Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Big 4 - 0

The Big 4 - 0... 40... XL... Forty... No matter how you say it--you still end up with the same amount.



And in six short months, I'll be there. Is that so bad? There are a lot more numbers after forty than before it, right?

The problem is, unlike my two amigos, I have yet to produce a tome. A chunk-o-pages. A pile-0-leaves.

A novel.

Short stories I have aplenty--and some of them published, even. But nary a novel.

Ink has three or four sitting in drawers. I'm sure he'd loan me one but it wouldn't be the same. And there it is...40...staring me down.

You read about how (insert famous author's name) wrote five novels by the age of (insert insanely low number) and it's easy to get discouraged. But they didn't have daughters eleven and nine years old, and a rabid Jack Russell terrier gnawing on their toes whilst they wrote... Or did they?

Oh well. Forget about losing a few pounds. Forget about volunteering at the local food bank. Forget about helping a few more ole ladies cross the street this upcoming year. You know what my resolution is. June 30 is highlighted on my calendar and I sit poised amongst a pile of index cards, notepads and sundry other instruments of fiction creation.

I wonder though... Am I the only one who feels the press of TIME and AGE in my writing? Or am I just being a little neurotic?

Friday, December 18, 2009

Link by Link

A good ol' fashioned topic here: inspiration.

I just finished reading a collection of stories, Stranger Things Happen, by Kelly Link, and it was a collection to love. Odd and strange and original and quirky and just a little bit haunting, the sort of stories that stick with you after you've finished them. Like peanut butter on the roof of your mouth, you're gonna have to pick at them for awhile. A lick here and there, a prod with your tongue, a few thoughts of how chocolate would go so nice with this...

But what I found most interesting about my response to these stories was that element of inspiration, of that sudden need to write. Not to emulate, per se, but to make something, to fashion something new and wholly unique out of all those old verbs, adjectives and nouns. Dust off those familiar words and make them shiny again.

It makes me think of stories as links in a chain, bound together, all individual and yet all connected. Stories reaching out, sparking and starting new stories in new minds. It's like that image of Michelangelo's on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the hand of God touching the hand of man, the spark of life and creation transferred onward. And yet here we have the image repeated again and again and again, a chain of stories from a hundred thousand minds, playing off each other, sparking and sparkling, an interwoven fabric of links tunneling backward through time, from mind to mind, charting the long and ecstatic course of inspiration.

And I wonder what it is that makes for that inspiration. Not all stories do it, not even all stories I love. I might find a story great as a reader without it touching me as a writer. But certain writers, certain stories, are bright with that current, as if storing up an electrostatic charge just for me. Waiting... waiting for me to touch the doorknob (the little currents all alive), waiting for me to open the door on that particular world.

The strangeness of Stranger Things Happen is part of it. Stories, and realities, bent a little askew. Different. I want to capture that difference in turn. Or, rather, I want to capture not Kelly Link's differences but my own. I want to swallow up the energy of these creations and use it, an electric boy plugging himself into a new world. See my fingers glow as I type...

So I'd like to turn this idea back on you. Are you inspired by other stories or writers, and, if so, what are the particular qualities that inspire you? Is there some recurring quality that you find charges your writing batteries?

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Thingyness of Books: An Ode to Paper

I've been thinking about something bookish the last few days, and so I thought I'd give it a whirl here on the blog. It started when I read this article, by Alan Kaufman, last Friday (linked by the irrepresible ebooknocrat Nathan Bransford).

Now, I'd have to agree with everyone who said the article was alarmist and overdone - and perhaps rather insensitive, considering some of the comparisons made. And I found this unfortunate because underneath the hyperbolic rhetoric there were some interesting ideas.

I should say, first, that I'm not exactly anti-ebook. It's obvious that it's going to be a major growth market over the next few years, and if it makes some (or many) readers happy, then I'm glad. I saw my first live Kindle the other day. It's a very neat gadget, and I can see why some people like them. My neighbours were certainly thrilled with it. And this shows both its potential (so seductive)... and that the timeline may be a little slower than some people think. I'd never seen one until a few days ago. Never. There's a long way to go, it seems, before we reach market saturation.

