Way back when, during the first COVID lockdowns, I felt a bizarre optimism in the face of a very dangerous situation. I could take advantage of all that time stuck at home and write! I’d finish Book Three of my trilogy, and then work on that chick-lit novel I started. Then I’d teach myself Italian, refinish the basement, and finish ten new paintings. Yay! This downtime would not be wasted!
In reality, my writing output has been close to zero. (I also know only a few words in Italian, and the basement is still a mess.)
During the first few weeks after we flew back from Las Vegas in March, I limned out a couple chapters for the DARK EARTH series, but my concentration was stolen by the scary events outside. The words refused to flow. Paragraph after paragraph, I wrestled to convey my ideas with some kind of compelling rhythm, only to re-read and then delete them with a disgusted sigh. What was the matter with me? Where was my elusive muse?
Okay, then. I’d go back to the basics and start a journal, my “COVID Chronicles.” As most writers know, any time putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) can kickstart the creative process. Every morning, I’d curl up on the couch, coffee close at hand, and record the frightening statistics and my musings about the pandemic and its effect on our lives.
Damn, but that journal got boring in a hurry! There’s only so much one can write about doing the same things day after interminable day. Sure, I released some angst about not being able to travel, and missing my friends and family, and not going out to dance to live music. It also helped me reflect on how lucky Tim and I are during this disaster. Neither of us had to leave the house to work, and we kept the bills paid, food on the table, and the wine stock replenished. I certainly had no basis for whining. Unfortunately, all this makes for a very dry narrative, AND the exercise in writing did not translate into new enthusiasm for my novels. After five weeks, I tucked the journal away for good.
I also haven’t written anything for this website in . . . oh my god . . . eleven months. Wow. I’ve been nibbling at the edges of this post for over a week now, coming up with a few sentences only to stall. After that, it’s easy to disappear for a few hours down the black hole of TikTok. It’s funny. I think back to 2012 when I was traveling solo through eastern Europe. On the train to each new destination, I’d hunker down over my iPad, writing a post for my travel blog describing the last stop. Then upon arrival, I’d immediately find a café with wifi, upload the essay, and be off for new adventures. It was easy, and not just that, it was fun. But now, with endless hours to take advantage of, I struggle.
I think the problem lies in that for the last nine months, I’ve felt as though I’m in limbo, waiting in a station for a train that may never come. Trapped in the role of impotent spectator, I pace, uncertain as to the outcome of this year’s insanities, and helpless to do anything about them. But why would this stymie my writing? You’d think that my creating a timeline of events for my characters, one that leads them to a defined future that only I can decide, would be the ideal solution to the mental stagnation that fogs my brain. But so far, no joy. I’m just . . . stuck.
It’s a damned good thing I’ve still got my painting to keep me occupied. God knows what kind of craziness I’d be capable of committing without some form of creative outlet. As Shakespeare wrote in KING LEAR, “Oh, that way madness lies.”
Damned writer’s block. I’ve been afflicted with this debilitating condition for several months now, suffocating me in gloomy frustration. Granted, my year has been busy, leaving me little time to attempt to heal. Finally, however, I am starting to feel the warm sap of literary creativity rising in my veins.
Back in late spring, I attended the Writer’s Guild of Alberta convention here in Edmonton. It was delightful reconnecting with my fellow scribes, sharing stories of triumph and woe in negotiating the labyrinthine publishing process. As I had recently finished a total rewrite of my first book, Dark Earth, I especially looked forward to the presentation by Carolyn Forde, an agent for Transatlantic. Her talk was enlightening, and when she opened it up to Q and A, I raised my hand.
“I have two completed books of my planned trilogy,” I said. “Should I wait to complete the entire set and submit it to an agent as a whole, or should I try to sell the first book first?”
“Definitely submit your initial book first,” she replied, “and in your query letter note that there is series potential in your story.”
Alrighty then. I went home, recommitted to polishing my query into a sparkling gem. I wrote and rewrote, and then rewrote again, examining every word and phrase with a sternly critical eye. At long last, it seemed perfect. After a few days of researching prospective agents (including Ms. Forde), I sent out five submissions with hopeful confidence.
Crickets. That’s all I heard. Where had I gone wrong? Did the query letters suck? They obviously hadn’t grabbed an agent by the lapels, screaming, “You have to represent this book!” Or perhaps tales of adventure through a dystopian world aren’t in vogue right now. The literary universe does tend to run in cycles: One month, memoirs of alarmingly dysfunctional families top the best seller lists, only to be abruptly bumped off by stories of alien romance or magical lesbian Vikings. Damn it, what ever happened to the allure of a good-old exciting adventure tale? Would I have to tailor my writing into a narrow popular genre that may just become immediately passé?
I pondered my options, sinking into a writer’s funk as the unproductive days turned to weeks, and then to months. Should I start anew, breaking out the funny chick-lit novel I’d gotten several chapters into? Should I pay someone to critique my query letter? I was stuck, trapped rigid between walls of indecision and despair.
A simple text from my aunt was the catalyst that broke my inertia. I had sent copies of the first two books to her and my grandmother, and she mentioned how much they had enjoyed the story. “What happens next?” she asked. “I hope they get out of their dilemma!”
PING went a tiny bell in my brain. I had stranded Leni, Nick, and their plucky band of survivors in dire straits in Nelson, and that just wasn’t fair. They’d become quite real to me, even to the extent of them forcing me to rewrite parts of their stories. How could I be so cruel as to leave them hanging in desperate limbo?? That very day, I parked myself in front of the computer, determined to deliver them to their destinies.
