Point of View

I violate one of the basic rules of storytelling. I do it often, I do it on purpose, and I like doing it.

The rule is to pick a point of view and stick to it, at least for a full chapter. But because the stories I tell myself are never told from a single point of view for very long, how could the stories I tell others ever be? One of my greatest fascinations with a tale is how differently the events appear to various characters. So if you read something I write, be prepared to hear the plot unfold through several sets of eyes.

My latest book is providing me with new challenges in this regard. As the sixth and last book in my 46. Ascending collection, it features a dozen characters with five unusual powers as they learn to work together. I’m having fun changing the point of view, but am also striving to find new ways to do it so that it doesn’t leave my readers’ heads spinning.

My character Alex, who can slow down or speed up time, reacts to save his wife Lola while they are aboard a cruise ship in a storm at sea. I tried this technique for showing how they both experience what happens.

About twelve minutes later, or so it seemed to her, a series of sharp knocks on the cabin door woke all three of them. A pleasant young man brought in a tray of dry snacks, cartons of water, more motion sickness treatments, and extra pillows, cushions and even bungee cords for securing people and things.

“We are in a bit of a lull now,” he cheerfully informed them “and the rain has stopped. The captain says that if you want a spot of air on deck at all today, now would be the time to take it.”

“I’ll pass,” Maurice muttered without moving. “But I will take a look at your pill selection.”

“I could really use the fresh air,” Lola said. She looked at Alex hopefully. He knew how hard it was for her to stay in the enclosed cabin.

“Let’s both go get a breath of it,” he agreed.

After that, their recollections would always be different.

She would remembered wanting to leave the cabin quickly before he changed his mind.

He would remembered wondering why she didn’t stop to put on something besides those stupid cheap slippers she’d bought in Ushuaia.

She would remember hurrying down the hall because she wanted to catch the heavy metal door before it latched completely behind a couple coming back inside.

He would remember being annoyed because he had to speed up to join her as he felt a large gust of wind blow through the open door.

She would remember bounding outside, then looking up and being overwhelmed at the sight of the unusually large wave on the other ship of the ship. She would recall the roar of it, the froth of it, the fear of it as she started to slide backwards with the tilt of the deck.

He would never even see the wave. As he reached the door, he would be looking down, watching her momentum carry her into a slide as she slipped along an improbably tilted deck towards a rail that was clearly inadequate, coming only as high as her thighs for christsakes but sticking out way over the ocean, and what the hell kind of guard rail was that?

She wouldn’t even remember a guard rail, just a second of terror, a realization that she was going over board.

He would see her slow down, way down, almost stopping as she hung there.

She would remember Alex grabbing her arm so fast she thought he’d dislocated her shoulder, then both of them slamming onto the deck and sliding backwards towards the door, with Alex grabbing on to something as the boat made a high-angle lurch the other way and then a few more frightening tilts back and forth.

He would remember time speeding back up as she cried and shivered with the cold and the shock, and thinking that he had almost lost her again.

She would only remember thanking him and telling him that she loved him.

He would remember silently holding her to warm her, and hoping she understood how much he loved her too.

(For more excerpts from my new novel visit Am I sure I’m Sherrie?, Worry about those you love and write about what you know, Cease worrying when you can and write about what you know, and The Amazing Things I Get to Do.)

Bring back the good old days?

I get a lot of ideas for blog posts while I’m doing yoga. Some would say it is because my brain relaxes and stops talking. Others might guess that I’m lucky enough to have uncommonly profound yoga instructors. Normally I’d go with both of the above, but not today. This post comes from my mind’s refusing to agree to do what it was told.

The pastToday, I was instructed to be totally present in the now. This is a common prompt in a yoga class, but the problem started when we were asked to reflect on what kept us from being so. “I know, I know” the eager student in my head clamored.  She likes getting answers right. “I replay scenes from the past, and I concentrate on tasks and I worry about the future.” But another voice in my head spoke up, and it was less anxious to please.

