Category Archives: writing

Help Yourself

I admit it. When I was younger, I used to read self-help books. You know the kind, ones with titles like Women Who Hate Women Who Love Men Who Love Women Who Hate Cinderella. Back in the day, most self-help books were targeted at women who wanted to know why their love lives were train wrecks or why their psychological conditions were train wrecks. (Apparently, they didn’t consider that their psychological conditions might be train wrecks because their love lives were train wrecks. But I digress.)

Nowadays, most self-help books are written for business leaders – excuse me, entrepreneurs – and have titles like Give Yourself the Power to Lead Right Now With Powerful Leadership Secrets From the Early Etruscans. The rest are some modern-day versions of Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking, which I suspect the Early Etruscans knew something about too.

I don’t know much about business leadership except that I prefer managers who use a hands-off management style (for both business and interpersonal interactions). I also don’t know much about women’s love lives, except my own, which I don’t think would be appropriate for a self-help book. I do know a thing or two about psychological conditions and write about them every week in my other blog, Bipolar Me.

Nonetheless, I find myself in the perhaps-awkward position of writing self-help books in my guise as a ghostwriter. (Or disguise. I’m required by the company to use a pseudonym.) I haven’t tackled one on women’s love lives yet, but I have written a couple about life with pets, something kind of New-Agey about envisioning your future, and two sort of business-y ones about listening to your inner voice and setting boundaries. My latest endeavor, which I’m about to start working on, is a senior health book, about which I ought to know a bit more than I actually do.

Apparently, a lot of the books that people want to have written are some variety of self-help – parenting tips (titles like Why Your Teen Behaves Like a Teen and Why You Can’t Do Anything About It), investment advice (Become the Only Person in America Who Tries to Pay the Electric Bill With Cryptocurrency), and doomsday prepping (Apocalypse When? Build Your Own Bomb Shelter Using Wattle and Daub) being some of the most-asked-for topics. (Again, subjects about which I know nothing.) I put in requests for book projects with more mental health focus such as overcoming anxiety or dealing with your inner child. But no. I get inspirational titles.

I must admit, I hate inspirational books. If they’re not about succeeding in business without really getting a business degree, they’re about positivity.

What’s wrong with positivity? Well, first of all, it’s been hard for me to achieve for most of my life, seeing that I was diagnosed with depression for decades. I’ve never been perky and seldom gung-ho. In addition, I’ve always hated cheerleaders, both the pom-pom kind and the believe-in-yourself ones. I guess I just don’t believe it’s possible to think yourself to a better, more fulfilling life with daily affirmations that sound like something from Jonathan Livingston Seagull. (If I’m going to take advice from a bird, I’d rather it be a parrot. Although it could conceivably provide me with daily affirmations. But I digress again.)

In fact, I’ve been exploring self-help books that are about non-positivity (not that I’ve been asked to write any of that kind). But Barbara Ehrenreich, the noted author of Nickled and Dimed who died recently at the age of 81, wrote a book titled Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. Another such book, which I’m reading now, is The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman. (Ehrenreich also wrote a book called Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer, another one that I need to read, though probably not until I finish writing the self-health book.)

I sincerely do hope, though, that readers will get more out of the books I write than I did out of those that I read. I’d hate to think that all my good, if ill-informed, advice is going to waste.

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Ghostwriter Gigs

For the past several years, I have been working for a transcription service, typing up shareholders’ and lenders’ info sessions, conferences, and other sorts of gatherings to discuss primarily business issues.

With the slowing of the COVID pandemic and other factors, however, transcription assignments have been thin on the ground, or at least in the inbox.

Fortunately, I have discovered ghostwriting. Actually, I was applying to be an editor, not a ghostwriter. But I screwed up on the qualifying test. I’m a good editor, but I wasn’t used to their way of editing. When I was an editor in magazine publishing, I worked for a small company. We didn’t have lots of editors, subeditors, associate editors, assistant editors, acquisitions editors, line editors, content editors, proofreaders, or much of a budget for freelance writers. A simple editor had to do virtually all of it. And I was a simple editor.