But that saturation point may be somewhere around the corner. If and when... that seems pretty uncertain to me. But since the possibility is on the horizon it does make me think about that article. Certainly it would not be the end of culture, of literature and all things human, as Kaufman suggested. That's utterly alarmist. But there is a loss. And perhaps it's an acceptable loss, but loss it still is.

What I think is lost is the particularity and uniqueness of a book. And I don't mean "books", plural and in the abstract. I mean book, singular and concrete. A book is an object. It's something real that you hold in your hands, something unique that exists outside all other things.

This is what we lose with ebooks. Now, yes, there is something egalitarian about ebooks, about everything being reduced to digital coding, a sort of democratic darwinism at play in the shuffle of digital texts as they jockey for the limelight. Stripped down and sleek, reduced only to the essentials, the strings of words that form the backbone of their meaning.

And this is the essential part. The words, the sentences, the stories. And this is why the Kaufman article is so alarmist. The stories will be saved, will still be savoured and shared.

Yet a book is something a little more than its essentials. Perhaps these little trimmings are only of passing interest and shedding them will come at little cost... but I, for one, will miss them. And perhaps we all will, too, when we have a chance to look back from the digital future to a paper-filled past.

A book is a thing. A particular thing. And not just in the sense that Stephen King's Under the Dome is different from Marilynne Robinson's Home, but in the sense that one Home is different from another Home. Hardcover, trade paperback, mass market paperback... yes, yes, but even between one trade paperback and another. Each book is its own entity with its own history. Some fresh out of box or wrapper, others that have been read, that have been handled and dropped and picked up again. Some have been shared, passed from person to person, each new reader leaving a few traces of themselves behind. A few crumbs, or lines underlined, or signatures offered. A pretty boy or girl's phone number scrawled on the inside of a cover in a script loopy with hope and alive with the electricity of the moment's connection.

A little story: I found, once and long ago, a copy of a book in a used bookstore, a book called If On A Winter's Night A Traveler, by Italo Calvino, one of my favourite writers. It's a postmodern sort of book, self-aware and self-referential, knowing itself as a story and sharing that knowingness with its readers. And one of these previous readers had written comments on these intertextual comments, a sort of conversation, inter and outer at the same time. And yet another reader (with yet another penmanship) offered comments on these comments.

And what I had in my hands was a book utterly unique in the world. There was nothing else like it. The meaning of the text had bled outside the words, outside the sentences set on the page.

I regret this loss in ebooks, where stories are reduced to encoded text, a book pared to its essential minimum. Lost is this conversation, the uniqueness of the book as object. I can see ebooks blurring a little at the edges. The unchanging device, the eye that can no longer differentiate between one story and the next. A vagueness creeps in along the borders, like photographs slightly out of focus. Liminal spaces grow, a No Man's Land that swallows a few lines here, a few lines there.

And the thingyness of books is lost. The choice, for a book, between using one kind of paper and the next. The texture of it, the faint pebbling of it against the fingertips, the richness of the colour, the revels of whiteness in a thousand shades. Smooth edge, or rough? I like those rough-edged pages, sort of feathered and soft, the little peaks and valleys running along the edge of the books. (With ebooks there are no edges at all.) The cover art, and the cover itself. The weight of it, the way the pages turn. The binding, loose or tight. It's not a perfect world, I admit. Water damage, spines breaking, bindings loosening until pages drop like leaves in the cold of autumn. Not a perfect world, but a real and particular one. Each leaf, living and dying, unlike the rest.

I think of a future where each leaf is really just a dream, a dream of a leaf in a treeless world, and in this future I find myself a little wistful, a little sad, a little cold. There is just the ether, the wind whistling through, unobstructed, across a grey and featureless plain.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

As the Lights Dim to Nothing

A dream in passing. A little world folded down. Boxed. Shipped. Like a Lego scene built and deconstructed and built again. Only this time smaller, growing up strangely amidst my own home, two worlds superimposed, one over the other. I keep thinking of origami - a page folded into a large paper crane, and then folded into a box, and when unfolded and there again is the crane... only not quite. A little smaller, a little more wrinkled. A dove, perhaps, with grimy wings.

