After a Happy Ending

I’d never put these two characters together, so I thought I would try it and see what happened. The scene takes place a few months after the end of Joining in the Round, and it’s helping me solidify ideas for future partner stories.

The first crisis of the day began with slammed doors and stomping feet. Alison paused mid-pour to listen. Her tea steamed quietly in the strainer. Heavy footsteps thumped overhead and down the back stairs: Carl, from the sound of it, or Felicity. They both walked hard when they were in a hurry. Or in a mood.

Carl was in a terrible hurry, storming out the back door of the farmhouse into the teeth of a February snow squall.  Alison caught a glimpse of pale hair and a dark scowl in the gap between stairs and kitchen doorway, and then he was gone. Icy air swirled through the room in the wake of his passage.

Where Carl went, Felicity wouldn’t be far behind. Alison finished setting up her tea and started its timer. Then she poured a mug of coffee and left it on the counter as bait before retreating through the swing door to the dining room with her tea.

Felicity’s irritated mutterings preceded her appearance. She thudded down the stairs, opened the back door only to slam it shut again hard enough to make the dishes in the sideboard rattle.  A short silence followed, and a long sigh, and Felicity appeared in the kitchen doorway.

Tall, brown, and stately, she held the coffee mug aloft in one hand while she tied a white fluffy bathrobe around herself with the other. Pink flannel pajamas decorated with red hearts peeked from beneath the robe. Her hair bounced in a damp curling black cloud around her face, and her lips curved up at the sight of Alison on the far side of the table.

The big, solid table was long enough to seat ten people in its big, solid chairs. Alison grinned back and swung her feet, which did not quite reach the floor. “Laugh away. I feel like a toddler.  Someday I will remember to ask Justin why he picked furniture sized for giants when he isn’t that much taller than I am.”

“I wasn’t going to laugh. I was plotting your future.” Felicity moved around the table. “My cousin Eileen is casting a historical series, and you’d be perfect for her Queen Louise.”

“Someone is making a series about Queen Louise of Prussia?”Alison closed her mouth when she realized it was gaping open.  Someone else in the world knows who that is? “Sign me up! She was an amazing human being.”

“Was she?  Something else you have in common, then. I was going off looks alone.” Felicity tipped her head to one side.”Yes, indeed. Tiny, busty, all dressed up and smiling like mischief? You’re a dead ringer for the portraits on Eileen’s idea board.”

She made a show of lifting her mug in both hands like a chalice and bowed slightly. “Your majesty, I thank you for this generous gift. My heart overflows with gratitude. ”

Alison waved off the thanks with an appropriately regal hand. “Not necessary. I make the stuff in pure self defense. Naomi and I are the only people in this house who can be civilized in the morning without a cup of vile bean drippings.”

“One cup? Ha. Carl needs three.” Felicity sat down gracefully next to Alison–her feet reached the floor just fine when she leaned back–and took a slow, reverent sip of her drink. “Mmm. How can someone who calls this ‘vile bean drippings’ brew such fantastic coffee?”

“Magic.” Alison turned off the timer and sampled her tea. “And working for Justin. Lots of practice and access to the best available beans and equipment. Speaking of magic, where did tall, blond and brooding go in such a rush? Or should I not ask?”

“You can ask. I can speculate. Naomi knows more. I heard Carl’s side of her call from the shower. Serena took Justin out for a walk at dawn for some reason only Serena could explain, Naomi caught a scary vibe from Serena and sent Parker after them, and that aggravated my personal mind reader enough that he took off without a word to me.”

She paused as if reconsidering her words, then rested both elbows on the table and put her head in her hands. “When did my life reach a point where that explanation makes any sense?”

“Five minutes after meeting Carl, I imagine,” Alison said with sympathy. “That’s when my life took a permanent tilt to the weird side.”

They enjoyed a quiet few minutes gazing out the big dining room windows at the wintry vista. The view currently ended past the mixed trees at the edge of the yard. Falling snow hid the distant horizon so well Alison could imagine proper mountains out there instead of vast, flat, boring Nebraska cropland.

Felicity frowned at the snow. “I refuse to chase him. I am staying right here, warm and safe. One after another out the door–that is the plot of every horror movie ever made.”