So when I was faced with a sample text to edit, I did it the way I always had – I attacked all the problems I saw during my first editing pass, then went back to attack the rest of the problems – things I’d missed or that only became apparent on a second or third reading. Problems of flow, continuity, grammar, style, punctuation, and other arcane pieces of an editor’s craft were addressed in a somewhat random fashion.

What the company wanted, however, was a series of separate editorial steps – first (for some reason) spelling and punctuation, then moving upward through a series of other steps done in a certain order until all the editing was complete. I did my usual slash-and-burn editing, which didn’t at all mesh with their procedure. I was turned down.

But I noticed that the company also employed ghostwriters. “I’m a writer,” I said to myself. “I’ve written many an article that I didn’t develop myself on topics that I didn’t select. Why can’t I do that with a book?” This time I passed the trial assignment and became an actual ghostwriter. Then I went through the various processes associated with the position, such as selecting a pen name, creating a profile, choosing which niches I could write in, and so forth.

I expected to have to request orders and wait to be accepted, but almost immediately I received a request from a prospective customer. The book requested was on pets, which I know something about, but specifically on dogs, which I know little about. Some discussion ensued, but I was granted the assignment – 27,000 words, due in three weeks (the usual deadline given for a book of about 30,000 words). That works out to about 1,500 words a day, a number I could easily meet.

Then I got another assignment, a self-help book. The time period overlapped somewhat with the deadline for the pet book, but I took the assignment regardless. After all, 3,000 words a day would be a stretch, but since the overlap was only a week, I thought I could handle it.

While I was finishing up the first book and working on the second book, I sent out more requests for invitations to work on other books, thinking that it might take me a while to line up another assignment. That’s how I acquired my third assignment, which overlapped with the second one, with revisions on the first assignment thrown in. The third assignment was a self-help/business book on a subject I had written something about before in a blog. After some back-and-forth with the customer to make sure we meshed, I signed on for the assignment and the customer signed on for me.

I am finding the job rewarding, though not necessarily financially. The money isn’t great, only a few hundred dollars per book, but more than I ever made at transcription, even when the taps were open and the assignments flowing daily.

I’m writing nonfiction just now, but I think I’ll try taking the test for fiction ghostwriters too, just to give myself more options. I don’t have as much experience with writing fiction as I do with writing nonfiction, but I do have some. And I figure that being able to write both will make my services more marketable and keep the assignments coming in.

Will it be frustrating to see someone else’s name on a book that I actually authored? And not even my pen name at that? Other writers will know what I mean when I say that as long as they spell my name right on the check, I won’t mind. (Not that anyone pays by check anymore. So just so long as they deposit it to the right PayPal account, I’ll be satisfied.)

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Why Write?

I write something every week – this blog and my other one are proof of that. Altogether, I have posted over 800 times in my blogs. But why do I write? What motivates me to keep up this weekly grind? Why do I write?

First of all, it isn’t really a grind. Usually, I enjoy it. Then there’s the fact that I’ve written since I was a kid. I started writing poetry in grade school and continued through my early college years. That was when my poetry started sounding more like nonfiction, so I let my muse lead me in that direction. There I have stayed (mostly) ever since, with only occasional forays into fiction or back into poetry.

I’ve examined my motives and come up with a couple of theories about why I write, or at least why I write what I write. Here’s what I’ve learned so far – along with a few examples of each.

I write to inform.

Most of this kind of writing takes place in my Bipolar Me blog (bipolarme.blog). I have bipolar disorder. Sharing my experiences and perceptions of it are one of the main reasons I write. I hope that my blog readers learn something about bipolar and how it affects them and their friends or family. In fact, I write about bipolar to inform myself about bipolar disorder and about myself. Sometimes I have to do research on topics such as mental illness and homeless or substance use disorders. I’ve done interviews and reviewed books on mental illness topics. Other times I rely on my own feelings, my own accounts of medication and therapy, my own relationships.

I write to amuse.

I used to feel that comedy was dead because people just retold the same jokes they heard on Saturday Night Live. I still feel a little that way when I see people on Facebook passing along the same memes (though I am guilty of it too). But I have so many friends that add their own content – jokes and puns, humorous songs – that I no longer have that fear. I tell my husband the jokes I read online (mostly awful puns) and he tells them to people at work, so at least they are being released into the world IRL, as they say.

