Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Do You See It Now?

Life Among the Elephants...or
Living in a Red Section of a
Blue State With Rainbows

The mountains you see in the pictures, the snow covered mountains, is what I woke up to this morning. So beautiful. This is my view from the back of our home, and with both the family room and master located at opposite areas at the rear of the house, it truly is a million dollar view not only from the back yard and pool area, but from within the house itself.

We live in the Las Pelonas foothills across the valley floor from the range you see, known as the Tehachapi Mountains, home of the famous Grapevine (Interstate 5) that closes for hours and hours at a time when the snow falls hard. So, anyway, that light dusting of snow that I (and, apparently, only I) saw the other day was part of the decidedly heavier snowfall in the mountains you see in these pictures. Most of the snow from the recent storms only fell to about 3500 feet. We live at about 3400 feet above sea level and about 25 miles from the Tehachapi range, as the crows fly.

This is one of two areas in Southern California known as the High Desert. The other area is in the San Gabriel Mountains, specifically the towns of Victorville and Hesperia that one passes on the way to Las Vegas. The most famous Low Desert area would be Palm Springs, although it is usually called, simply, "the desert," because people who live there are under the sad illusion that it is the only desert. They do have better restaurants, the scenery in Palm Springs is gorgeous, and the place is a part-time favorite of snowbird retirees from places in the Midwest. The High Desert area grows Joshua trees, fields of wild poppies, the yucca, a fierce desert wind, and a fairly rabid, vocal, but small, group of racist and homophobic uber Conservatives. Palm Springs, on the other hand, grows Date Palms, golf courses, perpetual tans and...a stylish and eclectic group of residents and vacationers. So why live here? Because the makeup of this area is changing rapidly...and has changed for the better in the five years we've been here. More tolerance, more diversity. Things take time. And you have to agree, the views from our little slice of heaven are great.

The High Desert can be a tough place to assimilate, but we do smile at the frequent and gigantic rainbows that cross from one mountain range to the other after, and sometimes during, our desert storms and microbursts. Nature, it seems, not only abhors a vacuum but is also a big fan of symbolism. So you see, "Someone" is doing something about the weather.

Weather Captain,
Geography General and
Political Opinionhead Margaret, over and out.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Seriously Seeking Susan Brown

When Is Something Not a Mixture?

There was a time in my life when I was free to write to my heart's content---no job to go to (I was seriously unemployed), no kids to take care of (unless you count my cat Rewrite), no place to go, really (the first Volvo was reliable but ugly), and no one to answer to (unless you count my Mother, who did occasionally wonder aloud about my getting a "real" job).

By virtue of my most recent job, I had met a film director who was impossible to work for and yet desperate to find a secretary/assistant who wouldn't walk off the job after three weeks as my predecessors had. The alliance with him lasted seven months, but I knew if I could stick it out, something good would come of it. It was not, however, going to be friendship: He loathed me and I despised him; only in that regard were we a good match. I believe he did fire me about five times, but as I kept showing up for work each day, each successive firing was laid aside never to be mentioned again. Later I realized he was happy to see me because he got to look forward, once again, to firing me.

One day, six of his very big-shot Hollywood Agents came in for a meeting, or as we say here, 'took a meeting.' They were from a really big talent agency in Hollywood, and the meeting was important. I was to deliver tea and coffee to the upstairs loft where the director had his office. Oh, and answer the phones, which rang off the hook with people wanting their scripts read. One of the agents, named Mike, came down the stairs just before the meeting began and asked if I could do him a favor. If his wife called, would I let him know right away---but I was to do it by slipping him a note when I came to refill the coffee. Mike was very nice, and so of course when his wife did call, I assured her he'd have the message in 10 seconds. I wrote him a small note on a very small Sticky: "Call your wife." I delivered it to his tea cup saucer as I went from person to person refilling coffee. When he came downstairs a few minutes later to call home, he thanked me and said he loved the way I stealth dropped the note on his plate, as it were.

