Monthly Archives: April 2011

Unreliable narrators, or, don’t believe everything you read

Not even if you wrote it yourself.

See, when I wrote several days ago (well, April 15), that I was giving up on my scriptwriting experiment, I really meant it. I really believed myself. I was frustrated by having to pause the action. After every eight or ten words. Of dialogue. And having to keep inventing different irrelevant. Actions. To give readers. Something. To. Look. At, instead of letting them pay attention to the story.

You know, the story. The reason we’re bothering to turn ourselves inside out. Trying to write a script made me feel like a dog on a leash held by a careless, hostile owner. Whenever I wanted to – needed to – go immerse myself in exploring a wonderful aroma, the format yanked me away by the throat and said “Bad dog! Time to go on to the next panel! Sitstayheelfetch!”

So I quit.

But I didn’t stay quit. I had to go scratch that itch and sniff that strange scent. I had to try again to script my story instead of just telling it. And I really don’t know why, except that this uncomfortable awkward process made me look at my people and my events and my way of introducing them to the world differently.

I didn’t reach the arbitrary 100 page goal. I don’t care. I learned something about another way to present a story. I spent time trying to tell a story in a way that somebody else might want to read. In a way, I had fun whacking that brick wall with my skull. Maybe I even dented the bricks just a little.

The very best intentions, plus ignorance

(The Tomato Chronicles, part 2)

So, to begin with, I bought and planted a lot of heirloom tomato seeds – probably around 70 – and pretty much all of them came up, much sooner than I expected.

Heirloom tomato seedlings just after sprouting

Tomato seedlings, only four days after planting the seeds

And that’s where I went wrong. I was told that tomato seeds need to be kept warm to germinate. What I heard was “tomato seeds and seedlings need warmth more than anything else, except maybe water.” Oops.

I kept my seedlings nice and warm up near the ceiling, about three feet away from the only light in the room. And it’s not a particularly bright light. And my seedlings grew and grew, and I was happy. Until I showed Sue the Master Gardener a picture of them.

“Oh, my, they’re leggy,” said Sue. “Are you giving them lots of light?”

“Oh, yes,” I said. “They’re not very far at all from the ceiling light. Only a couple of feet.”

“Well, they need more light so they won’t be so spindly,” said Sue.

“But if I put them in a window, they’ll be cold.”

Sue is a very patient person. “They only need to be warm till they germinate,” she said. “Too much heat and not enough light is what makes them so tall and thin. You need to get them under lights right away.”


So I spent several days trying to grow seedlings under a fairly wobbly light that kept trying to nosedive right into the starter trays. The tomatoes got taller and taller and twined around each other in loops and spirals and square knots. At last I gave up on lights and moved them to a windowsill.

A tangle of tomato seedlings with long fragile stems

Little tomato plants searching everywhere for light

They may not have been healthy, but they were determined. And I was showing my true colors as an abusive tomato mommy.

Never mind inventing FTL

What I want is a Tardis.

Whaddaya mean, you never heard of a Tardis? Go watch some Doctor Who, okay? Oh, it’s not shown in your area? All right, quick explanation. Doctor Who is an insanely long-lived British television series focusing on the adventures of the Doctor, an impressively humanoid alien being – he looks just like a British actor! – who travels through time and space in an old-fashioned British police box called the Tardis. (When the series started, these police boxes were an ordinary part of London scenery, I’m told.)

Now, I don’t insist on a fancy working model of a Tardis. I’ll accept a second hand, slightly defective model that doesn’t travel anywhere. Because the Tardis has a special feature that makes it the finest spaceship design ever, even when out of warranty and nonmobile.

It’s bigger inside than outside.

You want one too now, don’t you? Just imagine having all the storage space you could ever want, and then taking a second look inside the coat closet and realizing that there’s a seventy-three bedroom mansion inside. And inside that, Yellowstone Park. And inside that, the Great Wall of China and all the pyramids of Egypt. And inside that…..

Oh, I want one. I’ll even let you use part of it – you can have the linen closet. And all the infinite space it contains. Okay?

BTW – If you read this far with no idea of what FTL means –

  1. Congratulations, you are admirably persistent!

  2. FTL is an abbreviation for “faster than light”, as in the ability of spaceships in science fiction stories – think Star Trek or Star Wars – to travel from one star to another in a matter of a few days or weeks instead of a few years or centuries.

    Unfortunately, physicists agree that we can’t do that. 186,000 miles a second; it’s not just a good idea, it’s the law.

Come to think of it – if you can have infinite space parked next to your house, what do you need FTL for?

Oh yeah. Traveling faster than anything really can might come in handy when you’re trying to get out of the Tardis again, right?

Trying something new

The Tomato Chronicles, part 1

It wasn’t my fault, really it wasn’t.

There I was at the Collingswood Farmers’ Market last August, and there was one of the vendors with all kinds of strange-looking heirloom tomatoes for sale. So I bought a pint basket of assorted tomatoes, and they tasted amazing. All right, I admit that I deliberately planned to buy some more this year. But that was all.

Then, come February – and it’s not my fault that it was an exceptionally cold, gray, snowy February – I was innocently shopping for groceries when I passed a rack full of seed envelopes. And some of the envelopes had pictures of tomatoes. And some of the pictured tomatoes were so big and red that I wanted to take a bite out of the envelope – hey, it was February, I hadn’t tasted a good tomato in six months – and some of the tomatoes on the envelopes were purple! Or green! or black!

In short, eight or ten varieties of heirloom tomato seeds, and I have so much self-control that I only bought six of them.

