The Palm Tree Solution

My forthcoming novel Ocean’s Lure has been read by half-a-dozen beta readers (thanks!), and I am reviewing the comments and making edits. On the whole, the comments were positive. It stood out that regular romance readers were generally more positive than non-regular romance readers, which I found reassuring, and no one suggested I was doing any of the terrible things men do when writing female characters.

He says he loves her, he says he loves her not.

One comment was that my hero makes a verbal declaration of love too soon. It’s a fair point, and I struggled with whether to include it when I wrote the draft. Verbal declarations of love are a delicate subject, and I am much influenced by a 1986 Vicki Hearne essay in the New Yorker, in which she wrote, among other things, “Cats do not declare love much, they enact it” (August 25, 1986). At the same time, I felt a verbal declaration was something my character would do. I should confess that I also felt readers might expect this – much as I do not want to ‘write to market,’ I also know such declarations are common in the genre, and perhaps expected by readers.

Fortunately, I can have my cake and eat it too, by making the question of whether a declaration of love is appropriate the character’s problem, not mine. Making a plot or character problem the character’s problem works for a variety of scenarios. Not sure how to get a character from A to B? That becomes something the character needs to solve. Not sure if a nickname makes sense? Let the character explain it. Timeline confusing? Someone can explain it to another character. Is this just a way to sneak in exposition and cover or acknowledge awkward plot or character points? Yes, but it can be effective. I call this the Palm Tree Solution.

Armandoartist / CC BY-SA

Film director Richard Rush wanted a particular location for his 1980 film The Stunt Man (view trailer). The story concerns the making of a period film, set in northern Europe during World War I. However, the location Rush wanted had palm trees everywhere. As Rush explains in this interview (12:44 to 14:40), he solved his directing problem of the palm trees in his desired location by making it a problem for the director character in the film. Here’s how the scene he mentions appeared in the film (30 seconds at start of clip).

A bit of a cheat, perhaps, but my character will make his declaration of love, he’ll be unsure if that’s the right thing to do, and the heroine will suggest it’s too soon. This is in character for both, and he has the point of view at the time, so his hesitation is easy to add. My hesitation to include the declaration is addressed, those who’d like the hero to make such a declaration are satisfied, those who object are satisfied, and the story is improved. Thank you, beta readers.

Studying Romance Novels

During three decades of part-time university studies, I developed an interest in the social, industrial, and technical forces that shape the content and understanding of films. Various aspects of the subject continue to fascinate me, which explains why I still research and write about film classification systems, why I recently bought a Laserdisc player, and other eccentricities. That’s my story, and I’m sticking with it.

Although reading and writing romance novels is a pleasure, I can’t help but consider the academic film theory I learned and how it might apply. Since much of the theory in film studies originates in literature studies, this is not a stretch, but rather than re-inventing the wheel, I should look at what has already been done. Step one completed: I ordered Janice Radway’s classic work, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy and Popular Literature.

Meanwhile, I’ve just acquired a copy of Genre: The Musical. I obtained this for an essay by Richard Dyer: “Entertainment and Utopia.” To give credit where credit is due, this essay was brought to my attention when Linda Williams used Dyer’s theoretical approaches to musicals in her work studying narrative pornographic films.

Dyer notes that entertainment pleases us by showing utopia – a simple world where people have agency and intense feelings, and there is abundance, honesty, and community.

Richard Dyer’s categories and definitions of utopian aspects in entertainment. “Entertainment and Utopia,” in Genre: The Musical, edited by Rick Altman. Routledge, London, 1981, 175-189. Originally printed in Movie #24, Spring 1977, 2-13.

Sounds good, though he also notes that entertainment typically disregards issues related to race, class, and sexuality. We’ve made little progress, except perhaps on sexuality, since he wrote that in 1977. He adds that since our entertainments take place in a capitalist society, they promote consumption and the notion that capitalism can lead us to utopia.

For people to accept utopia in a story, there needs to be a connection to the present reality – without drawing too much attention to how the present is not utopia. That might make us question capitalism. Dyer proposes three approaches for how musical films attempt to connect reality and utopia without dwelling on the gap:

  • Separated, where the musical numbers present the utopia, and the story takes place in the present. This is typically a “backstage musical,” such as 42nd Street. The musical numbers eventually take over the film. It occurs to me that this is similar to romance stories where an ordinary person meets a billionaire (typically successful in business). Their world is the utopia, seen in isolated scenes before the ordinary person crosses over to it.
  • Integrated, where the musical numbers introduce the problem or the solution to the problem, in an effort to distract, and make both the problem and the solution literally upbeat. Mamma Mia, for example, resolves finding your father through a series of ABBA songs. This is like contemporary romance and especially romantic comedy, where meet cutes and misunderstandings are key parts of the plot. Suspense, faith, or erotica are other distractions, and there’s often a subplot of achieving business success. Like musicals, the lead couple may have several ‘solos,’ the supporting cast may have some numbers, and we end with the lovers duet.
  • Dyer describes the third form as the least common: Dissolved, where the film is somehow distanced from the present day. This is often done by setting the film in a past, which, no matter how grim it seems at first, works with our sense of nostalgia to evoke a glorious utopian era. Oliver! comes to mind as a musical film example. The distance is also a distraction. This category would apply to historical romances, as well as stories involving modern royalty, the paranormal, and even Amish stories, and may be the most popular form of romance novel. Utopia, or a happy ending, is easier to achieve in a more refined, magical, or simpler time.

