Mainstream: when your writing category vanishes

mainstream

THERE USED TO BE THREE GENERAL CLASSES OF WORK: MAINSTREAM/COMMERCIAL, LITERARY, AND GENRE.

Where did the mainstream go?

Caveats

I’m writing this post to dump the contents of my brain* about what has happened to the classification of novels on sites such as Amazon BECAUSE of the desire to categorize everything into smaller and smaller bins so the reader can find exactly the kind of book he is searching for.

It isn’t meant to be a scholarly discussion of any merit – and I welcome differing ideas, but would appreciate a general sticking to the question: Where did the mainstream go?

Mainstream fiction – as opposed to what?

This is a serious question. Type ‘mainstream’ into your Amazon search box and you won’t find the novels you expect. Maybe I should say that I’m older, and these aren’t the novels I expect.

‘General fiction’ brings up so much stuff I would consider genre fiction that it’s useless.

Although very well written genre work elevates a good story to a literary quality – which is where such novels as Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale are, in my opinion – it doesn’t make it mainstream or general fiction – the story is, in my mind, literary SF.

What IS ‘mainstream’ (IMHO)?

Mainstream fiction is meant to be appropriate and engaging for a majority audience.

Some books which I would call mainstream:

Love Story

The Thorn Birds (when it came out)

Gone With the Wind (ditto)

On The Beach and Trustee from the Toolroom (Nevil Shute)

Airport (and many of Alex Hailey’s other books)

Hawaii (ditto, Michener’s work)

Exodus, QB VII (and others by Leon Uris)

Authors such as Sidney Sheldon (The Other Side of Midnight) and John Fowles (The Magus)

The Bridges of Madison County and the novels of Nicholas Sparks

Some of these books are now classified as ‘classics,’ but were mainstream when they came out. Others are currently classified as ‘historical fiction,’ but the same applies: they were meant for a very large audience of literate people, an audience that went from children/young adults to older people, male and female, and encompassed much of the educated population.

There were no conventions; this audience could handle a WWII novel, a novel about finances, or The Key to Rebecca. Or Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca.

Mainstream. Commercial. Epic. General fiction.

Or simply what used to be called ‘a novel.’

And the category used to cover what was called a ‘big book’ – books with large casts of characters and elaborate plots, whether or not they were well-written, encompassing a spectrum of writing quality from Dan Brown to Ken Follett and Mary Stewart’s Arthurian legend novels starting with The Crystal Cave.

Mainstream novelists. People who wrote for the broad center of the complete reading public. Writers for whom plot and characterization were important.

But most importantly, people who did not want the reader to have to stop because of the language. The writing quality was sometimes awkward, generally competent, but stopped short of going into literary rhapsodies – because that would stop the readers’ flow.

Literary fiction then and now

A category which used to encompass everything from Proust (A la de temps perdu) to The Color Purple, ‘literary fiction’ used to mean stories that were intended for a more discerning audience than mainstream fiction, one with a more educated group in mind – and people who were comfortable with and appreciated language and description and minutiae and nuance. People who expect literary allusions and epigraphs and quotations from English poets, who can read Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day with pleasure.

I can’t. That kind of fiction, with its exaggerated precision and lack of plot (on the more literary or experimental end), makes me itch. These books are often taught in English and American Literature classes (the box where I found my husband’s copies had a large number of books of that kind) as ‘good for you’ and requiring study. It often meant work that was tinier in scope and more enamored of language than most readers were looking for.

Oddly enough, ‘literary’ as a category on Amazon is now used heavily by the big publishers to indicate that their books are better (and worth the much higher prices charged). When Data Guy puts out the quarterly charts of book prices by genre, the columns above 9.99 for ebooks are labeled literary and occupied mostly by traditional publishers: big 5, medium and small presses, and university presses.

Worse, literary is now the keyword associated with work which is the same as everything else, only better written. Literary fiction writers are probably screaming about that.

The problem with ‘literary’ as a category:

On Amazon, ‘literary’ has come to mean ‘mainstream.’

Now, ‘literary’ means anything not in a specific genre such as SFF or Romance or Thriller.

I’m sure authors of true literary books are not pleased to find their category invaded by everyone who thinks they write better than average prose.

The rise of genre fiction, partly propelled by Amazon and search categories

Books such as Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy were clearly science fiction. And The Lord of the Rings has always been fantasy.

Romance is a relatively recent category, but Pride and Prejudice is not a Romance; it is mainstream. Jane Eyre is now called ‘literature,’ but was mainstream when it came out.

Thrillers, mysteries, and such have always been genre – and some of its practitioners have elevated these genres by writing so well that we could probably call them literary mysteries, etc. – but the general audience I’m trying to delineate wouldn’t call them mainstream.

NOTE: there have always been omnivorous readers (I was one) who read anything they could get their little hands on, but we knew what we were reading when we chose a mystery or a science fiction story like Dune. Same stuff – only very well written.

Amazon provides all these categories and subcategories and sub-subcategories, but it doesn’t curate the lists. If you write ‘literary’ on your fantasy novel, it says ‘fine’ and shows that book with the literary novels and the fantasy novels, depending on other things like reviews and sales.

Nobody curates these lists online – it takes too much human time and trouble. Algorithms do it.

But it renders categories almost useless when anyone can put a paranormal romance with werewolves into general fiction. Or call their work literary. And I’ve had writers tell me they do this because their appropriate category is too crowded. Aargh!

What to do about this – assuming anyone cares?

And I do care – because I WRITE mainstream fiction, and I aim for the literary end of the writing quality spectrum – careful language. With the very strong warning to myself that it is NOT allowed to stop the flow.

I label it ‘literary’ and ‘general fiction’ and ‘psychological’ and ‘contemporary Romance’ (it IS a love story.

And I cringe when I do it.

I want my mainstream back. I probably won’t get it.


NOTE: If you’d like to see what the heck I’m talking about, Pride’s Children: PURGATORY, the first book in my mainstream contemporary love story trilogy, is available on Amazon US in ebook and print. For other countries, it’s easiest to type in the book’s name.

Thanks to Stencil for the ability to create images. I use fewer than 10 a month, so I have one of their free accounts. When I need more, they have very reasonably priced services with a LOT of flexibility.


*How and why I noticed the disappearance of the mainstream

I’m ideally positioned to answer this question because of an accident: for the past twenty-seven years, most of the energy normal people use for reading and writing fiction has been denied to me due to the energy-sapping disease called CFS – Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

In the beginning, merely surviving the illness and coping with the children took everything I had. After a number of years, things improved a bit (or older children require somewhat less intense mothering), and I started thinking how to stay sane, not merely alive.

Writing was the answer – something I could learn to do and had always wanted to and planned to do.

We won’t argue names and etiologies here, but CFS has a constellation of symptoms, and my worst three are:

  • Brain fog
  • Exhaustion
  • Pain

The relevance of this is that I don’t have energy for reading AND writing, and, because I wanted to write, and had a story to tell, I have spent most of that time on the debut novel Pride’s Children: PURGATORY. And I didn’t read much during that period. When I woke up, ‘mainstream’ had vanished.

It’s a subject close to my heart – as I write mainstream fiction, and, as an indie, I’m having a very hard time connecting with the right readers. A collection of terms such as ‘literary’ and ‘contemporary’ and ‘romance’ does NOT add up to ‘mainstream love story which deals realistically with disability, fame, and integrity,’ does it?

‘Write the book you want to read’ is then followed by ‘find the people LIKE YOU who want to read the same book but can’t/don’t write it.’ The problem: I have no idea how I would attract ME to my book. And the categories aren’t helping.

What say you?

Temporary halt in writing to catch up

detourTHE VALUE OF MULTIPLYING YOUR REACH WITH PROPER HELP

I have 30 partial posts.

I have bunches more ideas.

I have the Author Photo series halfway done.

I am giving up on promotion for the immediate future – it’s up to those of you who read to poke your friends. I’m mostly hand-selling to people who I meet online who turn out to be copacetic – and that takes a lot of time.

This would be a great time to write the review you always planned to write, to give Pride’s Children to a friend – or to point a friend here for an electronic Review Copy.

The biggest new commitment is long-term dejunking.

Yup, and since I can’t do it, I have to make the decisions for my new assistant, who is vastly over-qualified for the position and a good friend – and this is planned to take 4-9 hours weekly for the indefinite future, or until this house has lost 80% of its current contents, with another 10% clearly labeled as already selected to be given away/junked.

The plan is to just keep doing this until every drawer, shelf, closet, wall unit, and underbed storage box is down to the minimum necessary. And basket. And garage. And basement.

