Tag Archives: brain games

On a bicycle I’m a human being


It is a very odd thing, but psychologically important, that you feel different in different circumstances, depending on how you see yourself and society sees you.

It’s probably built into the brain we have that is evolved from millenia of those who survived to pass on their genes: we automatically evaluate those we see for signs of weakness, even when we don’t plan to eat them.

Where is this going?

On a bicycle you can’t tell that I’m disabled. That I can’t walk properly, or for more than a few steps without a walker. I just look like a woman out for a bike ride.

I know many people who can‘t ride a bike because their knees won’t let them, or because their balance is challenged, or because they can’t sit on one for very long due to many problems.

In some sense, I’m better than them.

We judge automatically, instinctively, and if we’re not careful, permanently.

On a bicycle I’m a normal human being.

Not something which botched back surgery back in 2007 has condemned to pain every time I stand for more than a few seconds, and who can’t push off on a stride, but only swing legs from the hip.

Why am I thinking about riding a bike?

Because I have had a major crisis of self-confidence this year, earlier, what with the chest pain and the stents, and the recovery.

And a couple of weeks ago, I got the bike out, did the ritual (helmet, cellphone in the bag under the seat, make sure the hair doesn’t get in my eyes, clip on the pants leg…) and scared myself even though I managed to go out for a spin around the neighborhood.

Forgot my bike gloves, which I later regretted, as my palms were definitely tingly by the time I got back.

First time this year. First time since the approaching winter made it too cold last year. First time since the horrible viruses of November which lasted for three months. First time since I was last myself… You get the idea.

Getting on the bike was NECESSARY to prove to myself I was still myself.

And it failed – in the sense that I felt shaky and uncertain and scared. Because I knew that I was afraid to stop if I had to, because the side effects seem to have emphasized that I’m vertically challenged. Because one of the young college undergraduates in our choir was wearing a cast because she fell off her bike. Because a friend who has CFS fell and broke his foot.

For any number of reasons, that first bike ride didn’t make me feel ‘normal.’ Even my normal, which is a lot smaller than many people’s ‘normal,’ but better than the normal of my friends who are bedridden. I wasn’t back to just hopping on a bike and going for a spin, even the short ones I take.


Well, giving up riding a bike seemed premature (though if you’d felt as unstable on that bike as I did, you’d be seriously considering it).

Buying a new bike? This bike I have is ancient, and rusted, and in need of serious maintenance. A recumbent bike? Or a nice, stable tricycle-for-grownups?

We are looking for a retirement community, and a move to another state is a possibility, and I’m trying not to acquire more stuff now or make permanent decisions about things like this until we are settled.

So, don’t ride the rest of the time we’re in suburban NJ?

The odd physicist’s solution

Or should I say, the physicist’s odd solution? Because it involves physics of stability.

Bicycles are stable, more or less, IN MOTION. 2-D stability, as it were. That’s why they have the kickstand. In motion, they have that gyroscopic effect that they resist falling in the direction perpendicular to their motion. Ie, sideways.

Tricycles have proper 3-D stability. Because there’s something in the perpendicular direction that keeps them from falling over, with or without you on them, whether they’re in motion or not.

Training wheels achieve this effect when you’re learning to ride.

We’re thinking constantly about all the stuff in our house and garage, because a 4 bedroom house with basement and garage has a lot more areas to stuff stuff than a 2 bedroom apartment in a retirement community, which is what we’re aiming at.

One of the things stored in our garage for AGES was a bright yellow cart meant for pulling two small children behind your bike. And that’s what my brain kicked out: stability. A cart intended for small children was designed to be inherently stable: the bike + cart has to be stable while you’re putting those little ones in the back and fastening the seatbelt. Fairly heavy duty for its job: those are your kidlets, and they are small and precious. And HIGHLY visible. With its own reflectors, even.

This time I didn’t fail

Almost didn’t get it attached – that was work. And the attachment mechanism has a plastic pin which went through the snap lock around the bike’s pole – which was maybe not as flexible as it was twenty years ago (plastic seems an odd choice, but that’s what it was). I couldn’t get it through the hole.

So I went and found a nice solid metal bolt of the right diameter, with a nice nut, and have attached this sucker pretty permanently to my bike. It can be removed, but I’m not planning to.


I put the helmet – and gloves – and bike clip on, stored the cellphone in the little bag, and found that my combination made it much easier for an unstable old rider to get started.

It may have been a placebo effect; or partly psychological (that self-confidence which had decided it found a solution). But I didn’t care. I was up and going, only a little shaky.

I put it to the test on our court: I tried stopping – it felt more stable, not as it had the last time, because I could trust the bike not to fall over, so I could afford to lean on it a bit. It was easy getting started again – I didn’t have to be on a safe place, like our driveway. I was just a woman on a bicycle, stopped. Phew!

All I needed was to not worry about killing myself or damaging something.

I rode around the neighborhood a bit. I stopped to see an old friend I haven’t visited in half a year. She didn’t even think about the cart on the back, but instinctively understood it was more stable.

And I got that little bit of self-confidence up and running: losing the ability to ride a bike was in the same category as when they take your keys away and don’t let you drive any more.

Because, you see, on a bike I’m my normal human being, and you can’t tell how many things I can’t do.

Then I went in and took a nap.