“No,” it corrected. “For starters, you are not just replaying scenes in your head, you are spending time processing what has happened. Processing is not a bad thing. You do “after action reviews”, just like the military. You try to learn from your past mistakes, like every historian says we need to do. Replaying events in order to be wiser in the present is a valuable activity.”

Hmmmmm …. It looked like a rebellious section of my monkey mind was staging a coup. I managed to hush it for the duration of the class, but I picked up the train of thought as I drove home.

It was true. My sincere contrition for poor behavior is seldom spontaneous.  It often comes after a hard look at the past, hopefully the very recent one. My gratitude is often the fruit of this inter-cranial after action review process, as is my forgiveness, and my recognition of a job well done by myself or others. Monkey mind had a point. I would not want to live in a world where I didn’t review the past and grow. Some of my best behavior comes from that.

So what was the problem? Well, there is such a thing as an unhealthy obsession with what has occurred. Each of us has a thing or two we’ve spent far too much time reviewing. Often we are still angry with someone, or still trying to justify our own less than stellar actions. I know that I spend time there. Let’s face it. There is “learn from” and there is “fixate on” and they are two different things.

We also can hide in a glorified past, afraid of change and not wanting the future to bring that which we don’t understand. But it will, it always will bring it.

growing bolder 9I think that society has the same dilemma. Certain periods fascinate us beyond all reason. Too often we use historic events to perpetuate hatred and prejudice, not to grow and be better. And there is this insane obsession with returning our country, or our religion, or culture or world to some “good old days” of the past. Forget that those days were never as good as the hype. The real problem is that those days are gone, they are always gone. You cannot recreate them. You can make a better future and use some of the best ideas of the past to do so, but the obsession with making things just like they once were is only a way to waste your precious present.

I was sort of warming to this meld of ideas when my monkey mind, which is very good at digging up facts, reminded me of something. I suspect that every author has a scene or two in each book that they consider their favorites.  I know I do. This one from z2 takes place after Kisa discovers that Kyle is of a nationality that she has always despised. My yoga mind and monkey mind both reread it together and the good news is that they now agree. We do all need to learn from the past, and then we need to let it go.

Kyle asked more seriously. “Kisa, what do you think is a reasonable time limit for hate?”

“I don’t believe in hate.”

“No one does, but we all do. If someone kills my kin, hurts my friends, ruins my life, I may be able to forgive and move on. But if a large group of people does such a thing? Then I almost certainly don’t. I call my hatred lots of things. Justified anger. Revenge. Forcing this group to behave better. Even self-defense. But for how long do I get to punish all the people associated with or descended from those who caused the harm?”

“In parts of the world feuds are centuries old,” she remarked, “with a staggering list of injustice and cruelty on both sides. Once it gets to that point, forgiveness or even just acceptance between two groups seems impossible.”

“That’s what I mean. And each fresh insult keeps the fire going. To stop hating appears to dishonor the sacrifices made by those who came before. Who wants to let their ancestors down?”

“So we keep it going and let our children down instead, as we let the circle grow ever wider,” Kisa said. “Immediate blood relatives of the perpetrators? Those who look like them? Pray like them? Dress like them? Anyone who shares a city, or a nation, or a continent with them?”

“Exactly. In other words, how would you like to let one Spaniard who thinks that the burning of Tayasal was an abomination buy you dinner and start over?”

“I’d love that.” She thought a second. “Do you know who said ‘Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind’?”

Kyle shook his head. “Gandhi? John Lennon?”

Kisa laughed. “Good guesses. Albert Einstein.” Her anger and even embarrassment at not recognizing Kyle’s heritage was gone. “I think that it’s a good time for you and me to grow up.”

(As for what my monkey mind had to say about my never ending focus on performing tasks — see my post Frittering life away? on my c3 blog. For thoughts about focusing on the future, see Prepare for the Worst? on my d4 blog. And find out what my yoga instructor thought the problem was at Are you performing, or performing? on my y1 blog.)

