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Playing Around

After a rather laughable attempt to write a radio play this past spring (through Script Frenzy) I realized that I have forgotten an awful lot since my Theatre Arts days at Los Angeles City College.

Why, you might ask, did I suddenly decide to write a play after 18 novels? Oh, just to show that I could. Unfortunately, I found out that I couldn't.

I don't have any texts from my LACC days and I have a vague memory of getting Dittoed handouts for most of the classes rather than having a required text. (I do still have several books on makeup that I bought during those years, because I thought that I might follow that as a career. Unfortunately, that was before the days of equal opportunity and the makeup artists union did not admit women. All that women could do was apply body makeup. Somehow, I couldn't see spending the rest of my working life slapping Suntan #1 on a bevy of extras with a gigantic sponge.)

Anyway, the upshot of all this is that I bought two books on playwriting.

The first one, "Playwrights on Playwriting," edited by Toby Cole, is a collection of essays in which the writers discuss not only their own work, but play structure, theme, and character delineation in general. It's a good overview of changes in theatre, from Ibsen in 1874 to Tennessee Williams in 1958.

The second book is "Playwriting: The Structure of Action," by Sam Smiley. I recommend this book highly to anyone (like myself) who is new to playwriting. It's an in-depth study of dramatic principles. It's not a book on stage craft, and won't help you get your cast members on and off stage without running into each other, but it will show you how to develop characters, control pacing, and introduce themes. One caveat -- this is not a book that you can breeze through. It's densely packed with information and intended for serious study. If you have serious aspirations toward playwriting, this book should be on your reading list.

Lucky Pierre is back!

JM Stine, at Renaissance eBooks, sent a note this morning to let me know that my latest mystery, "Pause for the Cat," has been released and is available on the Renaissance Page Turner site. It will be out soon as a Kindle book.

Pause For the Cat

I had fun writing it, after getting a bit burned out on "cat mysteries." The trick was to find a new approach, and I did that by combining the science fiction milieu from "Murder at the Worldcon" with my cozy mysteries that take place in the imaginary little town of Pomo.

It's perfectly reasonable that a fictional science fiction enthusiast would invite writing friends to a house party for the weekend. I went to a number of parties like that--called salons by the hostess--in the 1970s and '80s. Most of the attendees were Los Angeles sf writers, and occasionally we had visitors from out of state. It was a chance to get together, talk shop, discuss some of the latest science news, and hoist a few drinks. Oh, and eat! The salons always included a lavish buffet.

So, there is a lot of nostalgia in my depiction of a writers' weekend -- and I'm happy to say that no one was ever murdered during any of the real ones.
Writers Wil Wheaton and John Scalzi sponsored a fiction contest during the month of June, for a chapbook to benefit lupus research. Since my daughter-in-law has lupus, this is a subject close to my heart. The challenge was to write a 2,000 word or less short story describing how those two intrepid writers wound up in a painting that shows one of them transformed into an ork, and the other riding a unicorn-Pegasus-kitten. Ahem! Right, guys. The contest winner will be announced sometime in August. In the meantime, here is my entry:

ANOTHER FINE MESS


"Look at that old guy with the dreadlocks!" John said, with a snicker. He tucked a rolled-up copy of "Lord of the Rings Comix" that he'd bought from a vendor more securely under one arm and licked the dripping rim of his ice cream cone. "There sure are all kinds of strange people wandering around here."

Wil, his nose pressed to the globe he had just won at the coconut shy, said "It's a carnival, what did you expect?"

There were happy revelers passing them on both sides, laughing, chattering, and stuffing themselves with cotton candy, flannel cakes, and corn dogs. The rapturous shrieks of people riding the Mile High roller coaster and the Octopus mixed with hoots of laughter and the come-on calls of the vendors.

"I don't know what you find so fascinating about that thing," John said. "Look around a little; grope a few stuffed animals and smell the hot dogs! Enjoy yourself!"

"I am enjoying myself," Wil said. "This thing is neat! The volcano lights up and you can see a little spot of red deep down inside of it." He scratched idly at the front of his clown sweater, intent on the details of his new toy.

The plastic ornament he was ogling would have been called a snow globe if it contained a snow scene. It didn't. It enclosed a miniature rocky landscape with a volcano and when he shook it, flecks of grayish matter that were supposed to be ash drifted across the brown rocks. A tiny gold paper label glued to the bottom edge said "Product of Guatemala."