And in that space where once a world flourished (a book world) there is an echo. The room seems larger and all the more paltry for that largeness. The carpet, unadorned by shelves, looks more frayed, shabbier, a suddenly bereft parent after the children have left. Why keep up appearances any longer?

It looks a little dirty. The walls, so long covered, are really quite ugly. The light through the windows seems a little flat, uninteresting, or perhaps merely uninterested. Colour has been stripped away, and the dazzle of light lives only in reflection, in the deflected vividness of blues and greens and reds and the deep deep browns of wooden shelves. Bits of tape on the window, where SALE! signs have been stripped hastily away. A few screws on the ground, here and there, bits of powdered drywall clinging to the threads. A little forlorn... they hold nothing now, and all is air and space and ceaseless echo.

The front step, broken and repaired by The City of Windsor, is broken again. It took a day. Craftsmanship like this is lauded only in the Land of Broken Things, where everything costs a dollar. An empty rectangle. I have boxed up the memories, too, and carted them away. Already the rectangle has forgotten everything, everything but a few words, the tattered corners of pages that have torn away (the books having already emmmigrated) and now flutter in the breeze from the door. Collect them all together and perhaps there's a meaning... a puzzle to be deciphered. A mouse, perhaps, late at night, will discover the wisdom, will hoard it away with cheese and lint and dabs of butter stolen from local restaurants.

And beyond that door, beyond that breeze, there is a new world, or a world made new by opportunity and necessity. Only a moment to look back at the sign, white lettering on black background. The font is Book Antiqua. of course. And the sign... a name. A name chosen for a beginning, for a mother who started me reading with the literary gift of an Oxford Professor, for one beginning that led to another, to an inkling of an idea, an idea of a place filled with books.

Inklings Bookshop.

I'll leave it there, the sign, a last memory for the street to cling to even as the lettering fades. It was, too briefly, a symbol, an arrow, a guide. But time will wash over it, surely. It will fade to the relevance of graffiti, detritus cast up by the old paved sea of Windsor. Until someone paints over it, hangs out a new shingle bright with hope.

Inklings Bookshop.

An arrow that now points only to a place inside my head, adorned with sights and smells and rich with the texture of pages. A place where the shelves are endless and stretch on through the slanted light. Motes of dust in the air, aglow in that light and floating, floating, floating...

Thursday, November 26, 2009

I'm Not American But I'll Say It Anyway


To what? To Inklings Bookshop. As this American Holiday kicks off my little bookstore is running down. This is it. The last weekend.

But it's been a marvelous ride. A four year adventure in books. Four years of shelves and dust and booksmell. Four years of stories. Four years of books.

Each book a bridge, a connection between worlds. Between a reader and a writer, but between readers, too, as connection points for shared conversations, for shared visions and dreams and memories. Bridges, too, between customers and bookseller. The girders made from the spines of books, the cables from woven pages, and the road itself from words, from sentences and paragraphs layered to a paved sturdiness.

So thank you, Inklings Bookshop. You did not pay well, at least in money. But you gave so much else.


Friday, November 20, 2009

How Tolkien Got Lost In My Spare Bedroom

So, yeah, my Blogging the Rings has sort of been missing that whole blogging aspect. Um, yeah. Okay, but I have lots of excuses! Good ones! It mostly comes down to the fact that Blogging the Rings takes a fair bit of time and effort and my resources of such have run pretty thin. But! Not forever! Blogging the Rings shall return. Soon. I hope.

The other reason for the delay, of course, is that I lost Tolkien. Yeah. More precisely I lost my copies of The Lord of the Rings. Oops. But with endless boxes of books coming to and fro... I think I sold one paperback set to a customer and then sent my 3 in 1 version home with other books for my new and improved home library. So it's stuck in a box somewhere in my spare bedroom, which has become sort of a waystation of books, a book repository for literature in transit. A veritable terminus of books.

