How My Mother Made Me a Reader

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Some people are, unfortunately, born out of their proper time; either too early or two late to live the life that would have fulfilled them. My mother was  one of those people.

She graduated from high school in December of 1929, straight into the Great Depression. This sounds like the worst possible luck; and for my father, who left high school in the same year—without graduating—it probably was. But for my mother, bad times meant good opportunities. She had a high school diploma at a time when most women didn’t; she could type and take shorthand; and best of all—no, really—her home-life wasn’t happy. To what was probably the whole family’s satisfaction, at age eighteen my mother took an apartment in Chicago with some friends who wanted—at least for the time being—to have jobs instead of husbands. One of them worked at Sears, Roebuck, and recommended Mother for a job there.

Before the Depression, women at companies like Sears had mostly been confined to the sales floor, and restricted to departments like clothing, where employees were salaried, and not—as in furniture, and appliances—on commission. But as the depression deepened, Sears cut its expenses by hiring women to do what had formerly been strictly men’s jobs. My mother replaced a better-paid man in the accounting department; worked hard; and did well. She even got raises, though her salary never approached those of her male co-workers. She was thrifty, and before long she was able to afford her own apartment. She furnished it with the aid of her Sears Employee Discount; and bought herself an extensive wardrobe. Given what I know of my mother’s execrable tastes, both the furniture and clothing were probably horrible; but she, at least, was happy with her choices.

In later years, she hinted that she’d had a love affair or two during this time; but like most women of the day, what she wanted, ultimately, was to be married. In 1939 a friend at Sears set Mother up with her brother. Three months later, the two were wed; and three months after that, Mom quit work because riding the street-car to her job made her nauseous. My brother was born seven months later.

Even as times changed around her, Mom continued to insist to her own children that “working women” were emotionally stunted, unfulfilled beings who were to be pitied. But in fact, she envied them. A lot. She hated housework and found children and child-care tedious.

Her escape from household monotony was in reading fiction; and this is Rule One in my system for Making Your Children Readers. If you want to make readers, be a reader yourself. Read a lot. Read obsessively. Read so hard that the world recedes into a thing of no importance whatever, and keep it up for hours at a time. You may as well know right now that your children regard most of what you say as no more than an annoying buzz in their ears, but they closely observe what you do. Tell them to read; give them all the excellent reasons that reading is good; and they will not hear you. Swat them away like flies when they disturb your reading, and they will want to discover for themselves the secret joys you find there.

Rule Two of the system is, after your children are four or five years old, read aloud to them; but never as much as they would like. Mom started many books aloud, but I can’t remember her ever reading one through to the end. After a few chapters she’d go dutifully off to stand at the kitchen stove for awhile, her own book propped before her, boiling something she could allege was “dinner,” and leaving the book she’d been reading to us kids lying somewhere, open. It never lay unread for long.

Rule Three is to have a lot of reading material right in your house. People are surprised when I tell them that I never had a library card until I was in college; but honestly, the fact that my mother was too busy reading and boiling dinner and wishing she was Vice President in Charge of Something Big to take her children to get library cards was a big part of why I am a reader today. Our house was full of books, and they stayed around—not for two weeks, as a library book would have—but for my entire childhood, or in other words, until I got around to being interested in them. In the fourth grade, to the shock of my teachers, I read Oliver Twist. I read it because my mother happened to own a copy with interesting wood-cut illustrations. I studied them for a while, trying to figure out what the story was from the pictures; gradually worked my way through the smaller blocks of dialogue; and ended by reading the whole thing just to see how it all came out. I read hundreds of books that way.

But the best, most effective rule of all is Rule Four. Rule Four says, put your kids to bed at a ridiculously early hour (I was ordered to bed at 8:30 until I was in high school) in a room with no source of entertainment save a well-stocked bookshelf; and then supply your children with bedside flashlights.

Then go off and enjoy a quiet evening, reading. Do not ask, next morning or ever, why your children’s flashlight batteries are always dead.

Science as a Plot

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I’ve written before about why, even though I know them well, I don’t make scientists protagonists in stories. Here’s why I don’t make scientific research a plot, either.