It being the holidays, my progress has been erratic, shoehorned between shopping and baking and festivities. Adding to the challenge is my uncertainty as to what will actually happen to my intrepid warriors. I knew exactly where the final story would start (a funeral), and how it needs to end (triumph! Or not? You’ll see!), but the vast middle remains indistinct. For now. As in the past, the tale will evolve as my characters mold it. My job is simply to narrate their struggles.
It feels great to throw off the yoke of narrow publishing expectations. To hell with them! My epic saga needs a conclusion, and who knows? Perhaps gripping and well-written adventure/romance/suspense novels will claim the new top spot on every agent’s wish list.
And if not? Well, at least I’ll wipe out my guilt at leaving my beloved Nick and Leni in mortal danger!
Too much time has slipped away since I last posted . . . much of it creatively productive, I'm happy to say. Now, with a humble request for your indulgence, I'll try to bring this blog up to date in a literary genre with which I've rarely experimented: poetry!
1. ON FALLING IN LOVE WITH KAUAI AGAIN (Freeform):
Boasting roosters challenge the first golden light
That strings a molten pathway across restless waves.
Palm fronds dance a seductive hula to the music of the breeze,
Warm with sea brine and the scent of plumeria.
Feral cats pace stealthy through yellow-flowered scrub,
Scaring up a tsunami of tiny green dinosaurs.
Under the caressing surf, champagne sand bubbles,
Erasing the trail of my meandering passage.
A pearly shell, and driftwood twisted in an old man's smile,
I kneel at the brink of a tide pool as minnows dart from my shadow.
For a while, I linger in the crowd of coconut oiled tourists,
Umbrella-garnished Mai Tai sweet on my tongue.
Soon though, the green depths of tropical forests beckons,
Whispering of hidden waterfalls cold from jagged peaks.
Gnarled roots stair-step up a path slick with red mud.
"Place your feet carefully," the goddess says.
"My beauty requires caution."
I climb slowly through trees orgiastically embraced by vines,
Razor-edge mountains appear and are lost again in the mist.
Rain drifts across the sky, sudden soft waves easing sun-burnt skin,
And quickly chased away by a peek-a-boo sun.
In the benevolent storm's wake, waves sparkle white,
Enhaloed in a transparent arc of iridescent color.
2. ON MY WRITER'S RETREAT IN BANFF (Haiku series)
Glaciered mountain crags
Tower above snowy Banff.
I am here to write.
A writer's retreat.
Four days to finish my book
With like-minded souls.
Sunrise gilds the frost
Sparkling on my room's window.
I rise, determined.
Thesaurus at hand,
Computer in front of me,
I lose track of time.
Outside for a smoke,
The crystal air numbs my face.
My boots crunch on snow.
Black night, diamond stars.
I join my fellow women
Who also love words.
We talk of our books,
Our memoirs and poems and plans.
The Oxford Comma.
Laughter over wine,
And a collective groan at
Every day we meet
Between bouts hunched at our desks.
So near to "The End,"
I spend my last day indoors,
Finally, I rise
With a mission to complete:
Time to buy champagne.
Corks pop, bubbles rise.
Who better to toast with than
My sisters? My tribe?
3. ON REJECTION LETTERS (Limerick!)
My novel's finally finished, I'm thinking,
So to agents' websites I'm linking.
But they wield all of the power,
Reject my query in under an hour,
It's no wonder that writers start drinking!
4. ON HOW CHARACTERS TAKE ON A LIFE OF THEIR OWN (Especially relevant to me right now as I begin on Book Three of my trilogy, and I'm not sure exactly where it's going to go!)
What journeys will they take me on,
These offspring I've created?
What winding road will they opt for?
To what prospects are they fated?
Sacrilege, perhaps, breathing life
Into sparkling motes of imagination.
My punishment lies in discovering
The perils in the power of creation.
With no beating hearts, no pulsing veins,
No corporeal presence, but still . . .
Their smiles, their fears, their motives, their thoughts
To me, become astonishingly real.
"I know you," I murmur in affection,
Gazing in pride as they stretch their wings.
"I'll set forth the path you shall follow,
For I know what your future brings."
I set them into scenes of peril,
Deep contemplation, or the agonies of love.
"I shall guide you," I say in a whisper.
"Please trust me. I watch from above."
For a while, they follow quite willingly
Through every wild turn of events.
Then a beloved child balks and cries out,
"What you're having me do makes no sense!"
"You brought me into being as a timid soul,
Yet now you ask me to laugh blithely at pain.
Sure, I've grown, but not to the point of
Doing things that for me are insane."
"I know best," I insist. "Now, just do it."
He shrugs. "You'll be sorry, I fear."
Then to my profound consternation,
The false note rings through loud and clear.
Reeling in shock, I sag back in a panic,
My narrative plans shattered and crumbled.
He whispers, "Hush, now. Just follow my lead."
And I nod, enlightened and humbled.
Free will had blossomed in my children,
And I learned in their act of rebelling,
To let them help navigate this adventure.
After all, it's their story I'm telling.
Lately, I’ve been ranking each day into one of three categories. On an okay day, I accomplish one of the following: writing, painting, or getting in a workout. A good day includes two of these activities. Naturally, on a stellar day, I fit in all three.
I haven’t had a single stellar day in over a month, but I really don’t mind. Although my latest painting sits untouched, Book Two of my DARK EARTH trilogy is advancing in quantum leaps. Enrolling in that writing course with Athabasca University was one of the most rewarding decisions I’ve ever made.