 

 

 

Slowing Down Time

matrixIf you type “slowing down” into Google, one of the first alternatives it will offer you is a search of “slowing down time”. It is obviously a popular topic, and I knew when I created my hero Alex that his ability was hardly unique. Normal humans often report time moving slower during an emergency, although Jeff Wise has a wonderful blog post explaining how researchers have shown this is just an illusion. Fictitious super humans frequently slow down time to stop crime or protect themselves, none better photographed than Neo in the original Matrix movie.

But Alex is just a normal guy, in what I want my readers to believe is the real world. What’s more, time doesn’t merely slow down for him in an emergency, it eventually moves differently for him when he wills it to do so. During much of z2, Alex learns to recognize and to finally use this gift. Along the way, he gives the very nature of time, and the possibility of time travel, some serious consideration.

slowing-time-clockAs I created Alex, I wanted him to discover another who shared a variation of his talent so that at the very end of the book they could work together. Xuha, a short-in-stature student of Maya descent, surprises Alex with his fighting abilities and confides his own time manipulation talents. The two of them consider whether great fighters, athletes, and musicians might not all have a touch of these same abilities.

Here is an excerpt from z2, telling of the first time that Alex uses his ability off of a basketball court.

And then there she was. Alert, wide brown eyes and dark reddish-brown hair almost the color of the logs popped up about eighty yards away, just downstream of the logjam that Ken had called a “strainer.” All three of them shouted to her before the current sucked her back under. Alex felt his own breathing return, just knowing that she was alive. Seconds later she popped up again, downstream of a second clump of branches, but this time she was coughing out water hard. Alex looked closer. Good Lord. She didn’t have her life jacket on.

Ken seemed not to have noticed that fact, as he started moving, relieved, along the shore hoping to intercept Lola somewhere downstream. She was in the middle of the river now, moving fast, and she appeared to be coughing too hard to even try to make her way to shore. Oh hell, Alex thought, I know that she can barely swim. He looked around for anything he could grab quickly.

“Alex, get back here!” Sara yelled it as she saw Alex start to wade out into the fast cold water, a canoe paddle in his hand.

“Alex, no!” Ken joined in as well from his position downstream.

But all Alex could think of was that is he was going to have to pay for his decisions, he was damn well going to make sure that he did everything he could to make this come out right.

Then he noticed how wide the river really was. How far to the center Lola was and how fast she was moving. How slow his own progress in the deep cold water was going to be. And he realized that he’d never make it to her in time. She’d flail on past, still dozens of feet away from him, and none of them would have any way of reaching her before cold and fatigue completely overtook her.

And then it happened. The roar of the water and the sound of Ken and Sara’s shouts faded into a muffled background, and all Alex heard was the sound of his own heart pounding. The beat of it remained steady and firm as the water began to move more slowly. As did Lola. Alex had the odd sensation of walking out onto a basketball court, willing his body to move to the rhythm of the game, of this game. His feet felt light but firm as they moved with power along the rocky riverbed. His hands were strong and capable as they lifted the paddle out towards Lola. He was moving at a normal pace to him, but he was already in chest-deep, and only feet from her now. She looked puzzled but grateful, and Alex heard his own voice boom slowly “Lola! Grab the paddle!”

He thrust it into her hands, and as the current slowly twisted her body downstream, her fingers just barely curled around the white blade. Alex pushed the paddle more firmly into her hands. Her grip tightened as she realized that this ordeal could actually be over. Then Alex used the paddle to pull her in closer, finally reaching out to grab her shirt and drag her in towards shore. She collapsed at the waters edge, still coughing hard and shivering uncontrollably.

Sara rushed to her, and Ken hurried back to them, as Alex himself sunk down into the pebbled sand, now shaking with cold. Slowly, Lola’s coughing picked up speed, as did Ken and Sara’s movements and speech, and then everything moved with his heartbeat again, happening at the pace it should.

