Service’Ain’t’Us

I’ve mentioned that I live in a small town. More, it’s a remote town — which means at least an hour’s drive through antelope country to the next outpost of civilization, i.e., shopping. It’s two hours to Denver, which is really where you go for major shopping. But we have a lovely old-fashioned downtown area with lots of local merchants. It’s a big deal for us, to support the local merchants.

Such a big deal, in fact, that everyone gets sick of the exhortations to buy local. Don’t make the drive! Save gas! Inevitably these urgings will include the assertion that the local merchants can fulfill our needs just as well as any shop we might drive to or find online.

Which simply isn’t true.

Yesterday, I went down to our local, independent purveyor of childrens’ things. It’s a nice shop, with lots of fun toys and clothes and baby accessories. So much so, that when several of us met to plan a friend’s baby shower, we decided that she should register at the local shop along with Walmart. Yes, of course we have one. I try to buy local first, so I left work early to catch this shop in our quaint downtown, because of course they don’t keep evening hours.

Then the salesgirl tells me they don’t “do” baby registries. What? Why on earth wouldn’t they?? “We do our tickets by hand,” she says, “so we don’t have a hand scanner to do a registry.” It’s not her fault; she just works there. So, I don’t tell her that I remember shopping for a wedding gift at the NYC Bloomingdales with a PAPER LIST that I had to check off with my selection and return to the counter. It’s insane that a little store like this chooses not to serve their customers this way.

But I picked something out, since I hate going to Walmart and I didn’t want to waste any more time. At the same time, I’m certain this merchant proclaims her grief and indignation at all the people who shop at Walmart instead of her place. Or register online with Babies’R’Us, where shoppers can pull up a list and have a gift automatically shipped to the parents.

We can decry the demise of the small business owner, crushed under the big boxes. And then we’ll go to whoever gives us the best service. How hard is this to figure out?

Clear-cutting

I’ve been editing my novel. Not for the first time, naturally. I finished it almost exactly a year ago and have edited the work several times since.

Right now, though, I’m whittling down the first 30 pages. In genre fiction — maybe all kinds, I don’t know — much rests on the first 30 pages. Contests generally ask for it (or the first 20 or 25, if they’re chintzy), because agents generally ask for that. Then hopefully they ask to read the whole thing.

But everything really hinges off of the first 30 pages. They’ll argue it’s a Blink thing, that a good agent or editor knows within a few sentences if the work is what they can market. Or rather, they know right away if it’s NOT. What this means though, is there’s no room for leisurely introductions or backstory. An editor at the RWA convention complained of writers who tell her the story “really gets going in the third chapter.” That, she said, is where the story should start.

Okay, I can see this. That a genre novel’s glory is its ability to sweep you away. In our increasingly impatient society, there’s little patience for the slow build. Selling books is selling excitement. Capture the reader on the first page and you’ve sold the book.

What I’m noticing as a reader, however, is how many books start off great and completely fall apart. Sometimes the first three chapters promise something that vanishes or was never really there. And the second half of the book is frequently terrible. To the point that I wonder if the editor ever read the second half.

And then I wonder, do they care? Is the market such that all the emphasis is on selling that book. Mabye it’s become immaterial whether the reader will then buy or borrow that author again.

Not that I’m not playing the game. My book is one of those where the exciting action kicks in around Chapter 3 or 4. I felt like the slow build-up was important, but I’m capitulating. I’ve condensed 60 pages into 30. No point, I figure, in holding onto the perfect opening to an unpublished book.

A lot of what goes in that kind of slash-and-burn edit is description. A (terrible) contest judge recently slammed me for too much description, which she compared to Anne Rice. The judge invited me to recall how much people hated how she’d describe the wallpaper. I’m thinking, uh, Anne Rice? Multi-million dollar best-seller, Anne Rice? One of my favorite authors before she went off the deep end, Anne Rice? Oh no, don’t write like she does!

But, I concede to the gateway and have cut cut cut. My delete key is dripping black font. I really hope, though, that the rest of the story satisfies. Perhaps a lean, mean beginning can lead to a meaty repast with a lovely, fatty, overblown dessert at the end. In a room with gold, flocked wallpaper…

Lifetime Warranty

About two years ago, I bought a fancy, wheeled laptop bag. In fact, it was October, 2006. I know this because I recently had to look up my receipt for proof of puchase.

After much researching, I settled on this lovely leather bag from McKlein. In this great burgundy color — just say no to black luggage. Plus they had a great reputation and a lifetime warranty. Sign me up.

