Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Snippet #2

Another snippet from "Bella Diana." Just this morning, Diana assassinated former Guard commander Strecker while he was on his way to lay flowers on his childhood sweetheart's grave. Diana always thought killing the man who had killed her family would make her feel better. . .

That afternoon Will settled in for a nap. Grateful for a little unstructured time, Diana saddled her horse and slipped away before anyone could give much thought to what her plans might be.

She rode through the outskirts of town, winding her way to the cemetery road on the same route she had taken that morning. As she approached the rise where she had shot Strecker, she reined in and scanned the weeds at the side of the road. From time to time her gaze drifted toward the shack where she had lain in wait that morning, as if the ghost of an assassin might be watching her. She shrugged off the feeling and kept looking. Finally her eyes lit on a patch of red hidden in a clump of sage behind a chunk of broken concrete. She fished around in the weeds and pulled out a bouquet of roses.

She brushed off the dust and disentangled bits of dry grass from the stems, careful to avoid the thorns. Then she got back on her horse and followed the road to where it terminated in a series of plastered adobe posts. The metal rails and gate had long ago been sold for scrap, and wood was too precious as fuel to be used for fencing, so an improvised fence had been made by stringing rope made from the tough fibers of the yucca plant.

There was no gate, so Diana walked her horse through. It was her first time in a cemetery since she had buried her family, but this valley graveyard was not unlike the one that sat atop a low hill near her Valley Redondo home. Spanish in character, in spite of the many Anglo names on the headstones, it was colorful with paper flowers and small offerings, pious with crosses and plaster virgins. Rosaries were draped over some of the markers, dull and cracked after years of exposure to the elements.

Uncertain where she was going, Diana dismounted, tethered her horse to a particularly ornate monument, and began walking the rows. Some of the stones were hand-carved, the inscriptions informal and misshapen. Others had been inscribed by machine and had the cold, efficient look of the early years of the century. Many markers had no names at all, and Diana began to fear she wouldn't find the stone she sought.

But finally she located it, and immediately wondered how she could have overlooked it, bedecked as it was with flowers, statuary and other colorful offerings. Although the marker was not large, it was polished to a high gloss and neatly lettered: Jacinta Matute Evans. Behind an oval of glass, Diana could make out the fading image of a pretty, dark-haired girl. She looked like a cheerful sort, the type of girl who found a lot to laugh about. So why would she have ratted out a hoarder— someone who only wanted to survive these crazy times, just as she had surely hoped to?

Diana set the roses in a vase of water in front of the picture, removing a bunch of yellow flowers that appeared to have been placed just a day or two before. She laid the old flowers near several other bouquets, all drying in the sun beside little statues of madonnas and friendly-looking woodland creatures. Some envelopes weighted with rocks intrigued her, and Diana selected one at random. The letter inside startled her in its ordinariness, as of a man writing to a living woman he expected to see in a day or two. With a puzzled frown, she placed it back under the rock. She looked at the vast open space all around, then returned her gaze to the smiling girl on the headstone. "Don't tell me he was just a man."

The thoughts that had eluded her that morning washed over her— memories of soldiers herding her family's animals into transport trucks, men setting her home ablaze. She remembered her grandfather tackled and beaten as he ran for the house, her mother dragged away and shot on Strecker's orders. Diana had wanted to go to her, Strecker be damned, but Will had held her close, clamping his hand over her mouth to keep her from screaming. She had fought Will so hard it was weeks before the last of the bruises faded. But he had saved her from her own worst instincts, and when Strecker and his men departed, he took her to Amalia.

Every twisted thing in her life: this crazy career of killing, the hateful parasite growing inside her, and her half-incestuous marriage, could be traced back to that one March day. Diana glared at Jacinta's headstone. "Didn't you realize all the trouble one mistake can cause?" She kicked at a ceramic fawn. "We're so stupid. All of us."

With the image of forever-cheerful Jacinta burning in her mind, Diana walked back up the path. The sun was starting to go down, casting blue shadows among the graves. Time seemed to hold its breath as the wind rustled the paper flowers and blew dust to cover the dead. Diana shook herself, grabbed her horse's reins and swung herself into the saddle.

Saturday, February 24, 2007


This is from the WIP tentatively titled "Bella Diana," which is the sequel to "Tin Soldier" (available by request on my permission-only blog) and the prequel to the "Diana's Diary" blog.