Chest pain from striated versus smooth muscles



*** NOT medical advice. I’m not that kind of doctor. ***

Having abandoned the hospital last Tuesday with a relatively clean cardiac bill of health, and after the cardiologist visit on Wednesday, I noticed the pain hadn’t stopped. Not discomfort; PAIN.

(By the way, the cardiologists lose all interest in you at that point.)

It was a bit smaller due to relief – but that was all.

On Thursday, sensing it would finally work, I made the effort to voluntarily NOT cough when my body wanted to. That’s a trip, by the way: you have to catch it and distract it.

But it wasn’t enough. I was still setting off the kick-in-the-chest-by-a-mule feeling when I would do such small physical tasks as walk to the bathroom, go down 7 steps to the living room, and, the worst, coming UP those 7 steps and having to walk down the hall and across my tiny office to my desk chair, where I would sit, and grit my teeth until the pain started subsiding.

If I had not already done that, I probably would have made that hospital ER trip.

Why didn’t you go to yet another (or one of the same) doctor, Alicia?

Because I decided, if I knew I probably wasn’t going to die yet, that the whole experience had completely wiped out any chance I had of getting better without some serious rest time.

Internet lookup of possible sources of chest pain

Surprisingly not, it was hard to find the information online about non-cardiac causes. Because of course you push ‘get checked out by your doctor’ and ‘go to the ER’ as solutions, if you don’t want to have your patients’ families sue you.

Have you noticed how all sites that start with ‘Non-surgical ways to…’ quickly end up with dismissing those ways and heading for, ‘If you have to have surgery…’?

In the end I found NOT ONE SITE stating that coughing could CAUSE pain elsewhere that wouldn’t necessarily go away by itself.

And none of the sites talked about HOW long-term coughing might trigger TEMPORARY chest pain – I ended up deciding that one strictly on my own. Since it happened to me, I’ve decided it IS possible to cough so much that your chest gets supersensitive, and any little thing can then set it off.

Ibuprofen, which I now allowed myself, helped a bit – but not for long – and didn’t remove the crushing/tense feeling that minor exertion set off.

Some of the sites that talked about non-cardiac chest pain had a list of other serious things that it could be (with the ‘temporary’ part not discussed).

  • Some of them were pulmonary – things like pleurisy or pneumonia.
  • A bunch were gastrointestinal – having to do with spasms of just about anything from one digestive end of you to the other.
  • A very small number were musculoskeletal (specifically talking about the intercostal – between-ribs – muscles that help you get air in and out), and mostly seemed limited to sharp pains that might have been brought on by sudden muscular exertion.
  • And no one mentioned the specific area that seemed to be aching, the outer chest wall pectoral muscles.

Using the old noggin – a dangerous thing with mine

Assuming I’m not dying from something else wasn’t hard: I convinced myself the mule-kicks were induced by coughing, and would eventually go away if not continuously triggered.

So I decided to see if I could fix the phantom mule with things on hand in a regular household like ours, and figure out what it was. I also promised the husband I’d see my doctor again if the pain persisted despite my best efforts.

I decided, from the region affected, that the three candidates were:

  1. esophageal spasms
  2. pectoral muscle spasms
  3. intercostal muscle spasms

Tools on hand:

Last summer, I pulled my usual ‘I don’t want to go to the doctor’ routine when I’d had a bout of waxing and waning spasms of the GI tract, until, 8 days in, and 4 later than I would have taken anyone else, I went to Urgent Care and complained. I’d never had that intensity of pain before, and I was hoping it would go away before I had to have my insides subject to scoping – which would involve doctor visits, labs, tests, all things which are 1) exhausting, and 2) suck up my so-limited writing time because I have to leave the house.

When I finally went to UC, the doctor prescribed an anti-spasmodic called dicyclomine, and within a day or two my innards had stopped punishing me for eating, and drinking water. Much better. I stored the remainder, thinking it was a nifty thing to have with you on a vacation just in case.

Also, from a previous doctor I had Skelaxin, a muscle relaxant – said doctor saying I could take up to three a day. I had found that I could barely tolerate 1/3 of a pill, very occasionally, and it would knock me out. I’m a bit sensitive to medicines, which is why I try not to take them! But I have a couple of bottles of the stuff left, which will probably last until I’m in a nursing home, non compos mentis.

Plus over the counter cough suppressant, and the nice cough syrup with codeine which is the only thing that really suppresses a cough – and wipes me out.

What to use – and why?

I figured out the important thing depended on a fact I learned in Anatomy in 1968: that we have two kinds of muscle fibers:

  • striated muscles – heart, skeletal muscles, with the heart muscles being INVOLUNTARY
  • smooth muscles – lining your gastrointestinal tract (also blood vessels?)

The difference is that the striated ones can be affected by a muscle relaxant, and the smooth ones need the anti-spasmodic anticholinergic meds.

Using the muscle relaxant had helped a bit with Mr. Mule, but once I found the dicyclomine, and took some, I’m finding that the same medicine which the UC doc prescribed for acute abdominal cramps seems to be helping with spasms in the chest region. Same system: GI.


Which brings me to the conclusion that the pain probably comes from an esophageal spasm – a scary thing to consider if it were persisting or getting worse – but taking a few doses of the anti-spasmodic dicyclomine seems to be bringing the severity and duration of the pain attacks down to bearable.

Where we will keep them until they stop happening.