The world is funny. I like to write essays about the goofy things my husband or my cats do. They amuse me, so I like to pass on the amusement. This is why I end up sharing some of my writing on the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop Attendees Facebook group.

I write to release my inner demons.

This is why I still write poetry and fiction from time to time. I wrote a novel full of inner demons, but they were never released into the world because the novel was never published. The demons are now circling around, just waiting to be resurrected into another novel.

(The poetry I write is no longer free verse (aka “playing tennis without a net”). I’ve been experimenting with more structured forms such as haiku, sonnets, and villanelles. They haven’t been terribly successful yet. At least I’m trying (sometimes very trying, my husband notes). But I digress.)

I write to vent.

Sometimes I just can’t help it. There are so many things going on in the world that are high-blood-pressure events that I am forced to let off some of those arterial constrictions with rants. Among the topics that get me going are politics (of course), education (which I love, but not how it’s practiced in the US right now), and inequities of all stripes (including mental health treatment). I try to avoid the most contentious of topics, but sometimes just can’t help myself. I sound like a cranky old fart telling kids to get off my lawn or yelling at clouds.

I write to explore.

I love reading books about exploration – climbing Mt. Everest (which I now know is also called Chomolungma, thanks to reading about it), shipwrecks, and Antarctic expeditions, for example. I know I will never experience any of these things personally, but I can’t help but be curious about them anyway.

I also love to explore the world of books themselves – writing them, improving them, reading them, dipping into young adult or children’s books, or following trends in publishing. It’s my passion and I have to share that.

Anyway, here are some of the things I’ve written in the various categories.

To inform

Regarding language: https://butidigress.blog/2016/12/02/lets-talk-policing-womens-voices/

About early childhood : https://butidigress.blog/2018/09/16/early-childhood-education-then-and-now/

About bipolar disorder: https://butidigress.blog/2015/12/13/the-other-bipolar-disorder/

To amuse

Here’s a true holiday story: https://butidigress.blog/2016/11/20/the-great-thanksgiving-ratatouille/

Of cats and men: https://butidigress.blog/2020/08/02/magical-magnetic-noses/

Universal laws: https://butidigress.blog/2020/07/19/gravity-is-not-my-friend/

To release inner demons

Poetry: https://butidigress.blog/2015/12/11/poetry-keeps-knocking/

Poetry about bipolar disorder: https://bipolarme.blog/2015/05/24/haiku-cycle/

To vent

Children and politics: https://butidigress.blog/2016/08/28/hungry-children-a-one-act-play/ (also https://butidigress.blog/2018/06/10/satanic-panic-and-politics-in-america/)

Education: https://butidigress.blog/2018/05/27/why-a-national-curriculum-makes-sense/

Societal change: https://butidigress.blog/2018/02/25/school-shootings-and-the-tipping-point/

To explore

Romance novels: https://butidigress.blog/2017/03/26/romancing-the-body/

Food: https://butidigress.blog/2021/05/23/bacon-eggs-and-salt/

Language: https://butidigress.blog/2015/02/18/language-police-and-the-grammar-nazis-2/

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The Wacky World of Proofreading

I’ve done a lot of proofreading in my life. I’ve worked as a writer-proofreader-editor for a small publishing company – so small that I sometimes had to fill all those functions to get an issue out. I’ve bartered proofreading academic papers for someone who offered guitar lessons in exchange. And, God help me, I’ve had to proofread my own work, which is by far the worst kind of proofing.

Now I’ve entered into an entirely new version of the practice.

It started like this.

While working on my novel (still unpublished), I needed a gig to make a little money (very little money, as it turned out). So I turned to a transcription service. This company did not transcribe medical dictation or court cases, as many think when they first hear the term. Rather, it involved transcribing mostly business meetings and occasionally interviews or podcasts. As you might guess, when the pandemic hit, business picked up because so many businesses were teleconferencing rather than talking in person. In fact, I wast kept quite busy four days a week, and sometimes extra jobs on the weekends or holidays if there was additional work that needed doing.