“I had no idea you could move that fast,” Ken chided Alex with a relieved grin as he joined the group.

“We yelled at him not to go out into that water,” Sara was shaking her head to Lola. “But thank heavens he did, huh?”

Lola was smiling. She pulled herself upright and stumbled towards Alex to give him a long hug. “How did you ever make it out there to me?” she asked.

“I wasn’t willing to accept any other alternative,” he said simply.

“That’s good,” she laughed. “I’m glad.”

As the rest of the day centered on getting off of the river and getting the Zeitmans dry and warm, and all of them back on the road headed home towards Texas, Alex kept having one thought.

I had no idea. I don’t know why it never occurred to me. But it didn’t. I had absolutely no idea that time would slow down like that for me anywhere but on a basketball court.

For two of my favorite sources of information on time dilation, see
It’s About Time: Understanding Einstein’s Relativity, N. David Mermin, ISBN 978-0-691-12201-4
Physics of the Impossible: A Scientific Exploration into the World of Phasers, Force Fields, Teleportation, and Time Travel, Michio Kaku, ISBN 978-0-385-52069-0

My job is to get wiser

It has been just over three months now since I became unemployed. It’s a big deal for me, even though it was my own decision, made once I decided that if I made my life much simpler, I had enough to get by.

I knew that my job provided more discretionary income than I would ever have again.  I knew that it provided a social circle of sorts, and a reason to bathe regularly. I was prepared for a lack of all those things. I felt like I’d always had it in me to a be poor unwashed hermit, so no problem there.

I didn’t realize that my job provided reference points for the passage of time, and that after so many years with a typical job, I would be disorientated without those familiar markers. My husband, who made this same plunge three years ago, saw what was coming. Of course, for the past three years he had been using my work schedule to mark his own days.

“We will still have special meals on week-ends,” he declared. “Drink a bottle of wine, grill a nice piece of fish.” I laughed at him.  “We can do that any time now.”

“Yeah, but we won’t,” he said. “You’re going to need this.” He was right.

motion 2I didn’t realize that my job provided a sense of purpose, even if that purpose was only to pay the bills. I have a higher purpose, I thought.  My real purpose is to write. I didn’t consider how writing is basically a manic-depressive activity for me, filled with bursts of creativity and action interspersed with doubt and lethargy. One’s purpose needs to be solid, a guidepost that doesn’t wax and wane to a bipolar rhythm.

So I’ve kind of informally been seeking a purpose, and oddly enough I think I’ve found one. It probably was my purpose all along, I just didn’t think of it as such.

My job is to get wiser. I actually think that is everyone’s real job, but I also think it’s not my business to tell other people what their purpose is. So  …. I’ll stick to me. I’m on a mission to become a wise woman. I’m not sure exactly what the process involves, but I’m pretty sure that it includes a lot of writing, reading, helping others, being close to nature, taking good care of my self, traveling, learning, and meditating. It might involve a lot more.  I don’t know. I’ll find out.

I figure that a would-be wise woman takes wisdom wherever she finds it. So now my life is a classroom and, as a full time student, I make little notes to myself wherever I go. People in town may think I’m a little crazy.

A wonderful local yoga studio has provided me with lots of material, not to mention a few more reference points as I try to make it to my favorite classes. “We are naturally drawn to movement,” the instructor said the other day, talking about how all the flashing blinking lights in our lives hold us mesmerized. “But remember that there is no movement without stillness.”

motionIt sounded very Zen, but in fact the man was talking good solid physics. There is no motion if everything is in motion together. You do know that the earth is zipping around the sun at nearly 70,000 miles an hours, don’t you? You don’t? How could you possible not notice traveling at 70,000 miles an hour? It turns out it is pretty easy when everything else moves with you. Have one thing stand still (or as good old Einstein pointed out, assume you are standing still and the other thing is moving 70,000 miles an hour in the other direction) and the motion becomes apparent.

