries really carefully when they do come up.

Because now I have a whole lot less respect for some people’s reading comprehension skills, and that’s a little bit sad.

 

Our Second Selves

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There is the me I think I know.

Brash, smart-mouthed, passionate, crusading – the public me is outgoing and tries hard to remember to be kind. That me believes in her own innate goodness, believes in your goodness, too, and will dance to crappy music in the mall, throw snowballs, march in protests, make dinner, and write novels.

I admire her. I like her.

But late at night, there is the other me. Deep inside, the other self is lying in wait.

Trembling, because this world is so frightening. This world is so hard.

This me is hesitant. This me fears the risks. This me wants nothing more than to curl up under the blankets and sleep to the end of time.

This me sees only her shortcomings: the gaps between – the ways she has not fulfilled her own promises. The lack of patience. The rush to judgement.

She sees your faults, too: she nurses the pain you cause, she carries the grudges like unsheathed swords. She will cut you, to prevent you from cutting her first.

You might not know her, but I do, and I have to live with her. Believe me, it is not easy.

 

We all have those second selves inside.

It’s important to remember that, when other people hurt you.

Because I strongly suspect that when they do, it isn’t their first, best selves that cause the pain. It is that second self, the one that is so scared, the one that lashes out, the one that is too quick to battle unseen foes, that’s the one who hurt you.

On the sideline, their first, best self is standing, openmouthed in shock and dismay, longing to take it all back.

Be good to both selves. Neither of them are perfect, but they try.

This just in…

georgia fans

Apparently, I was a big hit in Georgia….

Aaron-Michael Hall (one of my favourite writers) was kind enough to take a few copies of my books to the Steampunk con there, and sold them all!

And to this terrific looking lady with the 1000-watt smile – I so hope you love the books!

Yeah, I try hard not to toot my own horn here too much, but I just occasionally get a lift like this and needed to share.

Twitter Don’ts

Or how not to win readers or influence people…

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Totally, I’m telling you what not to do.

Generally, I try not to. I often *fail* at that endeavor, but I do try.

But this time? Oh, yes. Straight up, Imma tell you what not to do on Twitter. (And probably FB, as well, but YMMV.)

 

Stop with the non-stop self promos. That’s job 1, and you know it. Everyone keeps telling you to not do this, and every day I open my Twitter feed and start muting new followers because all I can see for the first screen-and-a-half is the same one or two promos (which their mom dutifully retweets immediately) (and that part I completely get, because what else are moms for?) five times for five minutes, before they go off to work or brunch or whatever.

Many experts have done the math for you. Bad Redhead shows it all here: http://badredheadmedia.com/2016/05/04/which-social-media-channel-sells-the-most-books/

And I know most of you have seen this and/or similar articles…and yet…

It doesn’t work. It doesn’t. The numbers tell you: Twitter is to build relationships and name recognition. Twitter doesn’t get you sales.

And doing it for someone else? You think somehow that’s going to work better?

Frankly, there’s a strong chance that when it comes to the annual Twitter cull (come on, you know you do it, too) you’ll be on the block, because when you do this for someone else, the immediate assumption is that you are a bot.

People want to follow other members of their own species, not some algorithmical construct formed solely for the purpose of begging for spare change on the corner of Bits Avenue and Byte Street.

I’m not saying you cannot ever post about your work. You absolutely should have your header and a pinned post that reflects your status as an author, and showcases at least one title available.

And occasionally, a cute or clever promo is no bad thing.

Even better are very infrequent “progress reports”, RTs of good reviews, and perhaps an announcement of a new release.

But note the caveat: “infrequent” means that AT THE VERY LEAST, you let a week or six go by between promos.

Because I swear to Cthulhu, if I have to scroll past 47 identical promos of your paranormal romance thriller with a hot sex scene concerning three government spies more than once in the same 24-hour cycle, not only will I mute you forever (I never block unless you suggest you are a Nazi I need to punch) but there is now no way in twenty-six separate hells that I will ever RT anything about your book.

And still less chance I will buy it.

After the Bugles Have Sounded

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It’s a funny thing about Remembrance Day.

We all put on our poppy pins. We listen to the prayers and poems, we sing the hymns and anthems. We lay wreaths, and we do it together, as a community, honouring the veterans among us.

And then we go home and back to our regular lives and vote in elections for the same kinds of people that keep getting us into these wars, without so much as a second thought.

I have a lot of relatives I never met. They lie in graves in France and Belgium. I had a few relatives, when I was growing up, who would not talk about their war. And they had relatives that they had never met, or ones who wouldn’t talk about their war, either.

But they were the ones who made that commitment. They gave us a motto – I’ve seen it plastered all over the internet both before and on November 11th: Lest We Forget.

Lest We Forget.

It doesn’t mean what you think it means.

It wasn’t meant as a slogan to turn dead bodies of our young into objects of warrior fetishism. It wasn’t meant to be a day for people who have never fought to get all teary-eyed and borrow the dead’s glory.

It wasn’t about honour or courage, or a way to elevate conflict into a holy act.

It was meant to remind us that when leaders make bad choices, it is the innocent who pay the price. We weren’t supposed to remember the dead as plaster casts of “heroes” – we were meant to remember that they wanted an end to war, to conflict, to strife.

Both “world wars” ended, in many, many ways, the old order of things. The men and women who came home wanted a far different future than the one their leaders had sent them to preserve. They had fought, and bled, and died, and they wanted to never again be at the mercy of demagogues playing diplomacy chess with other people’s lives.

They demanded real freedom, in the form of universal suffrage, medical care, welfare, old age pensions, and access to good education. In most countries, they got all, or part – and then, as we lost sight of the message, those things have disappeared, one by one, stolen by the false god of patriotism, draped in a flag to hide the naked greed that lives underneath.

And not one of the veterans we trot out onto a stage once a year went there to defend a pretty piece of cotton fabric. They didn’t go to defend a way of life that denied most of them any real choices or protections – they went for the future. They went for their dreams of what could be.

 

Don’t make that sacrifice an empty one, by pretending that we don’t still have a long way to go.

 

* This was originally published on November 11, 2016. But it bears repeating.