Breast cancer

I’m going to be preoccupied for the rest of this year.

My wife’s annual mammogram found an anomaly. The biopsy found malignant cells. It was found early, the tumor is small, she has an excellent prognosis.

I’m not going to turn this into my cancer diary, I’m simply giving the reason I’m not posting every week these days. I’m not writing much, either, just a few hours each weekend.

We’ve spent several weeks in a flurry of appointments with all the doctors we had to meet, chemotherapy education, and trying to finish the home improvement project weeks earlier than planned.

We went a few days before the first course of chemotherapy to get haircuts. She got her hair cut very short in anticipation of losing it completely, a common effect of chemo. I said I’d cut mine as short as hers, a demonstration of solidarity. It isn’t much of a sacrifice for me, I’ve worn my hair even shorter when I was in uniform, and no one thinks much about men with short hair. I think she looks good in a very short pixie, pretty and sassy. I don’t think her femininity is diminished in the least by short hair. Her viewpoint was she wanted to decide when to bear the trauma of losing her hair. Trauma, because not having long hair goes against what she believes makes a woman.

She’s losing her hair more slowly than many, but it’s thinned out in ragged patches. She’s wearing a buzz cut now, and so am I. The only difference between us is she needs a hat to keep her head warm. (We’ve agreed I won’t shave my head if she shaves hers.)

She’s been for a wig fitting. I told her to get long, blonde hair. Fortunately, she took it as the joke it was intended to be and got something practical. Very much like how she wore her hair before the radical haircut, the wig is a chin-length bob close to her natural hair color.

I’ve learned breast cancer, in particular, can really challenge a woman’s self-image. Everything from beauty and fashion advertisements to the magazine articles between the advertisements to Hollywood gossip to her own mother have told her that her breasts and her hair go a long way to define how attractive she is. Suddenly, this malady and the way it is treated are pretty much guaranteed to change both her breast and her hair. For many women, the hair that grows back is gray. There is a decent chance she’ll lose her libido as a result of chemo as well.

This time of stress is giving me new insights into women. It may even end up influencing something I write in the future.

Okay, to be honest, not maybe, it already has begin influencing. I have an erotic romance outlined, nothing written, that I didn’t really like. It needed something more than the steamy parts. I would prefer to write the erotic elements within a story about a real relationship, not just an erotic story. I’m thinking the female lead in the novel getting breast cancer could frame the entire second half of the book, creating a demonstration of true love and devotion from her guy, a change in her attitude toward relationships, instead of just her enjoying sex.

You know what they say, write what you know. Does that make me a ghoul, or a normal writer?

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Market Research: Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult

You know those mystery stories where the author changes everything at the climax to contrive a way to make the ending work out? It turns out the trick can be done beautifully and to wonderful effect.

Leaving Time follows four protagonists, each speaking in their own voice as what they have to say brings the narrative forward. Each is on their own story arc, and the novel captures the brief time, just a couple of weeks, when their stories intersect.

Alice has spent her adult life as a elephant researcher, working in the wild in Africa as well as working in a sanctuary in New Hampshire. (What, that far north? Yes, elephants can adapt to the cold, and the sanctuary is near her husband’s hometown.) Alice is married to Thomas; their daughter Jenna is the main character, whose voice opens the book. A great deal of what Alice tells us is backstory, and the depth of Picoult’s research into elephants is abundantly clear. Picoult has even captured the academic tone heard when a researcher mentions another researcher in conversation, a verbal footnote.

When Jenna was still a toddler, there was an event at the elephant sanctuary. Thomas, whose sanity was already unstable, ended in a care facility. Another sanctuary worker died and Alice disappeared. The main narrative is Jenna, now 13 years old, putting some effort into searching for her lost mother.

The search is what brings in the other two lead characters, Virgil the private investigator and Serenity the medium. Virgil was one of the police detectives who investigated the event, and he left the force over worries that he’d made mistakes, drawn erroneous conclusions in the investigation. Serenity tells us an open, honest version of life as a medium, and through her voice the author builds credence for the paranormal elements in the story. I don’t normally care for paranormal content in a novel, it often seems too contrived. In this book, the paranormal is a fit within the storyline the reader has no reason to question.

The book has one of the saddest happy endings I have ever read. Alice tells her daughter, “I loved, you, so, so much. But not very well.”

Jenna responds, “You loved me perfectly.”

They will never see each other again. And yet, it is a satisfying outcome.