That’s it.  You need motion. You need stillness. You need reference points. Way to go, physics! Way to go, yoga! Way to go, universe!

Remember and move on

photo(3)I’ve written about places I know and about many I’ve researched but never seen. It is always odd to finally visit the real location that I’ve held in my imagination for a story. Today is a windy, overcast day in late autumn, and I stand for the first time on the grounds of the civil war battle of Cedar Creek in Northwest Virginia. Battle grounds bring a hush over us all. People died there, often in the most difficult and painful of ways, and we know that they did. Lots of people lost their lives at this site, and thanks to my determination to write a battle scene as accurately as I could, I know more about these people than I do about those in any other battle ever.

I’m not a big fan of military history.  I have very mixed feelings about enshrining war and about the civil war in particular. I’ve lived in the south for most of my adult life and I still cringe at attempts to glorify the reasons behind the conflict. But my quasi-time travel novel z2 needed a complicated battle that could have changed the outcome of the war, and my history loving husband was delighted when his research acquainted us both with Cedar Creek.

photo(6) There is much about this battle to intrigue even the barely interested. A surprise attack at the crack of dawn began with soldiers sneaking single file along a pig path in the dark. It was a near victory for the south, close enough to the nation’s capital to have alarmed a war-weary nation already pressuring Lincoln to stop this nonsense and let the bastards secede. Cold, half starved confederate boys took advantage of a halt at a union camp to scarf down food and find themselves shoes and jackets. There was a commander who couldn’t or wouldn’t move those boys along, giving the union reinforcements the time they needed. There was a quiet engineer who received little credit for his contribution and a showy General Sheridan who rode in on horseback amidst trumpet blasts to save the day. In the end all the stories melded into a Union victory, a little more time for Lincoln and, well, the rest is history.

I don’t particularly like monuments, and I don’t think we should glamorize war. But as I stand in the wind I hear ten thousand stories calling to me and I stop and listen to a snippet here and there.

photo(7)Let go, let go of this painful past and move on, part of my brain cries. Enough with the deaths and the sad things they died for.

No! Remember us. Remember how it happened. Remember why.

Remember and move on. Such a tricky balance — to let go of the anger and hatred and yet to keep the lessons and even to keep the stories. Because they were real people. Real suffering. Real hopes.

I pause, and place my hand on the ornate plaque that tells a historian’s short version of the events, and I let the other stories I have read of those involved wash over my brain and heart. The wind picks up, my husband heads for the car. “You coming?” I nod. It’s time to move on.

For more thoughts about letting go check out my post on throwing out everything when cleaning out closets at Face Painting for World Peace, and my post about the difficulties of describing teens drinking on New Year’s Eve at With a Breath of Kindness Blow the Rest Away.

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“To Say Nothing of the Dog” and what I learned from Connie Willis

When I picked up my own pen to start writing fiction in late 2010, I quickly discovered that I couldn’t read the novels of others while I was writing my own. Just couldn’t. This was a real problem because reading books was my favorite pastime. I moved on to flash faction, to playing online word games, and to losing myself in the worlds I was creating. So it was a big deal a few weeks ago when I finished d4 and left for a two week vacation with my family and decided that after almost four years it was high time I read a book for the sheer fun of it.

I chose Connie Willis’ “To Say Nothing of the Dog” which I had bought for my travel friendly Kindle. It had been on my list for years. Her award winning short story “Daisy in the Sun” remains one of my favorites ever and what could provide more vacation reading pleasure than a book described as a “comedic romp through an unpredictable world of mystery, love, and time travel.” Too bad I did not enjoy the book.

walk talk 4It’s well written, of course. Willis is an accomplished teller of tales. Part of the problem might be that I’m a more critical reader these days, and part of it might be that my expectations were too high. But mostly,  I was reminded how much the reading of a novel is an interaction between two people. There isn’t just a book. There is chemistry between the book and the mind of the reader and the problem here is that Connie Willis and I don’t have enough chemistry together to get through a whole novel.