7 steps now trigger a much smaller animal kick; a jackrabbit, maybe.

I’m still having to control coughing attempts voluntarily, but I can do that, and the severity of that is also going down, so a week after this stuff sent me on an ambulance adventure, I am in a state of less pain, I plan to continue to avoid the doctors, and maybe I can get enough rest to get back to not leaving the house so I can write.

I’m so glad I took anatomy.

I’m not a medical doctor, so don’t do what I do.

But if you do, tell me what you figured out about your body.

Spent today pitching a movie never to be filmed


It counts as research.

I’m reading – rereading in many cases – Blake Snyder’s three Save The Cat books.

These are well-known screenwriter tools, as is the Dramatica I use for plotting and character development.

The many similarities between the different forms of presenting a story allow significant crossover: a story is a story is a story. Each form is also very different from the others, because once they go out into the real world, a book and a play and a movie script are implemented differently.

But plotting Pride’s Children: NETHERWORLD was not the reason for the reading. Plotting is all finished, and in the scene I’m working on right now, a movie is being pitched to one of our actors. I’m using the device of a pitch meeting to get all the information needed to understand this particular movie into the story in the most efficient way – without seeming like an info-dump.

Isn’t writing a whole movie a bit much as backdrop for a novel?

Of course it is, but you know me: if it’s going to be in the plot (and, with actors, you’re going to have movies in the plot), and I can give it verisimilitude (the appearance of actually being real), I can make you believe the one or two not real points in the rest of the plot.

Machiavellian, you say? Why, thank you.

But I’m not the only one to do things like this – heck, people in fantasies invent whole worlds and religions and ecosystems.

What attracted me to the idea is the fact that Snyder says, of the pitch:

“Poster. Logline. Simple story spine. Eager and inspired telling of the tale. Ten minutes, tops. That’s the pitch.” (p. 123, Save The Cat Strikes Back)

Which fits perfectly into my scheme to sketch out enough of this particular movie to last for the first half of NETHERWORLD, without taking up that much space in the book. After all, I’m writing a novel, not a movie.

I can trust that most people who read have seen plenty of movies, and, given the highpoints, will see a movie where there is only a ghost of one. My readers want to see people working (I hope), but they have no interest AT ALL in seeing the enormous amount of work and time it takes to produce a major motion picture.

Blake also says:

“Regardless of how you organize your story, once you’ve finished your pitch… shut up! The first one to talk loses. If you give into temptation and can’t help spewing more stuff after you’re said ‘The End,’ you are indulging in a pitching no-no called Selling Past the Close.

Shutting up

I’m going to follow his advice. What do you think of it?

*** Pride’s Children: PURGATORY is on sale for 0.99 until 1/30/17***

Thanks to Quozio for easy quote images.

What to write when your house is under attack

Squirrel on snow holding red berry. Test Life hands you berries? Make berry chiffon pie. Alicia Butcher EhrhardtSOMETIMES YOU HAVE FEW CHOICES – DO YOUR BEST

Those of you who know how noise sensitive I am will realize this is a bit of a torment – I’m stuck in my own home with two guys tramping around with hoses, air guns, a powerful vacuum, and one of them is a trainee who must be shouted at.

We are having our ducts cleaned.

It hasn’t been done since the house was built in 1981.

I must stay because where the heck would I go? And because I must be the one who manages Gizzy, our chinchilla who hates noise more than I do.

I am, of course, sitting here with my noise protection head-gear; for some of the noises, it is barely enough. Four hours (est.) of this is going to feel great – it presses my head to do a good sound blocking job, but, hey, it’s better than the other options. I took the ibuprofen for the headache already: what a coincidence, you can take more in four hours!

 Who knew that the inside of heating ducts got dusty?

Isn’t that what the filters are for?

Me, I grew up in a country without central air (Mexico) because it never got so hot that you needed air-conditioning, or so cold that the fireplace wouldn’t handle it those few nights a year when outside was chilly.

So, no ducts.

When I lived in Seattle, radiators. No ducts.

In grad school in Madison, Wisconsin – radiators.

First house was in Maryland – and even though we had central air and heating, we only had that house three years, and no changes were necessary. So we didn’t learn then.

Then, this house – and how was I supposed to know you had to hire a very short person to climb inside your ducts to clean them? Periodically? Job security for elves?

Last time – eleven years ago – when they replaced the HVAC, we actually PAID to have the ducts cleaned. But somehow it slipped our mind, and we never had them actually come do the job. (They’re looking into giving us our money back!)

Perfect time to write a blog post of the light-weight variety

Honestly, most of you who need to know this probably already do.

When people mention TV shows of their childhood, they are often surprised that I never saw them.

When people mention their English teachers being good or terrible in high school, college, creative writing or MFA program (or even the esoteric PhD in Literature), I realize I’ve never had but one English teacher, and that in a course I apparently didn’t need to take (after I’ve taken it, I find this out. No matter: I actually enjoyed a teacher who pranced around in front of the class spouting Shakespeare – because I’d never had one).

So, of course, I don’t know about duct cleaning.

I made the mistake of asking

Well, apparently most people don’t ask (maybe they just get out of there).

The nice young man-in-charge from the plumbing company must not get enough chances to expound, because we got a long spiel on the details of the process (which requires making holes in places with a drill). Enthusiastic lad.