The book challenges us to suspend disbelief as the story reaches its climax, but Picoult has artfully spent a portion of the book preparing us to follow the sudden inversion of everything we assumed to be true. The outcome of the story is completely crazy, and it makes perfect sense.

I’m starting to think tropes are just a good idea executed badly.

It is the characters themselves who makes this story so rich. Each of them has intention, purpose, they are going somewhere. Each of them has flaws, some serious and some minor, essential to the story. They struggle with doubt, this isn’t a carefree trip through life.

I learned from this book quite a bit more about writing in the first person, something I am currently doing for the first time myself. I also learned an important version of show, don’t tell: there is as much to be learned about the story from how the character tells you as there is from what the character tells you. The characters’ words move the story along, with character development embedded in what they tell of the story, and what they omit.

15 seconds with Dave Brubeck

I can’t even tell you why, but one of the first LPs I bought while in high school was The Dave Brubeck Quartet. Brubeck’s approach to jazz was quite approachable, but still complex and interesting to hear. He even had some Top 40 hits, such as Take Five. Over the years I’ve bought quite a few Brubeck albums. In one case I bought a CD intending it as a gift, and ended up buying another gift, keeping it for myself.

Years later, not me in high school but one of my children in high school, a college not too far from where we lived put on a concert featuring the music of Dave Brubeck, and Brubeck himself was scheduled to attend. It seems he had written a choral work which was considered unsingable, and (in typical college choir fashion) this modest-sized college sang it, a world premier of Brubeck music long after it has been written.

After the concert, we filed out of the auditorium with the rest of the audience. In the corridor, standing beside the choir director, was Mr. Brubeck himself. There was almost nobody stopping to talk to them! Against my own form, I walked up to them, put out my hand to Brubeck. “Thank you for taking your kids to Montreaux and for playing ‘God’s Love (Made Visible)’ there,” I said, adding, “and thank you for Jazz Impressions of Japan.” We had the usual, short conversation a celebrity has with a fan and we were on our way out of the building.

Live at Montreaux is a performance by a pickup band of Brubeck and his three sons. It is one of the few instances of a jazz performance where I hear a synthesizer contributing to the music instead of interfering.

God’s Love (Made Visible)  is a lovely, melodic piece, one of the units of a larger, choral work, La Fiesta de la Posada. It is to me the high point of the Live at Montreaux album, which is saying something.

Jazz Impressions of Japan is the CD I kept for myself. His quartet toured Japan in the early 60’s. For the flight over, their travel agent forgot about the International Date Line, so they landed in Tokyo one evening and went straight to the concert hall for their first performance, jet lag and all. The album reflects not just hectic, but also quite serene impressions from their visits to several Japanese cities.

Here is a measure of how good a musician and how good a father Brubeck was: all three of his sons are professional musicians.

Moving, a photo-essay

We moved from our small house in a small yard, to a larger house with a much larger yard. She wanted a quieter neighborhood, I wanted to have more distance from the neighbors. It turns out the larger yard comes with a larger house, it wasn’t much of a consideration for us.

The new place didn’t cost that much more than the house we sold, but our mortgage clock started over again.

To save money, we paid a local mover to handle our furniture, while we rented a large trailer from them and filled it with everything we could put into boxes. I’ll admit I’m cheap when I can spend my labor and not spend hundreds of dollars.

In other words, one day I picked up about half of what we owned. Filling the trailer took about five hours.  A few days later, I picked it up again, which took six hours.

In the hot, August sun.

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Do my romance stories get “steamy?”

Yes.

The manuscript I’m currently circulating in my search for an agent has steam, quite literally. Rather late in the book, she invites him into the shower to scrub her back. He showers with her and does a thorough job washing her everywhere. He makes sure she’s rinsed and dries her thoroughly, too. But – all he does is wash her, it’s all business. It’s the first time they’re naked together.

She considers him honorable to the point of being just a little annoying, but she also knows its her own fault. Six months earlier, when they first agreed they were ready to move from friendship to a more serious relationship, it was her idea they make a point of postponing a physical relationship.

He agreed without much hesitation, and gave her a good reason for why he was agreeing. He is scrupulous about the agreement, even when she complains he hasn’t seduced her. He does, however, give her intimacy, which she finds she values for its own sake. They sleep together, just sleeping after a little cuddling, then cuddling again when they wake up in the morning, something she likes more than she expected.