(When I talk about this, people sometimes think that it sounds terribly interesting. It isn’t. I hated business meetings and conferences when I had to attend them, let alone listen to them over and over as I transcribed audio files. I privately gave awards for “the world’s longest run-on sentence,” “the most ‘you knows’ and ‘I means,'” and so forth. But I digress.)

Of course, the company employed proofreaders, too, to check the work that the typists had done. But typing paid more per minute of audio than proofreading did, so despite my truly crappy typing, I signed on as a typist. (I never took typing in high school, and back then, they didn’t have keyboarding. Typing was considered a “business” or “secretarial” course at the time, and I was on the college track. Entering college as an English major, I soon learned the error of that way of thinking. English majors are required to write – and, of course, type – dozens of papers per semester. But I digress. Again.)

Two phenomena threw the typing arrangement into disarray. First was the (perhaps ill-advised) resumption of in-person business meetings. The other was the progress made in AI audio dictation software. I once used a dictation function to transcribe an interview that I did. The output was mediocre at best.

Dictation transcription software was supposed to have gotten better since the early days. And I suppose it has – but not enough to make proofreading obsolete, for which I am profoundly grateful.

What I do now is listen to the audio and edit the computer-transcribed version. It’s really editing, but they still call it proofreading.

And – wouldn’t you know? – all those run-on sentences and “you knows” and “I means” are still in there and need taking out. There are speaker names and company names that the AI attempted to spell phonetically that I need to look up and correct. There are passages from speakers with a foreign accent that aren’t transcribed even close to what the speakers said. The paragraphing is dubious and the punctuation appalling. Once, the software even transcribed “yearend” as “urine.”

All told, it doesn’t take me quite as long as typing it would have, but I usually need to do a first proofing pass and then one or two proofing-proofing passes.

It’s a drag. It still beats proofreading my own writing, though.

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Weird Travels: Jamaica

I’ve traveled to a lot of places in my life, some usual and some at least a little weird. For example, while in London I went to 221B Baker Street to take a tour of the Sherlock Holmes museum. (The top floor had an ornate porcelain toilet that looked like Wedgewood.) And I took Donald Rumbelow’s Jack the Ripper evening walk.

But that’s far from the weirdest, which was probably Jamaica. Actually, it was supposed to be Haiti. My boss was sending me there to report on the work of a charitable organization called “Food for the Poor” that, well, gave food to the poor in the Caribbean.

There was political unrest in Haiti at the time (as there frequently is). Someone (or ones) were shooting presidential candidates. I wasn’t too worried, as I can by no means be mistaken for a presidential candidate. Then they started shooting journalists. Yikes! It was time for me to bail.

Bailing became unnecessary when the destination was changed to Jamaica. This was not to be a tour of the beaches and villas, however. No, this was the poverty tour. (There’s plenty of hungry poor in Jamaica as much as in Haiti.)

When I (and the other journalists) arrived, we were treated to a swank dinner at the hotel we would all be staying at, and told when our wake-up call would be. (Too damn early. It was too damn early every morning.)

We toured a school. It was a little unnerving, but dozens of second-graders swarmed out to greet us with cheerful greetings and insistent hugs around our legs and waists. We went to a church mission, where we learned statistics on poverty in Jamaica. We went to projects where Jamaicans were making handicrafts to sell. I bought a handwoven set of placemats, though they didn’t match my kitchen’s color scheme.

In the evenings, we retired to our hotel, too tired to do anything but sit at the bar by the pool and have a Red Stripe beer. In fact, sometimes I got so tired from the day’s work that I couldn’t even write. I’d try to write an “f” and it would come out “t.” I got leg cramps from all the walking we did.

Still, there was no opportunity to feel sorry for myself. We went to a huge garbage dump, where many people lived. There were only a couple of pipes where you could get water amid the acres of trash. People lived on the things that were thrown away from swank dinners like we had been served – leftovers, cloth napkins, a fork. A knife was a particularly prized find. There was a small stand amid the garbage where local inhabitants sold a few scavenged goods to their fellows. I asked for a soft drink, which they did have a bottle of. The proprietors huddled for a minute, wondering what price they should put on it. They eventually settled on $2 American, which I paid gladly but sadly.