All I wanted to know was the order of operations.

It turns out they basically don’t care. After doing certain things, they will go through each room and clean our the air supply vents. What order they do bedrooms in is not important.

So I will have them clean my office ducts, and then, while they’re doing something to the attic bedroom, I’ll scoot Gizzy in here, where she will promptly hide inside my upholstered armchair (she hates light, too), and go to sleep. Or into a state of shock. It’s hard to tell.

What will I be doing?

After delighting you with trivia like the above, I will play sudoku, surf the web, and generally waste the whole time.

Because there isn’t a chance in h-e-double hockey sticks that my brain will be able to do anything like writing fiction.

Or paperwork that I’ve been avoiding.

Or (coherent) phone calls. And the other kind, really, don’t solve anything.

And, even if I could walk properly, it’s too cold to go out for a long hike. Like to the next county. And I’d need food. And a nap. And the, you know, facilities.

Plus there are still people out there blowing leaves around, and outside isn’t that nice and quiet, either.

That’s the best you can do?

Pretty much.

I could color, but I tried it once and I didn’t like it.

And I could embroider the sections in cross-stitch on my tapestry which I can’t do while watching TV because the room is too dark.

Or I could eat, from stress, continuously for the remainder of the time. Also maybe counterproductive.

Something actually useful?

Or I can think a bit about how you do book marketing and promotion when you’re as slow as I am, and the next book will take years, maybe (let’s sincerely hope not, but it’s been started since March 2015, and I’m already into its second chapter. Woo hoo! (In my defense, the first many months were spent in planning in excruciating detail.)).

Not much you can do while occupying the inside of a jet-engine. Ask the birds.

It will be over at some time in the afternoon

So don’t cry for me (although pity gratefully accepted). This is just, like waiting for the dentist for hours before he deigns to drill into your teeth, part of the torture of civilized life – and I am truly grateful for the opportunity to do nothing while other people work to get my ducts sparkling clean, considering what the rest of the world has to put up with.

I really hope I don’t look back to this, and realize this was an oasis of leisure.

After all, I don’t expect myself to get anything done today, and I usually pester myself continuously about getting something written, because, like, I’m wasting my life.

Bang. Bang. BANG!

Enjoy your quiet.

Now, in respect for others, I will gracefully listen to your own complaints. Leave one in my comments!

***** 0.99 Sale still going on until New Year’s Day *****

Did you know you can give people ebooks for presents by just buying the ebook at Amazon and supplying their email address? They don’t even have to have an account. Amazon handles the rest – and you can even put in a message for the giftee. US link here.

Amazon has a FREE app to read Kindle files for almost every device you could read on. All?

I personally wouldn’t want to read 167K books on a mobile, but there’s no accounting for taste.

All other countries who can purchase ebooks from the ‘Zon: type in Pride’s Children: PURGATORY in your very own Amazon.

*****  *****

I just love the editor at this online magazine. She publishes any drivel I care to supply!

Endless self promotion due to the fact that you need to see things SEVEN times before you buy.

Thanks to Stencil for the squirrel. Gizzy has the same kind of tail. Bushy.

My morning walk through my Internet village

A pink-soled sneaker being tied onto a foot; Words: Every morning I take a walk and stop to say hi to all my Internet friendsSURFING? OR FREEDOM FOR PEOPLE WHO DON’T GET OUT MUCH?

What other people do so easily, would be impossible for me: I’m technically retired now, though the last 25 years of my working life were spent on disability, and I can’t just ‘go out for a walk’ like healthy people my age.

I’ve recently gotten to the place where I can walk more, but it isn’t easy or fast or convenient or unassisted, not like when I used to go out the front door, turn left (or right if I wanted to add an extra bit around the cul-de-sac), and just go, walk wherever I happened to decide, and come back when I’d had some exercise.

But I do something similar when I get on my computer in the mornings, and, while I’m waiting for the morning’s caffeine to decide if there are going to be working brain cells today, I walk around my Internet neighborhood – the sites on my navigation bar – and see what’s up.

Procrastinate first, except for the rare days when there’s something my limited brain can do in the writing department before it is warmed up. I’ve tried – nothing seems to work – so I’ve decided to enjoy my morning walk, do it as efficiently as possible, and not fret about the time wasted/spent. Angst is not helpful, so I don’t bother any more. And I almost never add any new stops to the navigation bar.

HOME COMPUTER: Email first – well Duh!

I check email several times a day, and make sure to deal with what I can asap, as friends write, and several newsletters show up with something new, and often a quick response saves much time and effort later.

Plus, as you can tell, I like to write back. Gets the brain moving and the fingers wiggling.

Sometimes I find responses I needed from missives I’ve sent out to friends or other sources, and know I’ll be able to move something forward.

Occasionally, I have to do something, such as go to the basement and read the numbers on the meter for the solar power system, near the first of the month. They can’t do their paperwork until they have my input, so it gets a high priority.

FIREFOX: First stop on the Internet are my own blogs

I refresh the page, and the thingy in the top right hand corner will tell me if I have visitors, and if they’ve commented. New comments on the blog always get first priority

First stop after 9AM – TPV; if much earlier, do this later

I stop by The Passive Voice for the morning publishing news (and several times more during the day because Passive Guy puts up five or six posts every day). It’s like a visit to a cafe where you get good commentary, and rude people aren’t tolerated. We mostly stay on topics related to publishing and books and such, but David has an interesting mind, and gets stuff from lots of places.