Allow me to introduce you to my instructor/mentor, Angie Abdou (https://abdou.ca). Angie is a critically acclaimed Canadian author, and has seven books published in both fiction and non-fiction. Her novel IN CASE I GO is the only one I’ve read as of yet, but I found it mysterious, lyrical, and extremely compelling. I highly recommend it! As detailed in an earlier post here, I met Angie at the Writer’s Guild of Alberta Conference last spring. She critiqued a sample of prose I had submitted, and suggested I sign up for her advanced independent study writing course.
Fast forward to last September. Angie approved my project of writing a book, and we agreed on a submission schedule of approximately twenty pages (about three chapters) every two weeks. Easy peasy, I thought with inflated confidence. I’ll write SIX chapters bi-weekly and get way ahead, so I can coast for the last few months of class.
Bwahahaha! I crack myself up sometimes. As each deadline approaches, I find myself scrambling to finish the chapters, proofread, edit, proof again, re-edit, and send them in. I’ll be the first to admit my time management skills are less than outstanding.
This procrastination, however, turns out to be hugely beneficial. After each submission, Angie returns a very detailed critique. At first, she focused on basic faults in my writing, such as weak subject/verb combos: it was, they were, we are, etc. Yikes! I discovered I tend to make that lazy mistake quite frequently!
I worked diligently to strengthen my sentences. Then Angie pointed out my plethora of redundant dialogue tags. Okay, then. Another thing to improve upon. I stripped my next submission to a minimum of, “he said,” “she asked,” “Count Dracula replied,” while still keeping it clear who was speaking. Tricky sometimes, but fun.
“Good job,” Angie wrote. Then she added it was time for me to work on adding layers and complexity to my story. D’oh!
My point is that, had I gotten too far ahead, I would still have been forced to go back and make major changes. It’s not that I was unfamiliar with any of these common writing mistakes; I’d read about them numerous times in books on technique. Having them actually pointed out in one’s own prose, however, is truly a game changer!
Although Angie says her critique has been described as, “a little intense,” the challenges she sets before me have improved my writing ten-fold. I love it! I just wish she had been mentoring me on my first book. As it stands, Book One will soon undergo a massive rewrite. I’ve learned so much from this course that the new version should turn out greatly improved: more streamlined, and therefore, more readable.
I have several weeks of travel scheduled between now and the end of my studies; in fact, I fly to Shanghai, China tomorrow! Although I often find it difficult to work in writing time on the road, I’ll attempt to do so, even if it’s just a chapter outline or two. No more trying to get ahead of the game for this woman. It’s much more exhilarating to pedal fast than to just coast!
Usually, out of guilt, I begin these articles lamenting about how long it’s been since I last posted. To hell with that. Life happens and things get in the way. As Kurt Vonnegut would say, “And so it goes.” In the meantime, I’ve received my permanent Canadian residency visa, imported my Jeep, played golf, gone camping, and enjoyed life with my husband and our friends. All time well spent. I’ve not neglected my artistic pastimes however. In fact, just yesterday I finished a fifth automobile portrait and started on the next one. My goal is to have seven completed in the series before I approach a gallery.
Perhaps I have been a touch lazy with my writing, but there’s a good reason for my delinquency. As of this coming Tuesday, I will be re-immersing myself into the lives of the characters from DARK EARTH, my first novel. Like most creative weirdos, I get much more work accomplished under pressure. My deadline for finishing Book Two of the trilogy? March 1st, 2019, six months from now, the reason for which calls for a bit of backstory.
Last June, I attended the Writer’s Guild of Alberta conference in Calgary. It was both enlightening and exhilarating to mingle with my fellow scribes, and I learned a great deal. We had the opportunity to submit a sample of our writing for critique by a published Canadian author. Of course, I went for it!
On the last day of the conference, my brain a little foggy from the previous night's shenanigans, I sat down with Angie Abdou, author of THE BONE CAGE and IN CASE I GO, among other books. Things began well when she pulled out the chapter I had sent and said, “Oh! I really enjoyed this one.” She proceeded to point out things I could improve on, and commented on the prose that worked well.
I liked Angie, and appreciated her honest feedback. “Are you mentoring anyone?” I asked.
Angie told me about a few of the writing classes she teaches at Athabasca University, and then paused. “I don’t tell a lot of people about this if they’re not one of my students, but you may be interested in my English 491 course, Directed Studies in Literature.”
So, in a few days, I will once again be a college student! Angie waived the course prerequisites, and I will be writing Book Two of my trilogy (working title: BLACKEST DEPTHS OF NIGHT) under her tutelage. Every two weeks, I will submit chapters to her online. She will offer critique and encouragement, and at the end of six months, I should have a decent first draft. Then I plan to take the second course in the series, and either finalize that novel or write Book Three. Woohoo!!
[A side note: I chose to stick with the DARK EARTH trilogy because Angie will have to read the first book; yes, she’ll have homework too. My hope is that she enjoys it so much that perhaps she shows it to her agent or publisher. Not out of the realm of possibility!]
I’ve been signed up for the course for three months now, and while I could have started writing more chapters ahead of time (I already had six finished), I didn’t. Oddly enough, I feel like that would be cheating. I did mention the term ‘creative weirdos,’ right? Instead, I put together a tentative outline of where I think the novel will go, although I have no idea whether the characters will agree with my plans. I also scanned the first novel, getting back into the chaotic scene in Nelson, B.C. I’m psyched, I’m excited, and I’m ready to dive back in!