Another day, we went to a project where people went to develop marketable skills, such as sewing. There was a singing and dancing group. Then they served us lunch, which was, of course, impossible to refuse. It was a stew of curried goat. I can report that the taste and texture were like a heavily curried pot roast. Actually, not bad.

The most unusual place that we visited, however, was a leper colony. Yes, with actual lepers. We were reassured that they did not have active infections, though it was apparent that many of them had lost limbs to the affliction (now called Hansen’s Disease). There was singing of hymns, accompanied by a guitar played by a man with three fingers. I lingered a moment and asked if they could play a local tune. Suddenly, the people’s voices lifted in a rollicking song with more decibels and life than the hymns had. I asked if there was anything they wanted, what would it be. The workers wanted a new washing machine. The guitarist wanted new strings.

On our last night there, we journalists all drank our Red Stripes and discussed what we would take away from the experience, which was largely more awareness on how the desperately poor lived. A couple of the journalists stayed on for a few days to explore the beaches.

When I got home, I wrote my article, which was a major flop. Despite the fact that it appeared in a religious magazine, it solicited few funds for the charity, which had been the point of the tour in the first place. But I still have hope that the article opened a few eyes, as it had opened mine.

Thinking Inside the Box

I know that great pride is taken by many people for coloring outside the lines and thinking outside the box. But what if this isn’t possible?

Let’s face it – in real life there are lines we can’t break and boxes we can’t get out of. You may think that this stifles creative thinking and artistic expression and so on, but the fact is it doesn’t have to.

Take arts, crafts, music, and writing. You can do all these things for yourself and break all the rules you want to. Don’t use complementary colors! Start a sentence with a conjunction! Go wild!

But often there are constraints on your creativity – when you have a client to please or a style guide you must follow. Rules and boundaries – well, abound.

In these blog posts, I can do pretty much what I want to. End a sentence with a preposition, as I just did. A purist may cringe, but that’s just too bad. If he or she wants to stop reading my blog because I’ve broken the grammatical rules, so be it.

However, in my life, I’ve encountered situations where I couldn’t just do as I pleased. The best example is when I worked for magazine- and book-publishing companies. I had to write what they told me to write and how to write it. Word limits, and cutting prose to fit the word limits, and cutting it again if someone wanted to enlarge the picture on the page. There was no thinking outside the box there, except perhaps seeing if removing a single word would bring up a line and make the paragraph shorter. Do that enough times and you have gained space for the picture of a castle or whatever.

Writing textbooks for children was the worst. There was something called a “scope and sequence chart” which dictated in what order things were to be taught, what they were, and how many times they had to be used. For example, a lesson might cover the consonant blends “tr” and “gr,” and they had to be used two times in each paragraph. Add to that that it had to be a paragraph of 200 words or fewer, and must be written at a second-grade reading level, as measured by a computer.

Think outside that box! I dare you.

But boxes aren’t really boxes if you think about it. You can draw a four-sided box on a piece of paper, but when you get a box from Amazon or eBay, it’s really a cube or a three-dimensional rectangular object. Inside of that, there’s plenty of space to play around.

I think that most situations in life are more like a cube than a four-line box on flat paper. Even in a box on paper, you can always draw something wonderful inside the box instead of just coloring it in one color. There are many dimensions and directions you can go, even if there are constraints in some directions.

To use my example above, I can write a paragraph about a monkey in a tree that grabs food from a tiger’s grip if it tries quickly. Or I can write about a grandmother who grows plants and tries to trap rabbits before they eat them. The ideas are mine, even if they have to be shaped to fit the box.

(And boy, are some instructions complex! I once had to make up an original story based on some existing pictures that had already had another story written about them. I could change the order of the pictures, but not the pictures themselves. And the plot of the story had to be completely new. But I digress.)

I think the most useful kind of thinking is lateral thinking, and that can be done even inside a box. Stop thinking about choosing A or B, and consider C, even if it comes from “out of left field.” Turn the box on its corner and you gain a whole new perspective.