“Movie monsters wouldn’t last five minutes out there,” Alison pointed out. “Not with Justin’s hired team of armed and highly-trained security professionals on the job. And they would call us if there was a real problem. There isn’t.” She displayed the phone on her wrist: strong signal, no messages waiting. “See? Nothing. Things get dramatic around Justin. Don’t get sucked in. Stick to your sensible plan.”

“I will,” Felicity said agreeably. “Whatever ridiculous melodrama they have brewing, they can work through it without me this time. I don’t like drama. I am a sensible woman. I have a business to run.”

“One you can run in your pajamas,” Alison said. Felicity clearly needed help convincing herself. “I envy that, by the way.”

Felicity glanced her way. “Liar. You love dressing up and being the shiny public face of the “Justin Wyatt, eccentric billionaire” franchise. You won’t convince me otherwise.”

“I won’t even try. I still have days when I’d rather work in comfort. The part I enjoy is swinging Justin’s financial weight around and making opportunities happen.”

Felicity took another long swig of coffee. “Don’t I know it. Thank you for aiming me at the accounting firm you use. With all the new business I’m getting, I will need lots more help with taxes and excises. My big decision is whether I should bother with the hassle of a storefront at this point.”

Nothing about Felicity had surprised Alison more than finding out the woman owned a thriving international craft supplies business. She’d run it all from a tiny storefront.  Now the store was gone, but the popularity of the supplies catalog was skyrocketing. Some discreet mentions here and there, that was all it took. “I can’t help you with that one,” she said. “But I love the pajamas. I wouldn’t mind curling up in soft robe right now.”

“Suit and heels before breakfast is a bit much even for you.”

That was true enough. Alison said, “I had a virtual conference with a research firm in India at 4 AM local, and I have two more meetings with the Seattle office later. I really need to get home now that Justin’s done with his son’s visitation. I miss Tyler.

“I’d love to meet him someday,”  Felicity said. “It seems odd to me that your husband didn’t come with you.”

“We’re an odd couple. And we’re not lifers. I’ll be filing for release at the annual term review if Tyler doesn’t beat me to it,” Alison said. “We love each other, but….”

“Oh, yes. But.”  Felicity shrugged without taking her eyes off the view. “My mom’s favorite term is six month plus paternal support. Long enough that she’s getting tired of them, short enough they don’t start feeling entitled, she says.”

Alison bit her lip. Saying, your mom sounds like a selfish wench might not go over well. She didn’t know Felicity well enough to guess, so she went with,”There’s something for everyone.  I wish Tyler was here too, but he has some project incubating in Justin’s main R&D lab out in Seattle. He can’t telecommute. I can, and Justin needed me to run interference while his ex-wife was visiting. Compromises. We all make them.”

“Oh, yes.” Felicity retreated into staring outside at nothing, and Alison finished her tea on affectionate thoughts of her adorable, clueless, brilliant marriage partner. He was a good man. He just wasn’t the right good man to keep forever. If such a man existed. Alison had her doubts on that score.

She debated calling the security team for a briefing on whatever kerfuffle was brewing, but  Justin’s personal dramas were no longer hers to manage. She couldn’t honestly say she regretted that. Felicity had the right idea. Whatever mess Justin was making, he could clean it up himself.

She hoped.  It was so hard to stop herself from getting involved.

The snow squall blew past, and sunbeams shot through fast-moving clouds over the nearby fields. The bright rays touched bare tree limbs in the yard with golden light and gave the landscape a bleak, monochrome beauty that made Alison’s fingers itch for her camera.

 

Felicity remarked, “I must do a weaving in this color scheme someday. I’ve been thinking on it since I got here. Can I borrow your art camera? I should collect some index photos while the light is doing that.”

“I’d be glad to take the pictures for you.”  Being sensible didn’t stop worry from plucking at Alison’s nerves. Staying busy did, and it was nice to be appreciated for something other than efficiency. “I don’t like loaning equipment, but I work cheap. Please say yes.”

Felicity nodded firmly. “You’ve got yourself a deal.”

 

Where the Strong Lose

Subtitled, “An imaginary conversation between Strength and the World,” or “Why I wince when people thank me for writing strong female characters.”

I attempt to write realistic characters, but I would never set out to write strong ones, because being strong sucks. Being strong means never getting the cake, and who wants that in life? What cake, you ask? (Reasonable question.) It comes from a scene in one of the earliest episodes of CSI, when a character made a sad observation that stuck with me. “I’m not the guy who gets a cake in the break room on his last day,” he said, “I’ll pack up and leave, and no one will even notice I’m gone.”