I realized the other day that I have two longtime dreams that are becoming tantalizingly close to my reaching hands. But what to do with those hands? Paint or write? Both, I decided. The writing under deadline will of course be the priority. But when the words get tangled or dry up in my head, I always have my art to refill the creative well.
I went into downtown Edmonton Thursday night, by myself, and taxied home several hours later with an exhilarating buzz. It wasn’t entirely from the wine. I was filled with the heady feeling of euphoria. Why so happy? I finally met my clique. My brothers from other mothers, and sisters from other misters. My homies. My Tribe.
It was an event put on by the Writer’s Guild of Alberta. I showed up early at The Almanac restaurant on Whyte Ave so I could indulge in their decadent steak frites and a Pinot Noir. As I sipped and supped, people began wandering in off the frigid street, heading for the back room. Old people; young people; black, white, brown, and yellow people. Men. Women. It was a diverse group that arrived to watch four authors role play selling their book ideas to editors, and they’re all my new community. They’re writers, and they speak my language.
Before that evening, I had just assumed writing is a solitary, sometimes lonely endeavor. It’s just you, a computer or notepad, and an overactive imagination, shut away in self-imposed isolation. I’d finish a chapter and return to the world of personal interaction and sociability, but my brain would still be sitting in front of the screen, pondering the next move of my protagonist. Would she win the lottery? Stab a coworker with a pencil? Sleep with someone wildly inappropriate?
These are usually not things you can discuss with family or friends, unless they’re quite tolerant of long expositions of back story. While writing my first novel, I would keep my husband up-to-date by reading semi-finished chapters to him. (Note to self: Do not try this when he is sleepy or just finished a heaping bowl of pasta. Snoring is not the feedback I want or need.) Then we’d brainstorm ideas on where I should go next in the plot, getting more silly and outlandish with every sip of wine. Fun stuff, if you’ve got someone who will play along.
But when I’m struggling with questions such as, “Where should I break this chapter?", or, “How can I explain the courtship ritual of yetis without doing an information dump?”, I’m on my own. The internet is helpful, although I have yet to immerse myself in writer’s forums. Still, there I am, alone, staring at a computer screen.
Thursday night, I sat with two amazing women who have experienced the same trials and hurdles I struggle with. We chatted about elusive representation, whether or not to self-publish, and the fact that dealing with the business aspect of writing pretty much sucks. Together we watched some enlightening exchanges between wordsmiths and editors. A man who looks like a lumberjack is documenting the history of drag queens in Edmonton. One of my tablemates, a previously published author, pitched her first novel, which intertwines five generations, a deck of tarot cards, and arson. It. Was. Fascinating!
Now that it’s spring (or so the calendar says; it’s not easy to tell in Alberta), the Guild should soon restart their weekly member get-togethers. So you’ll know where to find me on Thursday nights: at The Almanac, talking plot, pacing, and point-of-view with my new family!
Those of you who read my last post might have noticed a certain hubris in my certainty that my short story would be chosen as a winner in the contest I entered. Ah, hubris. My overconfidence challenged the gods, and they slapped me down but good! Nope, didn't even make the top ten. Perhaps it was a little too political for the judges . . . or perhaps, it just sucked! That's for you to decide, as I'm posting it below. Enjoy, and let me know what you think.
By L.J. Brietzke
She tasted the stainless steel bitterness of blood in her mouth. Pushing herself up onto her elbows, she spat onto the silken rug, and then spat again, wincing at the sting of her torn lip. This wasn’t the first time he had hit her. She was surprised, however, that her heart wasn’t racing in fear, nor was her mind scrambled in panic. No. It was satisfaction she felt, as the low, steady roll of simmering anger finally boiled over. She turned her face toward her husband, glaring down at her. His eyes widened in astonishment as she bared her teeth in an icy smile.
“Are you done with your temper tantrum? Or maybe you want to hit me again?” she said, her voice low and venomous.
The evening had begun in the elegant ballroom of the Presidential Mansion. Glittering guests sipped cocktails and chattered over the music played by a tuxedoed pianist. Crystal chandeliers sparkled overhead, in sharp contrast to the dark world outside. She circulated amongst the company, welcoming and serene as her duties as First Lady required. Dinner was announced. She drifted to the window and pulled aside the heavy brocade drape. In the last glow of a toxic red sunset, a sea of people surged on the far side of the iron fence, facing a line of guards standing shoulder-to-shoulder inside the barrier. The bullet-proof glass muted the outcry, but their faces revealed desperation and anger. As she watched, two ragged men attempted to scramble up the fence, only to be knocked back by the guards’ clubs.
A steward cleared his voice behind her. “Dinner is served, madam,” he whispered. Smiling, she took her place at the end of the gleaming table, but her thoughts were plagued by the scene outside the gilded walls.
“Whatever are you going to do about the uprisings, Mr. President?” asked a thin, silver-haired woman. “I swear, Robert and I can’t even leave our estate, but for your help.” She and the other guests had been flown in for the dinner by military helicopter.
“Don’t worry about them, Miriam,” he replied, waving a chubby hand in dismissal. “They’ll figure out they need to go to the supply depots for food and water soon enough. It’s not like we’re gonna hand out supplies from here, right?”
A sharp-faced man in an Italian suit spoke up. “I heard our servants saying the local depots are already empty.”
“Are they?” the President replied. “Good to know. They’ll just have to go to the ones outside the city.” He took a large bite of steak and washed it down with a gulp from his wineglass. “Be good to have them the hell out of here, anyways.”
The First Lady had no appetite. She picked at her filet of salmon as she listened to the conversation around the table.
“Who would’ve thought the Prime Minister would’ve had the balls to explode EMPs over us? Never saw that coming.”