"Come on, Wil! Get your nose out of the rocks and look at that old guy with the dreadlocks. He's like something out of a cheap lost-race novel."

John took another slurp of his raspberry-chocolate Danish-melon ice cream cone and studied the approaching stranger critically. He shook his head in disbelief. "He's got blond dreadlocks, a ratty looking raven sitting on one shoulder, and he's leading the fattest alley cat I've ever seen at the end of a piece of string. I couldn't dream up something like him if I tried all night!"

The stern-looking old man with the graying blond dreadlocks and his pets were approaching from the direction of the sideshow tents, while John and Wil were sauntering toward them from a pleasant tour of the Grand Concourse.

Unfortunately, the pathway that they were all on had been part of a pasture before Sanborn's Show of Shows took it over for their three-day extravaganza and it was none too even. As the parties came abreast of each other, several things happened.

Wil tripped over a rusty, half-hidden horseshoe and stumbled into John before falling flat on his clown sweatered front. His volcano globe slipped from his hand, flew through the air, hit the old man in the nose, and bounced into the raven, which soared about ten feet into the air, screaming insults.

John, understandably startled and thrown off-balance, tightened his grip on the ice cream cone, which shot out of his hand like a NASA rocket, deposited its half-eaten contents on the old man's dreadlocks, and landed upside down between the flattened ears of the gentleman's cat, which narrowed its yellow eyes and hissed.

There was dead silence for a long moment. Even the cries of people riding the carnival roller coaster seemed muted and distant. The offended old man crossed two fingers together and waved his hand over the innocent but clumsy authors, muttering something that did not sound complimentary.

John felt a sort of tingly, compressive, kind of sensation; his eyes went out of focus, and he sank to his knees, head spinning. Out of the corner of one eye he saw Wil groping for the fallen volcano globe. Then everything was lost in a kaleidoscope of whirling colors.

* * *


"What the hell?" John muttered, when his vision cleared.

He discovered in short order that he was flat on his back, was hot, sweaty, had green skin, and was wearing some amazingly uncomfortable iron armor. "This is either the weirdest trip I have ever been on, or something pretty damned funny has happened," he muttered as he staggered to his feet, leaning heavily on something that he was clutching in his left hand.

"Not only that, I'm talking to myself!"

He blinked at the object in his left hand. It was the haft of a crudely-made iron battle axe that must have weighed a good thirty pounds. He devoutly hoped that he wouldn't have to use it, because he could barely lift the thing with one hand. Using two hands were out of the question because there was an equally heavy iron and leather shield strapped to his right forearm.

Looking around for some clue as to his location, John saw a strange rocky landscape that seemed to recede into pale mist no matter what direction he looked. There was a towering volcano in the near distance, glowing red at the top and giving off pale flecks of ash that were falling all around him.

"Where the devil is Wil?" he wondered aloud, scratching his nose with one long-nailed green finger.

As if in response to his thoughts, he heard a strange sibilant sound cutting through the ash-filled air. Readying himself for the approach of some dire dragon or monumental roc, what he actually saw, approaching from the direction of the volcano, was a flying kitten--with the rump of a race horse and a single horn on its head that looked oddly like an ice cream cone. With deep sweeps of its wings, it hurtled toward him, and sitting on its back, clown sweater and all, was Wil, looking slightly maniacal and holding one hell of a big lance that was pointed directly at him.

With a fiendish and malevolent grin, the kitten half-folded its wings and swooped down, claws outstretched.

It was a choice of being skewered or ripped to shreds. Trembling, John tried to raise his axe. He was going to sell his life dear. He would hack, chop, mangle...

No!

What was he going to do, take a chunk out of someone he considered a friend? Swing at a flying kitten that had horse's legs and would be cute if it were about one-tenth the size? Dropping his grip on the battle axe, he lifted the shield to cover his head and back, and ran for the mist as fast as his legs would carry him.

THUD!

That was the hardest damned mist he had ever run into. Sprawled on his back, where he had bounced after hitting an impenetrable barrier, he saw the kitten and the lance poised to strike. He threw himself frantically to the side.

There was an almighty CRASH; the kitten yowled, and as his vision faded John saw that the lance was embedded for a good foot into the wall of mist, and Wil, thrown backwards by the impact, was clinging to the dazed kitten's horsey tail.

* * *


He was in a whirling circle of color. There was sound, unintelligible at first, and all he really knew was that his head hurt where he had hit the misty wall. Groggily, he staggered to his feet. Helpful hands seized and steadied him, and after a moment he realized that the circle of color around him was a group of brightly-clad carnival-goers. There was laughter and talk and somewhere a calliope had started to play.