Everywhere I dragged it, which is a lot of places when you fly once or twice a month, people complimented me on my bag. It has all kinds of wonderful features.

Except that the teeth in the zippler tore out. Everything else about the bag is perfect. The leather looks new; the wheels are barely dinged. But it no longer zips. Which is problematic, especially when you go to lift it into the overhead bin and everything in the bag dumps out on your head. Yes. This really happened to me. And nice nearby businessmen helped me pick up all my stuff and didn’t even laugh at me. To my face.

I looked up what to do online, which involved sending in information like my proof of purchase so I could get some kind of trouble ticket and go from there. Naturally I procrastinated at this point, which is almost certainly what they hope you’ll do.

But after slogging around Delaware lopsided, weighed down with my shoulder-strap bag, (I can only carry it on one shoulder — it falls right off the other. Why? Why? Why?) I bit the bullet and engaged in the process.

I don’t have to tell you the details. You already know how this goes. The email exchange. The photos of the damage. The email I finally receive:

I have advise my boss regarding your damage item she has determined that the
item is not repairable the estimate cost to repair the item is $100.00.

Never mind the broken English — I love the whole Orwellian view of repairability. So after I asked which it was, repairable for $100 or not repairable? and she responded that I was correct, I volleyed back with a challenge to explain why the clearly inferior zipper construction doesn’t fall under their lifetime warranty covering materials and workmanship.

Yeah, we know what’s coming next. But I’m kind of entertained to see what excuse they’ll give. The real question is: do I pay $100, plus shipping two ways, I presume, to repair a two-year-old $200 bag? Or do I just pay less money for an inferior bag that I can count on falling apart in two years also, but that I won’t have invested so much confidence in?

I wish they wouldn’t bother with the warranty that guarantees nothing. Perhaps I’ll look for the bag with truth in advertising: “This bag will last two years in reasonable condition, at which point the wheels will fall off and it will explode in the overhead bin, causing your overstressed fellow passengers to throw you out the emergency exit at a low enough altitude to kill you but not suck them out the door also, at which point you will no longer need a laptop bag.”

I’d buy that one.

The Movie and the Mirror

Laramie has one movie theater.

To speak of. There’s actually a second one, but they show the $2 movies and the every-other Sunday film series movies that come out on DVD a week later in an ancient and virtually unheated venue. I kid you not — people bring blankets with them. It’s not a cosmopolitan town.

So, the real movie theater has six screens and if we’re lucky, they’ll slip an Academy Award nominee in with the flicks intended to entice the high school and college crowd. Six screens is a big step up for us, because there used to be only two and now the one side that was split into four parts has stadium seating. Big excitement for us.

But the bathrooms are exactly the same as when I first moved to town, exactly 20 years ago last August. This means I’ve been dashing out of movies to pee in the exact same stall (second one down, because the first is for handicapped access) since I was 21 years old. The wall of mirrors over the sinks have reflected the last 20 years of aging, and the full length mirror to the right of the door has provided proof that I weigh 20 pounds more than I did then. I would say a pound a year isn’t that bad, but it was a fair amount more than that for a while and is thankfully back down again.

It’s funny — I like the image in the mirror now more than I did then. Any of those thens, really. I dashed out of “Taken” last night (the best of the six possibililties and pretty decent, though I was pouting over not getting to see “The Wrestler” or “Slumdog Millionaire”) to hit the loo and thought of this on the way out. Sunday night, I’ve been cleaning house all day: I did not cute up to go to the movies. But in my jeans, sweater and make-up free state, I looked just fine as I opened the door to head back in. I didn’t even pause to pivot for the critical side-angle/backside evaluation.

Which is what it comes down to, I suppose. Greater generosity with myself. In fact, I forgot at first to pay attention to the mirror, until it hit me that we’re moving in six months. I’ll lose my chronicle of appearance. All those me’s will stay behind, recorded in the women’s restroom mirrors. Grad student, young stepmother, older stepmother. The me of today. The me yet to come won’t be seen in those mirrors.

There’s something to be said for that.

Good-bye Lucy

On Friday, my mom had her Himalayan cat put to sleep. This sort of event occurs regularly through our lives, marking the eras in 10, 15, or 20 year increments — less if illness strikes. One beloved pet dies and we acquire another. For a family like ours, who keeps cats, we might have five or six primary cats through our own lives.
Lucy was 16 and it was her time.
My mom posted Lucy’s obituary via email:

Dear Friends,

It is with sadness that I tell you that Lucy had to be put to sleep yesterday. She was apparently suffering from kidney failure which went undetected until it was too late to cure her.