Finally there came a day when they found themselves on the outskirts of a ruined city. There had been fighting here, as tribes from the reservations battled for control of the deserted suburbs. Homes and businesses lay in blackened ruins, and the structures that remained were falling apart, pock-marked with bullets and shrapnel.

Will reined in his horse and looked around. "Estrella is on the far side of those mountains up ahead. Going around this town will take a whole extra day, and may not be any safer than cutting through."

Diana sighed. The green of the mountains was inviting. It would be cool up there, and she longed to see Amalia and rest in a bed of her own. "I'm not afraid to cut through town."

Will looked at her belly, which seemed bigger with each passing day. "I won't let you put yourself in danger."

"I can manage."

"Your balance is all thrown off."

"I'm trying to think of it as a counterweight."

Will turned to Coyote. "What do you think?"

Coyote shook his head. "Nothing. I've been picking up a lot of interference lately."

"Interference? I thought you told me you weren't a radio."

"I'm not. It's just a conversation I listen to. And lately they've been saying the same damn thing over and over." He darted a glance at Diana. "But she's in no danger here."

"What about the rest of us?"

"We take our chances."

Will moved his horse out in front, Diana behind him, with Macy and Coyote bringing up the rear. They were on the remains of the old state highway, the asphalt nearly buried under blowing sand. The highway gradually became a business road, flanked on either side by decrepit hotels and caved-in shopping centers.

"Look at all the pretty plastic!" Macy pointed to the remains of broken signs.

Coyote looked and shrugged. "It's just old oil that would've been better used fueling a train."

"It's the colors I like. They're so bright, and they never seem to fade. They'd make great jewelry."

"Too brittle," Diana said. "You wouldn't be able to shape them."

"I bet there's a way." Macy lapsed into a pensive silence.

They continued without speaking, the wind blowing trash, tumbleweeds and the remains of dead electrical lines across their path. It seemed the entire suburban region was uninhabited, although scraps of old bedding and the charcoal remains of cooking fires suggested someone had tried to live in these abandoned structures for awhile.

"I wonder what drove them out," Coyote said.

Diana looked around. "No water."

Near the center of town the buildings were older, with thicker walls, and windows placed to let the breezes flow through. Trees grew here, indicating that a river flowed nearby. And here too, were the people. Children and dogs saw them first, rushing forward in a shouting, yapping horde. Diana tightened her hands on the reins, but her friends had all been street urchins once and shooed the kids away without a second thought. "Go on, we ain't got nothing. We're hungry, too."

Friday, February 23, 2007

Critiquing More Than Just Books

Dan and I went to see a play tonight and I was struck by how my work on writing technique has affected my ability to enjoy a performance. I kept noticing things like:

• Too much backstory.
• Too much repetition of thoughts and ideas. Make the point and move on, don't keep returning to it over and over!
• Lots of clever wordplay that exists only to be clever and doesn’t advance the plot.
• Not enough action—most of the first act took place on a bus, with everyone just sitting and talking.
• Little subplots that went nowhere and were a distraction. Why should we care if one of the characters was once a fifteen year-old harlot, if it has no bearing on the theme or plot?

In sum, I was disappointed in the play, although not by the performances, which were fantastic.

As a writer, I expect my enjoyment of books to be affected by critquing other writers' style and technique. But I hadn’t thought that it would affect how I react to plays and performances as well.

I wonder if other writers experience the same thing?

Monday, February 19, 2007

Diana’s Diary: Lessons Learned

When I first set out to give Diana a blog, it was mostly to shut her up. She had fought me all through my novel, insisting on plot changes I had never envisioned. And then at the end, she still wasn’t satisfied. I couldn’t continue the trilogy with her pestering me, so I gave her a diary and told her to have at it.

Did she ever! Five months and more than 215,000 words later, she has won. I’m exhausted.

My first fateful decision, after giving Diana the blog in the first place, was committing to daily postings. Not only did I decide to post every day, but I decided that the posts would have a one-to-one correlation with the days of her journey. A few minutes with a map and a calculator would’ve told me that this was a bad idea, but I was caught up in the challenge and didn’t really think I would finish the project, anyway. It was just a writing experiment.

The fact that it was never intended to resemble a novel is obvious from the way it wanders and contains some internal inconsistencies. There is also no main plot arc, as far as I can tell. Maybe time and distance will make me see one where I didn’t realize one existed, but for now, I feel like I just rambled along.