Extra points if posts have a comment at the bottom from our gracious, handsome, and intelligent host – his wry humor and delicate satire are things for joy.

People send him stuff. He is a good host, posting an excerpt – and a link to the original. He is careful not to ruin the original post, while giving you enough to decide if you’re going to visit it.

On most blogs, comments need supervision, and are often not worth the time to scan them; if you don’t read the comments on TPV – and subscribe so you get the late ones – you’re going to miss things. Useful things.

WU – ‘about the craft and business of fiction’

I stop by Writer Unboxed most mornings, at least to get a quick look at the topic and the post’s byline. I skip Flog a Pro – kind of hate the idea of people feeling they can freely trash work they couldn’t produce; mean-spirited and negative some times. Not me. Other bylines or topics I know I won’t respond to from the title or a bit of the post, I skip; otherwise, I read the post.

I consider whether there’s anything I’d like to add to the discussion (there’s usually a question or two at the end of the post as a prompt); I leave my little addition to world literature or my (usually different) take on the subject, read those of other people I recognize, and maybe pop back later; I like posters who bother to come back and join the discussion better, but not all of them have/take the time.

FB – for friends and support groups

You get out what you put in on FB. You are a contributing member of a community – or not. Since one group is a support groups for people I know have extremely limited energy, that group’s members get a pass – some can only afford to post when desperate, and we all respect that.

My group of friends is small, and I don’t sell or proselytize much – that’s not what friends are for. My blog posts automatically on my personal FB page; if there’s anything that the groups might find useful, I cross-post them on the group page. A little goes a long way.

I check out any friend requests – most are obvious spammers – easy to tell (and block permanently) if I take a peek at their page. I’ve even reached the point of checking with the ‘friends in common’ if a friend request is odd and unexpected in any way.

I have no author page – yet. It would be one more thing to maintain – maybe if it seems a good idea later.

CHROME: GR and my British friends

A daily stop, maybe several times, is a nice bunch of people on Goodreads in the UK Kindle group who have made me feel welcome. I’ve read enough British authors in my life to practically qualify on that alone. Occasionally there will be something in my inbox from a GR friend.

I usually save those for later response, but almost always read them right away.

The notifications function provides a quick way to keep track of the threads I comment on or read.

The comics – and Dear Abby

And I’ve had my bit of entertainment for the day; I have them set up for easy refreshing on the Chrome browser, and can update and read and pass on good ones to friends with a few minutes’ effort. Doesn’t that happen to you? A comic just makes you have to send it to a particular friend?

Extra points when the friend later emails back that it was especially appropriate or welcome.

The daily brain puzzles – measuring brain speed (if any)

Usually the last stop on my little trek, I set up a few hard sudokus, maybe do one or two, to gauge whether my brain is starting to work the way I need it to work for writing fiction.

I’m looking for a completion time below seven minutes; and I monitor, with a partial brain, how the math processing is going. I can literally feel it when I’m not tracking – I can still do them most of the time, but they feel like slogging through mud, and take forever. The CFS brain fog is clearly at work here; sometimes it won’t go away. I can work a bit, but it almost isn’t worth it without a brain. I’ll get ten minutes worth of writing done in three hours.

Yahoo news

If it makes it to Yahoo, I take a quick scan; other news items will show up in paper (The Economist and other magazines), or someone will boost them on FB, so this is really a desperate measure to find SOMETHING to read before I have to (want to/have to) get to work.

The end of the walk – home again, home again, higglety pen

After a final quick check of the emails, and possibly TPV depending on timing, and a superquick and usually pointless visit to Amazon’s pages that show book sales, I grit my metaphorical teeth and start up Freedom or Anti-Social to block the internet for my available writing time.

Then have chocolate protein shake, and take First Nap (sounds counterproductive, but isn’t – search for ‘mental dialysis’ posts), and when I wake up again and come back to the computer, the writing is sitting there ready to go, I’ve checked out that the whole world is okay until I have time to look again, and I don’t even think about all my friends for hours.

Turning into a routine makes it much more efficient than it used to be.

Keeps me sane.

And productive.

And connected – the most important part of all. My internet friends are REAL friends. I just maybe don’t really know how tall they are.

Thanks to Stencil for images I can create or edit.

Do you have a morning computer routine?

Rhetorical questions in fiction: good or bad?

Healthy dessert with grapes, cherries, and granola, with the words: What do you think? 3 question marks. Good? Bad? and Alicia Butcher EhrhardtSHOULD YOU USE RHETORICAL QUESTIONS WHEN WRITING FICTION?

This was a shocker.

When working on Pride’s Children: NETHERWORLD, I came across a note:

Sue Coletta: don’t use rhetorical questions. They take you out of the story.

Like all other blanket prohibitions, this one is wrong.

But it sounded good. And I had stored it away for a reason, specifically to make sure I didn’t do something that took my readers out of my stories.

How many rhetorical questions are too many? One? Two? In how much ‘scene’?

I had just finished writing the first scene for one of my main characters, and it seemed a good time to 1) check to see if I had many rhetorical questions in it, and 2) to go back to Book 1, Pride’s Children: PURGATORY, and see if I had that problem there, too.