“You mean the late Prime Minister? Yeah, I would’ve sooner expected it from that absurd little dictator. What a clown.”
“I’m so glad our estate’s power grid was shielded from the blast. I can’t imagine living without electricity.”
“It’s a good thing they only got a few nukes off before the end.”
“Well, no matter. They’re all gone now, and good riddance.”
“Any word from the coast, Mr. President?”
Her heart was filled with loathing as her husband answered, “Nah, not yet. It’s still too hot to send in troops. Can’t think of a better end to those goddamn intellectuals anyways.” She glanced around the table as their guests laughed, feeling a hot flush of anger under her skin, and motioned to the steward.
“Andre, where’s my son?” she whispered.
“I believe he’s playing chess with his guard, Madam.”
It was time. The First Lady stood, a rush of blood murmuring in her ears. She aimed a laser beam stare at her husband. “Those are our countrymen you’re laughing about. The people who looked up to you to keep them safe and secure.” She looked around the table. “Have you no humanity at all? Those were innocent men, women, and children who were incinerated!”
A shocked silence enveloped the room. Most of the guests gazed down at their plates. The wife of her husband’s chief aide, however, met her eyes with a barely perceptible nod. She focused again on her husband. “It was you and your stupid, irresponsible bravado that caused all this death and destruction. You and your bragging and taunting and provocation. You killed all those people . . . not just here, but around the world. Their blood is on your hands.” Chin lifted, she stalked to the door, and turned. “You’re monsters. All of you.”
She hurried to her son’s room, feeling faint as the blood returned to her head. Tapping on his door, she entered. The boy looked up from the chessboard and grinned. Across from him, his youthful guard shrugged. “Evening, ma’am,” he said. “I think he’s got me beat this time.”
The boy nodded. “Heck, yeah! Three moves to checkmate.” His smile faded. “Mom? Are you okay?”
“Yes, baby. I’m fine.” She turned to the guard. “Thank you for keeping him company, David. I hope you don’t mind finishing the game tomorrow?”
“No problem, ma’am.” He gave the boy a salute, and left.
The First Lady sat down and enfolded her son in a tight embrace. He returned it, and then pulled away, looking up at her. “Are you sure you’re okay? Your face is . . . like . . . white.”
She pressed her forehead into his and gazed into his eyes. “Honey, do you remember what we talked about? About being prepared?” His eyes widened, and he slowly nodded. “Good. I need you to be ready, okay?”
“Tonight?” he asked, his voice quavering.
“Maybe,” she replied. “Probably.” She gave him another hug, and stood. “Don’t worry, baby. It’s going to be okay. I promise.”
Back in her bedroom, she stripped off her gown and changed quickly into jeans and a t-shirt. Yanking the jeweled pins from her hair, she smoothed it back into a plain ponytail. It didn’t take long for her husband to arrive. The door opened, and the next moment she was sprawled on the floor.
“Geez, what are you wearing?” her husband said, a sneer of distaste on his fleshy lips. “You look like shit.”
“What do you care?” She pushed herself up and leaned on the side of the bed. “I despise you.”
He sat down with a heavy sigh, and stared across the room. “I love you. You know that, right? Why do you defy me? Why do you force me to punish you?”
She stared at him, incredulous. “Force you? Really? You deserve every word I said, and more.” She wiped the blood from her lip and stood. “You don’t love me. You just want to own me. You made me your little trophy, and you barely even acknowledge the existence of your son—”
“No! That’s not true. I just want to take care of both of you. Haven’t I given you everything you need, everything you want?” He gave her a hard stare. “You were nothing before I found you. Nothing. Remember? I was the one who—”
“Plucked me from the gutter? Oh yes. I remember. How could I not with you always reminding me?”
It was true that her life had been difficult before she met him. The youngest in an impoverished family, she ran away from home at fifteen after her stepfather raped her. Scared and alone in the city, she was approached by a handsome, smartly-dressed man. “You’re a lovely thing, aren’t you, cherie?” he said. “Are you hungry? Let me buy you dinner.” Exhausted and starving, she had agreed. Afterward, at his townhouse, he plied her with sweet wine, and then led her barely conscious to his bedroom.
Being treated with kindness was an unknown luxury to her, and she reveled in the rich meals, beautiful clothes, and soft caresses that Marcus lavished on her. The first time he demanded she go to bed with one of his friends, she was shocked. She refused, and he slapped her, hard. Helplessly, she acquiesced, shutting her eyes tightly as the strange man used her body.
Marcus groomed his young protégé with a regimen of alternating tenderness and brutality. Soon, she and three other young women were entertaining at the parties Marcus held regularly. She hated it. One night, as she gloomily brushed her long hair before dressing, one of the women gave her a sympathetic smile. “Ah, chica, cheer up. Be happy you’re here, and not some skank walking the streets. Who knows? You could meet your Prince Charming and live happily ever after. God knows, we meet enough rich sons of bitches.”
True enough, she thought. Might as well make the best of it. From then on, she buried her despair and focused on making herself desirable.
A year later at a casino party, a corpulent businessman in an expensive suit joined the group of men surrounding her. One by one, the others greeted him and then slipped away. Comfortable now in her role, she tossed her head. “Thanks a lot for running off my suitors.”
He looked down at her, a half smile on his jowly face. “Trust me. You won’t want anyone else chasing you once you get to know me. You’ll see.” He grabbed a glass of champagne from the tray of a passing waiter, and handed it to her. “Do you know who I am?” he asked. She kept her face neutral, and shrugged. “I can’t believe you don’t know. Everyone knows me. Everyone.”