It’s been a fun ramble, though.

Most nights when I sat down at the computer, I had no idea what was going to happen. I had only a map, my vacation photos, and the previous night’s posting to guide me, and to my surprise, they often proved sufficient inspiration.

The photos were especially helpful. Sometimes they gave me an idea for something to happen, like when I used photos from a train and trolley museum to illustrate the stalled train where Diana met her “afternoon boyfriend” Gilbert. And sometimes they provided Diana with destinations, like my photos of Oklahoma and Texas Panhandle ghost towns. Other times, the photos became the plot device for the day, such as when Diana happened upon the City of Rocks, near Deming.

Photoshopping the pictures often took a lot of time. At the beginning, my skills were nonexistent. I’m still learning, but I’ve gotten a lot better. I’ll probably go back through my earlier pictures and fix them up, now that I know a little more about what I’m doing. But even at the end of the project, most photos required some touching up, and this added as much as an hour to each night’s work. But that was an improvement over the first months, when pictures could easily add two or three hours.

I’ve grown a lot as a writer from this exercise. When I started out, I couldn’t write until my husband was in bed and the house completely quiet. By the final month, sleep deprivation made a virtue of necessity and I found that yes, I could begin writing while Dan was playing his guitar or puttering in the next room. In fact, I had to. I was up many nights until 3:00 am, writing, editing, photoshopping, posting, and doing final edits. I had no choice but to start as early as I could.

Another thing I’ve learned from this exercise is patience. When each post equals a single day, there can be no glossing over a week’s worth of dull travel, or even a week’s worth of not-so-dull travel. If I felt like Diana needed to spend a couple days lost in the woods in the rain, I had to write about each day of it and try to find a way to make it sound interesting. If Diana was sick and delirious, I had to find a way to describe that too, in her own words, and in a way that was convincing. There could be no jumping ahead to the good bits that would be easy to write. I had to learn to write what was hard, instead of only writing what came easily.

There were only two occasions where I didn’t do a “real” post: the day in the narrative when Diana’s friend Ishkin died (I figured Diana would’ve been too upset to write much), and the day when I was too sick to write, which fortunately corresponded with another day when the narrative gave me an out, allowing me to write an abbreviated post and pick up the story again the next day.

This project has taught me to put my work out there and not be shy. I’m often embarrassed to post fiction that I’ve edited for months or even years, and here I was posting stuff that was barely out of a second-pass edit done at a bleary-eyed 2:30 in the morning. Consequently, I didn’t do much to attract blog traffic at first. I wanted people to read it, but I was deeply afraid that it was no good and reflected poorly on me.

With time, I got over a lot of my shyness. You don’t put in 3-5 hours of work each and every night for five months and not start hoping someone out there is enjoying it. Most of the time I had no idea if I had regular readers. I wanted to preserve as much of a non-tech look as I could get away with on the diary blog, so a visible stat counter was out of the question. It was only in the last couple of weeks that I discovered some free invisible counters that told me that I do, in fact, have quite a number of regular readers.

Thanks for being there! This project would've been worth my while anyway, but you've made me happy just by checking in!

In sum, this has been a wonderful adventure—as much for me as it was for Diana. I’ve enjoyed having this alternate world to slip away to each night, full of interesting new people and places, where even I'm never quite sure what will happen next. But by the end of the journey, I think Diana and I were both suffering from a sense of “Aren’t we there yet?”

I’m going to be cleaning up the blog format a bit, making it easier to find the entries that I most enjoyed writing. Readers who picked up the story late in the game probably missed Diana’s urban adventures, the ghost town, her visit to her childhood home, and the plot she helped foil. Since Blogger doesn’t offer the formats that I want, I’ll have to create my own. Be sure to keep checking back, or put me on bloglines so you’ll know when the updates have been made!

I’ll continue to write about Diana’s adventures. She wouldn’t have it any other way. Derby Day is coming up, for example, and she’ll have a lot to say about it. But I won’t be posting nightly, thank goodness. I’ve got a lot of other creative projects I want to work on, some related to this one, some not. I’ll also try to do more with this writing blog, since writing is taking up more of my time and energy than it used to.

So that's it. Lessons learned. All of them good ones.

Go get some rest now, Diana. Aren’t you as tired as I am?

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