She had a very full sixteen years and got to experience travels to many fun destinations including Dauphin Island, New Orleans, and Tucson. She probably logged more car miles than most other felines. She was a comforting companion to Leo during his illness and a highly adaptable friend to me. She will be missed.

Leo was my stepfather, who died a few years ago. Lucy loved Leo, the boyfriend who followed and my mom’s new husband, Dave. She was always a man’s cat, loving my mom’s men as she loved them.
So Lucy’s passing now marks the end of this 16 year increment. Now begins a time when my mom has no cats. This is new, too. Dave has said they can get another, which is lovely of him. But she wants a little time of driving back and forth without dragging a cat along. I can’t help but think that the next cat will see my mom through the last increment of her life.
Or maybe there will be two more. I find myself adopting the leapfrogging cat method. Our two cats are 12 and 3. While this muddies the life increments, it’s also an insurance policy against being completely bereft.
I’m big on ensuring I won’t be completely bereft.

Travel weary

I’m tempted to say I failed.

I certainly didn’t succeed in following my intentions, so that amounts to the same thing, doesn’t it?

I really wanted to be able to continue to post to the blog while I was on work travel. Clearly I didn’t. You can see my pleased, self-satisfied (a number of people have used that phrase to describe me lately and I’m wondering how to take it) post from the plane on Monday. Then nothing nothing nothing for the next four days. I got home at about 1 o’clock in the morning Thursday night, slept in and worked all day catching up. No 1K words, no blog posts. So much for resolutions.

I really thought I might post pithy observations about being in Dover, Delaware. About their coastal farmlands and abandoned malls. But I didn’t. Penelope Trunk says your day job can’t suck away your creative energy, but I’m not sure I agree. When I’m on my work trips, they drain me dry. I get back to the hotel in the evening with nothing left. Often I can’t even summon the energy just to read. Only inane television can hold my attention until I fall asleep. I don’t understand why.

But, as I’ve broken into this new schedule gradually, so I’ll try with this. I’m home this week, then off to Raleigh/Durham the week after. Cross your fingers and look for the daily blogs!

A Wing and a Blog

I’m posting from the airplane today.

Well, more precisely, I’m drafting this on the airplane. I believe, though, that the day is not far off that we will be able to post to our blogs and continue our internet connectedness from the air. Yes, I’ve become one of those business travelers you see, who pull out their laptops as soon as they give the go ahead to use electronic devices that don’t broadcast a signal. Have you noticed that some of the newer airplanes have a little light for electronic device use now? The light-up icons for seatbelts and our symbiotic technology now displayed where the cigarette emblem used to be.

I have no idea what the implications of that may be. Perhaps we’ve only traded one kind of encroaching cancer for another. Feeding our lives into just another bad habit.
But it makes a difference to me, as much as I travel for the day job, to keep up with my connectedness. I wrote my 1K first, cozied into my cocoon of Bose headphones playing the very same writing music as I play in my skylit studio at home. (There’s a bit of my ritual, replicated there.) It feels good to have that done. My numbers safely recorded for the day. Then I replied to a few emails, set aside because other things had been on fire. They can leisurely wend their way over the ‘net when I land.

Now for this. As much as I ranted about computers disrupting my ritual, here the technology allows me to bring pieces of my life with me. Everything I accomplish here in 5C is one less thing I’ll have to sandwich elsewhere into my life.

Not a bad deal at all.

On the Market

So, there’s a For Sale sign in front of our house now.

I really hate to see it there. A glowing orange invasion of my privacy. A beacon that declares my home somehow isn’t quite my own anymore.

Which is all really silly because I’m doing this of my own accord. Well, I’m doing this for David and for our future. We’re moving to Victoria in August so he can go back to school and start a second career. One that he really loves.

I’m excited to do it. We’ve been in Laramie for 20 years and it’s time for a change. In May we’ll fly out there to house hunt, which will be fun.

Meanwhile, I have to deal with this ending. Though we’ll live in our beautiful, beloved house for six more months, right now I have to open it up to the evaluating eyes of strangers.

We signed the contracts. I like our realtor. I believe her that this is the right time to do this, that the market is hot. We want all the money we can get, to start our new life.

But I still want to go yank that sign out of the lawn.

Stranger Danger

We’re at an interesting point in techno-history. The internet has become a huge part of our lives, intertwined with our daily communications. As someone who works in a home office in Wyoming, the internet IS my place of business. I’m on the ‘net all day long with my colleagues in Boston, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Colorado, Florida, Virginia. We email. We IM. The internet allows us to shout over the virtual cubicle wall.