As the agents were leaving, several hours later, this same agent was the only one to purposefully walk into my section of the office to say goodbye. I knew I only had one shot, so I took it. I told him I was a writer, and that I was writing a book and wondered if I might call him sometime to get some direction on who to talk to for a literary agent. As he was a talent agent, I knew he would not feel pressured to look at anything I wrote. He was completely at ease with my request and actually named the day in the following week that I should call him. I did call him, and he gave me the name of a literary agent in his office that he felt I would work well with---and he offered to give her a heads up that I'd be calling. Huh? An agent I could work with? Oh my G-d!

With a great deal of trepidation, I made the call to the agent Mike suggested. Her name was Cheryl, and although it was pretty obvious that she was taking the call more as a favor to Mike than because of any real interest in me, I just kept talking and ended by saying that I wrote much like I spoke. As I had made her laugh a couple times, she figured that was worth seeing. She said, "OK, send the book over tomorrow."

Oh dear. Thinking quickly, I told her that the book was only three quarters done, and that three quarters was "at the typist." I promised to get her the first five or six chapters the following week, and the rest sometime soon after that if she liked it well enough to read on. Of course I was playing for time, and if she knew, she never said. It took me another ten months to get the full manuscript to her, and when I did, it was 650 typed pages.

The truth: I had written about 100 pages of what was to be a 350-page novel. I was unemployed, so there was no "sending things out to the typist." The typist lived with me and I lived alone, not counting Rewrite. Rewrite? Oh hell, this 100 pages needs a serious rewrite, or if not that, then a good edit. I had to get Cheryl hooked on that first 100 pages. I had to do it.

I went down my short list of friends, and although all of them were intelligent, not all of them read much. They weren't literary. But one had a degree in English Literature. I dialed Susan Brown and told her my good news. She didn't even know I was writing a book. Naturally, I asked her if she'd like to read it. She'd love to. How about that evening? Perfect.

Susan Brown was someone whose first name was never said without also saying her last name. It was never "I saw Susan," but rather, "I saw Susan Brown." Susan was very educated, very well spoken and very savvy about how the world works. She also had a great big heart. "Can I bring you anything," she asked, after accepting my invitation. "How about some diet 7-Up and a pint of vanilla Hagan Daz," I said. After a notable pause, she said, "Sure, why not?"

Skipping ahead to the good part, I cajoled Susan Brown into being my "editor," for that first 100 pages, and she later assured me that she was only staying on the job for the entire 650 pages because she wanted to know how the story ended. It was a lie, and I was grateful. Although her editing skills would come in handy, we both knew I needed a deadline that incorporated just the right amount of comfort, trust and inspiration to get the book finished. We set up a daily schedule: I would write during the day, and in the evening, Susan Brown would come over to my apartment in Studio City to read and edit the previous day's pages. And to celebrate that day's literary output, we'd share the 7-Up poured over a huge dollop of vanilla ice cream in a big, tall, wide-mouthed tumbler. It is believed by people who know about such things that this period in my life was the beginning of the high cholesterol count which I'd have to work on years down the line. At the time, though, it was a delicious way to finish off an evening.

One Sunday afternoon, Susan Brown called and said she wasn't sure she could make it because her car wasn't running very well. Was it running at all? Well, yes, but it was making funny sounds. Having had a particularly satisfying day in front of the IBM Selectric (yes, this was that long ago!) I was far too selfish to let a little car noise get in the way of what I felt would be a most productive editing session. At some point, Susan Brown decided it would be easier to deal with her car than deal with my disappointment, so she agreed to keep our editing date, and yes, she would pick up the ice cream and 7-Up.

About two hours later, I began to look out my window and wonder what happened to my editor. I no sooner pulled the curtain aside when I saw and heard a red Ford turning onto my street in a gigantically wide arc, wheels squealing, motor sputtering and Susan Brown's hair blowing across her face and pretty much blinding her to oncoming traffic. As I started to laugh at the sight, one of Susan Brown's tires and wheel came right off her car, bounced up on the curb and went flying across the neighbor's yard straight at my kitchen window and me. As I ducked, I heard the tire hit the side of my building, right beneath my kitchen window, and I heard but did not see Susan Brown's red Ford screech to a stop as it fruitlessly tried not to jump the curb, where it landed perilously close to my ugly Volvo.