I startled myself: this main character, Kary, had TWENTY-SEVEN rhetorical questions in her new scene. Wow. Certainly too many.

So I check a different main character, Andrew, and found he had a couple. (My scenes have 800-1500 words in them, typically.)

I went back to Book 1 and found Kary had another huge number of rhetoricals in her last scene. Andrew, only had a few in his last scene in Book 1.

And I realized how different I had made these characters in how they talk to themselves – and I didn’t even know I’d done it!

One of my ‘go to’s on my Left Brain righT method is to ‘Become the character’ before attempting to write the character’s next scene. It includes going back and reading that character’s last previous scene, and possibly a few before that, to get into the character’s voice and mannerisms.

This turned out to have a vastly different style in something I prized, the interior life of the character – and I didn’t even do it on purpose.

Characters are different – duh!

I’m not sure whether I’m channeling or inventing these characters.

But it spooked me.

I don’t know when this happened, and yet there it was.

I just knew they were different, and I knew how they were different (from spending years living with them in my head and in my notes), and the characterizations came out by themselves.

I like things like this in my writing, but I always thought I did them deliberately.

About those twenty-seven rhetorical questions that Kary had? I couldn’t change a one.


Sue’s admonition – Don’t ask rhetorical questions because they take you out of the story – needs to be changed.

To: ‘Don’t ask the READER rhetorical questions.’

Because it takes the READER out of the story.

It’s fine for the CHARACTER to ask herself questions without answers. How often? As often as she would do it if she were real.

Is she?


What is real?

Do you ask rhetorical questions?

Thanks, Sue. You made me think – and that’s always, uh, interesting.

If you find any of this intriguing, and/or want to see rhetorical questions in action, you can find Kary’s scenes in Pride’s Children at Amazon US, written by the same person who writes these posts. Note: the link leads to the reviews; the product page link is in the right sidebar. Don’t you like to see what other people think about a writer before considering buying?

PS I’m depending on word of mouth right now, as I can either write, it turns out, or market. Or you could go out and find a cure for CFS, so I can do both (might be a wee bit harder).

Resuming writing after hiatus depends on preparation

Preparation key to survivalWRITING IS FORWARD MOTION

Due to physical circumstances you do NOT want to hear about (I’m better now, thanks), I haven’t written a blog post since January 24th.

This is a long time for me. I usually manage to put up something or other once or twice a week, but it was literally impossible, even though I sat at the computer half the day, to put thoughts together. They would not coalesce for more than a few sentences in a row, and the fogged brain would not hold enough thought in mind for me to see anywhere to go with the following words.

Freaky. I’m used to having at least a short period every day in which I feel like myself. And I usually choose that period to spend writing.

And I usually block the internet off during that time so I don’t get distracted as much as usual (Look! A squirrel! Shiny!).

To show you how out of it I was, I could not bring myself to block anything. Write anything. Do more than click (where has all the CONTENT on the internet gone?) to try to find something I could read for a few minutes.

So none of that is important: coming back is

Yesterday, the brain came back! For a couple of hours! I blocked the internet!

And I faced the usual writer’s prospects: where the heck was I when I stopped writing?

And more importantly: what’s next?

And this is where I discovered that I have set up a number of good writerly habits which allowed me to almost pick up where I left off, automatically.

Seven choices a writer can make to prepare for the unexpected break

1. I date obsessively: Every time I have more than a few minutes’ break during writing, and to indicate there has been a break from the previous thoughts, I date the next entry. Scrivener makes this easy: OPT-CMD-SHFT-D automatically inserts the date and time at the cursor’s position. Sometimes this results in a single line, occasionally in a blank date entry, but it means I know where each time period started. And which pieces go together.

2. I think on the page: partly this is due to my CFS brain fog, but partly it is due to the fact that memory is unreliable, elusive, and the brilliant idea you have may disappear so completely if you don’t write it down that you don’t even remember having it! If you’re very lucky, similar circumstances may deliver that bit again – and then you’ll experience a shock of recognition. But don’t count on it! Record it.

3. I create a digital version: I have twenty notebooks filled with the ideas that have led to my books and stories. In a mostly-legible handwriting, though even I can find my own words illegible. But creating those notebooks took a lot of time, and so those ideas are often incomplete. Finding ideas, even with my brief list of contents on the front page of each notebook, is a nightmare. I’m a fast typist – and can store far more information when typing than when writing by hand in the same amount of time. The biggest benefit? DIGITAL is SEARCHABLE. It may take me a while, and going through every Scrivener project associated with the WIP, but if I can remember ANYTHING about an idea, I can find it.

4. I Journal obsessively: the amount of text in any one of my Scrivener projects reaches the tens of MBs. Pride’s Children: PURGATORY has at least three Scrivener projects with almost 100MB of text each. Within each project, each major subsection has a Journal, into which I dump anything not specific that runs through my head as I work.

5. I keep ideas in their own computer files: Scrivener makes this extremely easy. When I have a piece of an idea long enough to take up more than a line or two in the current Journal, I simply create a new file in the appropriate section, title it with the obvious, and dump a chunk of text into it. Later, I can search by title or contents, but a quick way for me, the human, to find the file in the list of files (the Binder) is convenient.

6. I save frequently: the thought of losing anything I’ve spent time creating – thoughts which fly from my head through my fingers and out onto the screen – and having to re-create them from scratch (I literally DUMP them out and scour the brain for all the bits and then FORGET them), terrifies me.