Some folks get cake and backslaps and farewell hugs but some aren’t missed at all, even if they’re perfectly well-liked and accepted, admired, respected, part of the team, and so on. Bear with the analogy here. The strong don’t get cake. Not on their last day, not on their birthday, not on their lowest days.

Cake is for nice people. Soft people. Positive, cuddly people who enjoy big celebrations and hugs and bright happy things.People who can prove they need cake because they look right, talk right, act deserving of it.

The strong say to the world, “Why shouldn’t we get a little love and cake too? Assertiveness and brashness only mean we are practiced at hiding weakness. Disdain for convention is a surrender to the painful knowledge that we can never achieve it. Effective defenses are an ingrained response to assault. We are soft beneath the armor.

Too bad, the world says. You appear self-contained and self-assured, and so you will be judged. You need nothing from others, and so you will get nothing. (Proud, some say. Stuck-up. Know-it-all. Argumentative, even. Uppity. Strident. Pushy. Negative. Critical. Bitter. Oh, yes. There’s a whole thesaurus of flaws that trail along behind strength like a sticky fringe.)

The strong say, “Those adjectives are the bricks of the walls we stand against. They expose how seldom we have the luxury of trusting anyone at our backs. We were denied until we were exhausted with the asking, until we learned to do without. That does not make us strong. It makes us lonely. We are as vulnerable and damaged behind our defenses as any human who ever lived.”

No, the world says. You don’t get to be vulnerable. The role of the strong is to brace up others. To hold, not to be held. The soft need care and nurturing and support. You do not qualify.

The strong say, “But everyone needs support. Why must some scrape for what others are given freely? Are we not all human? Do we not all bleed the same?”

No, the world says. The soft, the cuddly, the sweet–their cries for help are answered because they are who they are. For the strong to declare itself weak is a betrayal. Strong people who cry for help are selfish, lazy, attention-seekers, not soft. You’re strong and selfish. Strong and lazy. No one likes a whiner. Stop crying. Buck up. Put on the happy face. When you ask for help you taking away time and energy from those who really deserve it.

It’s a horrific paradox. Strong people can never be anything else because they never can be anything else. The sickest part is that “strong” in this sense is an external label. It sits right between the shoulder blades like a fucking target.

I was labeled strong before I hit puberty, but in truth I am about as strong as a bowl of mashed potatoes. Unfortunately I’ll never get rid of the damned label, because externals are all that matter. For me to get any help when I need it, I must lay out specifics explicitly and frequently, and insist on assistance. No one will ever just notice, and reach out. I know this from painful experience.

Being strong means no one helps without being asked–and asked, and asked, until the asking sucks all energy from me. Even then, only a few even are willing to offer support. Because why would I need it? I’m strong. I can take it. So many people say, “Be yourself!” but as long as I’m true to myself — strong, hard, negative and all the rest — I will be un-nurtured because I don’t deserve nurture.

Are you seeing the circular argument there? This is why I sometimes abandon the world for the cold solace my own company. Limping along by myself, injured and hurting, is less painful when I’m not surrounded by people who are helping each other…and not me.

Why does it happen? Maybe most people are conditional about acceptance even when they swear they aren’t. Maybe it’s easier to turn away than offer a hand when there’s no ready reward of soft, sweet gratitude. Yeah. Maybe.  I like cake, dammit. I’m starving for it, some days, and it pisses me off that cake is reserved for people who “behave like they need it.” And I’m not afraid to say so.

cakes-489849_1280
Delicious cakes. I want more.

Time for a pit stop

Today’s writing analogy is brought to you by my long-overdue viewing of the 24 hours of Le Mans. Yup. That’s right.  I’m about to compare my writing and publishing experience to racing cars.

 Let’s say I can do the writing part. Let’s say I’m a great driver of a fantastic writing machine. All my talent and passion and hard work with my vehicle won’t get me to the finish line of a race. I can’t fix the car’s tires, pump the fuel or tinker with the gearbox. I can’t keep up with the maintenance, do the repairs and drive at the same time. No one can.

This is not a writer’s pit crew.



I need a pit crew. There are aspects to this publishing gig that I cannot do myself. I need to face that reality as I move from amateur to pro status.  I am an unknown beginner entering a race right along with a field of seasoned professionals.  I need a solid team of devoted backers with me for every trip around the track if I ever expect to fight my way into the standings.