Our plan – should it work out – is to move to a Continuing Care Retirement Community in the next couple of years – so we’re not responsible for a house.

Which means settling the last child, taking care of some problems, selling the house, and finding the place to spend the rest of our lives.

The benefits?

Someone else will become responsible for everything.

No stairs.

I’m not getting better or more mobile; I need to make the move before I can’t, or my brain goes even further and I can’t qualify to live in a CCRC.

I don’t want independence – I want convenience, and a pool, and a gym, and dinner, and medical rehab facilities onsite. I want the husband to have plenty of things he wants to do (me, I write), so finding the right place IS critical.

I want to be able to walk out my unit’s door, lock it, have arranged whatever supervision might be necessary with the staff, and go someplace else without worrying about the ice dam or the furnace going out or mildew or the ice maker or…

I loved doing all those homeowner things – when I was younger and not disabled.

What does this mean for the blog and the writing?

Probably not much, except for the first few weeks.

I’m not going to do anything organizing-wise without my assistant, and I’m going to try to be coherent while she’s here. So it should come out of the time I’m currently wasting because I have no energy to use it.

I’ve had assistants before, lovely people. It works.

It has just become completely shortsighted of me to try to force myself to do things the way I’ve been trying to operate.

It will be a bit harder with the husband retired, because he’s not used to having someone around. The benefits – a boost to MY capabilities – should compensate.

I’m the problem here, and the pivot point, and possibly the solution.

Wish me well – expect it will be a couple of weeks of less engagement online while I get the system sorted out.

It has already begun

The first day was last Wednesday. I made about a thousand decisions – but they all got acted on instead of being admired and re-stored. Good intentions get very little actual work accomplished.

Bags of stuff left this house, destined for the trash or recycling. Books went to the Friends of the Library, for their sales.

I have to go take a nap – she’s coming at three.

Remember – if you like the prose…

Try the fiction – written by the same person. See sidebar for link.

I promise – I’m working madly on Book 2, and have some shorter stuff to put up.

Is it a mistake to gut your readers emotionally?

ride of lifeOR IS IT YOUR JOB AS A WRITER?

To give them the biggest emotional journey you can, the most stress and pain they can take vicariously?

At least, it is your job to consider their feelings – and how you’re going to invoke them – if not as you write, then at least before you publish.

You owe your readers a thorough exploration of the questions raised by the story. If you present one action, and only one reaction, you’re preaching. Which is fine as long as you know what you’re doing, and some writers and readers are perfectly fine with that.

But not me.

Mountains, anyone?

Real-life choices are made with options. Fictional choices are made with a lot MORE options. Just because writers can. There is no budget needed when a writer says, “Overnight, a mountain had moved in front of her window.” A few black marks and it’s done. Less than a minute of writing time, and we have a new mountain, right where I say it is.

So there’s no excuse such as “it’s too expensive” or “where am I going to get a mountain?”

Since I write realistic fiction, I do have limits that I choose (and shouldn’t use dream sequences with new mountains very often). But the mountains of K’Tae, where Kary sets her SF novel (if you’ve read Pride’s Children, you know what I’m talking about; if not) were necessary for her plot on an inhospitable planet, and cost me practically nothing. Nice, eh?

Readers’ reactions to roller coasters, emotional

Leaving out those who like their fiction tame, and those who prefer a lot of physical action, gives me readers who want to know how the appearance on a single TV interview can make such a difference in the life of a woman who normally hides, due to a carefully managed illness, from any publicity. How much can she take? What does it do to her? How does she cope before, during, and after a roller coaster comes into her life?

Do we want her to get off? Do we care where the ride stops? Is it even a possible ride for her and the other people involved?

Readers deserve an author who takes into account their emotional journey, presents each relevant event as the only possible next event, has a sequence of emotions calculated to lead them through a scene, chapter, book in an inexorable progress (Noooo!) to the only possible end to the story, and then dumps them at the station wanting more.

Margaret Mitchell did that continuously through a very long Gone With the Wind, and left us at the end wanting the more which either she didn’t plan to write, or didn’t get the chance to. And which was so badly mishandled by the writer her estate hired to do the sequel that I won’t mention it – which disappointed many.

How to engineer a roller coaster:

Planning, planning, and more planning is how I do it.

My tools (the books I consult most frequently while setting the journey up) are:

  1. Writing the Blockbuster novel, in which Albert Zuckerman masterfully takes apart several important and well known scenes (from The Godfather, GWTW, and Ken Follett’s The Man from St. Petersburg) showing how it’s done.
  2. The Fire in Fiction, in which Donald Maass carefully shows how to create conflict in every element of a scene (from landscaping to literally nothing happening).
  3. Wired for Story, where Lisa Kron shows how to make a reader empathize with a character with a thorough understanding of how the human brain works, and how we feel.

I start a scene, for example, by asking myself what the character needs to go through emotionally for the scene to work for me.

Then I start working out whether some of the emotions cluster in groups. If so, a smooth transition from feeling to feeling within a group gets planned.

I ask myself where the scene starts, what the emotional changes in the character have to be, and where the character needs to end.

Once I have the character’s path and the actual events working to give a transition which makes some kind of sense, I work out how to get a reader to identify – and take the same journey. It has to be a believable journey. In real life, people go through circular emotional journeys, coming back again to the same thing, over and over, repeating themselves. If you do that in fiction, readers will notice.

You don’t get to take that trip in fiction because it’s boring. Once a character achieves insight over something, the reader expects him to remember that insight.

That’s because stories are the highlights of life, condensed, told as quickly as possible so that readers can get many vicarious lives. My kind of stories, anyway.

Relevance?

That’s where I’m at right now: writing the very first scene in Pride’s Children: NETHERWORLD. In the midst of taking the reader expectations left at the end of PURGATORY into account, setting a new direction for the next level of exploration, making sure the reader gets dragged into Andrew’s head for the battle (yes, Book 2 starts with Andrew), making sure a few old questions get answered, and even more new questions get lodged in the reader’s consciousness, and planning that very long ride up from the station to the tip top of the track and then…?

Thing is, the starting point is partly determined by where Book 1 ended, and where I know Book 2 ends and Book 3 begins.

But I know it has to kick things up to a new level, so I get out my trusty software tools, and my slow brain, dump all the marketing and promotion stuff which has been bedeviling my existence, and start chuckling at what I’m planning to do.

Because the Roller Coaster Designer gets to take the ride over and over and over until it’s as good as she can make it.

Gentle Reader: do you like roller coasters?


Thanks to Stencil for the ability to make up to 10 free images per month. I’ve enjoyed using their easy tools – and every month they give me new choices. I will get a paid account as soon as I need more images – I’ve only explored the surface of what’s available.


I you like my prose, consider purchasing my fiction. It’s written by the same person.

I’m planning to put up a few short stories in a polished form as soon as I can create covers.

Using your writer RESET button asap

reset hit againSTEP ONE – CREATE RESET BUTTON; STEP TWO – USE IT

RESET just hit. Again. It’s been crazy – the day before yesterday I had to be coherent for over an hour in a meeting with the H/AC people – a sudden crisis because of an uh-oh! noise coming from the compressor/condenser/whatever they call the external unit, noticed by hubby when mowing the lawn.

Needless to say, I don’t do well without AC – my brain is as fragile as the chinchilla’s, and as useless when overheated.

And yesterday was the expected day from hell: with a whole bunch of incentives, all vanishing as the summer progresses, we bit the bullet and ordered the new system to be installed – immediately. Which meant they were here before 8AM on one of the hottest days of the year.

Did anything go wrong? Do we have AC?

They left by 2:30 – pretty amazing. It all works. We had a cool house by 3PM. Also amazing. Gizzy and daughter each had their room AC to keep them cool while they slept, sort of, as the gentlemen from A.J. Perri SLAMMED the door each time, about a thousand, they came in and out of the house. The whole house vibrates when you do that, and the sound is like having a two-ton piano dropped on the sidewalk behind you. I imagine, never having actually been present when they did it.

Note: when daughter or I leave the house, you can’t tell the door was closed, because we just close it.

ANYWAY.

It doesn’t matter – it still stops forward progress in my brain

Yesterday, all day after they left, I was completely fried and frazzled. Got almost nothing done except feeding myself. I couldn’t even get to sleep until 5AM. Naps and counted breaths and all my stretching yoga tricks – nope. Resisting carbs – nope. It is quite comical as I watch myself completely out of control – once I can watch myself. Which took until about a half hour ago.

So I just read my own post – this is why I write these things – and will continue the reset process with 1) starting to wake up daughter with sleep disorder, and 2) nap. Again. Until the process works, I’m back where I need to be, and I can function again. Which, if this comment is reasonably coherent, shows I’m starting to get to.