7. I back up conscientiously: my systems do a lot of automatic backing up, but, for example, when I have the internet blocked, I have disabled Dropbox – which means I have only my local external hard drive as a backup device (besides the software and Mac backups). Which means I have to turn it on, back up, and then turn it back off (it is very quiet, but has the tendency to come on when not asked to, and there IS a tiny high-pitched whine that drives me nuts). As soon as the internet is connected again, Dropbox provides another level of backup.

So how did preparation save my bacon?

I was out for ten days. Any trace of knowing where I was had vanished from the internal HD (the poor tortured brain) in the first couple of days.

As when I start a new project, it can take me days, weeks, months of pulling all the pieces together before I can start actually writing more than snippets. I had already done that, and was just at the point where ALL those pieces, loaded into the brain just right, were about to produce the final version of calendar/timeline/scenes that I need to write.

Yup, the bug picked the most vulnerable time possible to take me out: right before synthesis. Chalk one up for Murphy’s corollary: ‘Anything that can go wrong will, and at the worst possible time.’

Under the best of circumstances, synthesis is something I attempt only with my prime mind. I must be as rested and prepared as possible. It can’t be toward the end of a working day. Nor can it be before I feel a certain je ne sais quoi which tells me I’m in as good a state as I’ll ever be (a state sadly lacking since January 27th).

I start synthesis with a clean mind, and carefully load in every relevant piece, do the necessary thinking (!), and write everything down like crazy so the cross-connections don’t fail me. I live off that synthesis for the remainder of the time it takes me to revise the whole book.

I had everything loaded into the brain, and decided to tackle the synthesis clean the next morning. The Jan. 27 Journal entry reads: ‘The only thing left to do before I start the next phase is to make sure the dates on the scenes I have work okay.’

That night was hell.

Recovery was possible because EVERYTHING was there

Yesterday, when I finally felt human again, the first thing I did was to try to figure out where I was, before the Apocalypse hit.

I could not remember a word.

My desk was a pile of things which collected over ten days with no one at the helm, including detailed medical notes of what I took when what happened, and the results, naps and sleep and awake in the middle of the night time.

The disjointed ramblings (yes, I did write things down when I couldn’t think – that usually works; it didn’t this time) were duly recorded, but made no sense.

I did what the Time Machine does on a Mac: I went back to January 26th. I let Scrivener search for every file that had been changed on that day (about 20) and the 27th, as I was doing the last of my collecting.

I dumped everything since then out of my head, and RELOADED my brain.

I read for what seemed like hours.

And the past ten horrible days were as if they had never happened. Yesterday got me almost back to the final synthesis place when my good time ended, and today I hope to go the last steps I would have taken on the 28th.

And I could also blog again, so I did what I do – and recorded everything for my own benefit – for next time.

There is ALWAYS a next time.

I hope any of these choices are helpful. The brain is a wonderful thing, until it isn’t. I don’t trust mine any more – but I can live with that.

What say you?


Thanks to ShareAsImage.com for a quick way to create visuals for blog posts.

I write to hear myself think


I will be looking for someone to study my damaged brain.

Brain research

Brain researchers get opportunities to study how the brain works, mostly by accident. In a civilized country, we don’t destroy part of a human’s brain to see 1) if said human can survive without the damaged part, and 2) what effect having a particular part missing has on thought processes and the ability to function in our increasingly complex world.

So researchers have to depend on those poor souls who have a part of their brain destroyed by disease or accident – and who are willing to let said researchers poke around and submit them to endless testing. They have studied people who have no short-term memory, or people who have lost their sense of smell, or people who cannot recognize themselves in a mirror.

Brain research subject here

Other people take notes when they write, before they write, after they write. I take a LOT of notes.

Why do I think I might be useful to researchers? Because I seem to think outside my head, and store endless notes before, during, and after the process of writing fiction.

My average seems to be somewhere around 10 to 20 external words per word of finished fiction.

That’s a lot.

How much verbiage are we talking about here?

When I stopped to think about it, it means that for 10,000 words – a typical chapter – of Pride’s Children, I have written 100,000 to 200,000 extra words. When I finish Book 1, at around 150K words, I will have, stored in files, on the order of 1.5-3.0M words. And when I finish the whole story, at 400-500K words, there will be 4 to 10 MILLION words in these files.

Those are my ‘learning to write’ words, representing the more than 10,000 hours I have spent on this project, and what will be my first published work.

I keep track of everything in writing – personal and story – as it occurs to me. This clears it out of my brain so I can think of the next bit. So the files are closely reasoned bits of why a character would or would not do something – mixed in with bits of how I slept last night and why my brain refuses to kick on this morning.

Increasing writing speed – NOT

You’d think I’d get better at it, wouldn’t you? That I could figure out how to shorten the process of turning ideas and outlines and spreadsheets into a story.

Instead, what seems to have happened is that I have gotten very fast at producing those 10-20 words. I let the imagination run free – on the computer – getting it all out where I can’t lose it, because my in-brain storage system is damaged, and I need to use an external hard drive.

What might this mean for researchers studying ME/CFS?

I’m pretty sure all this happens because of the CFS – the brain is actually damaged in some important way, and I have found a way to operate around the damage, so I can write.

