My Summer in Film

Labor Day will close the blind on summer this weekend, so I’m going to squeak in with a little summer film commentary.

This was, overall, the summer of the mediocre film. I saw several films this summer: Malificent, X-Men: Days of Futre Past, Hercules (which mind you, was fun, but not brilliant), and Only Lovers Left Alive. What did I see in the cinema that might be worth your attention?

Chef: John Favreau directs a terrific cast and stars in this movie about a chef that has forgotten his passion and re-invents himself. It’s an underdog movie and it’s a father/son bonding movie, and I eagerly await for it to come out on disc so I can watch it over, often. With a cubano and a plate of plaintains.

How to Train Your Dragon 2: The depth of this animated feature surprised me. There is cost and sacrifice in this film for many characters, and there is a good deal of growth and change. Also, many, many eye-catching dragons and just plain beautiful art.

The Grand Budapest Hotel: Wow. This is the Russian nesting doll of stories. A story within a story within a story within a story. We get to the Ralph Fiennes level, and man, this is one quirky, strange ride. It’s like Roald Dahl meets Russian literature. Not for the easily offended, this darkly humorous film will delight those whose humor is a little offbeat.

Guardians of the Galaxy: Well. I didn’t know what to expect here. What I expected was camp. What I got was a team effort from a bunch of scene stealers (if you can believe that), some amazing dramatic moments, and some skilled portrayals of some Marvel characters. Did you recognize Karen Gillan? I didn’t in that first go ’round. You wasted her, Steven Moffat. Just sayin’. Go see it for the one-liners, the empathy, the heartfelt friendships, and a feeling unlike any other Marvel film. I’m gonna go with dramedy for a label.


Of course, there were a couple of good videos I saw too, but you’ll probably hear more about them in my end of year round up.

You guys have a great holiday.

The Writing Process and M.J. Locke

M.J. Locke, also known as Laura Mixon author of Up Against It, and also one of my teachers from Viable Paradise XIII, gives us some insight into her writing process. Thanks, Laura! (And I get the characters are real thing. I totally get that.)


Tamago: Do you have a regular drafting process, or does your drafting process vary from book to book? Can you describe it to us generally, or at least for one project?

Laura: I’m a pantser. I get my core concept down, figure out the few major beats I know have to happen, then dive in and figure the rest out as I go.

The key thing, once I get started, is to commit to getting pages written on a regular basis. So I haul out my project management tools. For each book, I commit myself to daily or weekly time and page targets, and then I track the word count in a spreadsheet (so I can see my progress).

The level of commitment I can give to a book on a daily basis has varied drastically throughout my adulthood. Up until last fall I had a day job nearly all my adult life (30 years). Before I had kids, I would commit to one-to-two hours per night, three week nights, and at least three hours per day each day on the weekend. (As you can imagine, household chores were not a priority!) Once we had kids, and particularly when I was doing consulting work (which involved brutal hours and lots of travel) my writing slowed way down. An hour or two every week or so was all I could manage between 2000 and 2013. I admire people who can keep going with that kind of schedule, but I couldn’t.

Now that both girls are in college and Steve got a great Hollywood gig that replaced my day-job income, I’m writing full time again and have about half a novel finished (yay!).

As a full-time writer, I make myself a schedule that blocks out time for writing, as if I were in a day job. It both helps me stay on track and lets friends and family know when I’m available and when I’m not. My current weekly commitment is for about 24 hours a week of putting words on screen, and about 16 for blogging or research. Luuuuxury!

The key to success is to keep moving. Time can slide by without you even noticing. So I track it. It doesn’t matter if it’s crap and I have to throw it away again later; the trick is to hold myself accountable to put words down every day, or almost every day.

Tamago: Which part of writing–drafting, revising, critique from others–do you enjoy the most? Why? The least? Why?

