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Sandcastle Rock Beach – Chapter 4

Revisions are never-ending. Since I posted Chapter 1, I’ve added over three thousand words while making plot and character fixes. Now I’m working on style, replacing passive verbs and reducing wordiness. It’s a slow process, but the story is improving, if I do say so myself.

This is short chapter, taking place at the end of the first day, after my couple have had some close time together. It is intended as a break between two longer and more dramatic chapters. Comments appreciated.

Marianna sat at her desk, waiting for the slow internet connection to retrieve email. He had seemed interested. She’d noticed his pupils enlarging as he spoke to her in the kitchen, and she’d caught him checking her out more than once, his eyes wandering over her body. She’d had a few good looks herself. But after the dishes were done, he had turned down her invitation to stay for a drink, claiming fatigue. She reminded him that WiFi was only available by the house, and added that it might be slow if he was planning to facetime a sweetheart back in Toronto. It worked. He mentioned that he’d broken up with his girlfriend. Before she could offer sympathy, he added that it had been almost a year ago. So, he was straight and single, though if he wasn’t over someone from a year ago, maybe she’d be wise to keep her distance.

The computer beeped, an unhappy tone alerting her to a send/receive error. The internet connection seemed okay. She tried again, and went to brush her teeth while waiting. Heading back to the computer, she stopped to look out the window. Darwin’s tent was dark. “Should we do a little searching,” she asked Cerebus, “and see if we can find out more about Darwin?” The dog looked up from his bed in the corner, yawned, and settled down again.

“I’d take that as a yes, but the internet is lousy tonight.” The send/receive failed again. “We’ll check him out tomorrow.”

***

Darwin could not sleep. He considered going for a walk, but a glance out the tent flap let him see a light on upstairs at the house. It was absurd, but he did not want her seeing that he could not sleep. She already knew too much about him, and he had learned little of about her. Except that she was smart, hardworking, and attractive, and the latter did not have anything do with her ability to fight the loan demand. He picked up his book, read a few pages, and put it down again. Weren’t books sold in airport bookstores supposed to be light and entertaining reading? The third chapter had nothing to do with the bank robbery in chapter one, or the sex scene in chapter two. It introduced a family with small children, going on a picnic in a park. There was far too much description of the wicker basket and  melamine plates.

Darwin’s family had never gone on a formal picnic, but they’d had dinner on the beach several times most summers. It was fun, though less fancy than tonight’s dinner had been. The plates had been paper, not melamine or fine china. His dad and some of the neighbours would build a bonfire, and everyone would roast hot dogs over the flames. He wondered if his sister took her children to dinners on the beach.  

He hadn’t bothered telling his sister he would be in Nova Scotia. There did not seem to be any point. She still lived on the south shore, five hours out of the way. They weren’t close. He’d never seen her kids or met her partner. They all signed the dollar store cards they sent for his birthday and Christmas, but for the money he sent every holiday, that was the least they could do.

Wondering about beach dinners gave him the urge to let his sister know he was in the province. He picked up his phone and checked the time. Too late to call. A text might have an alert tone, unless she silenced them, but he did not want to risk that. He could use data, and connect to email, but the cell service, at least in his tent, was weak. He’d call in the morning or use the campground Wi-Fi then.

A gust of wind pushed in the side of tent. The poles sagged and rebounded. Hope it doesn’t rain, thought Darwin.

Time out of Joint: Season of Love Book Review

This review includes spoilers.

Season of Love is a 2019 Mirabooks (Harlequin) release. It contains two previously published novels, Thanksgiving Prayer from 1984 and Christmas Masquerade from 1985. Both are by Debbie Macomber. Last year I read her recently republished book, This Matter of Marriage, from 1997, and enjoyed it, so I was looking forward to these novels. To say I was disappointed would be an understatement.

Before I rant about everything I did not like in these stories, I must point out that these stories are thirty-five years old. They are from the beginning of the author’s career, and presumably written for the audience at the time. I’ve had enough involvement with publishing to know that the final content may not have been her choice, and the decision to re-release these novels, slightly updated, in a single book, may have been made without her involvement.

Claudia is a medical student in Seattle, living off a trust fund. She meets Seth, visiting from Nome, where he runs an oil company. He is instantly smitten with her and proposes in less than a week. He expects her to drop out of medical school and move to Alaska. She refuses, and then a few months later she accepts. When she arrives in Alaska, she discovers he is planning to marry someone else.

From the title, I should not have been surprised that Thanksgiving Prayer was a Christian romance – Harlequin calls them inspirational, but the ones I’ve read have all been Christian, usually vaguely protestant. Typically in Christian romances the characters pray, go to church, and don’t have sex before marriage. In Thanksgiving Prayer, religion plays a larger role.

The main characters appear to be born-again Christians, her five years ago and him six months ago. Their meet involves her anonymously leaving him an encouraging bible verse she senses he needs, and him tracking her down. He’s taken her note as a sign that she is destined to be his wife, and he quotes a biblical passage in support of that. Initially she disagrees with his interpretation, but her character growth arc is changing her understanding of the passage.

Trying to be open-minded about this, I imagine the story has a fantasy setting, where she has the mysterious urge to leave a secret message for him, he interprets it to mean she’s his fated mate, and at first they disagree on the meaning of an ancient prophecy. Okay – that’s a fine plot. But he’s still a short-tempered stalker who shows warning signs of being abusive, and no willingness to compromise in a relationship.