These categories are not necessarily exclusive. An historical romance with a wealthy duke and comic misunderstandings gives us utopia that is primarily dissolved from our present realities, with elements of separation and integration. It could be argued that not all films, or even all musicals, present utopia. However, romance novels, with happy endings by definition, do give us utopia.

I find it useful, when reading and writing romance, to be aware of the tensions between presenting relatable characters and situations and presenting a happy ending, and ways to address those tensions. I also find it useful to recognize how entertainment utopias may ignore social issues. Modern romance novels are often good at addressing issues of sexuality, but race and class are less frequently addressed. Agency (including sexual), intense feelings, abundance, honesty, and community are common to most happy ever after endings, but there’s room to add more utopian aspects. That would be good for everyone – and might help sales too!

There Must be a Better World Somewhere

A couple of months ago, I justified spending time writing on the grounds that the world needs positive stories (Pondering the Pandemic). Since then, things have gotten worse. We appear to be recovering from the pandemic, but there is still so much we don’t know about COVID-19. There’s no vaccine and treatments remain uncertain. Meanwhile, I’ve learned I have a cancer that probably won’t kill me, but does compromise my immune system. I’m more likely to be a carrier, and more likely have complications if I develop COVID-19.

But the pandemic has become old news, replaced by stories of racist murders, the protests those killings have sparked, the riots that follow some protests, the trampling of protest and press rights, and the escalating authoritarian madness coming from the American president.

With all this going on, I still believe we need positive stories, though in the last few months I have done nothing to contribute to that pool. My first romance, Ocean’s Lure (new title!), was with beta readers (the comments were mostly supportive). I could have been working on another story, but I started a new day job, and my editing sideline saw three projects originally to be done in sequence all come due at the same time. Another few weeks, and Ocean’s Lure will get its last revision before publication, coming late summer or fall.

Happy Reader Mascaron & a Sprinkler Alarm (New York, NY)
Some rights reserved by takomabib No changes made.

When I talk about writing positive stories, since I am writing romance, the key aspect is they demonstrate people finding supportive and healthy relationships. Within the genre, that’s the HEA – happy ever after. That does not necessarily mean the relationships are always a straight white man marrying a straight white woman. And even if that is the primary relationship in the story, I may sneak a less conventional relationship into backstory or subplot, and frame it in a positive manner.

However, there are other things I like to promote in my work. I believe every story is a political statement – it expresses what is good and bad about various power relations, group decisions, use of resources, and so on. So I try and show my characters, or at least my good characters, as respecting the environment, being concerned about poverty, achieving satisfying work, enjoying creative expression, appreciating (and representing) sexual and racial diversity, and so on.

It is easy to say that none of this is realistic. People end up in lousy relationships, with lousy jobs, and racism and sexism persist. Yes, that may be the reality, but stories can tell us what is possible. Writing and reading stories that portray optimistic solutions to social problems is itself an act of optimism, and a first step to resistance and change, leading to a better world.

The Price of Rice in China

Some years ago, if I made what was considered an irrelevant or pointless remark at the dinner table, the response was “What does that have to do with the price of rice in China?” At the time, I was not acquainted with the butterfly effect, or chaos theory, so I could not make the only appropriate response: Everything.

As I slog through editing my romance novel, I’ve pondered the point of the work. This round of editing is checking grammar – weeding out flaws such as adverbs. There’s an undeniable (and undeniably nerdy) pleasure in finding a specific verb that eliminates an adverb. But it takes a lot of time. And on every re-read, I find new errors. This week I discovered a character’s clothing was inconsistent. She runs out of the house without a coat, and a few chapters later she comes in and hangs up her wet coat. It’s not as simple as fixing the first and last reference. I need to check for mentions of coat or no coat during the time she is out, and later references to the coat being wet or her being without a coat. Sorting this out is satisfying, but again time consuming. Is this editing – indeed, the whole novel writing project – a good use of my time?

There’s a lot of unhappiness in the world, and a lot of good, important causes I could support. I could be fighting to protect the environment, improve equality, or elect more responsible government. Instead, I’m flipping through a thesaurus trying to find a better way to say ‘walked carefully.’ That seems callous. It’s not as if I do nothing else but write. I vote, which should not be noteworthy, but many people do not. I make the occasional donation to various causes. And I have a second job, so the time spent writing is not a big part of my week. Still, is writing a romance novel going to make the world a better place? Will it affect the price of rice in China? Yes.

Photo of rice field terraces.
Photo by Tom Fisk on Pexels.com

Fiction takes reality and re-arranges it to show us what is possible. We read stories where the crimes are solved and the couple fall in love because we like to see that it is possible. Stories not only declare it possible, but can show us the way, whether it’s through new ways to identify unknown bodies, or by providing examples of good and bad proposals. We have many stories – do we need more? Yes again.

First, we need to know what is possible now. And second, the population is growing. There are another 83 million people every year, and they all need something to read. Something that shows what is possible. In my writing, I show what is possible. I promote caring for the environment, equality, and responsible government. The reading of this novel might dramatically affect the price of rice. I remind myself of that, and dive in to sort out my character’s coat, and finish the rest of the editing.

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.