Sometimes you don’t have to break the rules that keep you in a box. Sometimes it helps to look at the rules – and the box – differently instead. It’s an intellectual puzzle – to create something beautiful that’s still inside the box. It’s what sonnets are made of, if you think about it.

Scheduling Rejection

I’m a writer and right now I have a book manuscript floating around the Internet, looking for an agent. Which means, of course, that I’m collecting a lot of rejection slips (emails, really).

A lot of books and articles and blog posts purport to teach you how to deal with rejection, usually by telling you about famous authors whose novels were rejected any number of times before they were accepted. This doesn’t cheer me up or comfort me any, as all I can say is, “Well, I have way more rejections than J.D. Salinger ever did.” It’s a competition I don’t care to win.

Instead, I have decided to schedule my rejections, so that they come in a little more slowly and I can handle them, psychologically. To me, at least, getting a few rejections at a time is better than getting hundreds all at once. That would truly drive me into depression and immobility.

Actually, no one gets hundreds of rejections. Most agents have a policy of “no response means no.” This means that many of my query letters, writing samples, and submissions are lost in limbo – not a yes, not a no, just nothing. (Yes, I know the Catholic Church has given up on Limbo as a Thing. That doesn’t make my metaphor any less appropriate. But I digress.)

So, here’s my schedule: Every day I send out queries – but only three. That’s just the basics, though. Every time a get a rejection email, I cross that agency off my master list of queries sent, and I send an extra query that day. And add it to the master list, of course. The master list also contains the date the query was sent and the name of the specific agent it was addressed to, as well as the agency.

When I say “cross that agency off,” I mean it literally – I don’t delete it from the list. (Strikethrough is a function I use often in Word.) The info remains encoded in ones and in zeros. It’s just that I can’t remember the names of all the places I’ve queried. So whenever I find another potential agent, I use “Find” to see if I have sent to them, been rejected by them, or whatever. (I know there are apps like Query Tracker and just any old database that would do this for me, but I stubbornly stick to my low-tech version.)

I also use the list to keep track of any additional notes: “Closed to queries until March 1st.  Try again then.” Or “Re-query in eight weeks.” (That one’s a rarity.)

I must admit that I am running low on agents to query. I don’t think I’ve contacted every available agent in the US, but I’m having a hard time finding lists of agents who are willing to consider mysteries or lists that contain a number of agents to whom I haven’t already submitted.

I have received one semi-positive response – one agent wanted to see a copy of the whole manuscript. And another rejection email – one that I considered a good one – said that I could try them again when I had another project. Although if they didn’t want the first one, I don’t know why they’d want the sequel, which is what I’m now writing.

Maybe I should take on a different project altogether. I don’t really love the genres, but maybe a cozy mystery (if only I could think up a suitable career for the “detective” to have and a, well, cozy setting). Or a romance, though I wouldn’t be able to use my own experience to base it on. I haven’t had a “meet cute” since I met my husband, mumblemumble years ago, introduced by mutual friends at a folk festival.

Actually, what I’m working on is a sequel to the mystery novel I’ve been sending around. My theory is that publishing companies like series more than they like stand-alone novels. Or maybe I should resurrect my early attempt at a mystery novel in which I killed off my rotten-ex-boyfriend-who-almost-ruined-my-life. If that doesn’t make me feel better, I’ll kill him off again in the sequel.

 

 

Missing My Friend

Last week I received an answer to a query. An agent I had contacted about my mystery novel had asked to review my complete manuscript.

My first thought was, “I have to tell Robbin about this!” But I couldn’t.

No, Robbin doesn’t have COVID and she isn’t dead. But she had a severe stroke last month and is in a nursing home. I can’t visit her or even call her on the phone. 

Robbin has a limited range of motion on one side of her body. With the other hand, she keeps trying to pull out her trache tube, which has made her life a tennis match between hospital and nursing home. Hospital to insert the tube, and back to the nursing home until she pulls it out again. Evidently, the nursing home does not have personnel able to put in a trache.

Robbin’s daughter and husband have had “window visits” with her, and now Stu is allowed to visit her in person. Stu and Kelly phone me frequently to give me updates on her condition, though there isn’t really much to tell, except transfers to and from the hospital and occasional infections and fevers. The latest update was that they’re now treating her for pneumonia. None of it is in the least encouraging.