Curiously, an effort has been made to update the novel. A supporting character suggests the heroine exchange letters with the hero, so they can get to know each other better after the initial whirlwind week and proposal. “And I’m not talking email, either.” There follows an explanation why hand-written letters are better than email. However, by this point in the story we’ve already figured out the early-1980s setting. No mobile phones, no internet, and no email. Yes, technically all three existed at that time, but it was another decade before they were common in households. I can only assume the email reference was added in an effort to avoid the story seeming dated, but instead it’s an anachronism that emphasizes the age of the novel.

There’s a Thanksgiving Dinner in here somewhere near the end. Claudia nurses Seth after he’s injured, and then she has a serious flu, so there’s lots of drama in addition to resolving Seth’s plans to marry another woman, but it all works out, and in the epilogue we learn that Claudia has stopped working as a nurse, because “she was ready to settle into the role of homemaker and mother.” Not my idea of a happy ending, but I guess it suits the character’s values, and her wealth means she doesn’t need to work.

The second novel in the book, Christmas Masquerade, does not have the same strong Christian overtones. In fact, it may offend readers who enjoyed the spiritual emphasis in the first novel.

Jo Marie is in danger of being assaulted by three men during a Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans. A handsome stranger comes to her rescue. So far, so good. Then the stranger demands a reward. “His warm mouth settled over hers, holding her prisoner, kissing her with a hunger as deep as the sea” [emphasis added]. This “out of the frying pan, into the fire” rescue is more suited to horror than romance.

After the kiss, Jo Marie is pulled away by enthusiastic dancers, and they lose each other in the crowd, but she doesn’t stop thinking about him. A few months later, Jo Marie sees him again, and learns his name. Andrew is unenthusiastically dating his old friend Kelly. Kelly is Jo Marie’s room mate. Andrew continues to pursue Jo Marie, and long before we (or she) learn that he’s in a fake relationship with Kelly, he and Jo Marie are making out, but that’s okay because Kelly is making out with Mark. Mark is Jo Marie’s brother, who Kelly really wanted all along.

I’ve nothing against the fake relationship trope, though doing it to make someone jealous rarely works – I learned that from The Brady Brunch and/or The Love Boat. However, Andrew and Kelly keep Jo Marie in the dark, on the grounds that she is Mark’s sister. Andrew courts Kelly publicly and Jo Marie privately, and Kelly seems to be encouraging his behaviour. They are gaslighting her. And Andrew’s aggressive possessiveness when Jo Marie reasonably dates someone else sets off abuse alarms again.

This is a romance where the heroine spends most of the story feeling miserable, including at an office Christmas party that takes place somewhere near the end. Macomber is apparently famous for her Christmas themed romances, but I suspect this is not one of them, since the holiday does not play a significant role.

In both novels, I find the heroes creepy rather than attractive (however handsome they may be), and the heroines passive. The overt Christianity of the first one conflicts with the apparent cheating in the second one, making these an unlikely set. Macomber is prolific, you can’t argue with success, and I enjoyed the other book of hers which I read, so I can shrug off Seasons of Love as early work, perhaps for a different audience. Maybe there’s still an audience for romance with jealous, possessive men. But it might have been best to leave these stories in the past.

How do you know?

Later this year I hope to publish a romance novel. After considering many factors, I’ve made the decision to self-publish. My novel is unlikely to be purchased by a traditional publisher. The story, through firmly in the romance genre, is not ‘written to market,’ which is, in any event, apparently both over-saturated and dead. I’ve been told that no one will read a romance written by a man, but it would be wrong to use a female pseudonym. I’ve also heard writers praise self-publishing as it allows the author to have control over their work, and make more money. Self-publishing is more work – I have to do my own editing, marketing, layout, cover design, and so on – but it seems the more likely path to publishing, and a better one for me. (In theory, more profitable too, but I’m realistic about sales.) But who is going to pronounce my work ready to share?

A non-deluxe typewriter, suitable for a non-deluxe story.

I’ve had the good fortune to have published short pieces in various places, online and in print (check the menu options fiction and non-fiction). With those publications, someone else made the decision that my work was ready to share. With self-publishing, it’s up to me.

I post stories and essays (and blog posts) on this site without worrying if they are ready to share, but a novel is different. It’s not quietly sitting here, getting a few views a month. It will be available on book selling websites, and I’ll be asking money for it. It has to be …perfect? No. How good does it have to be, and how will I know when it’s there?

There’s always room for improvement, in any work. Even when you really enjoy a novel, if you work at it you can find something to improve. And the quality of a story is subjective. Every reader is Goldilocks, deciding whether that scene was too hot, too cold, or just right (notice the odds are in favour of it being disliked). I’ve noticed this with beta readers, where I’ve received positive and negative comments on the same thing. At some point I need to decide the story has been improved enough, and I’m never going to please every reader. In other words, I’m going to publish the story knowing it is not as good as it could possibly be, and it won’t please everyone.

I’m encouraged to take this seemingly foolish action by hearing established authors, with dozens of books to the their name, talk disparagingly of their early works. I know I am not as good as she is, but maybe I am as good as she was. On the other hand, I’ve heard authors talk of their first novels as being learning attempts that will never see the light of day. Are they too critical, or am I not critical enough?

I enjoy reading stories, particularly romances, even when flaws are obvious. Some 99 cent eBooks have a lot of flaws, but books that cost ten times more are rarely ten times better. Not every meal out needs to be fine dining, and not every live band needs to be Queen. Greasy fries and a tribute band at the local dive can be fun night out. I’m not trying to win a Giller prize – just tell a simple story, like the many I enjoy reading.