She had vaguely heard of him. He was extremely wealthy, although many found him abrasive and reckless. She spent the next hour plying him with questions, and acting fascinated. He’s an egotistical, ugly bastard, she thought, but maybe he’ll get me out of here. When he whispered, “C’mon, let’s find someplace private,” she feigned reluctance before agreeing. Then, she feigned desire.
A week later, Marcus told her she had been chosen to be in a movie. “Not just appear in it, cherie. To star in it!”
A thrill ran down her spine. “Really? How do they know who I am? What kind of movie?”
“A romance, I think. The director is famous. He spotted you at one of my parties. You just do what he tells you, and you’ll be amazing. And guess what? He’s offering you $50,000 to play the part.”
She narrowed her eyes. “And . . . do I get to keep the money? All of it?” She knew Marcus pocketed her proceeds as an escort, leaving her only the tips she could charm from her clients.
He shrugged. “Well, they’re paying me a fee, of course, but the fifty grand? All yours. And after that, you can do what you want. Stay. Leave. It’s your choice.”
She was chauffeured to the studio on the first day of shooting. Excited and nervous, she followed an assistant onto a brightly-lit set, and came to a confused halt. Several cameras surrounded a huge bed. To one side of the room, two men and a woman chatted cheerfully, completely naked.
Oh dear god, I should have known. She gave Marcus a malevolent stare, and he grinned, walking away. Fifty thousand dollars. Just think about the money, girl, and do what you have to do. With a shudder, she stepped onto the set.
Two weeks later, she had still not been paid. “I know, I know, cherie. I called him about it,” Marcus told her. “He’s bringing it to a little soiree I’m having tonight. Join us, just for old time’s sake. Come on, it’ll be fun.”
Reluctantly, she attended, wearing one of her most demure gowns. The director made a beeline toward her. “My star! You are the queen of eroticism, you sexy bitch. My movie is going to make you famous. Now, when are you going to let me film you again?”
“Never,” she said, her voice icy. “I would like my money, please.”
“Ah, you disappoint me, beautiful,” he said, reaching a hand into his jacket. It came out empty. “I’m so sorry. I forgot to bring the cash. I’ll deliver it to Marcus tomorrow. But think about working with me again. When people stop you just to worship at your feet, you might decide you like being royalty. And they will! Everyone will know that gorgeous face.” His smile twisted into a leer. “And that incredible body, of course.”
Icy needles of fear pierced her heart as she whirled away, intent on escape. Oh, no! What if he’s right? What if I’m recognized for that . . . filth? She rushed forward, directly into someone’s broad back. A spilled drink, a curse . . . and she was face-to-face with the arrogant businessman again. He excused himself from his companions and took her arm. Distraught, she could do nothing but sit on the plush couch to which he led her.
“You look upset, my dear,” he said, handing her a glass of Scotch. “Are you okay? Can I make everything okay?”
She tossed back the drink in one swallow, trying to stanch the tears that threatened to spill down her flushed cheeks. He leaned toward her, his face concerned. He looks a bit like my granddad, she thought distractedly. He’s certainly old enough to be him. In an unexpected rush, the whole sordid tale poured out of her. “What if my mother finds out? What if my brothers see it and tell her?” she sobbed.
The man gently took her hand. “I won’t let that happen. Don’t worry, little girl. I’ll buy the rights to that movie and no one will ever see it.” He put a finger under her chin, raising her eyes to his. “I’m gonna take care of you. I’m gonna dress you in silks and diamonds. We’ll sail on my yacht to Europe and the Caribbean and . . . well, anyplace you want to go. You won’t have to do a thing except look beautiful and love me.”
She became his mistress, and then his wife. Although she tried hard to love him, especially when she became pregnant with their son, the most she could invoke was a tolerant acceptance. He was fat and rude and pugnacious, and worst of all, he ignored their child. It was left to her to raise the boy into an honest and considerate young man, a difficult task with the example of his father. Her husband did keep to his side of the bargain, except for one thing. He kept a copy of the movie.
Their life was a whirl of glittering parties. She mingled with the rich, the famous, and the notorious. In public, she was the perfect, beautiful wife, but it was all she could do to keep her disgust under control. Appalled by the shallow, petty, avaricious people with whom her husband chose to circulate, she found no friends. She began to avoid him, thankful he rarely sought her company in bed. She much preferred spending time with her son, trying to fill the roles of both mother and father.
The boy was seven when her husband told her he was going to run for the presidency. “You’re joking, right?” she gasped. “You don’t know anything about running a country.” Agitated, she paced the room. “Frankly, your ideas about government scare me. I can’t stand the politicians you bring here. And that . . . preacher, or whatever she is? She sure doesn’t seem like a Christian to me. You’re not even religious, so what’s up with that? It’s like you’re all trying to figure out how to grab more money and power for yourselves, and to hell with everyone else.”
For an obese man, he moved surprisingly fast, leaping up and slapping her hard across the face. “Don’t ever say that again. Ever,” he growled. “I pulled you out of the gutter, and you don’t even have the courtesy to appreciate it.” His bloodshot eyes stared into her frightened ones. “If you ever try to oppose me, or treat my guests as anything but the finest people, I’ll put that movie out in all the theaters. I’ll sell it online. Everyone will see what a whore you were before I saved you.” He pushed her away roughly. “Don’t ever talk back to me again.”
Cowed, she had obeyed. The few times her anger emboldened her to tiny acts of insolence, she would return to her room to find the movie playing on the television.