Laura: I love both drafting and revising: drafting because I LOVE making weird shit up and surprising myself; and revising because it feels to me like sculpting—coaxing the story out of the weeds, shaping the theme and character development and plot into something smooth and sleek. (At least, that’s the goal. 🙂

Getting critiques I am not crazy about, because I have a bad case of Writer Brain and am always convinced everything I write is crap, but it’s absolutely essential, so I always use beta readers before sending a manuscript out.

Tamago: In your most recent book, Up Against It, you have at least two major stories intertwined in one book. In what ways do you keep track of so many plot threads and interactions?

Laura: Ha! I tried to make UP AGAINST IT just Jane’s story, but there was so much else going on that I couldn’t plausibly draw Jane into that I finally gave up and went back and introduced several more viewpoint characters.

To keep track of my plot lines and technology and so forth, I use a couple of techniques. I white-boarded the characters’ stories in a big-picture way so I could see where the beats fell. For the world building, science and tech, I usually use an Excel workbook with calculations, drawings, and notes. For the characters and plot, I keep a notes file in Word, with character descriptions and sort of a running conversation with myself as I progressed, about what was going on, what a particular character was up to, what would happen next, and so on.

For upcoming books, I am curious to experiment with a wiki software, so the stuff I settle on is better organized. (Especially because I’m in the planning stages for several more books in WAVE, the series that UAI is the first of.) I’ll probably also keep the running notes and Excel files as those work well for me, and port stuff over that I think is useful.

But also, once those characters come to life in my head, they really keep track of a lot of stuff on their own. I know that sounds weird; they’re not REALLY real. But they feel real. I have to brace myself when I’m approaching the end of a book for the sense of loss I feel when I finish. There’s a part of me that—as much momentum as I usually have by then, as eager as I am to know how it’s all going to come out—doesn’t want to finish. Because that means I have to say good-bye to all these people I care about.

Continue reading “The Writing Process and M.J. Locke”

Other Things I Read This Summer

And now…those other books I read this summer.

Hild by Nicola Griffith. History might as well be an alien planet in Hild, the painstakingly researched latest offering from Nicola Griffith. Hild is an extrapolation of the events in the life of St. Hildegard and her relatives which pulls no punches in terms of looking at the brutality of history. Yet, Griffith is sensitive enough to paint Hild and her society with cultural respect, rather than noting how inferior they are to us. A good read, if a little thick.

The Mad Scientist’s Daughter by Cassandra Clarke. I noticed right away how similar the title of this work was to The Time Traveler’s Wife, but I figured the similarity would end there. I was wrong. This felt a lot like that book. The plot is only similar in terms of romance, but in terms of tone, I felt like one book had heavily influenced the other. Did I like this book? Well, yes and no. It was strongly literary, but it was largely about usury sex and unrequited love at the same time. I have mixed feelings.

California Bones by Greg Van Eekhout. This is a dry, crusty book from Greg, which is new. There are moments of humor, but clearly this is meant to be serious, and I miss the moments of whimsey that have delighted me about Greg’s writing so far. Still, the landscape of the book is well-painted, and there’s plenty of social commentary and extrapolation about what we could become in the future. There’s also lots of delicious, scary cannibalism, stylized magically for the reader. Would I recommend it? Depends on you. Strong stomach and urban fantasy your thing? Go ahead.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie. Let’s see. This book has won the Nebula, the Clarke, and the Hugo. I wonder if you should read it? Like Hild, this book is thick. However, the way in which the world is envisioned, and the fact that it is perhaps the first successful gender neutral book might make this a VERY IMPORTANT BOOK for SF readers. It’s experimental and the writing is strong.

Up Against It by M. J. Locke. If you combine Leckie’s social sensitivity with Heinlein’s juvenile adventure, you’ve got this book. Locke is an expert at integrating many cultures into one alien one, and the book is a forward moving hero’s tale with a couple of excellent twists. It’s a good book.

Salsa Nocturna by Daniel Jose Older. A series of supernatural tales from the perspective of the Latino undead and almost undead. It’s fresh, funny, and breathtakingly beautiful at moments. Easily my pick of the season. You should read this one.