Toodle-oo!

Is there a moral to this story?

I’ve been doing this for years, folks – and I still have to drag my brain out of the deep well it goes to hide – with the slightest provocation.

It still feels gut-wrenching, fraught with all kinds of dire thoughts and worries, and hours of simply not being human. I can’t describe it any better – maybe it’s that my brain is so full of debris, a special kind of debris from things I try not to let get in there in the first place, things such as having to make a decision in very little time, feeling pressured, worrying like crazy about the alternatives, worrying if we can afford it, worrying whether we can afford NOT to do it…

On and on for hours – and not stopping until we make the best decision we can – at which point the consequences will start.

What I am finding is that the cycle is shorter now. I KNEW I had written a post on having a functioning RESET process (as a writer, but that’s basically my life, so really everything). I read it with the beginning of the returning threads of whatever it is that happens in there (and which I wish would happen MUCH closer to the actual crisis, but I also wish to be 30 years younger and have a metabolism like a teenage boy (the skinny ones – I already have the other kind).

Sooner, rather than later, IF possible

This is the fastest I’ve processed.

Maybe I’ll learn – IF there is time (there wasn’t) – to set up the RESET process BEFORE it is needed.

There’s a thought. For when I have some extra energy.

Push the button, folks. The warnings sirens – like the ones the installers of our AC set off during the process of installing, I believe, a new CO2 detector – will stop eventually.

Do you know when to push your RESET button?

Creating and improving the dreaded Author Photo: Part 2

look like 2CHOOSE YOUR GOAL: HOW SHOULD YOUR READERS SEE YOU?

This is a toughie, because we would prefer to be attractive naturally (‘attractive’ here meaning strictly to find more readers who will like your writing), and then any picture would do.

So you have to instead suss out what those readers expect to see, and trust to produce the kind of writing they like to read.

You can go with mysterious, and skip all forms of visual presence. Your choice. Which will be destroyed if you ever get interviewed, do a book signing, go to a convention – and someone takes a photo of the ‘mysterious author’ and makes it public.

“But,” you say, “I never go out in public.” Like me. Okay, not never, just rarely. Maybe then it’s even MORE important to have a photo you like be your representative out in the world.

I’m sure it varies widely by genre, and a fresh-faced young beautiful blonde girl would lack the picture creds to write a really nasty military thriller conspiracy. We trust Stephen King to write horror – he LOOKS like he writes horror. We have these ideas in our head…

If you don’t look like the stereotype, can you modify yourself to look like the stereotype? No.

Can you modify your PHOTO to look like the stereotype? Yes.

Determining the stereotype requires a bit of detective work

Pride’s Children: PURGATORY is a mainstream contemporary literary love story.

Here’s my analysis:

  • The author of such doesn’t have to be as pretty as the author of a Romance (who should at least look a bit like her (usually young and beautiful) heroine).
  • She should be older than the ‘pretty young thing,’ but maybe not ‘old.’
  • She should be smiling. Love, after all, makes us happy. But not grinning.
  • She should NOT look like a business person, yet she should look competent. She will be your guide on an adventure.
  • She should be slightly soft, rather than hard.
  • She should not look deeply worried.
  • She should definitely not look realistic, warts and all.
  • She should be dressed in something that does NOT signal Romance or Romance writer (think of Meryl Streep in She-Devil with Rosanne Barr – go look; I’ll wait). Nor should she dress like Roseanne Barr on that poster (which is a parody of the Romance-reading suburban housewife). Roseanne Barr is a beautiful woman, and so is Kathy Bates, but they have made a career out of allowing themselves to be portrayed as ugly or frumpy – I’ve been startled by how well they clean up!

How does this translate to what I hope to aim for in the Author Photo?

Plan to ‘airbrush’ or ‘retouch’ the heck out of anything I choose. This is not the time to be starkly realistic.

Plan to pick a background to enhance the person; here’s the Kristin Hannah photo on Amazon – if I looked like her… but older? A really good makeup session, and a really good photographer would do that for me. The choice of clothing and the background combination bring out her eyes beautifully.

A forward-facing but slightly un-centered and three-quarter body position is better than one squarely facing the camera, like a mug shot or a photo for a job application.

Look directly at the reader. Readers need to be able to trust the writer of an improbable tale.

Smiling, but not grinning.

No plastic hair for this – enough said? Soft, flowing, but tidy, a frame for the face. This part is me: no bangs/fringe. Not too much hair obscuring the face. No hint of hiding.

And, of course, the EXPRESSION – the overall ‘feel’ of the image – has to be right. And no, I can’t define ‘right’ in this context; I hope I’ll know it if I see it. It’s not just ‘pretty’ or ‘confident’ or ‘competent.’

It’s the same reason I licensed the photo for the cover that I chose: I could not find another that had the right ‘expression’ as a whole – and that one worked for me, though in that case the face is not visible – it’s the whole body and body position that expresses the longing.

Okay now – skillset? Acquire or farm out?


CAUTION

*** This is how a PWC* is doing this, not how you should if you want a beautiful photo. ***


I thought about going to fiverr for the retouching after I picked out a photo with a suitable expression. There are a lot of people there who will retouch for a very reasonable fee, and the portfolios I saw were impressive.

Maybe I’ll go there later, if Richard Avedon still doesn’t live in Hamilton, NJ.

For me, it’s always the balance between how much energy it takes to set up and work with another person, usually a healthy, energetic person. But more importantly, people with their own ideas and opinions, whom you hire because of those, are not going to get exactly what you want without a good deal of back and forth over a suitable period of time. And it would take a lot of time to vet the portfolios, and go through the whole process with several people. I might be surprised and pleased – the same way I might be surprised and pleased with some of our local photographers – but I don’t have a history of success in that department.

Maybe I’ll just send the picture I choose, pay three or four people, tell them ‘glamorous,’ and see what comes back. Still sounds like a lot of work.

I don’t have a friend who just had a gorgeous head shot taken.

I don’t live near my sisters, or their hairdressers.

Pixelmator and Youtube to the rescue!

With the caveat that the best way to get a great picture by retouching is to start with a very good picture that is almost what you want, but needs a little enhancing and cleanup – and I lack said good picture – I located online, free, available any time (my kind of energy saving), a series of videos giving me exactly the tools and instruction I need, and which I am learning, taking notes on, and starting to follow.

As usual, I talk/write too much, so I’m going to cut the ‘goal’ post off here, and write the rest as I try to achieve my goal: to look like me as you should see me, not as the cold harsh light of day does.


Your place to dump the insecurities that make this dreaded – from the Author Bio post comments, I assume many other authors (and normal people) have the same problem, or I wouldn’t be posting this!


*PWC: Person with CFS (chronic fatigue syndrome).

Also, thanks to Stencil for the free account I’m using to do the images at the beginnings of my posts. They have paid accounts if you need more than an occasional image.

Creating and improving the dreaded Author Photo: Part 1

look likeYOUR CHANCE TO CONTROL HOW THE WORLD SEES YOU. LITERALLY.

After having just interacted online about the dreaded Author Bio, and navigated that to a conclusion (satisfactory or not), I continue on my mission: to have every useful feature that connects me to potential readers for my fiction neatly and professionally (in the DIY sense) filled out.


CAUTION

*** This is how a PWC* is doing this, not how you should if you want a beautiful photo. ***


I COULD go out and find a photographer, get the professional headshot created, and post that. In fact, that’s on my To Do list. Has been for YEARS. NOT very near the top. If I ever become famous, have some extra time to waste, or decide I absolutely must, well, there are photographers in Hamilton, NJ. Every once in a while I look them up online. Richard Avedon is NOT in Hamilton, NJ.

I want to return to writing – and I’ve seen so many headshots that I positively hate, and few that I don’t – so, in my ‘fools rush in’ usual manner, I’m trying to make do with no help from anyone. Because I can count on me, and my tools, and everyone else seems elusive and slippery.

I have a nice little camera, courtesy of husband a few birthdays ago. It has lots of megapixels. It is the source of the snapshot that is the current photo of me in most places online. I’ll put it here, because the whole point is that it’s about to change.

AliciaHeadshotNO

It has, of course, been edited. Taken in New Orleans on a family vacation a couple of years back, it is cunningly calculated to fool all automatic editing by the cunning collection of windows and other architectural features from the cathedral I was standing in front of when someone caught a snap of the least objectionable expression on my face of the whole vacation.

Truly.

The source of the problem is…

That I, like many women (including models), don’t like the way I look in photographs.

There are PLENTY of photographs of me.