I fear I will never have my friend back again.

Robbin and I met when she applied for a temporary job at a publishing company where I was working. I remember seeing her credentials and editing test and thinking, “We’ve got a live one here!” She only worked at the company for a few months, but it was enough to bond us.

Robbin has been my partner in crime, my commiseration buddy, my writing cheerleader, and my test audience. We have compared notes on our mental and emotional states, bitched about our husbands, given each other gifts, talked for hours about everything or nothing much. We have crashed parties together. We have made rum balls together. (My contribution was to taste them and advise, “Needs more rum.”)

She has taken me shopping and dressed me up like her own personal Barbie. Until she came along, I didn’t know there were any colors other than beige, olive drab, and camo. She took my husband shopping too, when he needed a suit for his class reunion.

When a tornado destroyed our house and my husband and I were stuck in a Red Cross shelter, Robbin and Stu gave us a lift and the use of their credit card to get us into a motel, where we stayed for a number of weeks.

I gave Robbin the first cat she ever had (Norman), thus starting her on a long career as the local Crazy Cat Lady. We’ve supported each other and cried our way through many a feline illness and death, and reminisced about our little friends afterward. I know her cats and her little chihuahua Moochie are missing her too. (This cat would surely remind her of Sandy, or one of the many others she opened her heart and house to.)

Robbin has never been good at diplomacy. She says what she thinks and doesn’t sugarcoat it for anyone. You always know where you stand with her. She has a generous heart and a raucous laugh that I fear I will never hear again. Her absence is a hole in my life that no one else can fill.

I know that the odds are not good for her to recover from this, the second stroke she’s had. I know I will likely never get my friend back the way I knew her. And I know my feelings are as nothing compared to those of her husband and daughter.

But I wish I had the Robbin I knew back, even for just another phone call.

Mysteries I Love and Hate

Cozy mysteries are a thing, and I do not like them. As all my friends know, I am a mystery lover – I’ve even written one, which is now making the rounds of agents.

But cozy mysteries have gone too far. These are the kinds of mysteries that take place in bed and breakfasts or bookstores, that have chefs or weather forecasters as their sleuths, and exhibit little to no blood, despite the crimes. They are called cozies, I suppose because you can cuddle up with a cup of tea and read them, safe in the knowledge that nothing really bad will happen.

And the titles! Most of them are puns – usually lame – based on whatever setting they have. I just can’t bring myself to read something called Chilled to the Cone (bakeshop), Premeditated Mortar (fixer-upper), Absence of Alice (garage sales), or The Malt in Our Stars (literary pub). The “detectives” are never real police officers, obviously. And most often the (supposed) humor and (artificial) quaintness fall flat.

I must admit to reading several cozy series many years ago. These were usually ones that had a setting I was interested in or characters that were well-rounded and well-drawn, or contained cats (sometimes as the sleuth). Susan Wittig Albert did a series based on an herbalist. Diane Mott Davidson did a cooking series, complete with recipes that I never tried. There was a series, the Amanda Pepper mysteries, that was set in a Philadelphia prep school, and the Kate Fansler series, set in the English Department of a college.

One that I used to read devotedly, but finally gave up on in disgust, was Lillian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who mysteries starring retired newspaperman Jim Qwilleran and his two cats, Koko and Yum Yum. (I also like Mikado references.) The first three came out in the 60s, but there was an extensive hiatus until 1987, when the series reappeared and continued yearly until 2008, with The Cat Who Had 60 Whiskers. I gave up in 1991, with The Cat Who Moved a Mountain, a dreary, supposedly amusing book set in the Potato Mountains, concerning a conflict between two clans known as the Spuds and the Taters. It was just too cozy for words.

Some writers are able to switch gears and write both cozies and grittier novels. Linda Barnes, for example, started with the Michael Spraggue mysteries set backstage at a theater but switched to the much more robust Carlotta Carlisle series when, as she said, Spraggue ran out of friends and relatives to be killed off. Carlisle, a former police officer, drives a cab in her off-hours but encounters plenty of hardened criminals and deaths. These I read whenever Barnes writes a new one.