I started this novel in 2012. It’s gone through several false starts and a complete rewrite. It will soon be going for its second round of beta reads. I think it’s as good as it’s going to get, and since then I have outlined or completed first drafts for several other stories I’m keen to work on and polish. So, assuming there are no major concerns from the beta readers, I’ll publish the novel this summer, knowing it’s not as good as it could be, hoping people feel they get their money’s worth (it will likely be more than 99 cents, but not much more), and hoping at least 1/3 of my readers find it just right and forgive its flaws. And then I’ll know if it was ready to share.

PS: I can’t say ‘how do you know’ without thinking of this song, which has little to do with the topic of this blog, except the reference to the romance genre.

Sandcastle Rock Beach – Chapter 1

In a month or two I’ll be looking for beta readers for this romance novella (about 48,000 words). Meanwhile, here’s chapter 1. Have a look, and let me know if you find it a) interesting enough to finish, and b) interesting enough to see what comes next. Looking forward to your comments. Thanks!

“It’s going to be that kind of day, isn’t it?”

Marianna turned the kitchen faucet off, then on again. No water flowed. She tried twisting it from hot to cold and back, not expecting that to help. It didn’t.

“Great, no water,” she said to herself. “Lunch will have to wait.”

The day had started badly, with an email from the Wilsons, cancelling their reservation. A weeks’ stay would have been a good boost to her campground’s October income. Then she’d received a loan payment overdue notice in the mail. When she phoned the finance company, they had assured her the notice was a mistake, and all the payments since April had been received on time. Hopefully the water problem was minor. She had bottled water for herself and the campers, but no water meant no showers. She glanced out the side window. Sheila and Barry, her only guests last night, were approaching her house. They did not look happy.

She went out to the porch to meet them. Working face to face with customers, especially unhappy ones, was Marianna’s least favourite part of the job. During the summer, Wendy dealt with customers. Now Wendy was down in Halifax at Dalhousie, and Marianna had to deal with customers herself. She reminded herself that the customer was always right. Especially these customers. Barry was a prolific Trip Advisor reviewer, under his own name, and Shelia had a large Instagram following. They didn’t demand discounts, but never missed a chance to gently remind Marianna of their followers. The usual conversation was compliment, complaint, reminder.

As they drew close, Marianna put on her best ‘how can I help you’ smile, stepped onto the porch, and waved. Cerebus, Marianna’s Airedoodle, rushed past her and greeted the couple with his tail wagging.

“Good morning Sheila, Barry. Did you have a good night?”

“Wonderful,” said Sheila. She petted Cerebus. “I fell asleep to the sound of the waves. No better way to sleep. Well, almost no better way.” She kissed her husband of three weeks. “The morning hasn’t been so good though. The water ran out during my morning shower. I’m hoping that will be fixed before I post pictures of myself looking like this. My followers would be shocked.”

Marianna thought Sheila looked like she just stepped out of spa, but just nodded. “I’m looking into the water now. It should be back on soon.”

“Your location is fabulous,” said Barry, “and the fall colours are amazing. It would be a shame if something like unreliable water detracted from an otherwise positive review.”

“After tonight’s dinner, I’m sure the review will be great.”

“Yes, we are looking forward to that,” said Sheila. “Hopefully the rain holds off until tomorrow, after we’ve packed up.  Can we take Cerebus for a beach walk?”

“Sure – he’d love that. Go with them, Cere.” She watched them walk away, Sheila beside Cerebus, and Barry walking behind them. He stopped and took a picture of the tree covered hill at the back of the campground. Shelia glanced back but kept walking. “So much for the honeymoon period,” she thought, and then decided she was being too cynical. It was better than those couples that would not let go of each other, as if a strong gust of wind might end the relationship. She thought of Troy, always taking her hand when they walked together, saying he never wanted to miss a chance to touch her. Which would have been charming if he had managed to see her more often, or not been so keen to touch other women. I don’t like not holding hands, and I don’t like holding hands. There’s just no pleasing me, she thought. Oh yes there is – she smiled at a memory – just not in relationships.

She climbed the hill to the well house, hoping the problem was minor, nothing else would go wrong today, and that tonight’s dinner for Barry and Sheila would be a success. She reviewed a mental checklist of the supplies and preparation required. Apart from the logistics of transporting everything to the beach and back, the dinner was relatively easy. As for weather, the morning sun was warm, and the sky clear. If the forecasted clouds came in as planned, that would keep the day’s heat into the evening. Too early, and it would rain; too late, and it would be cold. I can’t control the weather, she reminded herself. 

The well house was on the highest point of her land. Before going in, she turned to look down across the campground and out to the open ocean. After two years she still found the view breathtaking. Her mother had said she was crazy to leave Toronto for the northern shore of Cape Breton Island, but she knew this was where she belonged. In the country, on this property, by herself.  She watched as an eagle swooped down from a nearby tree, flew out over the ocean, dived into the water, and flew up again with a fish in its talons.

***

Darwin stopped the truck when the road turned into a wharf. He was lost. He could not possibly be lost in a town with five streets, but none of them were Johnson Hill Road. His phone had guided him to Bay Saint Lawrence, on the northern tip of Cape Breton Island, but now it said he had arrived, even though he was clearly not at Sandcastle Rock campground. He looked out the window at a street sign. He was on Government Wharf Road, apparently on the wharf section. The phone said he was on Main Street. A few fishing boats were parked, or docked, or whatever the proper term was, on one side, and an aging warehouse was on the other, all doors closed. No one was around. Darwin reversed until the road widened, made a U-turn, and drove back to the Co-op store. There was no sign of Johnson Hill Road, which should have been next to the parking lot. The directions on his phone were clear – turn right onto Johnson Hill Road, just past the Co-op. However, there were only driveways for the houses, spaced irregularly on the large lots.