I ran downstairs and outside to see about Susan. She climbed out of her soon-to-be red-tagged sled, raised a grocery bag above her head and said, "I think the ice cream's melting." We knew the car was going to need some pricey work, if it were not a complete lost cause, but as it was Sunday, we couldn't really call the local fix-it guy until Monday morning.

We decided to have the 7-Up and ice cream while Susan read the pages, which she would always do once before getting out the editing pencil. As I was slurping away enjoying my slivers of ice cream iced into small sheets of tasty, crunchy deliciousness, Susan Brown laughed out loud. I saw that she was only on the second page of that day's work in review, and I knew there was nothing funny in that section of prose.

"What? What's so funny?" I said.

"This passage," she answered, handing
me the page.

I read it. I could see absolutely nothing wrong with the
section. In fact, it was one of my favorites. But it certainly wasn't meant to be funny.

"I don't see anything wrong," I sniffed.

"OK," she said, laughing, "let me read it aloud."

"Fine, go ahead." Slurp. Crunch. Smack lips.

Holding the page in one hand and her glass of vanilla float in the other, she read:

"He looked at her with a mixture of bug-eyed silence."

She laughed again. I did not.

"What's missing?" she asked.

"Nothing," I said. "Sounds just like I
meant it to sound."

"Really?" she answered, "Let me read it aloud

She read it. I starred at her. She laughed. I didn't. She
laughed some more.

I finally said, "OK, smartypants, tell me what's missing?"

She looked at the page and read:

'He looked at her with a mixture of
bug-eyed silence,' and?" she said.

"And nothing," said I. "That's what he looked at her with."

Susan Brown was seriously beginning to annoy me.

"Bug-eyed silence," she repeated "and what was it mixed with?"

"Nothing!" I answered righteously,

"It wasn't mixed with anything---should it be?"

"I think," she said, trying really hard not to spew her
ice cream all over my bug-eyed silence, "that you've mistaken a hyphenated word
for two words. A "mixture of" bug-eyed silence? No such animal."

I don't think I've ever felt quite so dumb. I had that deer-in-the-headlights look, and then I sprayed her with the big spoonful of 7-Up and ice cream that I had just put in my mouth. I laughed so hard, I fell over. I laughed so much, I...had to cross my legs. Then Susan Brown started laughing as hard. Then for some reason, the vision of Susan Brown sailing around that street corner with her tire and wheel flying off sent me into paroxysms of laughter and glee, and I felt the need to do a re-enactment. I had her on the floor, laughing, and by the end of the evening we both agreed her broken car was worth the price of admission, not to mention the utter embarrassment it saved me when I turned the manuscript in.

That novel was shopped around by my agent Cheryl to some New York literary agents, but the general consensus was:brilliant but flawed. Several years later I realized just how kind everyone had been to call it that. I re-read it, and I saw that it was entirely more flawed than brilliant. That agency never made a dime off me, nor did I by having signed with them. We let my contract expire, and I went out to get "a real job." How I got to be signed with a major Hollywood agency, how my book got shopped around to major agents in New York, and how the whole experience blew me away is the stuff, one hopes, of legends. It took me years to get over the notion that I had wasted my big chance.

I never realized how hurt my feelings had been that nothing ever became of that book, but not writing for a dozen more years would have been a clue to most people. Not surprisingly, it was Susan Brown who told me that I was a good writer, I just needed to practise my craft more and get great. That was so Susan.

The thing about writing fiction is that, at the beginning at least, your novel is your whole show. There's no additional fancy dance steps, no prettying up of one's outfit and no showing of one's sizzling personality(if one even has all that to add to the mix) to help your story and quality of writing. And if my experience is any indication, it's not, strictly speaking, even who you know. I didn't even know Mike, who gave me my first big break. No, it's all in the story and all in the way you tell that story. I basically decided that I had ended up a telling a pretty half-baked story in a decently skilled way, but that wasn't enough, I realized. Now, I think I have a wonderful story, and let's see if I can get it written well. I believe I can and will.