The other cozy mysteries I read are the Mrs. Pollifax series by Dorothy Gilman. They are typical in that when you read them you know that nothing terrible will happen to any of the main or even subordinate characters (who are colorful, if unbelievable). The thing that attracts me about the Mrs. Pollifax books, other than the goofy premise that she is a grandmother who works for the CIA, is the extensive travelogues of wherever her handler sends her: Mexico, Albania, Turkey, China, Zambia, Hong Kong, etc. I find her novels soothing rather than irritating, the sort of thing I read when I’m stuck in bed with a really nasty flu.

Cozy mysteries no doubt have their place in the pantheon of mystery novels. They’re certainly popular, at least. But for the most part, I’ll take Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone or Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski over Reel Murder any day. I want believable plots; well-drawn, interesting characters; crimes that make you care what happens; and real danger. Give me early Robert Parker (before he started phoning them in) or John Sandford or Laura Lippman or even the original Nero Wolfe series, for when I want vintage mystery fiction.

Of course, I read other kinds of fiction (Gregory Maguire and Handmaid’s Tale come to mind), but mystery novels hold a special place in my to-be-read list. Let’s not mess up the genre with The Good, the Bad, and the Lemon Tart.

 

1,000 Books

It goes everywhere with me. It carries over 1,000 of my books. It hands me the one I want at a moment’s notice. It keeps track of what page I’m on without a sticky note. It defines words I don’t know and tells me how to pronounce unfamiliar words. It allows me to sort my books onto different shelves for convenience’s sake and easily find books that I own or that are available in the bookstore. It’s my most faithful companion (aside from my husband) and the best tool that I own.

It’s my ereader, in my case a Nook from Barnes & Noble, though I’m sure Amazon’s Kindle and other devices do much the same things. I’ve gone through several iterations of the Nook device over the years and downloaded the Nook reading app to my iPad. When one gets low on juice, I simply switch to another while it’s recharging.

(Of course, I will need a way to convert all those ebooks to Kindle when the time comes and Barnes & Noble either collapses or stops supporting their own devices. I have a Kindle reading app on one of the readers because there was a book I dearly loved, Rift by Liza Cody, which B&N didn’t offer. But I digress.)

I usually keep two books going at once – one fiction and one nonfiction – and switch back and forth when a chapter or essay ends, or really, whenever the mood strikes me. I have a TBR stack as long as my arm, literally, but it will never collapse on me and kill me. I take my reading addiction wherever I go, never having to resort to reading the labels on ketchup bottles to satisfy my jones.

The iPad with the Nook reading app may be my favorite of all my ereaders, because it allows me to switch to other apps, check my email, messages, and Facebook timeline easily. And it has a snazzy purple case. My second favorite is my Nook tablet, which allows me to do many of the same things and also has a nifty keyboard should I ever want to answer messages, though to tell the truth, I seldom use it. I got that feature so I could blog on the go, but the WordPress app seems unable to accommodate me. The tablet has a spiffy black cover with a magnet to hold it open or closed, and a hinge so I can set it upright should I ever decide to use the keyboard. My third ereader is a basic Nook that fits in my purse.

My husband insisted I get him an ereader too, though he hardly ever uses it. He got one that fits in his back pocket and is linked to my account so he can read any of my thousand books as well. I make sure to buy ones that he enjoys, like Slaughterhouse-Five, A Canticle for Leibowitz, and Fanny Hill, and I introduce him to new ones, like Let’s Pretend This Never Happened.

My one complaint about my ereader is that it does not do pictures well. Once I had a subscription to Barnes & Noble’s version of  National Geographic. The photographs that appeared there were less than impressive. You expect impressive photos from National Geographic. Even the pictures in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children did not reproduce well. And the hand-written letters – I basically had to skip them, even though they contributed a lot to the plot.

Still, I am willing to overlook those flaws. As I get older and my eyes get worse (doc says I’m in line to develop cataracts), I’m going to need my ereader, where I can bump up the point sizes, more than ever. And purses large enough to contain them. Maybe I should carry a needlepoint tote like all the craft ladies I know – containing no yarn. Just 1000 books.