He pulled into the Co-op parking lot, climbed out of the rental SUV, and walked across the hard-packed gravel. From the outside, the Co-op looked like an old-fashioned general store. The inside confirmed that impression. In addition to shelves of food and snacks, there were local carvings and hooked rugs hanging on a wall, and rakes and snow shovels by the door. Darwin looked over the section of camping supplies but didn’t see anything else he needed. He had stopped at a Canadian Tire and a Sobey’s on the way from the airport and purchased everything he needed to look like a camper for three days.

The store had a food counter beside the cash, with an empty pizza warming cabinet, and a sign promising Fresh Sandwiches Made to Order. That, and the smell of roasted chicken, reminded him he hadn’t eaten lunch, he’d been up since five, and it was almost one in the afternoon. He rang the bell on the counter, expecting a grizzled, tobacco-chewing old-timer to appear.

“Be right out.” A teenager, with blue hair and Pink Floyd t-shirt, slipped through the curtain behind the cash. “Sorry to keep you waiting, sir. What can I get for you?”

“What sandwiches do you have?”

“Sorry, just chicken today. It’s still warm, if that’s okay. We could do an egg sandwich too. Or tuna.”

“Warm chicken would be great, thanks. To go, please.”

The teen turned and yelled back through the curtain, “Chicken sandwich, ma.” She turned back to Darwin. “It’ll be right out. Can you pay cash? Machine’s not working.”

He paid and asked for directions to the Sandcastle Rock campground.

“Just turn right onto Johnson Hill Road and keep going. You can’t miss it – the road ends there, but it’s about twenty kilometers.”

“Where’s Johnson Hill Road?”

“Just after the parking lot. Right there.” The teen pointed to the parking lot.

“That’s not a driveway? It’s not paved.”

“Nope. That’s the road. It looks like it goes to McNeil’s garage, but the road goes left just before that.  Marianna wants to put up signs up for her campground, but there’s new rules about road signs, and she can’t. Here’s your sandwich.”

A woman Darwin assumed was the teen’s mother came through the curtain, holding a paper bag. She handed it to Darwin, smiled, and said “Here you go, dear.” It was the third time he’d been called dear today, and he had this odd feeling of coming home. He’d left the province ten years ago, hadn’t been back, and never missed it. Even when he lived in Nova Scotia, he’d never been north of Truro, and then only once when he hitchhiked to Toronto. Cape Breton, at the north end of the province, was as unknown as whatever was north of the last subway stop on the Yonge Street line.  

“Thanks.” The bag was surprisingly heavy. He opened it, and saw the sandwich, made with a bun, a large dill pickle wrapped in plastic, and an apple. “I just paid for a sandwich.”

“It’s all included,” said the older lady. “Enjoy your visit, and tell Marianna Susan says hi. You’ll like Marianna – she can be prickly at first, but she’s a lovely young woman.”A few minutes later, Darwin was driving along Johnson Hill Road. He realized he never got around to asking why there was no street sign. It didn’t matter. It didn’t matter that Marianna was a lovely young woman, either. He was here to do a job, which would make a lot of money for his company and secure his future. Marianna wouldn’t be happy, but she knew the risks when she signed the loan agreement.  

NaNoWriMo Good News and Bad News

First, the bad news. Another National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) has come and gone, and I did not win. Again. I’ve participated almost every year since 2012, and have never completed the recommended goal of 50,000 words. This year I completed 15,000 words, which is on the high side of my usual results.

Picture of old manual typewriter
Some guys buy the now-classic car they wanted in high school but couldn’t afford. I got the typewriter (though I still glance fondly at early 1970s Dusters and Novas -especially the hatchbacks).

To make matters worse, that word count is an estimate. The proper approach to NaNoWriMo is to draft a novel. However, on several occasions, I’ve used it to rewrite or revise a novel. This time, I was revising Romance One, a novel I originally drafted for NaNoWriMo in 2012. Since this is not a competitive event, the rules are loose, and I’m a self-declared NaNo rebel (yes, they have a badge for that).

Word counts can be tricky when revising. One day I added a new section of 400 words – that’s easy enough to count. The next day I reviewed the manuscript of 48,000 words to make sure all references to a minor character reflected new information about them. That took 2 hours, and required changing 20 words, with a net word count of 0. Somehow it does not seem right to count 0 words, but 48,000 does not seem right either. I ended up figuring an hour of revising is like writing 1000 words.

Even by that fudging, I didn’t come close to winning. When I’m in my groove, I spend an hour of writing each weekday, but I didn’t manage it over November. I have any number of reasons / excuses, including volunteer commitments (largely related to writing) and freelance work (money is useful). The new NaNoWriMo web site lacks the ability to specify the date when you update your word count, which I found discouraging. If you don’t log in every day, you can’t properly track progress.

I’m not worried about lacking the discipline to finish a book. I’ll get there. I know things can take longer than expected. For example, in 1995, I applied to enter a two-year Master’s Degree program. It took thirteen years to get accepted, and seven years to complete the degree.

A reassurance that I will get it done, and the biggest reason for not spending much time on Romance One or other fiction writing this month, is my good news: Halfway through the month, I completed a set of major revisions to the third draft of Romance One. This is a significant milestone – the third draft addressed concerns that had been raised by a trusted editor, and the major revisions addressed issues raised by people who read small portions of the manuscript while the third draft was being prepared.

With the third draft in good shape, I needed a short break, from any writing, before returning to the manuscript for minor revisions. Then it goes out to beta readers. That won’t happen until the new year, as I have an academic article to revise this month, as well as a couple of editing projects to work on.