I lost track of Susan when she moved to San Francisco, but maybe the Internet gods will send this blog post to her or one of her friends. It's a long shot, but so was my getting back to writing, which I've done over the past few years. I do have a new book I'm working on, and I do have a new editor, who seems to have got as wise to me and my tricks as Susan Brown was. Fear of rejection is a terrible thing, especially when one thinks one is oh so very brave. ::shrug::

But I was onto something in asking Susan Brown to edit my work. Some people have critique partners, official ones, and that works great for them. I need a little more one-on-one attention, encouragement and...oh yeah, editing.

Karyn, my beloved, and, I think, my biggest fan, reads and loves everything I show her. If I ask her to, she'll even edit a bit, leaving me a few very soft, light pencil marks where something needs fixing. And she's always right---it might be a typo, it might be clarity needed, it might be one of my famous run-on sentences. But I'll tell you this: By the time Robin (known on this blog as Occasional Guest Blogger) gets it, there's not a single mixture of bug-eyed silence anywhere to be found. And that's a good thing 'cause there's no soft, little, gentle marks on the page when Robin gets done with it! I write and she edits in MS Word, and if part of being a good writer means never having to see another red cartoon balloon with the words "What the heck does this mean?" from Robin, then I'll not only be a good writer, I might just be an author! It could happen.

Thank you Susan Brown!

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Snow and Sun...in the High Desert

Antelope Valley, Southern California -- No, it doesn't happen often, but it happened this morning: A lovely, light dusting of the white powdery stuff greeted me and my coffee cup. I can't exactly say that I "love" snow (and maybe that's because I trudged through mountains of it growing up in Illinois), but I can say I love the look of it. More snow is expected over the next couple days, and overnight temperatures are in the low thirties. If the days keep warming up like today, though, I'll have to snap the next batch of pictures at dawn because by 8 a.m. this picture was gone, and the melt off trickled down the foothills and onto our street throughout the day.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Ad Lucem! Semper Ad Lucem!

PART II: The Ethics of Authorship

"Toward the Light, Always Toward the Light"

The Romance fiction genre's recent crisis of spirit, occasioned earlier in the week by the discovery that Romance writer Cassie Edwards has been plagiarizing other writers for decades, was ameliorated and considerably lifted yesterday. Popular top-selling author Nora Roberts pledged to match up to $5000 in donations to the Defense of Wildlife Fund, a group dedicated to saving seriously endangered species, including the imperiled black-footed ferret around which controversy swelled when it was discovered that a prominent nature writer, Paul Tolme, had parts of his article on ferrets lifted by Edwards for passages in her book called Shadow Bear.

Tolme wrote a delightful piece this week in Newsweek about his experience of seeing his words about ferrets copied in a "bodice-ripper." Although Romance authors and fans hope to reinvigorate and change Tolme's reference to "standard romance novel schlock," one other line of his article caught the eyes and interest of the thousands of loyal members and hundreds of new readers who read the blog Smart Bitches Who Love Trashy Books.

Although he said he is no longer angry at Cassie Edwards for stealing his words, Tolme added: "Ignorance of law and ethics is no excuse, however. Plagiarism victimizes writers. It betrays the trust of readers. It tarnishes the craft of writing. But there is another victim here that has been lost in the discussion: the ferrets."

Oh brother! Watch out, news media. Watch out, nay-sayers who think there's no such thing as viral networking with quantifiable, verifiable results. One cannot buy this kind of public relations and publicity. All hail the ferrets!

With that line, Mr. Tolme has probably saved a lot of ferrets because it wasn't long before the Bitchery group practically adopted the black-footed ferret as its mascot. One member put up ferret-oriented anti-plagiarism t-shirts on Cafe Press, and Nora Roberts posted that she would match donations to the Defense of Wildlife Fund. Within hours the Bitchery had tallied nearly $3000 in donations that came from its readers. Some commenters seemed more interested in adopting Mr. Tolme, although it is not known if he is available for same.

As of this writing, Candy Tan and Sarah Wendell, the two women who run Smart Bitches Who Love Trashy Books, who initially alerted the world to the Cassie Edwards books that contain wholesale passages and paragraphs taken, without authorization, or credit, from other authors, have discovered dozens of examples of this plagiarism in a goodly number of Edwards' nearly 100 books. But it took another best-selling author, Nora Roberts, to help bring more attention to a discovery, originally made by poster Nikki, that Edwards had also stolen from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Without a doubt, Edwards steals from some of the best!