I was expecting to write more sex into their relationship, but when the time came for them to agree they were getting serious, I’d learned enough about her mother (by writing about her in more detail) to know her mother would suggest postponing sex, using sex as a bargaining chip with him. I’d learned enough about her to know she wouldn’t agree with her mother’s reasons but would be intrigued by the merits of postponing. I knew he was pretty contrarian, so he’d be agreeable, and by then I knew he had other reasons, which he tells her when he agrees.

The agreement is about a quarter of the way in. The middle of the book attends to other issues and ignores a physical relationship. In the final few chapters the tension begins to build, when will they finally do it?

I’m sorry, I have to find an agent, so I can find a publisher, so the publisher can print and sell the book, so you can buy the book, for you to find out the answer to the question. Patience will be needed.

Of course they make love when the time is right.

An element of the novel is their rather contrarian approach to their relationship. Constrained by the rules for behavior laid out by her mother, she finds ways to rebel against “how everybody expects it to happen.” He’s rebellious in his own way; her quiet, understated rebellion appeals to him. They like each other because they are both making their way through life, outwardly serene but working hard, under the surface, to avoid getting trapped by what everyone expects.

I’m not against describing people having sex. One of the drafts I’ve completed (and has many faults requiring correction) is about a married couple who have sex nearly every day over the six weeks from New Year’s Eve to Valentine’s Day. The sex is the focus of the narrative. Despite living together for over twenty years, the premise of the story gives them reason to find new passion. They try sex in new ways they hadn’t tried yet. They learn things about themselves, as individuals and as a couple. They build stronger bonds with each other. I look forward to setting that manuscript right and seeing how well it attracts the interest of an agent and a publisher.

Steam, both literally and figuratively, are present where it makes sense for the characters to do so.

One clear rule

I’ve been reading other writers’ blog posts about being a writer. Some advocate planning and outlining, others are seat-of-the-pants who advocate stream of consciousness. Some advocate reviewing and revising as you go, others say write the whole thing out and then work on revisions. It seems I can go looking to find advice supporting any approach I prefer. What I do when I write is a mashup of all of the above.

I’ve found one clear rule for writing. In one word, the rule is: finish. No matter how bad it is, no matter how hard it is to write, just keep writing until it is complete.

I’m unpublished, I’m inexperienced. To transition my status to experienced, then to published, I need experience, experience writing. The best way to get experience writing is to write. Exercise that muscle. Never mind how good it is, never mind finding someone to give you feedback, never mind finding the time to write. To become the writer I want to be, I need to write as much as I can.

Time spent writing is time spent exercising the combination of skill and inspiration required to fabricate a story. Time spent revising is time spent evaluating my own work, giving myself feedback. When I revise, I learn how I could have written it.

I’m currently finishing a short story I started a month ago. I’ve had some interruptions that have really cut into my writing time (yes, spending time reading other writers’ blogs is part of it).  The story isn’t as interesting as I’d anticipated. But I’m going to finish that story, and I’m going to revise it. I doubt that story will ever be submitted, much less published, but it is part of the workout  my writing muscles need.

Judy Blume

I see in my Sunday morning newspaper that Judy Blume gave a question out to her fans: which of her books would they like to see made into a movie.

I’m very sorry, Judy, but my answer is none of them.

I read a lot of Judy Blume when my kids were reading YA fiction. I read a couple aloud, we kept the reading aloud tradition going in our house until the kids were in middle school. I can’t say I have a favorite, they were all good.

Every Judy Blume novel I read was a master class in story arc structure, in show not tell, in framing a character. Above all they are insightful; Blume’s novels are incredibly well-crafted, accurate views into how young people really feel. Some of her books are funny, others more serious. All are fascinating reads.

My problem with making one of these fine books into a movie is Hollywood. There are formulas to be followed, there are standard tropes which must be included, especially when the producers walk into the project planning on targeting the teen audience. The written sex scenes in Forever were nuanced, sensitive; in the movie such a scene would be more gratuitous. As the producers test the boundary between PG and R ratings, the visual experience of the sex would center on flashes of salacious images instead of the essential point of the entire book:  what Katherine was experiencing, how she felt, during the event. There would have to be love interest to balance out the bullying in Blubber. Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing would be reduced to Peter and Fudge bickering, using physical comedy to resolve each spat.

So, despite the fact that I can’t name an author more deserving of the financial benefits of selling movie rights, I really don’t want to see Judy Blume’s excellent books turned into pale Hollywood imitations of their high quality.