And my writing network is pretty much all virtual now. No one else in my small, remote town is writing the kind of thing that I am. The gals who are part of my online network form a daily, intimate part of my life also. We blog. We exchange Facebook comments.

It all feels very natural to me. But it’s easy to forget that ten years ago, I didn’t have this kind of virtual network. We had to fight the corporate policy to let us IM each other. Twenty years ago, I was using A-1 Mail on the university system in a DOS environment. I also have to remember that many people aren’t as comfortable online as the rest.

Uncomfortable and new mean scary. And sure, there are bizarre stories of stalking on the internet. Crazies meeting up. Perverts luring young girls and boys to bad ends. But I wonder what the real stats on that are?

My friend, Allison, is rooming with Liz and me at the RT Convention. In her post yesterday she called us strangers. Okay, her husband is in law enforcement, so he’s paranoid. He only sees the worst of humanity. But it’s so funny to me, because I hadn’t thought of her as a stranger. I suppose I could be someone other than who I appear to be online. Or she could. Liz, I’ve met in person, but did that really tell me anything more about her than I knew before? Liz has a sister — maybe she sent the sister to meet me, to masquerade for some kind of nefarious purpose. Maybe “Liz” is really some perverted male serial killer hoping to lure me to a hotel in Orlando, where I’ll meet my terrible fate.

Or Liz, Allison and I are all exactly who we say we are and we’ll have a great time in Florida. Which is more likely?

One More Fraught Thing

And then I’ll get off this rant for a while. RoseMarie took fraught further still with a couple of very interesting bits from the writing modern world and that of what sure seems like a better time. This nugget has Stephen King expounding on the relative success of J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer. What really caught our attention was King’s assertion that “the real difference is that Jo Rowling is a terrific writer and Stephenie Meyer can’t write worth a darn. She’s not very good.”

Wow. Who knew we’d see the day that Stephen King would slam another enormously popular genre writer as not being able to “write worth a darn.” Way to forget the slings and arrows tossed your way, Steve.

I’m speaking here as someone who’s read all three authors. I’m also reliably informed that I’m a picky reader. Between King, Rowling and Meyer, I’d have to say that Meyer is the only one I really enjoyed. The only one who lit me up. Yes, I read a few of the Harry Potters and I believe when people said they got better, darker, more complex. But I found them derivative and not particularly magical. I’ve read some of Steve’s stuff, too. He writes a decent story, but he’s never been an author I sought out or passed on. Frankly, I like the movies they make of his books better than the books themselves – which is almost never true of any other book, so that says something, I think.

So why does King disdain Meyer’s books? He says:

“…it’s very clear that she’s writing to a whole generation of girls and opening up kind of a safe joining of love and sex in those books. It’s exciting and it’s thrilling and it’s not particularly threatening because they’re not overtly sexual. A lot of the physical side of it is conveyed in things like the vampire will touch her forearm or run a hand over skin, and she just flushes all hot and cold. And for girls, that’s a shorthand for all the feelings that they’re not ready to deal with yet.”

Makes me wonder what Tabitha’s sex life is like. Speaking as a woman, not a girl, there’s a hell of a lot to say for flushing hot and cold at the touch of a hand on my skin. And believe me, I’m ready to deal with the overtly sexual feelings that go right along with that. Nothing wrong with extended foreplay. Take note, Stephen.

It all comes down to what we love to read, doesn’t it? That’s the primary parameter. The verdicts of sales and of the artists follow behind that. I probably like Meyer best because I’m a fan of sexual tension.

Speaking of artistry, here’s the nugget from the past, that RoseMarie found in the Davidson archives:

The Willa Cather Creative Writing Award was created by William C. Doub Kerr in 1937. Doub Kerr, a member of the class of 1915, helped found the Blue Pencil Club, which later became a chapter of Sigma Upsilon, a literary honor society. The prize for the award was a copy of one of Cather’s novels. The first recipient was Gibson Smith, Class of 1937 for his work “Satan Snake.” The award was suspended after two years and returned briefly from 1955-1958. In the spring of 1937, Doub Kerr wrote Willa Cather seeking her approval of the award. She replied with wit and caution:

“My Dear Mr. Kerr;
Thank you most for your friendly letter. But, honestly, I think the “new sails” have a better chance of making port when they are not taught “creative writing.” It can’t be taught, for one thing!*

Sincerely yours, Willa Cather.
*Perhaps it can be guided a little, modestly? I don’t like to be too sure.”

Somehow, I don’t see Willa lining up to lambast those ships that do make it to port, especially the ones that sell their cargo for a pretty penny. But then, maybe it was a kinder, less fraught world then.