Many years ago, my husband made his first big splash as a scientist when he published the complete sequence for a gene that causes blood to clot. How big a splash? The research institute for which he worked issued a press-release, the local television stations sent news-crews, and an item about this discovery appeared in the News of the World, directly below an article headlined, “CHOCOHOLIC MOM GIVES BIRTH TO SUGAR-COATED BABY!!!” *

Hubby was briefly a minor celebrity; his hat-size increased by a full half-inch; and honestly, for a few weeks there was no living with the man.

Then it all passed off and he got back to work in the lab.

The cloning of that gene sequence was far from being the most significant work my husband has ever done. So why was it the thing that got the most attention? It was because the cloning of the tissue factor gene had a plot. It followed an arc from Young Scientist Embarks on Quest; through Difficulties Along the Way; through Gamble On Using Last Available Sample for Final, Risky Experiment; through Triumphant Moment When Final Risky Experiment Yields Desired Result. There was pathos: At one point Young Scientist was putting in such long hours at the lab that his two-year-old announced, “Daddy doesn’t live here. Only Mommy and I live here.” The press particularly loved it that the effort to clone and sequence the gene turned out, in the end, to have been a race. Two weeks after Husband’s lab published the sequence, another lab published the same gene-sequence in another journal; and a third lab published a slightly different sequence a month after that. The press made much (much more than there actually was) of the “rivalry” between the labs.

Science—real science—that makes good fiction is a once-in-a-career event. Most science makes terrible fiction.

For one thing, the path of scientific discovery meanders. A lot. Everybody knows from high school that research starts with a hypothesis, of course. What people sometimes forget after high school, however, is that the point of the experiments that follow are intended—not to prove—but to disprove the hypothesis. Trying to disprove something doesn’t lead to any big dramatic moments—the ones where the scientist turns to the members of his lab and says, tears in eyes, “That’s it! We’ve proven it!” because there’s always the chance that someone somewhere will subsequently uncover that crucial missing bit of information that means that everything the scientist postulated is wrong. The most the scientist can usually say is, “Well, our second-choice journal says if we do a few more experiments, they’ll accept our paper.”

Not much drama there. Just sighs of relief.

Even life-saving new medical treatments don’t generate drama—at least not for the scientists involved. By the time a new discovery makes it into the clinic it has gone through so many steps—promising result, to confirmation of result by subsequent researchers, to further research, to—and I’m simplifying here— tentative treatment, to hand-off to other scientists who do appropriate animal studies, to small-scale clinical studies, to many major and minor modifications to treatment, to licensing to drug company, to wider-scale clinical studies, to finally entering mainstream medicine—that any drama has been dissipated to the point of non-existence.

So, I don’t write about scientists as scientists (the scientist-type—and there is one—makes a great character, though); and I don’t write about real science, either.

On the other hand, I think the scientific community is long-overdue for “exposure” in some sort of modern Peyton Place-ish fiction (remember Peyton Place?), and if anybody wants material for something like that, contact me for some very juicy stories!


* Husband’s work was also covered by the New York Times; but I think we can all agree that the News of the World piece was the really important one.


Image source: wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/60/Biochemistry_laboratory_MPI-CBG-panorama.JPG

 

 

A Story with a Sad Ending

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As I’ve said before, family stories are the easiest ones for me to turn into novels. The plot is fixed, the outline pre-written (can’t work without an outline!), and a plausible number and realistic variety of characters already exist, eager to be set in motion. My favorite part is that I don’t even have to think up names for them. I hate coming up with names for characters.

I’ve got a family story in mind right now that I think needs telling—one of those historical fictions that could easily be a multi-volume epic (although at my age I think maybe I’d better aim for something more like a novelette). It’s an old story, but a good one; about how one branch of my family came to this country from Ireland and made good. I think a lot of people would find it very relatable.

The family’s progenitor was the son of poor Catholic farmers—I’ll call him Paddy, since I don’t know his real birth-name—and he left his native land alone, in the midst of the Great Famine. I can’t decide whether or not to get deeply into all the reasons that my Paddy’s family, like so many in Ireland, were utterly dependent on the potato (and specifically on the commercially non-viable variety called the Lumper). The socio-political situation in early nineteenth-century Ireland is absolutely fascinating, but to discuss it might slow the narrative flow.