Looking around, he saw the back of a man with blond dread locks walking steadily away. The bird on his shoulder was preening its feathers. The fat tabby cat at the end of its string leash looked back at John and hissed before it and its master were lost in the crowd.

"You all right?" a concerned voice asked.

"Yeah. Yeah, fine. Thanks." John brushed himself off.

Wil, sitting on the scrubby grass was staring despondently at his volcano globe.
"It's broke!" Wil said sadly.

-- end --

Thoughts on Versatility

I finished the fourth in my series of cat mysteries on the 14th of June, and handed it off to the publisher. I swore that I'd never do another one, after the third one, but the publisher LIKES cat mysteries. They're amusing enough to write, but what I object to in them is that they are limiting. If one has cats as pets (I have five of the beasts) one is well aware of what felines can and can't do, and how they ought to be treated. Any move away from that is sheer fantasy. Working one or more cats into the fabric of a murder mystery can be a challenge--rewarding if you manage to do it--but it is also frustrating.

Still, writers should be versatile enough to tackle anything. There was a discussion recently on a distribution list about science fiction, pornography, and why writers might write the stuff -- either separately or in combination. Like Mallory said of Everest, "Because it's there," I suppose. Whatever the subject is, any writer may look at it and feel the urge to prove that he or she can write about it. By the same token, I do not think that writers should feel hampered by subject matter. Love, sex, mayhem, murder, or reflections on the sight of a vine clinging to a brick wall, they're all legitimate subjects for a writer to tackle. Whether we do them well or not is beside the point. It's the trying that matters.

Scriptable

I think I'll try writing a script. I've never played around with writing a story entirely in dialog, although one of my early mysteries (which was never published) was sparse enough on descriptive detail that it almost qualified. The good people at NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month)sponsor a script-writing challenge called ScriptFrenzy. The challenge is to write 100 pages of script--any kind of script--during the month of April.

NaNoWriMo is a great incentive to get something done. I'm one of the "analysis paralysis" writers and, given half a chance, will tinker with a first draft forever. Just for the hell of it, I joined the last two NaNoWriMo challenges and discovered that it was a great way to force myself into a "write it and leave it" first draft mode. There isn't enough time in thirty days to play with a first draft. I've idly thought of writing a script before, but never gotten around to actually doing it. Now ScriptFrenzy is oozing hungrily around the door, looking for a handout.

Since I'm a lazy person, I'm thinking of writing a radio script. That eliminates all of the bothersome camera details and shooting instructions. In a radio script, all you need is a cast list, an indication of who is speaking, the dialog they speak, and a note about the sound effects, like SOUND: SLOPPY KISS. (Doesn't that make you think of audio porn, and the sound of sink plungers?) Of course, there isn't much call for radio scripts these days, but if one thinks of them as audio scripts they seem much more current.

There is at least one site on the net that has copies of Golden Age radio scripts; everything from "Abbot and Costello" to "Inner Sanctum". I've read three of them, and I think I have the general idea. Now, all I need is a plot.

Reneging

After I finished "Magical Meow" I swore a mighty oath that I was NOT going to write another cat mystery. That's what comes of writing three of those books too close together. Since then I've written a horror story ("Uncle Daniel's Den") and two soft-porn vampire novels (under a cleverly assumed pen name). Enough time has passed that I feel more kindly toward cat mysteries, so when Jean-Marie Stine--the publisher at Renaissance eBooks--said that she'd like another one, I agreed. I did have the uneasy feeling that the wrath of the Demons of Outer Darkness would descend upon me for violating my oath. If you hear that I have vanished and there is only an oily smudge on the wall and a trace of ashes in the bedding, you'll know what happened.

I do pride myself on keeping the antics of my cat, Lucky Pierre, within the bounds of what cats actually can do. He doesn't talk; we don't share his thoughts; and he can't do any kind of amazing things. He doesn't wear a deerstalker cap or smoke a pipe. He's a CAT.

Sadly, the real feline who inspired those books is no more. He was my neighbor's cat and had taken to spending most of his time over here, mooching food and sleeping in the studio during the day. Neither my neighbor nor I know what happened to him, but since this is a rural district we suspect either a coyote or a fox. There are bobcats and cougars around here too. Pierre was a nice cat, and I am sorry that he's gone. I like to think that he has achieved a little crumb of immortality via my fiction.