The Seat of Magic by J. Kathleen Cheney. I talked this one up when it first came out, and I want to mention it again. Cheney is combining history and the supernatural in a seamless way. Not one freakin’ dirigible in sight. Excellent characters, high romance, and a genteel nature that make these books a smooth, enjoyable read.


Next Up: Movies I have seen this summer.

Summer Reading: For the Kids

In my part of the universe, summer is over, although in your part of the universe, your kids may still be at home, and you might be wearing white until Labor Day.

Of course, you all know that I finished the first draft of The Poison of thy Flesh over the summer, but I did do some reading and I did watch some movies as well. (Smokin’ in the Boy’s Room Pause) Let me tell you about it!


The winners this summer are the YA and MG books. I read a couple of series that you might like to take a look at, with or without your kids.

The Gallagher Girls series by Ally Carter. I’ll be honest with you. The first one isn’t much to scream about, but I had already purchased the second. It’s better. Then Carter just takes off on a rapid Concord ride through spy high school, and the books escalate in quality. I would almost say skip the first one. You will need the second one for background, and you won’t be able to put the last 4 down. The premise? Girls go to a private school for spies, and do normal teenage things at the same time. It works. The books aren’t perfect. I always feel our main villains are muddy and hard to pin down. But the adults and the kid mains interact, do spy well, and are just awesome overall. Six books. Read ’em.

The Enola Holmes series by Nancy Springer. This middle grade series is perfect. The premise? Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes have a younger sister who runs away from them after her mother runs away from her to fight the forces of the misogyny of the Victorian period. Being a Holmes, it doesn’t take her long to discover her analytical gifts and tendency toward daring do. The books are kids books, but the dangers in them are real. Springer’s Victorian research is flawless. I can’t see the seams of her extrapolations. These books deserve their reputation.

Ghoulish Song by Will Alexander. I read Goblin Secrets last summer, and Ghoulish Song is a story that is overlaid over the time frame of Goblin Secrets. Steeped in a careful study of folklore and written from a realistic childhood viewpoint, it’s an excellent book that considers belonging, family, and life itself. Read both of these books.


Now I did read some books for older readers as well, but that’s another entry! Tomorrow, perhaps.

Scenes from an Office

A call from a friend last night. This happened.


A professor and his student are walking to a writing seminar at Osborne Cottage. He mentions that her last journal entry was insightful and funny. She talks about how she really connected with Russell Baker. He makes a note to mention most of her essays for the rest of the semester.


A student decides that she is going to continue her MA at the same school where she received her BA. Her professor supports her in this decision.


The professor takes up art class. The student notes upon it. “I started, and it was really juvenile,” he says. “Well, it looks like you’re doing better now,” she says.


The student discovers that teaching is her life. She describes how the sky opened and the sun shined down upon her. The professor says that makes sense to him.


A bunch of graduate students are grousing about how all the papers they read are the same papers. The professor says to be compassionate to the freshmen. Each paper for them is their first time.


The student takes her students to a local historical house, makes them write papers about it. Makes them read articles about the cosmic calendar and watch Cosmos. The professor notices her assignments, gives her encouragement to continue.


In the last spring of the student’s career at Iowa State, the professor calls the student in.

Professor: What about this award? Charlie tells me you aren’t nominating yourself for this award.
Student: Well, it’s not what people do. Nominating themselves for awards.
Professor: Your classmates are nominating themselves. You’re a good teacher.
Student: I can’t do that. Victorian gentlemen just don’t do that kind of thing.
Professor: I’ll nominate you then. I’ll talk to Charlie.


The professor makes sure the student gets a special award for her teaching. She is humbled.


Years later, the student sees the professor at an English conference. They catch up. She’s teaching high school now. He was hoping she’d have got a job at a local community college she’d interviewed at. They sit in the back of the room and whisper, and she watches him at his own panel, and accept an award for his distinguished service in teaching composition during lunch. She knows that the professor has been a profound influence on her.