Box Car Willie. Cherokee Purple. Brandywine. Aunt Ruby’s German Green. Black Krim. Romesco. Even the names are appetizing to roll around your mouth.

Then, having gone that far, I needed to find out how to make them grow. Not that I expected any results at all. But I talked to people and I poked around online, and then I bought a couple of seed starting kits, with a dozen peat pellets each and a lid to keep the seeds cozy and humid. I waited impatiently till the beginning of March – May 15 is the “frost-free” date around here – and then I opened up the kits.

They didn’t look promising. Each one contained a dozen objects that resembled large, fibrous, light brown coins. I read the directions one last time and dribbled warm water slowly over the coins. They turned black. More water. They slowly, lopsidedly, determinedly started to grow taller and taller. By the time the peat had sopped up all the warm water, I had two kits with two dozen little black drums in them, about an inch across and something over an inch tall.

My friend Sue the Master Gardener said that tomato seeds need to be nice and warm, so after sprinkling two or three seeds – sometimes an accidental four seeds – over each pellet (and dropping a few, maybe five, between the pellets when my fingers slipped) and smoothing just enough peat over the seeds to cover them and sticking labels on the kits so I would know what was planted on which pellet, I put the lids back on and stuck the kits on a high shelf, up in the warm air that was only to be found at ceiling level that month. I didn’t expect anything to happen.

Even if the seeds were going to germinate, everybody said it wouldn’t happen for a week to a week and a half. At best, in seven days I might see little hints of green breaking the surface. So every day, when I peeked under the lids that held in the moist air, I reminded myself what an idiot I was being. But I kept checking.

I planted the seeds on a Wednesday. This is what I saw the following Sunday, four days later.

Heirloom tomato seedlings just after sprouting

Tomato seedlings, only four days after planting the seeds

To be continued…

It’s hard to be an alto

on Palm Sunday, when no matter how choked up you may get, you have to keep singing the harmony all the way through “Were You There (when they crucified my Lord)”.

It’s all in how you tell the story

Something shocking happened. People who are responsible for the safety of thousands are so irresponsible that they take naps on the job. It’s a wonder nobody has been killed yet.

Something shocking happened. People are being forced to work under conditions that almost guarantee that they will put thousands of strangers in terrible danger. It’s a wonder nobody has been killed yet.

And, of course, these are the same story. Air traffic controllers falling asleep on the job while planes need to be directed to safe landings. Air traffic controllers forced to work long hours, often alone, on rotating shifts – switching constantly between working mornings and evenings and overnight – and finally unable to stay alert, betrayed by their bodies and their management.


I am a Script Frenzy dropout.

There, I said it.

(What is Script Frenzy? Well, it’s the little cousin of NaNoWriMo – little in the sense that fewer people seem to participate. Basic idea? Write a one hundred page script during April. And NaNoWriMo – long name, National Novel Writing Month – is a web-based event in which people try to write a short (fifty thousand word) novel during November, while encouraging each other on message boards. (The boards are also a feature of Screnzy, above.). The month is November; the nationality, these days, is whichever one you prefer – NaNo has become very international. I love it because it’s challenging and kind of goofy and reminds me that I’m not the only fool in the world trying to learn how to tell a story that other people might want to read.)

I tried to write a graphic novel script, I really did. And the format won. The problem is not so much what you have to write for a script. It’s what you can’t write. It’s not so much working with a verbal medium. It’s leaving it up to somebody else to tell your story – your story – in a visual medium. It’s not learning how to maintain continuity in a new type of storytelling. It’s having to break continuity every few lines to keep from making a panel that’s the fearsome wall’o’text.

I’m used to walls’o’text. Novels are walls of text, walls that I walk through with the greatest of ease when I’m reading, and build with immense effort when I’m writing. But even when the characters turn into puppets and the language sounds like it was translated into English from Nahuatl by someone who only speaks Basque and the plot is as improbable as that last simile, even then, novels are easier to write than scripts. Writing a script was like taking two or three steps and then realizing that somebody had tied my shoelaces together, even though I’m not wearing shoes with laces.

I quit.

Well, for this year.

Hello, blogreading subset of the world!

That’s right, it’s another blog.

And what’s this one intended to focus on? Well, focus is a word I’ve always had trouble with. It’s just not easy to focus when both your eyes are nearsighted, but one’s only a little short of the standard while the other one can’t see anything more than a palm’s length away clearly. So when my glasses are off, nothing is ever perfectly clear, unless I bring it to within half an inch of my more nearsighted eye, and that doesn’t work for things that are very big or very dangerous or very far away, which covers a lot of the universe.

Anyway, this is intended to be a blog mostly about the process of fiction writing, and reading.  Also, it’s a way to discipline myself to write something Every. Blessed. Day. no matter how much else is going on. But expect digressions.

Starting here. It’s more or less spring here in New Jersey…cold and wet and cloudy and raw, but getting greener by the day. These plants are in a hurry. They put up with hunkering down and enduring, like the rest of us, through half of December and then January and then February and probably about sixteen weeks of March, and they’ve had enough. Consider my tulips. Every year they send up flower buds that have every intention of being thoroughly tuliplike. The flower stalks get taller and taller and the buds get bigger and bigger and start to separate into petals – and then the squirrels eat them. Every year.

Anyhow, this year one tulip was clearly fed up. It wasn’t waiting for anybody. It wasn’t even waiting to push a couple of dead leaves aside when it grew up to the surface again. Nope. It just grew right through them and carried the leaves – willow oak, maple, pin oak – along.

Tulip leaf with several dead leaves from last fall impaled on it

Don’t mess with tulips, okay?