The working title for my next Lucky Pierre mystery is "Principally Paws," and I expect to finish it sometime around July.

The Little People

I have been thinking about the little people in novels. Oh, not the dwarves and eleves and so on -- I mean the people with little roles in the story. On stage they would be walk-ons; in opera I think they're called supers. They're not even part of the chorus; they're the spear carriers. They flesh out a production so that there aren't so many blank spaces in front of the scenery. They put flesh on the bones of the story.

Writers about writing have said for many years that it is much more powerful to give things names in books instead of generic labels. Don't say "the car went down the hill," say that "the Buick" went down the hill, which not only gives identity to the automobile but gives the reader a picture of a person who drives a Buick. (Unless he or she stole it, I suppose, in which case you can wonder if the thief took it in preference to an SUV, because of the gas mileage, or if it was the only one on the street that was unlocked.)

If that's true of inanimate objects, it must be even more true of the little people. If a robber comes into Nate's Liquor and sprays a clip of bullets around, isn't it more interesting if he kills "Joseph Murdleson" than merely "the clerk"? It's especially poignant if poor old Joe was planning on retiring next month and driving around the country with his wife of forty years, Araminta, who is suffering from something terminal and wants to see the Vulture Capital of the United States before she breathes her last. (Of course, you can get carried away with this, and describe everybody down to and including Araminta's chiropodist, who is from Indianapolis and has five kids, named...)

Let's hear it for the little people. Not only do they flesh out the story, they can do wonders for your word count.

A little Bit of Magic

"Magical Meow," my novella about murder at a Harry Potter convention, has just been released as an ebook by the folks at PageTurner. I had a lot of fun writing this one. What I enjoyed most was coming up with reasonable "real world" equivalents for some of the food and drinks that Rowling mentions in her series, most of which are beyond the scope of even the most inventive cook.

"Magical Meow" is a cozy mystery, featuring an amateur sleuth who cooperates with the local police, and it includes a cat. Two cats, in fact. The first cat is Lucky Pierre, who has become a series character in his own right. The second one is a tricolor named Annie, and is a tribute to a charming little feline who shared my life for thirteen happy years.

"Magical Meow" is available through Mobipocket.
http://www.mobipocket.com/en/eBooks/eBookDetails.asp?BookID=175627
*http://tinyurl.com/rcmvt7*

Picking Up the Pieces

It has been a little over two months since Chuck died, and I am slowly putting my life back together. I know it is important to accept the fact that things will never be the way that they were, ever again. All of the old saws about life goes on, and you can't drink twice from the same river, remind us that time does not stand still nor reverse itself, no matter how deep our longings or how poignant our anguish. We cannot reverse the flow of time.

Many science fiction writers have toyed with the idea of time travel. I wrote a short story on the theme myself, a tale called "The Biographer." It's the story of a woman who owns a focusing crystal that allows her to travel in time via thought wave. Its genesis was a realization about time that I once had as a teenage. I was caught up in typical teen adoration of some historical figure--I think it was England's Charles II--and wishing that I had a time machine, so that I could go back to his era. That was when I realized that even if one could do that, there was no time in his life that was not accounted for. He was surrounded by courtiers, mistresses, and an entire retinue of servitors. There would be, literally, no time for me.

We each use up our lives hour by hour and minute by minute, and each of those minutes is accounted for by the time we die. How many chances would a time traveler have to walk in the park with some dead relative? Go out to dinner? Enjoy a play together?

There is not enough time in our continuum.

I was 25,000 words into a vampire novel when Chuck died, and I finally picked it up again on Wednesday. I have a hard time concentrating on writing, but my aim now is to finish Lipstick and Fangs by the end of summer. One should have a goal in life, and not merely drift in the time stream.

A Great Loss

My husband, Chuck Crayne, died suddenly on the 16th of February. It was his 71st birthday. He was a brilliant man and one of the most sympathetic and caring people that I have ever known. He had a kindly sense of humor, and an appreciation and understanding of computers that I have never seen surpassed. He was the author of "The Serious Assembler" and ran a news group on assembly language programming.

Chuck was a devoted fan of science fiction, and had been active in sf fandom during the 'sixties and 'seventies, founding NASFIC and FUNCON, and co-founding the mystery convention, Bouchercon (with Bruce Pelz).

He was interested in steam equipment, and during our years here in Northern California he was active in Roots of Motive Power, serving as their Treasurer for seven years.

We had a wonderful life together, and March 3rd would have been our 38th wedding anniversary. I miss him more than I can say.

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