Comparing these two excerpts, one can easily see why Edwards is being accused of plagiarism:

SAVAGE OBSESSION, by Cassie Edwards, 1983, Page 284:
"The odors of the forest, the dew and damp meadow, and the curling smoke from the wigwams were left behind as Lorinda [...]"

SONG OF HIAWATHA by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1855: Lines 3-5 of the Introduction: "With the odors of the forest, With the dew and damp of meadows, With the curling smoke of wigwams..."

Earlier in a thread of the comments sections about the Edwards situation, a poster who has his own website jokingly wondered if Ms. Edwards had ever taken credit for the famous verse in Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha that begins, "From the shores of Gitche Gumee....[...]" The popular poster, TeddyPig, was astounded when he realized another had found alarming substance in the answer to Mr. Pig's lighthearted question.

Indeed, with this discovery at the top of a heap of discoveries of apparent plagiarism in various Cassie Edwards' books, discoveries made by both the head Bitches and a volunteer platoon of Bitchery readers (including Opinionhead), the list of original research from which Edwards lifted almost word-for-word, and sometimes, precisely word-for-word, sections, include Encyclopadia Britannica, National Geographic magazine and Pulitzer-prize winning author Oliver La Farge, awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Laughing Boy, which was written in 1929 and for which a valid copyright is still held. If you want to see some very good detective work, see page 34 in the Bitches PDF file (called a Centralized Document of the Cassie Edwards Texts), referenced in my blogpost of day before yesterday. These women have documented the comparisons between what La Farge wrote in 1929 and what Casssie Edwards wrote in 1990.

As well as Roberts, several other Romance authors have posted their impressions and opinions, including Victoria Dahl, J.C. Wilder (who also writes as Dominque Adair), indy writer Silapa Jurun, Arlene C. Harris and Laura Vivanco. Another posster on the Smart Bitches site, Lisa, who links to a blog signed by Elle, provided sufficient genealogy material to cause even the most casual observer to question the authenticity of Cassie Edwards' claims that her grandmother was a full-blooded Cheyenne. You can read her article here.

Edwards apparently later corrected this to be her paternal great-great grandmother, but the blogger Elle, who (like this writer) has more than a passing familiarity with genealogy, did some basic research and could find nothing linking Edwards to the Cheyenne nation via bloodlines. While Elle, at this point, merely questions Edwards authenticity and veracity on this subject, my reading of even cursory research efforts occasions me to strongly doubt that Edwards has 1/16th Indian blood, if she has any at all.

There were many very feisty Romantic genre readers who weighed in on the subject of Edwards---far too many to mention in one blogpost. Many of the posters are authors whose blogs and websites you might enjoy visiting. They include: SusanWilbanks; S. Andrew Swann (who also writes as Steven Krane and S. A. Swiniarski), Jennifer Armintrout, Kay Hooper, and Theresa Meyers. Other writers who have weighed in on the Cassie Edwards situation over at the Bitches site include E. Ann Bardawill, Australian writer Bronwyn Parry whose first of two books will be puslished this year by Hachette Livre Australia, author Diane Castilleja, Katrina Strauss and Ciar Cullen.

And the reason I mention any names at all is because I've really had my eyes opened in the past few days by what I've read in the Bitchery posts and comments sections (you must read the Comments section after the main posts to get the full flavor, and fury). The insight I've gleaned goes way beyond the subject of plagiarism (and even ferrets!) because these women are passionate about what they write, what they read, what they feel about the genre of Romance fiction, specifically, and writing generally. This is my way of acknowledging them.

You can tell from the Comments sections that the writers are good and the readers are sophisticated, intelligent, savvy, funny-as-hell big mouths with equally great big hearts. They're real people; I like that. The forums themselves can get introspective or crazy wild, but, amazingly, most seem to "course correct," as one poster put it, after some of the passion spends itself into a sigh, and the quieter minds come out of the shadows with reason and logic draped in soothing words and calming tones.