If all goes according to plan, by next year’s NaNoWriMo Romance One will be published (likely under a better title), and I’ll be working on another project. If things don’t go according to plan, I may be rewriting Romance One for NaNoWriMo, again. Either way, I probably won’t be meeting my word count goals. But I’ll be writing some words, and, regardless of the word count achieved, signing up for NaNoWriMo is a step in the write direction.

Smells like Writing Spirit

I recently visited Ottawa, and I had a chance to try the new transit line. A former Carleton student, I’d used the north-south diesel trains serving the university for years, but the east-west electric light-rail line, running underground through downtown, had just opened. I wanted to check it out. In the 1980s, I lived in downtown Toronto, and frequently used the subway then, but otherwise my subway rides have been rare.

Ottawa’s Rideau station looks typical of the urban subway stations I’ve been in, and that I have seen in movies. It’s a collection of entrances scattered around local storefronts and malls, leading to tunnels and long escalators down to the platforms. Unlike suburban stations, with their eclectic mix of public art and low-bid functionalism, the entrances to urban stations are practical and blend into the connecting structures.

Ottawa’s Rideau station, but could be anywhere. Photo (c) Tim Covell

Once on transit property, the design goal is resistance to vandalism and ease of cleaning. Grey tiles abound. More distinctive than the familiar look is the smell – a not unpleasant mix of oil, burned electrical connections, and musty moisture. One whiff, and I was transported back to Toronto, decades ago. I recalled commuting to early jobs, mentally drafting my contributions to an APA (imagine blog posts printed and mailed to subscribers), trips to bookstores, and less wholesome outings. The rush of memories verged on disorienting.

Like hearing, we have little control of what we smell, but we cannot record smells. My recollections of the sights and sounds of subways are reinforced routinely through movies, and other recordings, but smell is absent.

And we get used to smells. Those always present disappear, and we notice them again after an absence. I love the salt air of living near the ocean, but I am most aware of it when I return home from travelling.

Smells are a momentary impact, when new, or recollected, yet on recollection they can bring a host of attached memories, for better or worse. Decades ago, I briefly knew someone who wore a distinctive perfume. Since then, thanks in part to the growing support for scent-free places, I rarely encounter it, but when I do, all the pleasures, disappointments, and mistakes of that relationship come flooding back.

I’m thinking about the sense of smell not just to wallow in nostalgia for my adventures in my younger days … wallow, wallow … but to remind myself, when writing, not to overlook my characters’ sense of smell, and to take full advantage of it.

Setting is typically described visually when a scene begins, so we know where the characters are. Sound and smell might play roles then too, but we don’t want to dwell too much on descriptions. However, a smell, and its associations, can be brought in almost anytime, and they can be subjective – something only one character notices. It can be connected to the action of a scene, bring in backstory, or both.

Romance novels typically mention personal scents when a couple are close, to indicate awareness of the other person’s physicality, suggest intimacy, and later, suggest familiarity. But characters may encounter other smells. An unusual hand or dish soap might bring up memories, good or bad, of a previous relationship, house, store, childhood, etc.

Smells don’t need to be objectively unusual. A common smell such as sawdust or bleach might be unusual for a character, yet still have associations from a past exposure. And even without associations, if a smell is unusual for a character, it should be noted. Mentioning a character’s awareness of the salt air when they arrive at an ocean beach tells us they’ve been away, or perhaps never been there, while not mentioning it suggests they live in the area.

Smells, and their associations, can be powerful. Having been recently reminded of that, I must remember to use them effectively when writing.

Flash Fiction – Organized Crime

Public domain clipboard icon.

This story was written for a contest. I was given the genre, crime caper; the location, a comic book shop ; and an object that had to be mentioned, a clipboard. The story had to be 1000 words maximum, and submitted within 48 hours. Posted here as submitted. This submission placed first in the group of stories with these requirements.

Synopsis [part of the submission]: The mastermind of a perfect crime reflects on what went right, and struggles with why things went wrong.

The key to the perfect crime is organization, and I was organized. I’d had eight months to prepare. It started with the two weeks I invested in dating Julia, the building department clerk. We kept dating after that, but then it was pleasure, not work. Eight months was more time than I’d prepared for any previous job, but this wasn’t just gold. I was going for a hat trick: gold, rare Scotch, data, and rare comics. I know, a hat trick is three, but since I worked part time at the comic book shop, stealing from there didn’t count. Just to get that job took a month learning about comics, and then three months playing the free-spending fanboy. Meanwhile, I assembled my team — my regulars, and a bunch of new folks.

Julia helped, not just by finding new team members, but also by preparing checklists to keep me organized. She gave me a translucent pink plastic clipboard. “Don’t use your phone or your computer,” she said. “It’s easily monitored and leaves a record. Use a checklist and keep it on the clipboard so it is handy. Shred the paper after, and there’s no record.”

So, there I was, Saturday night, or, more accurately, Sunday morning, clipboard in hand, starting with step one on the checklist: “Use my employee key to enter Crazy Cal’s Comics” (check). Julia had recommended that as step one, since that was the official beginning of the crime. I was lucky to have met her — fantastic in bed and almost as obsessive as me. We got along great.

The next step was admitting Garry (check). He attached his phone to the alarm and gave me a thumbs up seconds later. My entry and recent video had been removed from the alarm log. Nothing would be recorded while we worked.

“How are things on the buses?”

“Everyone’s fine, and no one is paying attention to the buses.” I checked the appropriate lines. I’d hired two tour buses and had them parked in the lot behind the building, such that no one could see people walking between them and the back door. This was the fourth weekend I’d hired the buses and parked them there, so the patrolling cops didn’t give them a second glance.