They attended a campaign fundraiser one night, and she was horrified to find the movie director next to her. Trapped in the crush of bodies, she couldn’t move as he leaned toward her and whispered in her ear. “I think you should know your husband paid for that movie to be made, and insisted you star in it.” With a sympathetic squeeze on her arm, he disappeared into the crowd. She stared after him, aghast, knowing now the true depths of depravity of which her husband was capable.
Now she was First Lady of a ravaged and desperate country. “I’m leaving,” she said. “Tonight. And I’m taking our son.”
“You do that and I’ll put the movie out, I swear.”
She laughed. “Oh really? And who’s going to see it? Thanks to you, the whole country doesn’t have power, or running water, or anything. You can show it to those monstrosities you call friends. Go ahead. I don’t give a damn what they think.” She strode to the door.
“I’ll have the guards stop you!”
She turned, finally letting the hatred she felt for him to beam savagely from her eyes. “You could try,” she said. “You might even succeed in locking us up here for a while. But sooner or later, those men and women are going to turn on you. They have families outside these walls who are suffering because of you, and their priorities are going to become very clear to them.”
Quickly, she left the room and found her son. “Baby, it’s time. Are you ready?”
He was dressed in plain, dark clothes, and his face was pale, but he nodded and picked up a duffel bag. “I’m scared, Mom.”
“So am I, sweetheart, but we’ll take care of each other, okay?” She led him to her room, and pulled another bag from the back of the closet. “Do you remember how to get to the passageway, honey?” In his loneliness, the boy had explored every inch of the mansion, and had told her of a secret underground hallway that opened into the federal building across the street.
Two uniformed guards appeared at the open door, blocking it. Behind them stood the President. “Keep them here and stand security around the clock,” he commanded. “They are not to leave.”
The First Lady took a step forward, looking into the guards’ implacable faces. To the one on the right, she said, “Trevor, we’re leaving. I know you have a wife and a little girl out there in the dark. I know you’re only able to provide for them because my husband employs you. I understand that.” She turned to the other guard. “Marina, I hope your parents are doing okay out there. I know it must be so hard for them, and for you. But my place is out there with the people of our country. I want no part of this . . . this travesty of a government that has caused so much death and suffering. Please let us go.”
The guards stood for a moment in silence. Marina stepped back first. “May I accompany you, ma’am? The crowd is pretty agitated out there. I can protect both of you.”
“No, Marina, but thank you.” She looked at the other guard, her gaze steady. He too moved aside. Taking her son’s hand, she stepped into the hallway, only to dodge her husband’s lunge toward them. Trevor grabbed the President, holding him back.
“What are you doing, you idiots?” the fat man shrieked. “I’m your commander. You work for me! Arrest them!”
Marina shook her head. “No sir. I’m sorry, sir.”
The President stopped struggling, and directed a poisonous glare at his wife. “They’ll kill you out there. They hate you just as much as they hate me. Maybe more. Serve you right if they rip you to pieces, you ungrateful bitch.”
A faint smile crossed her face. “I’ll take my chances.” Turning her back on him, she followed her son toward escape from their gilded prison, the plans and access codes to the mansion’s security system hidden safely in the lining of her bag.
Wow. I have been pathetic at keeping up with the creative goals I set for myself. Can I blame the holidays? My husband and I did a great deal of traveling and socializing, but there were certainly opportunities to be just the slightest bit productive. Oh well. I guess that's what New Year's resolutions are for, right? As this crazy year draws to a close, I thought I'd share a few of my hopes and intentions for 2018.
MY FUTURE IN ART:
I've dabbled in a variety of painting styles, with subjects ranging from landscapes to nature close-ups to still lifes (and yes, that is the correct plural...I had to look it up!). The most enthusiastic response from viewers, however, has been for my classic automobile series. From photos I take at car shows and museums, I paint a realistic portrait . . . not of the entire vehicle, but a vignette of a hood ornament or a headlight or the sleek curve of a fender. These works are definitely challenging. Any auto enthusiast would immediately notice a lapse in perspective or detail, so I have to be diligent in getting it just right. That takes time. A LOT of time! So far, I've completed three portraits, and am about halfway through another. My plan is to paint four more before I market them as a cohesive exhibit.
But how to present them? The gallery option is certainly attractive, as the business aspect is taken care of for me. It requires no marketing, no publicity, no paperwork. Unfortunately, it DOES require I give up a good percentage of my sales. When I exhibited in Scottsdale, Arizona, the gallery commission was 50%. Ouch! Not to mention having to deal with a seriously flaky owner, but that's a story for another time.
The other option is to sell it myself. Classic car owners are my target audience, and the best place to find the ones with deep pockets? Barrett-Jackson auto auctions, of course! I've done a bit of research, and an indoor booth would cost a couple thousand dollars. It would run another thousand to make and package prints, plus I'd need to cover my travel expenses. Pricey, yes, but oh, the exposure! Hell, Jay Leno is a classic automobile enthusiast. Perhaps he might wander by my display, stop in wonder and awe, and immediately buy my entire stock of paintings! Yeah, right. But I may find some buyers who want their sleek chrome treasures immortalized in oil paint, and offer them (very expensive!) commissioned works. The more I think about it, the better I like this plan, and hey, it might even be a lot of fun!
MY FUTURE IN WRITING:
It's daunting. Every time I breathe a sigh of relief thinking my novel is perfectly edited and ready to go, I discover it's not! That isn't a bad thing, however. Before I submit the manuscript to a new round of agents, I want it to be flawless. I want it to grab them by the collar, throw them into a chair, and compel them to read it all in one sitting! Fortunately, I still have a few friends who are patient enough to read it, and then offer outstanding suggestions, leaving me saying, "Well, damn. Why didn't I think of that??!"