She’s fascinated by Victorian England. A lot of people share this obsession, as the whole steam punk genre proves. I don’t particularly, and I had no idea that the novel would be so deeply rooted in it. I also seem to lack the genes for fascination with World War Two and with Napoleon, either of which would have helped. I am fascinated by the history of lots of other things, mind you, like mountain climbing in the Himalayas and sailing in the south Pacific and you’ve got my full attention for anything about the Mayans, or the Druids. Not a trace of these were to be found, however,  just endless riffs on butlers, chaperones and appropriate cutlery. There were also far more details about an old English cathedral than I was prepared to absorb.

My favorite part of the book involved an intellectual feud between two history professors about whether individual actions could affect the course of history. It was funny, and it showed how silly we all can be when we adhere blindly to a our pet theories. This brings me to the second problem between me and Ms. Willis.

I really, truly do not like her approach to time travel. I winced when I saw the movie “Back to the Future” long ago, explaining to anyone who would listen how you can’t go back in history and change things. You can’t kill your grandfather and then fade into nothingness. You can’t kill off Stalin and destroy the space time continuum. If you can somehow find a way to go back in time then by definition you are on another time line when you get there. You now live in another universe. Kill off who you please, including people who appear to be your grandparents if you can find them, because it won’t affect the folks back in your own universe who created you. You are just an alien now, causing havoc in your new home maybe, but destroying nobody’s cosmos.

Most of the parts of “To Say Nothing of the Dog” that were not infatuated with Victorian courtship were all about saving the universe from the misdeeds of other time travelers lest the whole universe unravel. “No!” I screamed, just like one of Willis’ pedantic professors. “You’ve got it all wrong! It doesn’t work that way.” The people on the beach just ignored me.

I finished the book feeling quite disappointed, and turned to the other science fiction fan in my family to vent my frustration. Turns out he read “To Say Nothing of the Dog” a few years ago. He really enjoyed it. What was my problem?

Even though Connie Willis did not give me the fun read I hoped for, she may have given me something better. She helped me to understand why some readers really seem to like my work and others are not impressed. I’ve received enough of both kinds of reviews now to know that it’s not just me. Ms. Willis has me thinking that it is also not just them. It’s me and the reader together, and the ways that our interests and philosophies compliment each other, or don’t.

 

 

A Simple Lesson

I’ve taken a bit of break from blogging for a lot of good reasons. Finishing my fifth novel, d4, turned out to be more of an overwhelming experience than I expected, and the timing overlapped with producing a mild rewrite of my first novel x0. I’m proud of all my efforts but, as I keep learning the hard way, you can only do so much.

hippiepeace9If you try to do more, you are likely to not get enough sleep, grow frustrated with everyone you care about, and eventually with everyone you don’t. Pretty soon you are honking at random strangers because they have dared to slow you down for two seconds and you realize that you’ve become the very person you hate. It’s time to stop glaring at the people ahead of you in the check out line and let go of something.

So for over a month I let go of my blogging, which I love, and Facebook and reading other people’s blogs and almost every online activity I enjoy. For the last month I have been focused, very focused and even that still wasn’t quite enough for me to go back to being as pleasant a person as I would like to be. But it was close.

The novel d4 is now in the hands of my first beta reader, and the new and improved x0 is available everywhere that the old one once was. I’m on vacation. A real vacation, where I can stare out at mountains and I’m not on a computer all day working. Where I can write on my blogs just because I want to and most of all where I can remind myself that life is good and that I just need to calm down and get through the crazy times because good ones always follow. It’s such a simple lesson. I hope that I remember it next time.

(Please drop by and give the fine folks at Hippie Peace Freaks a like on their Facebook page for the great image above.)