I come from a photogenic family – any picture of my sisters will show you how beautiful, polished, smiley, and always impeccably dressed and made up and coiffed (even on the golf course) my sisters are. Mother’s cheekbones are still impressive and lovely, and she just turned 93. She is ALSO kept beautifully coiffed by her lovely helpers.

But I rarely measure up. The CFS means the energy it takes – and it is considerable, ask my sisters – is not available. I throw myself together the best and quickest I can (cleanliness IS next to godliness, if not before it – I manage that often), with no thought for style.

This little detail is a very large part of why ‘Have professional headshot taken’ is so low on the priority list, BTW. Besides the four months of doing nothing but dieting required, I would have to get hairstyling and makeupping and fashion updates which are out of my energy budget from the sheer amount of time they would take, not to even mention the energy.

Your excuse may vary.

So the solution comes from…?

Well, I’m working on it.

For people like me, there are two sources of an acceptable photo:

  1. Candid shots taken by someone else – the source of the one I’ve been using
  2. Shots taken by me on daughter’s forward-facing iPhone camera – one of these days; for reasons which will be discussed below, it won’t help until I have some extra energy
  3. Shots taken by me on my computer – with the software and hardware already available to me – in this case, the wretched Photo Booth

Why wretched? Because it turns out the resolution is absolutely crappy, and there is no way to change it! The resolution settings for the camera – which sends much better quality pictures of me to Skype and such (so I know it can) – have NO way to be accessed ON the computer.

But it has the ONE advantage I need: I can see what I look like as I take a picture. Or rather, what I THINK I look like. So I can manipulate the heck out of that.

The source photos I accidentally acquired

One day within the past year, I went to church, where I sing in a tiny choir.

As I try to do, I was tidy, had a tiny bit of makeup on (okay, eyeliner – it makes my pale lashes stand out a little; possibly lip gloss – easy compared to lipstick), my favorite purple shirt, and my hair was as clean and soft as it gets with my limited haircutting and maintenance routine (yes, I cut it myself when it drives me crazy; very fast compared to that energy-sucking salon trip which normal people use).

So, basically, I looked as good as it gets nowadays (don’t expect that much).

For an unknown reason, I had a bit more energy than usual when I got home from church (maybe daughter drove), I sat at my computer, and it hit me: take some quick snapshots – and we’ll process them later and see if we can kick this headshot thing up the next step. I took my glasses off to avoid reflections. Besides, I don’t usually wear them EXCEPT at the computer, so you wouldn’t expect to see me in glasses.

I quickly took about 20 photos with Photo Booth – and the day’s extra energy was used up.

When I looked at them a few days later, I discovered that Apple, which usually does much better for me, had chosen the low resolution photo as the output of this app which comes with the computer AND there is no way to change that!

Aargh! After blowing my energy wad, I had 20 low resolution photos of me at all kinds of coy angles, every one of which would go straight to the garbage if I had my druthers, and not one of them was suitable as taken because of the background, the coloring, and the subject.

But I’m nothing if not game, and I will be using one of these photos (I might even dare post beginning and after versions) as the source of the dreaded Author Photo, which, unless you are beautiful may actually be better a little fuzzy. Okay – a lot.

Thus endeth Part 1.


LAST KINDLE COUNTDOWN DAY US AND UK!

Amazon US     and     Amazon UK

If you like my prose, consider purchasing my fiction. It’s written by the same person.


Your place to dump the insecurities that make this dreaded – from the Author Bio post comments, I assume many other authors (and normal people) have the same problem, or I wouldn’t be posting this!


*PWC: Person with CFS (chronic fatigue syndrome).

Also, thanks to Stencil for the free account I’m using to do the images at the beginnings of my posts. They have paid accounts if you need more than an occasional image.

Summer reading sale: Kindle Countdown for Pride’s Children

PC1 3D frontPride’s Children is on Kindle Countdown SALE at 0.99, US and UK!

For new followers – if you’ve liked my writing, here’s a chance to try my long-form fiction.

WARNING: not everyone likes it.

Decide for yourself!

Here are the links to go directly to the Amazon US and Amazon UK sites.

Writing the Author Bio is painful

all about meCHILDREN START WITH HUGE EGOS – ARE TAUGHT TO BE MODEST

I have been struggling with a stupid task I thought I’d already accomplished and would merely have to revisit for a quick update before any more ad campaigns: having an ‘Author Bio.’

I don’t know how it is in traditional publishing, whether authors are now required to write their own bio in third person and send it in, along with a ‘professionally edited’ manuscript they’ve paid to have edited, but the big attraction was always that someone would interview you, tell you you were being way too modest, extract all kinds of interesting bits from you (thus allowing you to remain officially modest), and write something up that made you sound much more interesting that you are.

Until you could replace the whole thing with the fact that you are now famous and a list of your accomplishments as long as, well, whatever.

Once OTHER people have conferred interesting-ness on you, you can act modest and even bashful, and still wow consumers into buying whatever it is you produce.

In these days when indies have dumped gatekeeping and vetting from outside, and have learned to speak of their own work in public, and say that it’s good and persuade you to read it – the other part, writing your own ad copy, is also hard – we now find ourselves in exactly the position our parents would not want us to be in: praising ourselves.

The resulting bios, from absent (coward or busy or not realizing you need to have one) to whimsical to dry to boastful, have been instructive. And the samples online, ‘How to write your author bio,’ have been equally ludicrous.

About vs. Author Bio

You are allowed, nay, expected, to be whimsical on the About page of your own blog. Mine is a mixture of things about me which might appeal to someone – but they are just a random bunch of facts and factoids, things which are individually true or illustrative.

Many of the people who read your About page become online friends.

But the Author Bio on your books’ site – and the Author page on Amazon or your Goodreads Author Profile – is a different beast. It is for strangers.

It is supposed to represent you as a SERIOUS WRITER.

It is something which could be on the back flap of your hardcover traditionally-published FICTION, written by that (possibly fictitious) publicist/copywriter.

It’s a grownup thing.

Writing the REAL Author Bio is PANIC TIME

I can’t tell you how long it’s been on the list, because I thought I had done it, so AT LEAST since October 2015, and probably longer, this task.

Here’s a note to myself from 2013: “I come from the tradition that says the author is the least relevant part of the book, once it’s out.”

I have To Do lists with ‘check Author Bio’ on them, as you’re supposed to revisit your Amazon Author Page periodically and tweak it. I have resisted that tweaking mightily for a very good reason: I’m afraid if I touch ANYTHING on the materials submitted when I posted ebook and print versions, it will lead Amazon to review my materials – and possibly decide I’ve done something wrong and cause all manner of delays in getting it back up.

I didn’t ask anyone about that fear, because it is my experience that fear doesn’t survive information, and I DIDN’T WANT TO DO IT.

But I have this ad campaign coming up, and a To Do list specifically to be ready for it, and so many things causing me angst on it, that I decided this is it, the ‘write Author Bio’ was THE next task, and that I would not go on to another task on that To Do list until it was done, because bouncing around from item to item is getting me nowhere but even more confused.

The actual writing of the Author Bio took seven days

The current method – stick with one item until it’s done or the ad is past and there’s nothing you can do about it – started on June 16, 2016.

A usable (up for comments, so feel free) one was produced today by yours truly. 332 words for the long version, and a shortie of 72 words.

If you’ve gone through the process, you know. If not, I don’t think I can make you feel the pain sufficiently.

I have been facing this, putting it front and center as other things had to be dealt with, not moving on to the many other things I need to do (a handwritten list of twenty items, many with subparts), for SEVEN DAYS.

It’s been so bad that I started writing a new book – titled PAPER BRAIN for now – about how to use a damaged brain and still manage to GET SOMETHING DONE. Waiting for ‘good time’ not required if even half-functional. I kept throwing every bit of time – good, semi-good, and non-functional at the task – and getting nowhere.

Brain fog rampant. Inability to make decisions foremost. Whole worldview exposed.

Today I figured out how to break the logjam

In desperation at all the flopping about, lack of decision-making capability, and sheer angst, I found the right question.

I couldn’t write my Author Bio. Why? Because of all the stuff I started this post with.

But,

How about writing the bio I WISH I had?

As if I WERE someone else.

As if life had gone the way I planned it to, more or less.

As if all those details had happened.

I am ashamed of being who I am instead of who I always planned to be, and have been hoping to go back to. So someone could write a bio about me and put it on the books I always planned to write.

I finally realized it has never been up to me, not the final outcome: life is what happens while you’re making other plans.

Here it is, finally, shorn of angst and agita:

Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt is a former researcher and computational physicist at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory and the Johns Hopkins U. Applied Physics Laboratory. She holds a BS in physics from Seattle U., and an MS and PhD in Nuclear Engineering from the U. Wisconsin-Madison. A minor problem with her right eye kept her from fulfilling her ambition as an astronaut.