Putting politics aside, then, I’ll just get on with the story; which is that my progenitor—still Irish, and not yet Irish-American—took advantage of a British government-sponsored subsidized fare to sail to North America.Canada_immigrants

Naturally, the British government didn’t send Paddy to the United States. Why would they? His ship was bound for Canada, of course—a large, fertile member of the British Commonwealth that needed a larger population to fully exploit its potential to produce and export wheat. Britain needed wheat, and viewed Ireland’s “surplus” population as a convenient means to get it.

A parallel government plan was to undermine the Francophones by planting a lot of English-speakers among them, so Paddy’s ship landed in Quebec.

Unfortunately, in Ireland Paddy had practiced nothing but the spade-culture of the potato. In common with most poor Irish, he knew absolutely nothing about wheat-farming, which generally requires the use of tools like plows, harrows, disks and other mysteries. Therefore, along with most of his young, male shipmates, Paddy took the first opportunity he got of BETRAYING HIS PROMISE to the British government to stay in Canada in return for his fare, and slipping TOTALLY ILLEGALLY over the border into the United States.

(One imagines that the Québécois made no difficulties about this. In fact, they probably pointed Paddy south themselves, and wished him a hearty “bon voyage!”)

Going on with the story, I would then describe young Paddy’s initial struggles in the New World; where, in an atmosphere of hibernophobia and “NINA” (No Irish Need Apply) signs, opportunities were few for displaced Irish potato farmers. But when he got to New York, Paddy modified his accent and his name (to the frustration of his genealogy-minded descendants), and landed a job with the fire department. Soon, he was married (to an Irish-American girl whose lack of any clear trail to the United States suggests that she was also in the country illegally), and had a bunch of children. These children did well; and their grandchildren did even better. Paddy’s adopted name has spread far and wide across the country, into nearly every state, and every trade and profession.

And some of them have now turned Nativist, and cast their votes for the candidate who most stridently vows to deny other would-be immigrants the chances Paddy had.

I don’t think poor Paddy would approve.

Rationalizing Your Way to Virtue

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We now know for sure that it isn’t the ability to use language or tools that sets man apart from other animals; and the jury’s still out on whether, if there even is such a thing as a capacity to contemplate the divine (huh?), man is in exclusive possession of it. But nobody’s shown to my satisfaction that any other species but humans so consistently and imaginatively rationalize. Our ability to conjure up exculpatory reasons for what we do seems to be our great defining characteristic.

I think this is a very important thing to keep in mind when writing fiction. Any character who isn’t meant to be a certified psychopath should not only have clear motives for what he does, but should consciously (and—to be authentic—continually) rationalize his misdeeds.

In stories I’ve written, based mostly on people I’ve actually known, the rationalization often turns out to be the most interesting aspect of the work. This is because many times humans don’t just want to convince themselves and others that some unkind or unfair thing that they’ve done isn’t really so bad after all, or should be excused because of some extenuating circumstance. People often rationalize their behavior all the way from bad to good; even from positively evil to virtuous.

Take, for example, an elderly aunt of my mother’s, now long dead. According to Mom, this woman’s perennial state of simmering rage was likely genetic. She was apparently just born hating the world. But after being raised in the same tepidly Methodist household that produced my grandfather and several other perfectly normal people, Auntie embarked on a quest for a rationalization for her inner rage; which, after some early experiments with radical—really radical—politics, eventually led her to a small church which preached that to hate your neighbor was a sure sign of Salvation. Like the members of Westboro Baptist, the innate anger of the members of Auntie’s church was righteous anger; and intolerance of not only the sin, but the sinner, too, was virtuous and good. Everybody who ever met her disliked her; but Auntie was—in her own mind, at least—sure of Heaven.