I've also been linked, via the Bitchery, to a couple other sites that I found very informative. One, Dear Author, is written by six devoted readers who specialize in reviewing books from the Romance, Fantasy and Manga genres and dish up some very tasty commentary on issues affecting authors and the publishing industry. Again, the Dear Author blogposts are nicely enhanced with Comments from readers of that blog. An especially moving blogpost titled The Many Faces of Plagiarism provided brief biographical notes on the Edwards' victims. In the case of the deceased victims (about a half-dozen that we know), there's something deeply upsetting about seeing names, faces and bits about the plagiarized authors' lives. I think another writer, author of the Mind Meanderings in a blogpost titled "Silence is the Voice of Complicity," put it best with these words: "It was bad enough that she did this while giving neither credit not attribution to the true authors, most of them deceased writers whose works had fallen out of copyright — which, to me, reeks of grave-robbing." Indeed.

A third site to which I have been introduced through my new associations with the prior two is Teach Me Tonight, Musings on Romance Fiction from an Academic Perspective. This blog, written by Sarah S.G. Franz, Gwendolyn D. Pough, Pamela Regis, Sandra Schwab, E.M. Selinger and the above-mentioned Laura Vivanco, serves up a delightfully insightful, thought-provoking and well-written buffet of bon mots ranging from the deliciously esoteric through the abundantly fruitful to the frequently fecund---essays that reveal a depth of thought and the academics' eyes for detail and logic on a variety of subjects of interest to anyone who seriously intends to write Romance fiction and for anyone who enjoys reading good to great Romance fiction.

Oh, and don't forget the ferrets. If you go here, take a screenshot of your receipt and send it here---that way, Nora Roberts will have to cough up five grand in matching monies, and see, everyone will live happily ever after, unless of course you're a ferret-word ripper-offer.

To paraphrase a poster whose name I swear I cannot remember, you can't make this stuff up!

Friday, January 11, 2008

The Ethics of Authorship

I received a couple letters, yesterday, from The Romance Writers of America (RWA) that led me to find out about quite a furor and a half going on over at Smart Bitches Who Love Trashy Books, a very popular website of readers and writers of various Romance genre books. The Bitches have led many of their readers (including the wildly popular and successful Nora Roberts, herself a victim of plagiarism) to agree there really seems to be something to the allegations of abundant plagiarism in various works of Cassie Edwards, a writer of so-called "noble savage" type Romance books, whose 100th book will be published soon. She has written for Signet, Penguin and Dorchester, among others, and while the first response from one of the book publishers indicated the imprint felt Ms. Edwards "had done nothing wrong," a later statement by the same corporate entity indicated the publisher will be looking into the allegations.

(Update: Today, January 12, 2008, a day after I wrote the bulk of this blogpost, The New York Times covered the story in its Arts Section.)

When you go to the Smart Bitches web site, you'll see a listing on the right-hand side of the current blogpost called "Looking For the Cassie Edwards Articles?" I suggest you read the articles in order as it makes for a fascinating read. As well, it's a truly impromptu version of what crowd sourcing can do.

The Smart Bitches have done a rather masterful job of tracking down a large number of passages from Ms. Edwards' books, and in a PDF file worthy of academic research standards, the passages in Ms. Edwards' books are placed side-by-side with original source material, much of it out of copyright, which reveals, as The Bitches put it, "an eerie" similarity. They put it mildly at that point; later in their blog, it's clear that passages in the Edwards' books were lifted almost word-for-word from the original source material.

I suggest everyone who writes take a look at the PDF file, and report back to me! It's an amazing document.

Comment of my own: I don't need to know if something is copyright infringement, a legal designation, to know that it's plagiarism, an issue of theft, and thus ethics; however, if you read through all the comments over at the Bitches' site, you'll see a few people have allowed as how plagiarism might happen once or twice, by accident, but not a lot of times. I'm not sure I buy this. I know as a researcher, I read tons of material, and then I sit down to write a story using the information I have read, but not the words, not even a so-called paraphrasing of the words. The benefit-of-the-doubt people say that after of hours of research, it's hard to separate what you read from what you're going to write, that we're sponges, that we genuinely think what we've written is our own. I just wonder: How many of you have heard of a shoplifter who didn't know he was shoplifting? Probably no one.