A voracious reader since beginning to read at three, she had always intended to write fiction, and, now retired, dedicates her whole life – when not spending time with her husband, family, and chinchilla – to exploring the concepts of integrity in relationships, and the psychological questions of why people do what they do and make the choices they make, including their life partners.

A homeschooler by accident when illness derailed her working life’s plan, her life-long dedication to the sciences aided in the development of three STEM children with a love of language.

She has dedicated the past twenty some years to learning to write to the standards of the early classics she was steeped in, as she believes that messages in fiction must be surrounded by the utmost in quality entertainment, and that fiction is the most powerful tool we have to slipping through the barriers we put up around our hearts and our minds.

As a writer, she’s published traditionally in short story. She’s been featured on Wattpad, where her story Too Late has received 63.7K reads, and where her debut novel Pride’s Children: PURGATORY was serialized and currently has 19.7K reads.

When she’s not writing, you can find her enjoying the hummingbirds in her garden of perennials designed for them, or singing.

She is hard at work on the next novel in the Pride’s Children trilogy, working title NETHERWORLD, scheduled for publication later this year. Follow her on Amazon or at prideschildren.wordpress.com to be informed when her next story is available.

Discover more about her opinionated opinions and quirky writing methods on her writing blog, at liebjabberings.wordpress.com.

With the short version:

Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt is a former researcher and computational physicist at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory.

A voracious reader, she had always intended to write fiction, and, now retired, dedicates her whole life – when not spending time with her husband, family, and chinchilla – to exploring the concepts of integrity in relationships, and the psychological questions of why people do what they do and make the choices they make, including their life partners.

This is me, folks. What will go out there in public for those who don’t know me, who haven’t earned the details by knowing me personally or reading this blog.

Comments of all kind especially welcome – it’s so much easier to change things at this point.

What say you?

Incident at Caleta Beach – a persistent memory

INCIDENT AT CALETA BEACH

You tell me who was right – after twenty-four years the day is as clear in my memory as yesterday. And after all that time, I still don’t know what to believe.

Caleta* was Acapulco’s morning beach in my grandfather Papa Memo’s day. My grandfather was the epitome of the Mexican gentleman, warm, family-oriented, and a man of absolutely unwavering integrity.

In those days you saw everyone who was in town at Caleta in the morning. Then, at a suitable time, you went back to your house to bathe; to have that meal known as “la comida,” the food, which could be lunch or brunch or even an early dinner, and which was being prepared by the cook; and to lie in a hammock through the worst heat of the day. Late afternoons, you went to Playa Hornos. I barely had a few years to do this as a child transplanted to Mexico before my beloved grandfather passed away.

In our day, Bill’s and mine, Caleta had lost its uniqueness to population booms, but it was still close to Albemar, my family’s home. We settled on our small plot of sand, to people-watch, to keep our three small children from following the wavelets too deep, to watch for that occasional big wave which still washes up all the way to the base of the hotel which has stood, bare concrete, unfinished due to legal troubles, for as long as I can remember.

The umbrella was set in the sand. Our baby daughter dug happily with her bucket of ocean water to fill the hole. The white-shirted waiter with the rolled up pants and bare feet had brought us two white-painted slatted wood lounge chairs, and would come later with sodas for all, ceviche for Bill if he dared.

People walked by as they will on a beach, vendors of shell necklaces and mangoes dipped in chile piquín, waiters with coconuts. Not crowded, not empty. Just right.

A lone lounge chair twenty feet to our left, ten closer to the water’s edge, sat in isolated splendor – no umbrella, no beach table, no thatched hut – in a patch of sand. A Mexican family, father and three boys, moved decorously – in sand it is hard to do otherwise – between us and the water, and the trailing small boy sat for a moment on the edge of the chair. The father turned to hurry his brood on, the boy stood up and continued trailing along.

All at once, in the middle of this idyll designed to dull the mind to pure lazy observer, came shouting from the waves. Caleta is a tranquil beach, half of a tiny bay, divided from Caletilla by the causeway that goes to the island, but people still drown here. So shouts are heeded.

The words were unrecognizable, guttural, but it could have been the distance. The man charging out of the water had a big belly. It is hard work to charge out of the water. He came slowly until the water cleared his chest, then moved up the beach as fast as his bulk would allow, yelling all the time. He switched to English, and my ear pulled the sound out of the soft murmuring Spanish background. The word he was yelling was “Thief!”

My Spanish-challenged husband said “Stay out of it.” He went back to helping the baby dig to China.

The Mexican gentleman came to a stop, the very portrait of affronted dignity. The German tourist – for he could be no other – gesticulated wildly and switched to his limited Spanish, bellowing “Policía!” I see the small group yet, rooted unyielding in the sand of memory.

There is a tiny cement hut at the end of the causeway where a contingent of blue-uniformed policemen discretely supervise the goings-on of the glass-bottom boats bobbing along the causeway, and the occasional beach drunk. One appeared, notified by the grapevine. He attempted to calm the tourist, assuage the wounded pride of the Mexican gentleman called a thief in front of his children.

El policía had little English – and his set and the German’s didn’t overlap. I, born nosy and American and bilingual, approached, and gingerly asked if I could help. Bill, in the background, shook his head, and dedicated himself to keeping our boys, just as nosy, 3 and 5, but NOT bilingual, well away from the tableau we must have made.

The German tourist latched on to me, explaining loudly in his limited English. I translated. The Mexican father shook is head slowly, consented only to explain gravely, because he had been accused, that he was looking for a place to settle his brood, with their bags and toys, on the beach. The policeman looked baffled and attempted to be conciliatory: there must have been some mistake.

But the evidence was incontrovertible: the smallest of the Mexican boys, the one who had perched briefly at the end of the German’s carefully isolated chair, held in his hand a plastic bag containing the German’s wallet and hotel key.

The German gentleman’s story: he had come to the beach alone, and fearing thieves, had set the chair well apart so he could watch his belongings from the water. His fear had now been confirmed.

The Mexican gentleman’s story: he was looking for a piece of beach for the day; the children were dawdling; he had spoken sharply to the one who sat for a moment, to pick up his things and stop falling behind. The father was thoroughly mortified, but it was clearly a mistake, and his son would now hand the German back his property.

The policeman was baffled. I translated all into English for the benefit of the German gentleman, and his comments into Spanish for the Mexican gentleman and the policeman.

The child was admonished. The policeman clearly wanted the matter to disappear. The German was asked if he wanted to press charges. I was asked what I saw, which was very little – I did not notice whether the child had anything in his hand when he sat down, and I did not see him pick the bag up when he moved on.

The impasse settled like the baking sun on our little group. Finally, I asked the German whether he would be satisfied with an apology. He reluctantly agreed. I translated into Spanish: the dignified Mexican gentleman was affronted – he had already apologized, according to his lights. The policeman saw a resolution, pressed his co-national.

The Mexican gentleman, clearly unhappy, asked me to translate his formal apology to the foreign tourist. The German nodded his head brusquely. Neither man offered a hand.

The policeman went off, the matter dealt with to his satisfaction. The German tourist thanked me roughly, and went back into the water to our left, leaving his plastic bag now carefully tied to the lounge chair. The Mexican gentleman chose a section of thatched hut to our right, called a waiter, requested a drink. The three little boys dashed off to the water.

And so we sat in face-saving splendor. The German stayed in the water long enough to prove he was unbowed, then ostentatiously retrieved his bag and left the beach. A while later we gathered our children and their toys and sandals and towels, and headed out to get a taxi back to Albemar on the hill. We left the Mexican gentleman still in possession of the battlefield.

But I have wondered all these years whether the Mexican gentleman, so poised and so middle-class, and so offended, was not a Fagin with the perfect excuse for his small accomplices to pick up bags left carelessly unattended on the beach by foreigners, even in cahoots with the police. I don’t know why I think that.

And I wonder still whether I did not do the German tourist a terrible disservice because the Mexican gentleman, dark-skinned, balding, self-possessed, was the perfect reincarnation of my beloved Papa Memo.


*This image, courtesy of Wikipedia, is from 2009. In 1992, when this incident occurred, there would have been far fewer chairs and thatched umbrellas and people. There were fewer hotels, and an unfinished one behind the beach. Caletilla is to the right, past the causeway from which this photo appears to have been taken.

Signaling literary ebook audiences by pricing strategy

PAW ad 7:6:16 hi-resPERSUADING LITERARY FICTION READERS TO READ INDIE

As those of you who have read Pride’s Children: PURGATORY will know, I write literary contemporary mainstream fiction.