Just last week I said goodbye to Mr. Keating. The difference here is that even though Robin Williams is gone, I can still pull his gift, Mr. Keating, off my video shelf, and reconnect with the important gift he gave me. Dr. Dick Zbaracki is gone from my life, and I will never be able to reach through the pane of glass that separates my real life from my memories and share with him again.

God bless you and your family, Dr. Zbaracki. I will never forget everything you did for me.


The roller coaster crests at the top of the hill!


We sent Phyllis to the emergency room, and she has a Urinary Tract Infection. In the elderly, that can be very disorienting and problematic. She’s on antibiotics, and is really on the mend. While she is still experiencing (and will for the rest of her days have) short term memory loss, she is no longer hallucinating, having those very lucid dreams, or feeling as disoriented as she was.

Bryon goes back to work tomorrow, so he has gotten his oldest brother and his oldest niece checking in this week. As Bryon says, at least the relatives are taking direction well. Phyllis is being proactive and getting her exercise, as the doctor told her to. She’s also trying to reach out and meet new people in her apartment building. That was a fun conversation.

Phyllis: I don’t know if I’ll like these people or not.
Bryon: Mom, it even counts when you socialize with people you don’t like.


So, I think we’re going to peak and valley for a while. We regroup with our memory doctor in September, when either the Stumpster or I will take her for her appointment. So it goes.


Meanwhile, while that seems like quite a monolith, other things continue. We are hiring new teachers in ESL land because we have a record breaking number of students. I just started revising chapter 8 of the novel last night. I’m still keeping that weight I lost off. It’s all good.


Speaking of those interviews, guess where I need to be? Last one today. Next up, I’ll talk a little bit about summer readings. Barring any more drama.

Roller Coaster

Three days ago, Bryon returned from Southern Iowa after his mother’s appointment with an aging specialist, and I had planned to write all about it on Wednesday. But Wednesday was full of students, interviews for new teachers, and other start up items for school.

Yesterday, I wanted to share the good news, but instead we discovered that Bryon’s mom was having a reaction to her new depression med.

Today, earlier, I had hoped to at least tell you of a hopeful prognosis, but Bryon called in the early afternoon to let me know that his mom had spent the night hallucinating, and that the memory specialist had taken her off the drug.

You lose, Cymbalta. You lose.


After Tuesday’s appointment, things were looking up. Doctor Bender (not related to any robots you might know) had given Phyllis a list of things to do. Low fat eating, meditation, exercise, and socialization. He gave her a drug that was supposed to sharpen her up, and a drug that was supposed to help with depression. He had a terrific bedside matter, so much so that he suggested she could have Alzheimer’s, and she left the appointment feeling good about her prospects. She had a blood test. She will have an MRI. Even if she did have Alzheimer’s, the suggestion was that she could live another 7-25 years. On the whole, everyone was happy, and Bryon finally had a spring in his step again.

Further, it was suggested that she didn’t need assisted living. That it was best for her to stay on her own, with occasional supervision, and even if she needed assistance, that there were many options between independent living and assisted living.

Things were looking up.


I believe that the set back with the Cymbalta is that this is not the depression drug she’s looking for, and this is a temporary setback. However, the atmosphere of gloom and sadness that has descended as we cancel weekend plans at the last moment, and Bryon thinks he needs to journey south again is a palpable fog. I spent so much of last week alone that it is certainly not what I hoped to be doing this weekend. The plan was to take a load of collectibles up to Minnesota for the Geek Garage Sale.

Now, we either stay at home, Bryon in mourning, or worse, by myself while he goes back to Osceola and I keep the home fires burning. Or, perhaps, we will both go south, and watch the roller coaster go up and down.

It’s certainly a difficult, dispiriting time.

Dead Poet’s Society

I really didn’t want to be a high school teacher, but Mama had to eat.