I’m seeing the same thing in certain Trump supporters. For years, some of the ones I know personally kept their bigotry and sexism quiet (at least in public), though the rest of us were all more or less aware of what they really thought. Then along came the Trumpkins, relabeling political correctness (otherwise known as an effort to screen overtly racist and blatantly hurtful language from public discourse) as hypocrisy; and bad manners and aggressive self-promotion as authenticity. Some Trump supporters are simply delighted—beyond delighted—to see hatefulness and prejudice redefined as “virtues”, because they like to be virtuous as much as anybody. Now, without having had to abate their hate and prejudice in the least, they can tell themselves that they—like Auntie—are so full of virtue that they’re sure of Heaven or at least a tax cut.

Of course, the problem Auntie had with being actively disliked is a problem for some Trump supporters I know, too. And if I were writing them in a piece of fiction, they would definitely see very soon that real virtue, practiced properly, doesn’t alienate you from your friends and relatives. In the meantime, I’m getting a lot of good information on how to write about families torn apart and old friendships destroyed by ideology, which is useful, I suppose; though sad. It remains to be seen whether I’ll also one day be provided with many examples of happy reconciliations and tearful resolves to try, in future, to come to some better understanding.

Age of Innocence?

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A few days ago I was telling a writer friend about a story I was working on, in which the protagonist was a child growing up in the 1920s—an era I characterized as more “innocent” than our own. My friend objected. People weren’t more innocent then, she asserted. They were just more hypocritical about pretending to be innocent. Neither of us had any data to support our positions, but I did offer this anecdote (which I did not include in my story, by the way).

In 1924, my maternal grandfather was employed by the railroad, and one of the perks of the job (it may have been the only perk) was that he got free rail passes. They were for travel anywhere in the US; but only for the “day-car,” meaning seats, not berths, and they didn’t cover food, of course. But unlike most married women of her day, my grandmother had a part-time job. She supervised a team of women—mostly housewives like herself—who supplied fancy-work to order for Marshall Field’s department store. My grandmother spent the money she got for teaching the women to make beaded purses and embroidered baby layettes to bankroll a family trip to relatives in California.

Even with rail passes and my grandmother’s savings, the five-day journey was an extravagance, and economies had to be made. My grandmother packed a basket with enough food to last the first two days (the diner, my mother always remembered, charged the shocking price of ten cents for a single boiled egg in the days when a dozen eggs cost twelve cents at the grocery store). For the first night, my grandparents and my mother’s baby sister shared a berth (it must have been snug), while my mother and her older sister were supposed to sleep stretched out on seats in the day-car. (On subsequent nights the family would be able to afford two berths, because one day out of Chicago, ridership on the train diminished, and the price went down.)

The train left Chicago at dinnertime, and at ten o’clock the family went to bed. The day-car was still fairly crowded, but luckily my mother and her sister each got a seat to herself—though not, as they had anticipated, facing one another. Instead, my mother was on one side of the aisle, and my aunt on the other.

And on the seat facing my aunt was a man. He was already asleep, with his arms folded and his hat pulled over his face.

Next morning at breakfast, my aunt looked terrible. Eyes ringed with blue, she could hardly hold her head up. When my grandmother questioned her, she admitted, shamefaced, that she hadn’t gotten a wink the night before; but wouldn’t say why until her mother—probably fearing the worst—took her aside. In private, it all came out: The man in the seat opposite had slept soundly, never stirring—but the only “fact of life” my aunt knew was that if a girl slept with a man, she might have a baby. My aunt was eleven years old.

My writer friend and I eventually compromised on our positions: She agreed that there was a time in human history when the so-called “innocence” of young people was more “protected,” and I conceded that this era was very short (the approximately one hundred years or so between the time when ubiquitous barnyards ensured that the means of mammalian reproduction was on regular display, and the time when popular media took over that function).

On the other hand, we weren’t able agree on whether this kind of “protection” was a good thing or not. My friend did find the story hilarious, however. She said I should use it some time.

So now I have.


Image by Charles O’Rear, 1941-, Photographer (NARA record: 3403717) (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Ant-Lands — Free for the Holidays!

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You’re probably bored by now, right?  Too much holiday cheer; too little time to yourself?  Here’s a thought:  Read a book.  My book.  In honor of the holidays, you can download a free copy of my post-apocalyptic novel, Ant-Lands, from now through January 10, 2017. Go to Smashwords and use this coupon code: ZJ72E

You may enjoy it. Let me know if you do.