I added ‘literary’ to this, somewhat reluctantly, since I published in October 2015, and I don’t intend to remove that designation. Reluctantly, because in some circles this is the equivalent of trumpeting your own horn.

But ‘Literary’ now covers a spectrum which goes from writing which literally brings the story to a halt to admire a butterfly’s scales reflecting the light, to mainstream, to works which are genre but use language so perfectly you don’t even notice.

The first problem: literary indie work is a tiny subset of the literary ‘genre,’ (as the Author Earnings report characterizes it), and that is the smallest of genres. Here is the link to the AE graph for genres, from the June 2016 report.

The second problem: the literary category is dominated by big publishers (who have fought hard to maintain the principle that they vet authors, and the work they publish is worth publishing), and who price their ebooks in the higher ranges. The combination big 5 + small/medium publishers includes most of the bestseller sales. Here is the link to the AE graph for Kindle Bestsellers by price range from January 2016.

I’m concluding that buyers of literary fiction are used to paying $7 to $15 for their ebooks. And Amazon imprints are priced below that (and are doing extremely well – their books have a hugely disproportionate share of earnings in the price range they have chosen, peaking at around $6.99).

And therefore, pricing a literary ebook at $8.99 is a way of both staying in the Amazon 70% royalty range (2.99-9.99) and NOT raising a red flag of ‘cheap’ with literary readers (unless that is clearly a sale price).

My main problem now is advertising in such a place and manner to attract those readers who prefer their reading somewhere on the literary spectrum. I’ll be trying that tactic this July with an ad in the summer reading issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly (PAW), about the only place I’ve planned to use my title.

Awards, a popular strategy for this class of writing, are often (almost always) not open to self-publishers – or expensive. And possibly biased.

I’m also aware that this may be a severely time-limited transition strategy which may only work until the literary category is well populated by indies. Amazon’s literary imprint, Little A, is going to be making inroads, if it hasn’t already. But Amazon becomes the publisher, and they don’t take submissions from indies (last I checked, submissions were accepted only from agents).

I’m sure there are MANY things wrong with this as a pricing strategy, but for me, for my kind of writing, for this book, for my extremely slow rate of production, and for the kind of readers who I believe will like Pride’s Children: PURGATORY and its two remaining volumes, I have not been able to find a better strategy. (This is not the indie genre pricing strategy.)

Other than either going viral or finding a champion – events even rarer than indie literary fiction.

Ideas and experiences welcome!

Everyone needs a functioning RESET process

reset buttonThe RESET process is key to psychological stability

The concept is incredibly simple: when everything goes to hell, you have to get back to some basics that you can trust, so you can get back to the place from which you look out at the world and can handle your life:

Your writing.

Your parenting.

Whatever threw you for a loop this week. Today. Right now.

When do you press RESET?

To start a RESET process, the crisis must be over; or, the crisis must have gone from acute to chronic, and have, finally, a tiny bit of slack. RESET cannot be pressed in acute mid-crisis; there you have to rely on whatever coping mechanisms get you through crises.

It doesn’t have to be much of a break in the crisis mode, and your basic reset process has to be simple enough to take hold quickly so that you can take advantage of the tiny lull to get back to solid ground.

The instinct to USE that space to RESET is the key to getting control of whatever I need to control.

These past two weeks have thrown all manner of things at me:

  • There have been six doctor appointments, five of them mine.
  • There was a crisis in the handling of my father’s estate, a place where making the time and effort would keep the process of claiming a life insurance policy from having its file closed.
  • There is the continuing saga of launching the last child, functional enough to take charge of her own life, and with a clear understanding of the necessary pieces; seemingly on track to be resolved, it has taken a hit.
  • Writing wasn’t happening at all because my good time had to be used for the crises, and I hate being at that point, because writing seems to be the only thing which keeps me sane as an individual, and not the member of some societal group which has a larger claim on my time.

I got to where I was going in tinier and tinier loops involving tiny bad decisions which were actually making everything worse because I forgot the simple principle of going back to the bunker, going back to Kindergarten (as animal trainers call it), finding the space to get reoriented and reset.

Bad patterns are very hard to break

There is a pattern, a very clear pattern now that I have not been able to interrupt yet: the day AFTER I overdo it (which is extremely easy if you have CFS and brain fog and exhaustion), the first session of the day will be total crap. I can’t get around it – it ALWAYS happens. I tell myself it is coming. I tell myself I should prepare for it. I tell myself I should take First Nap SOONER than the 2:20 which is my session length – and yet I always end up taking far longer than 2:20 before I can force myself into stopping all those tiny distractions, and getting myself into bed for the mental dialysis that is the POINT of my naps.

And I ALWAYS get to that First Nap in an agitated mental state that goes around and around in circles without solving anything.

What do you do in the state where you can’t hit reset?

So, back to the RESET button: because it isn’t going to fix itself until I take charge, and I’m incapable of taking charge in that state. Catch-22.

The RESET button/process is whatever works for you to break the cycle and get back to basics.

For a computer, it is RESTART. The computer is stuck, cycling, or not working well. So STOP. Reload the software/dump the buffers/clear the caches. For each process that was active BEFORE the RESTART, figure out whether it should be started up again – this is critical.

RESET button on this human

For me, it means to STOP the mental cycling that is driving me crazy so I can look at what is important and what isn’t, and pick up threads only to the most critical problems.

And the way I have which works for me is the slow counted yoga breathing I have taught myself to do, and which is attached to the most BASIC PRINCIPLE: everything in the world can wait for THREE calm breaths.

At the end of those three breaths, there is a tiny decision: am I ready to proceed with figuring out what to do?

The answer ‘NO’ simply means I need three more breaths, and the Universe can wait that long.

Eventually, the answer is ‘YES,’ because I’ve given my brain the space to stop cycling and RESET. It never takes more than 30-40 slow counted breaths: slow in and fill the lungs completely; relax and hold while counting eight heartbeats; let the air out as slowly as possible.

The EIGHT HEARTBEATS are what works for me. When I finally start the process of breathing, the heart is racing, and the eight counts are too fast. My brain is totally fogged. But the very counting of the hold phase, my own heart’s eight beats, slows it down. I often have to remind myself of the BASIC PRINCIPLE during this period – after all, I’m in a loop, and a mess, and a crisis, and frantic, and usually there are all kinds of things hammering at my consciousness.

But I also know, from years of practice, that in addition to the heart slowing, a second feature is going on at the same time: the cleaning out of the debris of thinking from my mind. It can’t happen while I’m allowing more input of any kind.

Is RESET possible, and is it reliable?

The combination – slowing heartbeat + brain dialysis – ALWAYS works.

The more I do it, the more it works.

The first three breaths are hard. But I’m also out of any other options when I get to this point, and I know it.

I don’t WANT to nap, to block out the world. I want to fix the problems and WORK my way back to sanity.

Too bad. I don’t care what I want. I know what I have to do: I have to close down the computer and block the internet and turn off the phone ringer, and I have to take three slow counted breaths while the Universe of Hurt waits for me impatiently, often requiring one last pass through the circling garbage in my mind before I can start breathing.

And as many more sets of three breaths as it takes.

It is a process which takes time, usually that 35-minute period between lying down, putting in the earplugs if necessary, and putting the eye mask on to block the light.

Rarely, I do it in less time – because that’s all I have.

Occasionally, it takes a second 35-minute period.

But it always starts to work as soon as I start that preemptive rest period, start the first in-breath, hold the first eight counts.

What happens AFTER you click RESET?

The difference, which I just went though, is amazing. Instead of all those clamoring thoughts climbing right back into the saddle and demanding attention, I am at a calm place that can ask them: okay, which of you has to go first?

And the answer is often: none. Because what I need is to stop, put them all on paper, start the meta process of thinking about thinking, and ONLY then picking up one to think about.

I take my time.

A blank sheet of scratch paper serves for a quick listing of the screaming meemies, and the writing starts the thinking of what options are available on each problem, and the listing gets quietly into doing the more obvious logical steps, and we’re off.

Back in a sane land. Back to where things can wait their turn, and wait until there is energy to actually do them, and in some kind of clarity of priorities and timelines.

I can handle them again.

That’s my RESET button. What’s yours?

To get where you write, know where you start

then write

SATURDAY MORNING REDEDICATION AFTER A WEEK OR TWO OFF FROM WRITING

Every morning I wait for the wits to gather, for the two usable neurons to click on and do their job, for the moment when (IF) the minimum amount of brainpower is available to make the decision: block the internet so I can write.

I am fortunate: I have time for writing. I actually spend each day at the computer, where, if I can write, I write. Many other people have to snatch their writing time from a busy life with a day job and children and the dog and… I don’t. I could write all day every day – if I could get the brain to cooperate.