In 1988, I graduated with an MA in Business and Technical Writing from Iowa State University. I received an extended temporary appointment at the college as a full time instructor, because Tech Writing teachers were in short supply in 1988. At the same time, the man I married in 1987 was teaching chemistry at a doomed school that we knew was going to close. He went out to find a new job, and find one he did in Audubon, Iowa.

Audubon. Named after the famous bird guy, and also home of the world’s largest concrete bull, Albert. Occasionally, the rival town Exira would send people to Audubon to emasculate Albert, so his bull features were steel-rod enforced. Audubon and Western Iowa was serious about the beef industry. When Bryon started working at Audubon in 1990, I could see the writing on the wall. We were in the middle of no where, and we weren’t moving to where I might be able to get an MA job. So, I wisely decided to get my high school certificate, do some student teaching, and after a semester of off sequence graduation and substituting, I too landed a job at Audubon in 1991.

I taught the most rotten group of sophomores imaginable during my first year of hazing. (As anyone can tell you, a new teacher during their first year anywhere, is hazed.) Now, I was a good teacher. I had awards to prove it. The best thing that teaching high school taught me was to deal with my ego in this regard. And as time progressed, these rotten sophomores didn’t get better, exactly, but we understood each other more. I also taught 7th graders and juniors and seniors.

There were a lot of bad things about teaching high school, but there was no substitute for watching your kids grow up. I cared about my students. We talked about everything. I wanted them to think about their educations, and like about a billion English teachers in the 1990s, I showed them Dead Poet’s Society to talk about literature, and extending the scope of your life beyond your job. Some kids clicked with the movie. Other kids, well, you know, it was another assignment.

I was 26. The character Robin Williams portrayed in that film touched me for two reasons: the obvious personal one, that you wanted to be that teacher, the teacher that students listened to, that they hung on every word of, and the less personal one, that Robin Williams took his place as a serious actor. Both were significant to me. To be honest, as much as I admired Williams, it was Keating and I that had the conversation. It took place every year I was at Audubon, at 26, at 27, at 28. What does it mean to be educated? What does it mean to be alive? What does it mean to truly live? What do you want from your life?

I was rewarded by moments with my students, but to say I was a happy high school teacher is a bit of a stretch. If it had just been me and the students, I would have been content. But seniority dictated that speech teachers taught college composition prep, when I had taught college composition for 4 semesters in my previous life and had training. The school supported a conservative community that tried to veto one of my books for 7th grade literature for 3 years. There were no opportunities to advance, to travel, to be professionally stimulated. High school teachers are locked in a building for 8 hours a day, subjected to the petty whims of administrators who are often not very good at what they do, sinking to the maturity levels of their students because they don’t get a lot of contact with adults.

That’s harsh. I know everyone’s experience is different. These are the pieces of the job that my husband complains about. The truth of the matter is that not only was the environment limited, I was not good in this environment. I wanted my students to think and see in different ways. I wanted my students to understand the scope of the world. I gave As to remedial writing students when they earned them, and Fs to students who failed to follow the assignments, regardless of whether they were the department head’s pet or not. I wanted to challenge minds.

And…maybe I was not a good fit.

Unlike Mr. Keating, I was not fired. I quit. I had almost talked myself into quitting and returning to school the year before I resigned, but several parents in the community had discovered that I was a good teacher, and they talked me into staying. The critical issue was The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier. Immense pressure to not teach the book, a blackmailing administrator, and the principled belief that I could not stay in a school where my (future) children could not be taught such an important book, all these were the reasons I threw my shoulders back and left. It was such a big deal at the time. Years later, I know it was an unintentional gift. I would have been a miserable career teacher in the secondary system.