I opened the back door, and flashed the cat toy laser, signaling all clear (check). People streamed silently out of both buses. My people were well trained. Everyone moved to their positions. Alpha team removed the posters (check), and they started cutting the side wall to the jewelry store (check). Beta team worked the other side wall (check), leading to the hosting company, and the gamma team set up the rig (check), for getting to the artisanal Scotch bar upstairs. Delta team stayed in the book shop.

Of the four businesses, the comic book shop had the weakest security, and offered easy access to the others. Gold was my game, but when Julia pointed out the possibilities here, and encouraged me to go for it, I decided to enter the big leagues. It was the most complex and costly job I’d organized, but it was going to set me up for life.

My teams moved between the racks, more heroic than the illustrated crusaders behind them, more stealthy than the villain action figures on the shelves overhead. I was the director of a well-choreographed ballet. I was tempted to run the security cameras for a few minutes, to show off my work, but of course that was not on the checklist.

 If I was the director — or was it the choreographer? — Julia was the producer. In the movies, they never show anyone paying the bills to rent rehearsal space for the crime, organizing health insurance payroll deductions for the phony businesses to ensure team members are cared for, or creating phony tour companies to charter buses. She looked after all the paperwork. I wish she had come tonight, to witness my success at organizing the troops. But, as she said, “Your strength is the hands-on work. Mine’s support.” It was amazing how well she took to criminal activities, but I suspect pleasing me was a big motivator. It’s nice to have made a difference in someone’s life.

All teams had access. Three check marks and I started the next page.

As some team members removed items, others left phony replacements. The gold bars were replaced with gold plated steel. Replica bottles of rare scotches, filled with Johnnie Walker Red, went into the Scotch bar. Delta team members placed photocopies of rare comics, sealed in Mylar bags, into the display case. The data was only copied. It might be months before anyone knew there had been a crime. Julia assured me the materials would be out of state within six hours, and out of the country in twelve. She and my gold guy had worked together on how to get the loot sold. The advances they’d arranged covered expenses, and a lot more was promised.

My teams were repairing the damage to the walls and ceiling, and we were still on schedule (check). The paint would dry within an hour.

“Garry, confirm continuity.” He compared the store to photos he’d taken on arrival. He moved a poster two inches to the right. No one would know we’d been here.

“All good, boss.”

Check.

“You got the data USB from the beta team lead?” Julia had been particularly worried about the data USB, since it was small and easily lost.

He patted his pocket. “Yes.”

Check.

“Reactivate alarm.” Garry reactivated the alarm, with a thirty second delay, and left. I heard the buses pull away. Check, check and last item check. I put the clipboard down, looked around the shop, and congratulated myself. Well done. I left, locked the door behind me, and slipped into the darkness. If only I hadn’t left the clipboard behind. I wonder why Julia didn’t add that to the checklist. If she ever comes to visit, I’ll ask her.

Ontario Film Authority Gone – Now What?

BC Film Classification film tags, from the early 1970s.

The Ontario government announced last Friday that it is shutting down the Ontario Film Authority. This is the provincial government agency that classifies films and home video distributed in Ontario. The plan is to create “a modern framework for film classification.” Meanwhile, films still require classifications. Ontario will temporarily use the classifications from British Columbia. The closure is intended to save the film industry money.

It’s no secret that the film industry does not like classification, though cost is not the issue. Large distributors want non-restrictive ratings to maximize their audience. It is small distributors who find the costs difficult. At $4.20 a minute, it can cost $300 to $500 to classify a film in Ontario (and there are five other classification agencies for other jurisdictions in Canada, all charging similar rates). This is nothing to a major company, but prohibitive to a small distributor, such as local video store considering importing a foreign film to offer for sale. However, the rise of streaming has reduced demand for DVDs and given new markets for independents, most film festivals do not require classification (unless children attend), and home video stores are mostly memories.

Despite disliking classification, large American film distributors have long tolerated it as it allows them to avoid complaints about content and appear to be responsible product manufacturers. Their preferred system of classification is industry controlled – the MPAA. The MPAA members are Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, Netflix Studios LLC, Paramount Pictures Corporation, Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc., Universal City Studios LLC, and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. Among other benefits, the MPAA helps their members maintain their oligopoly by giving more restrictive ratings to independent and foreign films. The MPAA treats Canada as part of the United States for distribution purposes – it’s considered the domestic market – so the need to deal with six classification agencies is Canada is a nuisance.

One of the MPAA arguments for maintaining control of classification is that industry classification prevents government censorship. Ironically, my comparative studies of film ratings in Canada and the United States (my MA thesis, and a forthcoming paper) show that industry ratings, although favouring some distributors, are on average more restrictive than government ratings. MPAA film classifications are more restrictive than the Canadian provincial average for 80% of all films. In their zeal to self-police and manage film content, the MPAA errs on the side of caution. However, there is some evidence that the higher MPAA ratings are due to Americans being more concerned than Canadians about portrayals of sexuality and drug use. Conversely, Canadian classification agencies are often more concerned about portrayals of violence than the MPAA.

If the end result of the Ontario government’s shut down of the Film Authority is to adopt MPAA ratings, a suggestion that has come up before, we will have ratings that are on average more restrictive than they are now, and do not reflect the concerns and sensibilities of Ontario residents. Meanwhile, the government has chosen to use the ratings of British Columbia – the most liberal of the agencies in Canada.

Canada’s system of rating films is unusual. In the earliest days of the film industry, censorship was local. As the industry grew and consolidated, national systems became common, usually run by or for the government (except in the United States), with the actual classifications performed by government employees, an appointed board, a non-profit corporation, or a film industry association. The provincial agencies in Canada rejected a national system in 1921, “as each province has a different class of people to deal with.” However, there have been some movements to shared systems.