It’s frustrating. I always wanted to write when I retired, back in the days where computational physics took my daily energy – and I gave it gladly; programming with the purpose of filling the space between experimentalists and theoreticians is the best use of the kind of brain I had back then. Connecting the measured reality with the equations which explained them (if the equations were right, which is what I was ascertaining) is a joy reserved to few, and calculating theoretical parameters from experimental data was a trip. I could do it; I did it; it was useful and appreciated, and the way I had planned to spend my life.

So now that I am retirement age, and all finished with even the possibility of going back to do useful physics, and have the time, I have to wait to get the neurons clicked on (both of them), and see if I can make them think for a little while. Frustrating.

You see, they don’t want to turn on. What a joy it might have been to write with a right mind. For that matter, what a joy it would have been lo these many years to do almost anything with a right mind, I will never know.

But life is what happens when you’re making other plans, and this is mine, and I write with it, and I know that if it doesn’t come on today, this brain of mine (or, much of the time, that it is not urgently required to do something that only I can do), it will come on tomorrow, and I will get a few more words out.

Why? Why do all that work when I could sit around and eat bonbons (we can afford it)?

Because the story of Pride’s Children, of Kary and Andrew and Bianca, was VOUCHSAFED to me, as a whole, and it’s not finished writing yet. It’s such a lovely word, ‘vouchsafed.’ It means, roughly, granted to ME, because I am the best person for it. It came as a whole, this story ‘of obsession, betrayal, and love,’ and I know where it ends, even as I discover some of the side paths it takes to get there, NECESSARY side paths.

I won’t stop writing, finishing the remaining two books in the trilogy, until I am finished – or I am stopped.

So all the ‘life events’ and distractions and bonbons have to wait, because I have work to do, it is important, and it isn’t finished.

And because, by starting, I have promised my readers.

And because I can. Eventually. Most days.

And that will have to do.

A day of protest for the #MILLIONSMISSING from ME/CFS: May 25th, 2016

(not my shoes*)

(these are from Wikipedia)

I AM ONE OF THE #MILLIONSMISSING

I am being represented in Washington by a pair of my shoes.

Black high heels I used to wear to work, and when giving physics presentations such as the one I gave in the week of November 5, 1989, at the American Physical Society Annual Meeting of the Division of Plasma Physics in Anaheim, California.

I came back from that meeting with a raging fever; my doctor had antibiotics waiting for me, but I never got well again.

I was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome by an infectious diseases specialist. I was lucky; in those days getting a diagnosis was hit or miss, and the stories of people misdiagnosed for years were rampant even then.

Lucky – in the sense of knowing what was wrong. But the specialist and I looked at each other; he knew he was conferring a walking death sentence. I knew, even back then, that nothing would ever be the same.

It hasn’t been.

Research money allotted by Congress was diverted, many if not most doctors still don’t believe it’s real, and they still tell you it’s all in your head, to buck up and get some exercise, and stop goldbricking. The ones that acknowledge its existence have nothing to offer as a cure; treatments are palliative; and nothing lets you go back to what you were.

May they rot in whatever level of hell is appropriate.

It really shouldn’t be my job to figure out my illness, should it?

Back to Washington – and Seattle, and Melbourne, and…

Someone with far more energy than me – or their friends and families – has organized a Stand In. With the rubric #MILLIONSMISSING, they asked us to send a pair of our shoes, and a single choice of what we are missing the most in our lives.

I wrote: ‘I miss research physics.’

Someone from #MEAction will take these pairs of shoes (*I don’t have a picture of mine – that would have been too organized, and I had to work very hard to get my pair mailed as it was), and make a display so that the media and legislators have some idea.

There are millions of us worldwide – and somehow we have been left to cope with a huge public health disaster which robs society of the work we would have done – by ourselves.

At least, that’s how it’s felt to me. There are no specialists in New Jersey. There are a few in the nation, and many quacks, and many non-specialists doing the best they can dealing with symptoms. Some elaborate protocols that supposedly help – but require many months of elaborate regimens of supplements that I can’t even think of following; those are often used, at their own expense, by people so sick they have to do something.

But with no diagnostic criterion and approved treatment, insurance companies are reluctant to pay what should be their part – and very sick patients have to wrestle with getting both care and payment.

Not that there is a standard of care.

It’s getting more common to know someone with CFS

Or ME as some call it, or CFIDS, or the laughable SEID, or Yuppie flu, or chronic mono, or… The ‘experts’ spend much time arguing about these details.

Me, I think it’s going to turn out to be a post-viral thingy: you get something, it wreaks destruction, the virus may or may not stay around, but your cells no longer manufacture energy from your food.

I imagine a whole bunch of other complicated syndromes with some of the same symptoms, from Gulf War Syndrome to chronic Lyme, may benefit when researchers finally figure out how this works.

Meanwhile, those of us who have these things wish we’d had Ebola. Or HIV. Or TB. Or leprosy. Or anything that used to be a death sentence and is now managed, in many cases, by modern medicine.

Have a happy day – and give us a passing thought. And a prayer.

And understand we are not lazy, and are certainly not getting anything out of this.

And all we want is our lives back, so that we can go back to contributing to society the way we were doing when hit by the random freakish act of Nature.

There are an awful lot of us. Millions. And we are missing. From our lives – and from yours.


What can you do? Be aware. There are foundations of patients supporting research, and activists, and support groups if you want to contribute with your volunteer activity or financially. I belong to the New Jersey CFS Association. I can’t tell you which is most effective, but MEAction organized this event.


Just for today, I will remind you that Kary Ashe, the heroine of Pride’s Children, has CFS – and copes as well as she can, while trying to contribute SOMETHING to the world. Symptoms vary all over the map in severity; she is one of the possibilities, in many ways typical.

Structure is necessary and integral to fiction

without structureDO YOU WANT A TALE – OR A STORY?

I’m not only an extreme plotter, but I’m a structuralist.

I’m working on the first scene of Book 2. And making very, very sure that it works structurally, with the book, with the beginning, with the plot, and especially with the ending.

The brain craves storytelling, but it craves more than content, it craves analysis.

And analysis is structural. Stories have a beginning, middle, and end. My mother used to drive me crazy when she’d tell me about someone, and then, when I’d ask, ‘what happened?’ she would say, ‘I don’t know.’ or ‘that’s all I heard.’

She had illustrated a point, given me information, but wouldn’t give me a resolution I could hang onto.

She was telling me tales, and for those, the fact that it happened is enough.

Story is much more than that.

How is structure important?

Here’s an example from non-fiction:

Imagine I’m talking about the root causes of poverty, illiteracy, whatever, and you’ve come to hear me because I’m supposed to be an expert.

But I tell you about four contributing factors, and I do a short one, a VERY long one, and then another two short factors, briefly, because I’m running out of time.

What are you left with?

NOTHING you didn’t already know.

And it drives you crazy because I told a tale, took your time – and didn’t make a point.

Now, imagine I started with the smallest point, continued to the next shortest, then the next, and finished by spending my time telling you about one of the causes. Wouldn’t you expect that to be the most important cause I have to talk about? And wouldn’t you expect me to say something significant and important about it?

By giving it space and time, I have made it important – and the rest of my presentation had better support that.

Or I could start with the important point, spend time on it, and then tell you in quick succession other possibilities, followed by a quick conclusion. Wouldn’t you end up wondering WTF? Did I run out of time – or why did I not eliminate the easy ones first?

How does this work in fiction?

Storytelling is presenting information in such a way as to emphasize WHY you’re telling the story.

I expect you to reach a conclusion, tell it to me, support it, and teach me something I would otherwise have to figure out on my own.

Structure is intentional. If you need to tell a story in chronological order (a common requirement), you still have to choose which parts to tell, and how to make them fit a structure that will let the reader absorb it. Or you are getting in your own way, and are telling an anecdote.

So it is very important that I consider the structure I’m going to foist on the reader, from the very first scene. Or the reader will notice. And not like it.

That’s not what I promised.

Are you happy when you notice a story has no real structure?


Thanks to Stencil for the ability to make graphics for these posts – I use the free account, but they have far more capabilities if you get the paid one.


Remember, if you like a blogger’s prose, consider that the blogger’s fiction is written by the same person. Try it – you might like it.

I’m trying to get myself to put up some short stories; it’s on the To Do list.

Pride’s Children. On Amazon.

Non-24: When someone you love is an okapi

Hoofbeats‘WHEN YOU HEAR HOOFBEATS, THINK HORSES, NOT ZEBRAS’ IS A STANDARD INSTRUCTION GIVEN TO DOCTORS.