I'm also impatiently waiting for my short story 'Defiance' to be judged. I entered it into an online contest run by James Patterson's Masterclass. The voting was supposed to be over December 3rd, but apparently the staff underestimated the sheer volume of entries: over 700! The top eight to ten will be published in an anthology, and . . . well, this may sound a wee bit cocky, but I think my story has a pretty solid chance of being chosen. Yes, I read most of the competition. Some were simply awful from the first line, so I moved on. Most were just forgettable. A handful, however, were well-written and provocative, and if the judges decide mine is among them, the honor will be a nice juicy plum I can throw into my query letters to agents. The old saying about not being able to get a job without experience, but how can you get experience without a job rings true in the publishing biz. Many agents won't even consider a query by a debut author. Fingers crossed that I can conquer that handicap!
Yes, 2017 has presented its challenges, but I've learned so much, and I'm ready to put its lessons to use. After all, the new year is a pristine white canvas in front of me, ready to be painted in splashes of bold, bright, optimistic colors. Or . . . wait . . . maybe it's a crisp, blank sheet of paper longing to tell a story of intriguing characters on amazing adventures.
Whatever. Either will do nicely.
GOOD ADVICE THAT I HAVE COMPLETELY IGNORED:
"Don't look back until you've written an entire draft, just begin each day from the last sentence you wrote . . ."---Will Self
"If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word."---Margaret Atwood
"Write drunk; edit sober."---Ernest Hemingway
"Well, crud. That paragraph I just wrote is crap. Hold everything . . . gotta fix it RIGHT NOW! Oh yeah, and that sentence too. Can't I figure out a better word here? Where's the damn thesaurus? Oh look! A squirrel!"
WHY MY REACTION SUCKS:
Constant editing dams up the creative process, turning a torrent of ideas into a hesitant trickle. When I'm struck by inspiration, I should be riding the wave, splashing words onto the screen. Instead, I'm constantly back-spacing, fixing misspelled words, bad punctuation, garbled phrasing, you name it. All of these things can be corrected later. After all, if I spotted it now, I'll certainly see it in the rewrites.
Not only do I spot-edit, I also tend to write and rewrite the same chapter over and over before continuing on to the next. This is just plain dumb. I have spent hours polishing the perfect scene, only to completely change it later, or even discard it. Until the first draft is finished, I have only the vaguest notion where the book is going. Characters may evolve, or even disappear. Action occurring later in the book may render that earlier chapter ridiculous. It's kind of like building a house: you'd better get the foundation, wiring, and plumbing finished before you decorate the room.
WHAT I'M GONNA DO ABOUT IT:
Ooh, this will be a tough habit to break. Even in my art, I usually eschew the common practice of under-painting, preferring to finish each section before moving on to the next. It works well for me, requiring just a little touch-up at the end. But painting is entirely different from writing in that I KNOW what the finished artwork should look like. It may sound weird, but my stories change as the characters come to life (definitely a subject for a later blog post!).
It will take constant effort for me to just write, muting my internal editor. Even now, I keep scanning back on what I've written, correcting it before continuing. Well, guess what? There's an app for that! ILYS is a word processing tool that only shows you the last letter you wrote. No options but to keep typing until you hit your selected word count. I'll download it and let you know how it goes.
I'll probably cringe when I go back to read my stream-of-consciousness prose, but I'll keep in mind that golden nugget of wisdom imparted by Mr. Ernest Hemingway: "The first draft of anything is shit."
As a writer, I am the perfect example of what not to do. Granted, I'm new at this, but you'd think I'd listen to the hard-earned lessons experienced by famous authors. There are books and websites in abundance that aim to teach aspiring writers how to avoid the most common mistakes. I've read several of them. Have I taken heed? No. Not yet, anyways.
GOOD ADVICE: "Just write every day of your life."---Ray Bradbury
"Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration. The rest of us just get up and go to work."---Stephen King
"You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can't edit a blank page."---Jodi Picoult
MY REACTION: "Oh man, really? Every single day?? Who knows what I'll feel like doing today. I'll write when I'm inspired . . . unless something more interesting comes up. Hmmm, what's new on Facebook?"
WHY MY REACTION SUCKS: As many authors have noted, writing is a skill, like learning to play the tuba, or building the perfect martini, or becoming beer pong champion. It requires practice. In the course of writing my first novel, I actually did improve the farther into it I got. My grammar was refined. I laid off the adverbs and clichés and the word 'very'. I tightened up the dialogue and pepped up the action. All good, right? So why my resistance?
Honestly, I hate schedules. Now that I'm retired, I'm blissfully happy to let my days drift into their own free-form haze. Requiring myself to sit in front of the computer every single day, inspired or not, gives me a creeping sense of horror.
WHAT I'M GOING TO DO ABOUT IT: Putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) doesn't have to mean working on my next book. It could be writing a short story, or a journal entry, or a shopping list. (Just kidding about the last . . . although creating an intriguing, suspenseful grocery list would be a fun bit of homework!)
I sincerely doubt I'll be writing every day, especially since I'm in the process of moving, but I've started looking for opportunities that pique my interest. Last week, I submitted a short story for a contest in James Patterson's Masterclass. I will also try to post at least one article a week on this website. I've made it easy on myself, topic-wise, as there are many, many mistakes I'm making as a writer. This is just the first confession in a shameful series.
We'll see whether or not I learn my lessons!