Surely this means I might be of use to SOMEONE in the medical research community?

And the best part for all involved? I won’t have to actually let them study me. I can give them my files, my best wishes, and let them go through all that stuff for hints of useful bits. There should be some grad student somewhere who can figure out how to handle the deluge without getting wet.

It’s already digitized, guys! Except for the twenty or so packed notebooks, and reams of early drafts printed out, it is in a digital form which someone could invent a bot to read, AND I am a tidy person: when I learned Scrivener (where all this stuff is stored in projects), I realized that the most important thing I could do for posterity was to date-stamp every entry.

And most of the files are in strict chronological order.

I can’t see how much more useful I could be to medical science than if I went out and purposely put a hole in my brain.

Let me know.

How about you? Are you a useful subject for brain study?

Pride’s Children: Great Website and Blog Redesign Project

If you are a new visitor, an occasional visitor, or one of my wonderful regulars, I crave your indulgence.

Why is my indulgence being craved? (craven?) now?

I’m getting very close to the end of my real (secret and nefarious) purpose for this blog/site: inducing you to try (if you haven’t already drunk the Koolaid) Pride’s Children, in the hopes that you will find it – and my other fiction offerings – something you simply can’t do without. This eventually means Continue reading

Spring story: a writing challenge

This was the challenge:

In 250 words or less, describe a Spring setting

But here’s the catch–you can’t use traditional Spring words or images. No flowers, no bright green, no new growth. Look for the unusual and personal way your character would describe the setting they’re in.

The result was… interesting.

Rather than lose these forever, I will throw them out to make a reader go hmmm and wonder about the way my brain works:

The rains came early that year – and stayed long. The river rose almost to the level of the 1936 flood, and hung there for days, taking with it the beginnings of the crops, seeds that hadn’t but set out the tenderest of rootlets: they were no match for the onslaught, were washed away in wide swaths. Blossoms that had started to open were knocked off their branches by a careless hand. We had no beauty that year. I don’t know how the birds made it, sitting waterlogged on bare trees. Their food must have been impossible to find, insects pounded by the driving rain as much as we were. Continue reading

Static and dynamic mental friction – a way of looking at CFS brain fog?

I’ve been sitting here, trying to either get myself back to writing – or get something else USEFUL done.

Sub-prime time

I’m below the functional line. Let’s call this ‘Sub-prime time.’

In Sudoku-solving terms, this means it takes me more than 7 minutes (sometimes significantly more) to do the Hard ones. And then I do another, and another, and the results are the same.

I’m awake. It’s an odd feeling to be awake, yet incapable of doing anything actually productive unless someone tells me to.

Like static vs. dynamic friction, it takes more effort to get over the energy line (ie, make a decision) to start doing something useful (not writing fiction – that takes a lot more; filing; simple cleaning; a phone call) than it takes to keep the mind rolling once it has started. Continue reading

Writing fiction two ways: proactive writing and reactive writing

There are two ways for me to write anything: proactively – by just doing it – or reactively – by removing whatever is keeping me from doing it.

The first way is the Western, logical, rational way; the shortest distance between two points.

But what if the frontal assault doesn’t carry the day? What if the battering ram fails to crash through the gate? What if the defenders are all awake and strong and ready?

Then I need stealth. Cunning. Treachery. Misdirection. Bribery and fraud and conniving at the back door. The tunnel under the border. The non-linear solution.

The hard way, but sometimes the only way.

And for this approach I need all the help I can get. Continue reading

I moved my cheese: expanding my writer’s goals

I had an opportunity this week; I took it.

In part, I created the opportunity: I followed a bread-crumb trail made of interesting links to a website (Venture Galleries) where both finished and in-progress novels are serialized, and I wrote to one of the administrators to ask how they got their contributors. He wrote back that they were looking for one more participant – and hadn’t had the time to find one. He asked me for a sample and some information.

I got the requested material to him by the end of the day.

He wrote back to say nice things. And invited me to join them.

Continue reading

Writing at the tipping point

When does a scene suddenly ‘gel’? What is the ‘tipping point,’ the place where a scene which refused to be written or refused to come together in revision, goes from ‘I can’t do this’ to ‘I see where this is going to go, and where all the bits go’?

These are questions all working writers will face at some point, but which seem to be particular stumbling blocks for me.

Knowing when you’ve reached the tipping point

I’m borrowing a concept from business again, to use in writing a novel or a scene, because so many seminal business books cleanly formulate ideas are that then seem so obvious – only their concepts really weren’t, until someone pinned them down.

Malcolm Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Point, is subtitled How little things can make a big difference. When I read it, I was struck by the image of a rock being pushed uphill until it was poised at the top of a ridge, and all it needed was one last tiny push to go over the top and start rolling unstoppably down the other side. Continue reading

BRAINOUT: writing when the brain is OFF

What do you do when the brain is so off that you start looking at cat videos on the net?

It is writing time. I’m awake. But I surf because I can read, and not yet write. It is hard to explain: showing up, butt-in-chair, is just not enough if your actual brain doesn’t work when you’re there.

Days like today, in which the brain fog is worse than usual, are a hallmark of ME/CFS.

There is SOMETHING there, or I wouldn’t be even this coherent.

When I tell you that the thing I used to enjoy most about myself, the thing that made all the other minor insults of life bearable, Continue reading