I always joked with my friends at the time that if I had known I would clear so much swag, I would have quit my first year. I received roses from my classes. I autographed copies of The Chocolate War and sent them home with the current crop of sophomores, the ones whom I had taught before now graduating seniors. The little dears invited me to speak at their graduation. In the end, I think we connected because they recognized the rebel teacher, like they recognized the rebel in themselves. Of course, their request was NOT granted, probably a wise and diplomatic decision, if not also the decision of a gutless wonder who bent to community whim. 😛

The school ironically pulled the offending book from library shelves, but left the sequel out. Christian groups suggest To Kill a Mockingbird as a good substitute. Anything that subverts the conservative agenda is okay with me!

What happened that I will always remember was when members of Basic Writing, what I thought lovingly of as Combat Writing, all stood on their desks when I left. “Captain. My Captain.” They were sophomores when I came, and seniors when I left. The movie I thought had not touched those kids turned out to have stayed with them, and there we were.

Robin Williams died of depression. He will never know what his work meant to me. At that time, at that moment, it meant everything. It was my existence. It was my life. It was my final chapter at Audubon, and a new beginning. “Thank you, boys.”

Thank you, Robin.

Ode to Barnard Collier

Sometimes you got to do things to get your SpyFi Merit Badges. I figured sometime ago that maybe I needed to watch Mission: Impossible. Now, that’s a 7-season series, but you know, alternate it with some movies, do some stepping while watching. It’ll go down easy.

I will finish Mission: Impossible, but I have to say, categorically, it is the worst spy show I’ve ever watched from the Cold War error. Not to belabor the problems, but let’s talk about some significant ones.

1. Mission: Impossible creates its own languages. When we are in some unspecified Eastern European iron curtain country, South American dictatorship, or Arabic transitional government, the language that is used is one of Mission: Impossible‘s concoction. Yes, I have occasionally seen Cyrillic and Arabic characters on the show, but I’ve also seen ascensora used for an elevator. This is pretty close to Italian, but it is misspelled. It was also used in an East Germany knock off country.

Don’t get me started on gaz with an umlaut above the a. I think the word they’re looking for is benzin.

Mistakes like this go on and on. As a language teacher who’s studied linguistics, these are comical to me.

2. Disguise! Also, as a former costumer, I know you can’t put a whole person mask on your face and then have articulation like a real human face. Worse, I know you can’t put a mask over your mask and then pull it off and have the other mask stay on. *^$&!!!

3. Everyone does the same thing every show. The weakness of the spy show of this type, so I”m willing to forgive this more.


However, in spite of the tepid plots, the predictable actions, and the rotten research, not to mention the recycled guest stars of sixties and seventies tv, I will say that there are two things that make the show worthwhile.

Continue reading “Ode to Barnard Collier”



1. Well, The Mists of Avalon has officially found a new home, but don’t forget that if you want to contribute to RAINN, let me know, especially if you contribute over $50, because then the book belongs to you. If you contribute at least $50, let me know, substantiate that, and you’ll be in a drawing with the current leader.

2. Sad things are afoot. Bryon’s mother is having increasing difficulty with her memory. She is 88. We have an appointment with a memory specialist for her Tuesday next, and we should have some answers as we get her tested. This is taking its toll, especially on Bryon. I am learning lots of interesting things about memory and assisted living at the moment, and several of you have sent along helpful tips. I think the new normal is going to take some getting used to. If you could send positive vibes to Bryon and his brothers, that would be awesome.

3. We have had an enrollment surge here at work, and I’m in the process of hiring 3 new teachers, interviewing 2 next week, and hopefully staffing another 14-16 credits. Starting next week we turn away students. We will have a record enrollment, I predict, of 450 students when the dust settles, a full 100 more than our previous record.

These reasons are why I haven’t followed through on my Mission: Impossible write up, or the other things I have planned. Be patient, true believers!


While Bryon is attending to family business down south for the next few days, I will be manning the guns and feeding the cats as I have already returned to work. I will use the time to work on a few fiction-y projects, so it’s not all bad. But it certainly is draining, all this life-i-ness.

I could use some uplifting happy news. You know, a free cruise? Hey, I’d even take someone offering me representation or buying a story.

You guys have good weekends. I will toodle off to my adequate because I am not at work weekend.