Newfoundland abandoned film classification before joining Confederation, though ratings from Nova Scotia are used informally. The Yukon Territory has never had film classification, but ratings from BC are used informally. Nunavut and the Northwest Territories use classifications from other jurisdictions, typically Alberta. In the 1980s, New Brunswick shut down their agency, and started using classifications from Nova Scotia (for English films) and Quebec (for French films). In the 1990s, Prince Edward Island started using the Nova Scotia classifications, and Saskatchewan started using the BC classifications.

In this context, Ontario’s decision to use the BC classifications is part of a decades-long trend. And while provincial ratings do vary, my studies have shown they are the same about 75% of the time. Where Ontario and BC differ, BC is more liberal, and also more consistent. The latter may be a result of classifications performed by full-time employees instead of public board members working three or four days a month.

What does Ontario lose by using BC classifications? First, BC does not classify home video, except for adult sex films. For home video releases of theatrical films, the theatrical release rating can be used, but the content may be different. For straight to video films, there would be no classification.

Second, the Film Authority and its predecessor, the Ontario Film Review Board, answered to the Ontario government. If you had a concern about how a film was rated, you could take it up with your local member of the provincial parliament. People did, and in some cases the ratings of films were discussed in the legislature. The provincial classification agency increased the age rating of The Hunger Games a few weeks after release, in response to public complaints.

Third, the agency held regular public sessions to gather public input on film classification. Apart from the transparency, these sessions also allowed cable distributors and streaming companies to learn about the board’s approach to classification, and public concerns, and take those into consideration when classifying their content.

Finally, Ontario is a member of the Canadian Home Video Rating System (CHVRS). In the 1990s, with the rise of home video, and encouraged by a film industry challenged with selling videotapes in different Canadian jurisdictions with different classifications, the agencies largely (but not completely) harmonized their ratings (except Quebec). The industry created the Canadian Home Video Rating System (CHVRS), an average of the provincial ratings, except Quebec. With Ontario no longer rating films, their information is not considered for the CHRVS rating.

As noted above, ratings within Canada are largely similar, so the temporary use of BC ratings has minimal impact. However, if the government moves to adopt MPAA ratings, that would have significant impact, due to the more restrictive MPAA ratings. It’s unknown how the use of MPAA ratings in Ontario, if adopted, might affect the CHVRS.

It is likely that classification, in some form, will continue. Protection of children was long used to justify film censorship in the past. Protection of children is the rationale for classification, and the United Nations encourages jurisdictions to have film classification, in order to protect children from harmful film content (a right of children under Article 17 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child). Concerns about protecting children in the wake of Ontario’s decision are already being raised.

Speaking of children’s rights, the UN Convention also requires that children have input in decisions that affect them. This means, among many other things, that children should be involved in film classification systems. An international study I conducted found British Columbia was one of three jurisdictions in Canada that recognized this, and had some input from children. Ontario did not have any input from children. Again, this means using BC classifications is an improvement. The MPAA does not have any input from children.

Apart from protecting children, what difference does classification make? Does it matter who classifies a film, or what those classifications are? Yes. Classification is a subtle form of censorship. To maximize the audience, films must not contain material deemed inappropriate for teenagers. It is not unusual for distributors to quietly cut films, in pre or post production, in order to obtain a lower age rating in a country or province.

Classification is not the only tool for governments to limit film content. In Canada, every province has the right to ban films, for any reason. This was confirmed in the 1970s, when Nova Scotia banned Last Tango in Paris. The Ontario courts ruled in 2005 that prior restraint – mandatory classification – is not constitutional, but to date the Ontario government has ignored that decision. Ontario bans dozens of films every year. These films are usually adult sex films, but they have not been found criminally obscene, and any film can be banned, without any hearing.

The temporary decision to use BC Classifications is a small change, but one wonders what consultations will be done for the new system, and what the result will be. Adoption of the MPAA ratings would benefit no one except large film companies. We may also see more extensive use of the provincial right to ban films.

However, one tries to be optimistic. The Ontario government might follow the lead of Manitoba and Alberta, and declare no films will be banned. They might also consider agencies like the British Board of Film Classification. Though originally created by the film industry, it answers to the national government (and local councils may choose to overrule it in their area). It has good participation of children. Its extensive online information about classified films includes details on any cuts made to achieve a classification. In short, it is film classification that is transparent, open, participatory, and neutral. Ontario could become a model for film classification in Canada. Fingers crossed.

Flash Fiction – Social Night

Image of the ISS from NASA, nasa.gov

This story was written for a contest. I was given the genre, comedy; the location, a space station; and an object that had to be mentioned, a surgical mask. The story had to be 1000 words maximum, and submitted within 48 hours. Posted here as submitted. This submission placed first in the group of stories with these requirements.

Synopsis [part of the submission]: Susan, a member of the female crew at a space station in a slightly twisted future, has high hopes for the evening when a mission crew of men arrive.

Honor among thieves? Not when a mission arrives. Then it’s every woman for herself and devil take the hindmost.

Rachel announced the mission at breakfast. “Out bound. Ten men. One social night, one rest night.” There were groans at the number, and just one social night, but it was still good news. For eight months, we only had each other’s company for the weekly social night. More action than I got before my arrest, but it would be nice to score a man.

Rachel posted their bios on the wall, along with details we didn’t care about, like which system they were exploring. Thanks to relativity, if they even came back, it would be long after we died. Health details were the usual – fit, sterile, and healthy, like us, and mid-twenties. Our ages varied, depending when we were sent and how long we’d been here, but thanks to good care and no sun, none of us looked our age.