This isn’t about requesting a little help when I need it, or fielding opinions here and there. This is about not having to ask.  It’s emotionally exhausting to have to repeatedly approach others with metaphorical hat in hand, begging for crumbs of attention over and over. It poisons every conversation I have with friends, and it reduces my fragile psyche to the useless, disgusting texture of pink slime.

When a race car goes into the pits, people swarm all over it without hesitation. The driver doesn’t ask for help. The need is anticipated. A bunch of specialists work together to get the vehicle ready for the next stage. The crew members tag in and out of the action, and they don’t do the same thing on every visit, but every time, that team works with the driver to get the car moving again.

After two solid years of writing effectively in isolation–years spent learning how to race, to stretch my analogy–I’ve spent the last few months struggling over each new word. The reasons finally gelled for me while I was watching that never-ending race coverage. I’m patching the gas line when I should be concentrating on the track. I’m concentrating on my weaknesses instead of my strengths. That’s a traumatic thing to do, mentally, and stressed minds do not create. They disintegrate.

I’m looking for a few special people willing to step up and say, “Yes, rely on us. You don’t have to wonder what will happen when you pull onto the shoulder with smoking tires and a bumper hanging loose. We will be there–ready, willing and able to put you in order and keep you up and running. We officially want to be part of your unpaid crazy venture into independent publishing. We want shoulder patches and matching teeshirts and mentions in the dedications. We want free books.”

Pit Task Descriptions:

Like members of a real pit crew, you might only be able to do one thing, or you might want to be on the line for every check-in. Beloved In-House Reader has volunteered for all these duties except cover art, but there’s only one of him. The idea is to get as many people doing each job, all at the same time.

Alpha Reader
“Be willing to read short snippets of work in progress and offer basic critiques and encouragement in a timely fashion.” This means that when asked, you can respond within a few days and cough up basic commentary within a week. An example of basic commentary would be, “It doesn’t suck. Keep going. The first page was a little confusing. Also, where did the owl come from?” I need this now, I need this regularly. I am a needy person.

Beta Reader
“Be willing to read a completed rough work from beginning to end and offer extensive feedback on plot and character.” I would provide some ideas, but your input could come in whatever form you prefer. Example questions might include “Did the beginning catch your interest right away, or was there a point when you would’ve put it down? Was there any character who didn’t feel real?” Etc. You could provide feedback in any form you like. Lists, track-changed docs, crayon on construction paper, whatevs. The kicker piece is time again. If a month isn’t enough time to skim through a story and throw your gut impressions down in print, then don’t sign on for this job.

Editing
“Be willing to proof completed beta-passed manuscripts prior to official electronic publishing.” This meshes well with beta reading for some people. Some beta readers can’t work without proofing as they go along. I’m one of those. The thing is, an editor who’s been a beta reader might have to read almost-the-same-manuscript twice.” I wouldn’t need this for novels — I have a great pro editor, but I don’t have the money to spend on pro editing for short pieces.  I would gladly shower gratitude on any and all volunteers who would tackle those.

Cover Art: I am not an artist. I always need suggestions, stock art, and feedback on my dumb ideas…

Promotion
Every pit crew has a guy who stands in front of the car with a little sign that says “stop” on one side and “go” on the other. I always wanted that job. Anyone could do it. That’s promotion, on my pit crew. Anyone can brag to their friends, family and total strangers about this fantastic author they know, the one who writes kickass stories about men and women living in worlds a lot like ours, only different.

As a matter of fact, I would beg everyone on the pit crew help with promotions now and then (for reasons that will get a post of their own)  plus keep an eye out for creative ways to get out the word about my amazing books. “Help Karen get the word out” could be the team motto.

Anyone want to sign on for this insanity? Anyone? The perks are not stellar. You get free reading material. You get to participate in the nitty-gritty of the creative process, with the potential to see your ideas become part of a story. There might be baked goods. There would be free books.  The obligation is there too, though. This is asking for a real commitment. Don’t feel bad about saying no, or voting no by silence. It’s all good. I will still love you all as much as I do now. (I love anyone who reads anything I write a whole lot. Buckets worth. Boodles, even.)

But if you do step up to the line, if you join my crew, then we can get started designing a teeshirt logo. And a badge. Dawnrigger Publishing Pit Vipers, maybe. I dunno. What say you?

We Win!