Here’s the blurb on on Ant-lands.  Keep in mind that I HATE writing these things: Centuries after civilization was destroyed by genetically engineered workers called Ants, a small girl, victim of an Ant-raid, is rescued by a melancholic soldier; while in a town nearby, a schoolteacher struggles to build a new life. A horrifying revelation uncovers an unexpected bond between the three, which—provided they work together—may at last make it possible to defeat their common enemy.

And here is the first chapter:

on a night of no moon

A woman lay fully dressed on a straw-stuffed pallet on the floor of her hut in a tiny farming settlement and stared into the darkness of its single, dirt-floored room. Beside her, her small daughter was sleeping curled up like a kitten with her doll in her arms, but the mother lay rigidly alert to every soft night-sound. Life in the village of a dozen or so sod huts and barns was generally promising and secure. The early spring weather was pleasant and dry; the crops were greening the fields; and the Ants in the Ant-lands—as the woman reminded herself—were said to be going about their work nearly naked and wholly unshod.

This reassured her. Men who had nothing, having nothing to lose, might be driven by desperation to acts of aggression. But Ants judged that the time was right to make war on their neighbors when the harvests had been sufficient to feed workers to ret flax and weave linen for clothes, and cattle were plentiful enough that there were hides available to make shoes. A bare, hungry Ant worked passively all day in his colony’s fields, and Men in their own countries had nothing to fear from him.

The Ants were not insects, of course, despite their name. In fact, it was said that very long ago they had been man’s own creation, made to labor for him. Physically, they resembled man; though the Ancients had by some means no longer understood made every Ant entirely like every other one, so that all were identically short-statured, blue-eyed, and fair. But in that past age something had somehow gone desperately wrong; and man’s creation (made in his image), was now man’s feared enemy.

It was because the night was one of no moon that the woman was afraid. The watch in the watch-tower had been doubled, of course; but if one pair of eyes could make out nothing in the blackness, twice nothing was no improvement. In another hour or two, perhaps (she had no clock to tell her how many), the sun would rise and all would be well again. But while the dark persisted the mother lay without sleeping, and almost without breathing. She knew that the villagers were so few that their only hope in the event of an Ant-raid lay in the Ants finding them wide awake and forearmed.

A sound outside the shuttered window: A footstep. An early-rising neighbor? The woman sat up, and willed her heart to beat more softly so that she could hear. No second step followed the first, and she had lain down again and drawn a breath of relief when the unmistakable metallic whisper of a knife being drawn from a sheath brought her bolt upright again. More footsteps, a grunt, and the jostle of one body against another; and then a sound like heavy raindrops pelting to earth. When a head is struck from a body the heart does not immediately know to stop pumping, and blood spurts from the severed neck in a gory fountain. The sound was that of great gouts of a watchman’s blood falling from the watch-tower where the Ants had surprised him onto the ground below.

“Anne,” the woman whispered urgently, shaking the little girl awake. “Up, up.”

The child stumbled sleepily from the pallet. She knew instinctively not to speak.

Dragging the rough mattress aside, the woman felt for the hole dug in the earth beneath it.

Into her daughter’s ear she breathed softly, pushing her down into the cavity, “Here. Lie here: That’s right. Make yourself as small as you can.”

The child still clutched her doll. “Mama…” she whispered—just that one word.

Dawn was breaking at last—too late!—and mother and child could just see by it the gleam of one another’s eyes.

“Stay here, stay covered. No matter what happens, no matter what you hear, don’t move. All right? Not until you’re sure it’s safe.” But how would such a little one know? “I’ll come for you, if I can,” the woman whispered.

Another glint than her mother’s tear-bright eyes caught the little girl’s attention—that of the knife, a big one, in her mother’s hand.

The noises outside were growing louder and more frenzied. Gods! A child’s cry!

“Stay here, stay still; all right, Anne?”

The little girl nodded soberly.

A scrape at the door—

With a mother’s hungry eyes she devoured her child’s face one last time. “You must live,” she murmured, touching small Anne’s cheek. “You must try to live.”