The details that mattered were looks and rank. Captain Ninguno was the hottest – highest ranked, ebony skin, blue eyes. Rachel would go for him. As the lowest ranked crew, I’d be lucky to get any of them. But in for a penny, in for a pound. Cleaning wasn’t all bad. I listened to books while working. I learned proverbs and other things.

The shuttle docked right at 1500, and we lined up for the welcome. They looked surprised to see us, as usual. Everyone knew station crews were similar short, thin women, with short hair and identical uniforms, but ship crews reacted as if we were twenty identical twins. The men were oblivious to our different hair and skin colors, though not the different numbers and colors of our rank stripes.

Rachel stepped forward and shook Ninguno’s hand. “Welcome aboard ICQ 17.” He looked as handsome in person as he did in his image, but he was wearing a surgical mask. Odd, but the blue brought out his eyes.

“Thank you, Station Leader Rachel.” Introductions were made as per protocol. It was always pleasing how big the men were, and how obviously happy they were to see us. It was a long trip from Earth, although apparently men did not tire of each other the way women did. Ninguno ended his introductions with an explanation about his mask – not protocol, but neither was wearing one. “I have acquired a rare infection of the upper respiratory tract. Control is investigating, but meanwhile I must wear this, to prevent spread. My apologies.” Rachel tried not to frown, and I was disappointed myself. Even if my plans worked, that would limit our pleasure on social night.

Social night started with dinner, in three hours. Meanwhile, the men unloaded their equipment and our supplies. As we prepared for the evening, the others called me to one emergency after another. The soap dispenser in the shower stopped working. After I fixed that, the hot water ran out. The crew toilets clogged. The clean uniforms were covered with lint. Fortunately, I’d bathed and set aside a clean uniform earlier, and even bleached my hair.

Ninguno proposed the first toast, as per protocol. “Yonder all before us lie deserts of vast eternity. To the crew of ICQ 17, who make the departure so pleasant.” He didn’t look at me, sitting at the furthest table with the other one-stripers, but by his toast I knew he’d seen my note in his linens.

“Anyone going to try?” said Anna, to the table.

“I’ve made cookies for Derrick,” said Lori. “Just need to slip them to him.”

“Good luck,” said Stella. “Beatrice has her eye on him.”

“The cookies haven’t failed me yet.”

Regardless of how or if we paired, the two hours of dancing were when everyone got some contact. I hoped Lori succeeded with Derrick – he was a decent kisser. There was no kissing when I had my turn with Ninguno, as he still wore the mask, but we danced close.

“You were right,” he whispered in my ear. “The smartest, most beautiful, and most confident woman in the room, as I always expected. May I have you tonight?”

Rachel, nearby, tolerating Hogaza kissing her neck, glared at me.

“Yes.” Success! Though I was not sure why he’d always expected anything of me.

“Thank you, Angelica.”

“Who?” I said, but the bell sounded to switch partners, and he didn’t hear me.

At 2200, the unpaired women returned to the bunk room, Beatrice among them. Derrick held Lori’s hand, a foolish grin on his reddened face. He’d started on the cookies. Ninguno came to me.

“Where should we go?”

There were no private rooms, but we always found spaces. Mine was the cleaning closet, already prepared with a bed made of spare linens on crates of cleaning supplies. I led him to it, and the space impressed him. “Always a resourceful woman, Angelica. I’m looking forward to the honor of being with you and making love in half-gee.”

He removed the mask and leaned down to kiss me.

“Wait.” He stopped. “Your infection?”

“A lie to save myself for you, Angelica.”

A lie to Control made him brave or stupid. I was starting to suspect the latter.

“I’m Susan. Why are you calling me Angelica?”

“Are you not Angelica, leader of the resistance? You used the poem.”

“To seduce you. I don’t know about any resistance, and don’t care.”

“You’re just a one-striper crew, a cleaner?”

“Yes.”

“This is awkward.”

I slapped him. He put the mask back on and left. I slammed the door behind him.

A few minutes later, there was a knock at the door. I opened it, expecting Ninguno’s apology, or Rachel announcing demerits. Hogaza stood there, half-dressed and looking like a bashful Norse god.

“Yes?”

“If you spend what’s left of the night with me, you will forget everything between you and Ninguno.”

“I will?”

“I shall endeavor to accomplish that.”

“Come in. I guess half a loaf is better than none.”

[To fully appreciate the comedy, such as it is, note that ninguno is Spanish for none, and hogaza is Spanish for loaf.]

RWA – One Year Anniversary

‘Heart Loves the Ocean,’ by Jan Hull, at White Point in 2018. The artwork is now installed in Mahone Bay. https://www.thestoneist.com/ Photo by Tim Covell.

It’s been a year since I joined the Romance Writers of America. As with any subscription, it’s time to consider if it’s worth the money.

I joined to encourage myself to finish a romance novel I started in 2012. I had a completed draft of about 22,000 words, but it needed a rewrite to flesh it out and resolve plot problems. I was working on it periodically, and considered an hour a week good progress. I thought joining RWA would give me the incentive and tools to finish the work – if I acted like a romance writer, I’d be a romance writer: Fake it ’til you make it.

The bad new is that a year later, I’m still not finished.

The good news is that I’ve been working more on that novel, getting up to about five hours a week for the past month. It’s taken a long time to get there, but regular social media and email check-ins with other local romance writers has helped me achieve that.

Hanging out with people who have published 2 or 3 or 50 romances, or who see regular income from their writing, is enough to bring on imposter syndrome. Fortunately, there are other unpublished writers in the local group and the RWA, and I feel welcome there.

For all that writing is a solitary activity, a supportive group, like a writing partner, is valuable. I’m renewing my RWA membership, and hope to have the novel finished by this time next year.