In other words, the problem is more likely to be caused by something common and well-known, than by some esoteric illness or virus or unknown bacterium.

More likely, yes.

But what happens to the person who isn’t even a zebra’s worth of common? To the person with the weird (ie, not yet well understood) illness?

Why am I asking this question? Because I just got a request for feedback from a ‘second opinion’ company, about which more in a bit.

I didn’t think three things could strike the same family: me, a father who is an extreme geek with experimental data, and an okapi*.

Never heard of an okapi? An okapi is an African ungulate that looks a bit like a gazelle someone has exchanged the legs of with a zebra. Yup. The legs are striped, the body plain brown.

It is real.

Once you see one, you will remember. Here is one from Wikipedia Commons for your convenience:

Okapi2.jpg

Horse treatment is standard – What, it doesn’t work for you?

And when your little okapi keeps getting standard medical treatment as a HORSE, and you finally figure out what the matter is, and ‘they’ (the medical establishment) could have figured it out a LOT sooner if they had even considered your input as a parent, well, the fury is rather large. Especially when this has been going on at LEAST EIGHT years and has ruined your little okapi’s life.

It is ironic, literally, that the mother in this family (me) has an invisible illness that is characterized as ‘of unknown origin, caused by attention-seeking, probably psychosomatic’ by most of said medical establishment. If you have one of these, you know how you are treated by doctors. Because this mother does, she has learned to be very determined and to question EVERYTHING.

But when you go to see doctors, TELL THEM what is going on with the okapi-child, and they basically ignore you because they can’t find something their little horse-tests tells them is treatable by normal horse-treatment methods, and they blame your little okapi for not following useless horse-recommendations better, then you start to get VERY frustrated.

Horse treatment makes okapis worse, but it must be the okapi’s fault

Worse, they give your poor little okapi things that don’t work, and then say that’s all they have. And refuse to dig deeper!

And the medical establishment is happier with a multiple-disease ‘diagnosis’ of which two parts are psychiatric and the third is ‘mild’ – and not responding to their ‘treatment’ because the patient isn’t following it – that you start to feel as if you, the mother of the okapi, must also be insane.

Small rant against the medical profession

You trust ‘medical professionals’ to deal with the medical side, the physical and mental side of living in a body.

They cultivate this to the point of absurdity by their authoritative demeanor and white coats and beeping machines.

And then they let you down, over and over and over – which is normal because these body/mind things are complicated, and insurance companies – but they make it worse by telling you, the victim here, that it’s your fault.

Bad enough the SLEEP DOCTORS – over all these years – couldn’t figure it out; after all, they’re HORSE-doctors. But you’d think they’d know there were other animals in existence, and that they might run across one every great while. They should be LOOKING.

The insurance company pays for a SECOND OPINION

The ‘second opinion’ people took a very careful history – and  ignored everything we told them. (These are the people you’re supposed to be able to rely on when the ‘first opinion horse-doctors’ don’t seem to be solving anything and are recommending things you are not so sure about.)

And didn’t even say, “if you think that’s what it is, here is what it will take to confirm or deny that.” And gave as a suggestion something that had already been tried for a LONGER period , and then ignored by the originating doctor AND the supposed specialist.

So we parents got involved. I took the information we’d been telling the latest batch of doctors, sleep and otherwise, and asked myself what it meant. I discovered a rare sleep disorder called Non-24 Hour Sleep/Wake Disorder. And it fit.

Non-24 Hour Sleep/Wake Disorder – inability to sync to the 24-hour day

Non-24 is a disease of the inability to sync circadian clocks with the normal day. Normal people have a 24+ hour day, which is synced, via light through the eyes to the pineal gland, to the actual day, adjusting as necessary for the seasonal changes in the amount of daylight. About half of all totally blind people can’t do this – they have Non-24.

And an unknown number of sighted people have Non-24.

Reported day-lengths range from a bit over 24 to several hours more. Our little okapi has a visible rotation, which turned out to be 27 hours. Once you get started on such a rotation, many things conspire to make it a bit longer, few to shorten it, and almost none to shorten it spontaneously to ‘normal.’

If you look up the medical websites and the literature, the disorder is considered rare in sighted people. After going through what we’ve gone through, my guess is that, since erratic sleep behavior, late nights, staying up all night, sleeping late, etc., are common behaviors among teens and young adults (especially college students), Non-24 may instead be highly underdiagnosed.

“I can’t help you if you don’t follow the protocol.”

How to find out if you’re lazy and characterless – or suffering from a sleep disorder:

We had to go to the extreme effort of getting 10 weeks worth of data ourselves, and having a professional statistician analyze it, and then find our own specialist (which the insurance company refused to pay for in-network, saying they have competent doctors there – colleagues of the horse-treatment one in the SAME building).

The specialist took one look at the graphs produced by the okapi’s father and said, “Yup. That’s it. You got it.”

No, the mother is not crazy. She is being ignored and discounted and treated like an idiot.

No, the child is NOT a horse. It isn’t even a zebra. It is an okapi.

And damned lucky to have the crazy determined woman for a mother and the extreme geek statistician for a father.

And incredibly lucky to find a researcher who studies okapis. And just might know how to treat them.

The moral of this story:

  • Listen to the crazy woman
  • Or: at least consider the possibility of okapis because you actually listened.
  • Or: a determined mother is worth something.
  • Or: be persistent – and be prepared for it to take a LONG time when you’re up against the medical/insurance establishment.

The sad part:

The treatment may take some time, but is not even expensive. It could have been tried a year ago, years ago. The standard horse-treatment actually makes the problem worse – because of the timing – though it MAY accidentally work if several weeks of it are followed (long enough to hit the right spot by accident – could be four weeks of misery). Maybe – as it might not be recognized???

I guess we should be happy this didn’t happen, because there is no understanding attached to accidental cures or treatments if the next time the problem recurs, it doesn’t work again by accident because, for example, it it not done for the right number of weeks again.

Even sadder: we picked the original sleep doctor (this time) because we were told she knew N24SWD. She didn’t, really. But we were getting surer and surer; she didn’t listen. She pooh-poohed the idea, said the data didn’t confirm it, said the insurance company wouldn’t approve a longer trial of actigraphy, said it wouldn’t show the patterns if the okapi was trying to pretend it was a horse so as not to be completely isolated; this isn’t true: the 10 weeks data we provided, and the scientific papers we were shown, took this into account, and talked about people trying to live with N24SWD and a social 24-hour day.

We are incredibly lucky, too, that a researcher was located in Philadelphia, a reasonable driving distance for us in NJ. We are incredibly lucky that he picks up his own phone! – listened to me! – accepted the data we sent him – and had a spot for us within a week. And that he has two sighted patients, and knows of more, and knows the researchers working on the larger problem of N24SWD in blind patients, who have the scientific integrity not to just study the patients who might be helped by the drug companies supporting the research (blind patients) but sighted ones as well.

And that feedback I mentioned at the beginning?

We had submitted ALL of the available data (they went back 8 years, to the first sleep doctor when she was a teen who was tired all the time, and the first sleep studies; plus took an extensive intake interview – almost an hour on the phone – during which we emphasized over and over that she was rotating), submitted it to a ‘specialist’ at a major university, and he didn’t even say, ‘This needs further looking into,’ except to recommend another week’s data-gathering with an actigraph. The company wants feedback. I restrained myself. Their ‘analysis’ was useless – and set us back three months while they took forever to gather the ‘data’ and run through a couple of ‘specialists.’

I’m still trying to figure out how to give them ‘feedback’ when they obviously don’t listen.

* How do you find out if you have Non-24?

The gold standard is to wear an actigraph for long enough to show the rotating pattern. A sleep log will show the pattern if kept accurately.

But the easiest first step is to notice the rotation: always going to bed later (if allowed to), culminating with entire nights spent up; long daytime sleep (if allowed); inability to wake up; chronic daytime exhaustion; missing important things in life such as exams by sleeping through them; and the inability to just ‘go to bed.’

NOTE: Actigraphy is done with a special wrist monitor – expensive, and borrowed through the sleep doctor (covered by insurance if it covers sleep studies). Unless conditions are perfect, the two-week period doesn’t show enough of the pattern. Instead, we bought and used a Jawbone UP3 because my husband was able to download the actual data, and massage it into the same kind of graphs produced by the commercial device. It was non-trivial; he is the expert statistician. Okapi uses it routinely now – the Non-24 specialist appreciates the data.


If you like my prose, consider reading my stories – they are written by the same person. Free short stories here, debut novel on Amazon. I’m working on more.

Thanks to Quozio.com for the quote software used to make the first image.