The pallet in place again, the woman ran to the door and listened. She was waiting for the Ant who had tried it to move aside. She had already decided that she must not be taken inside the hut. She must get out somehow, clear of the door, and then run and run as hard as she could; and at last, when she was caught—she knew she would be caught—she must fight. Every step she ran led the Ants further from her child; every Ant that she tired by running was an Ant who would search the hut less carefully. And any Ant that she killed was an Ant who wouldn’t kill Anne.

In one swift movement, the woman threw aside the bar to the door and burst out.

She made it as far as the clearing surrounding the watch-tower, twenty steps or so from where her daughter lay shivering with fear, huddled in a hole in the ground with her doll in her arms. Eyes closed, the child kissed the doll’s face repeatedly, seeing in her mind as she did so her mother’s loved one—but she made not a sound. She was trying to live.

As she lay hugging her rag-baby, an Ant whose feet were bare and who wore only the ragged remains of what had once been a roughly-sewn shirt caught her mother by her long hair and flung her to the ground, and her mother, making good on her promise to herself, sprang up again slashing wildly with her knife.

She was not, in the end, able absolutely to kill the Ant. His own comrades performed that service for her later when the injuries she had inflicted festered, and he could no longer keep up with the common pace back to the Ant-lands. She fought him until another Ant, coming behind her, struck off her head with his great iron sword.

As soon as he had done so, both Ants immediately lost all interest in the woman. A dead Man was neither a threat nor plunder. As her body fell, Anne’s mother’s head rolled a little way, to the feet of another Ant. He kicked it casually aside.

Getting Started: The Journey of a Thousand Pages Begins with a Single Word—And the Delete Key

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I got a pleading e-mail from someone who is beginning her first novel and who—despite having known me for a long time and having read my work—imagined that I could help her. This is what she wrote:

“I suddenly realize that I don’t understand how to write fiction. If I put in all the details, it could be boring. If I gloss over everything, it’s a plot summary. There’s something in between the two extremes, but if I write the whole story in the in-between way, I think it’ll still be at least be 10x longer than it should be. So what do I leave out? Which parts should I write long, and which short?

“I’m not sure how to pick what order things should go in either. Is straight chronological too boring? Are flashbacks too artificial?

“Also, I don’t have a name for my protagonist.

“I haven’t started writing because I’m still debating with myself about these things. I also haven’t started writing because I don’t know how to start writing.

“The only advice I can find anywhere is ‘don’t do X’; but what should I do?”

Let me be perfectly up-front here: I don’t know the answers to these questions.

I can’t even say, “I only know what answers work for me,” because, honestly, I have no actual system that I use to decide long or short, detailed or spare, chronological or not. I don’t even have a system for picking names for my protagonists (although I wish I did).

But I do have this one little bit of advice:

If you have something written down—however unsatisfactory—you have something you can work on and revise into something you like better. You can revise it forever, in fact; though I don’t recommend this. (Sometimes you just have to move on and resolve to do better on your next book.) But you can’t revise what you haven’t written, so forget everything else and just get some sort of story down on paper. Make it as long as you like.  10x what it “should be” is actually just about right (every manuscript reads better after a thorough pruning, I find); but if the only way you can get the story down on paper is as a plot summary, then write a plot summary, and plan on gradually fleshing it out. Chronologies can always be changed; flashbacks introduced or eliminated; whole episodes and characters put in or taken out ad libitum. Just write. Do it; don’t think about it. Then re-write and re-write and re-write.

That’s almost all the advice I have.

I also have one handy writing tip, but it’s not actually my own. It’s something I got from my husband, the biochemist. He says that when a cell is about to synthesize a protein, it first secretes a “leader peptide,” whose function is to tell the cell where to direct the protein it’s about to make. A leader peptide is absolutely essential, but once its job is done, it’s immediately destroyed. By analogy, he destroys the “leader peptide” of every scientific paper he writes.

Having tried this in my own work, I can confirm that this tip works for fiction, too. Once you’ve begun writing in earnest, go back and delete the first paragraph you wrote—if not the first page or even the whole first chapter. This is the secret to a punchy beginning.

But mainly—just write. Just sit down and write. Do it now; today.

Tomorrow you can figure out what to name the protagonist.