But it's hard to kill Tolkien. He's a tough man to keep down.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Memory Hold the Door

Caught in the flush and rush of life it can be difficult to remember, to stop and reflect. I think that's one of the powers of story, to be able to hold you and carry you along in a memory, a thought, a moment of the past. A story can hold the door for you so that it does not swing shut and lock you out.

This post is slightly belated, but I wanted to write it nonetheless. It was Remembrance Day two days ago, and that's an important holiday for me. Not for any hugely personal reason, but for a deeply felt cultural reason. It's a reminder of that need for reflection. It's a pause in the ongoing rush of the year.

And what helps me in this reflection is to engage the past through story. I listen to the stories of a friend who served in Korea. I pick up The Things They Carried or This Way For the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen and leaf through the pages. I watch Band of Brothers, appreciating the experience of a few as a symbol of the many.

Story here as transformation, as connection, as substitute memory. A proxy for experiences I cannot know myself, nor wish to. A moment of thanks, where story can serve as ritual. I try to do this every year, story providing a way to make an abstract idea concrete, to provide a vivid and felt reality that can embody the emptiness of a day marked so loosely on a calendar.

So... story as ritual - anyone else have quirks like this? How do you use stories to commemorate or remember something?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Neverending Difficulty of Story

Believe it or not, this isn't a complaint. I'm fascinated by difficult things. Easy is so easily boring. I'm the sort of person who likes a challenge. Things that I can win easily, or master easily... usually offer little interest to me. If I know I can do it, why bother doing it? The endeavor will lack drama or interest.

Videogames might be an example for me... I've never really gotten into videogames, though I know many people are obsessed with them. But I don't think the typical video game pattern is very amenable to me. You pour a ton of early time into playing, quickly learn how to operate the game and then master the functions and win the game. It's sort of a burst. It can certainly take skill and effort... but that sort of short term fixation doesn't usually draw me. The conclusion is in sight - in a short and somewhat undetermined time in the near future, I will win. And if I were ever to get caught up in a videogame I'm guessing it would be one that veers from this pattern, an online game, say, that's always changing because it's open to the individual actions of many gamers. It's a more continuous and shifting investment.

And here's where I come to writing. It's hard. It's bloody hard, at least to do it well. To be great. And I like that. It draws me on that I won't have complete mastery by next Tuesday. The farther you go, with writing, the more you realize how much you have yet to explore. It's expansive and shifting, and your goals will change even as you change. Aesthetic shifts can match shifts in experience and interest.

Writing, in a sense, is a limitless pursuit. There's nothing finite. No clear ending. You can't reach a point and say "Hey, I won! What should I do now?" It's that old idea that perfection is an unreachable goal but the only one worth striving for.

So what does the difficulty of writing mean to you?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

How the Literary Agent Killed Zombies

I put this in for a contest over at The Rejectionist's, but thought I'd put it up here, too. Because, hell, it was fun to write and this is the Halloween season. Which lasts two weeks. Nobody tell me otherwise. Yes, I have free rein to eat chocolate for that period. It's Halloween. Oh, and props to my collaborator on this one, Dr. Seuss. Kind of a nutty fellow, but fun to work with.

How the Literary Agent Killed Zombies

Every Ghoul down in Boo-ville likes Zombies a lot…
But the Steve, who lived just North of Boo-ville, did not!
The Steve hated zombies! The whole zombie season!
Now please… ask us why, we quite know the reason.

It seems there was once a query quite right
But the novel itself was a disappointment, all right!
The Zombies had pompadours just a little too small
And heaped zombie adjectives up like a wall!

Yes, that was the reason he barfed on his tools!
And so he sat there a-reading and hating the Ghouls
Staring down from his office with a sour, Stevie frown
At the orange-lighted windows below in their town
For he knew every ghoul down in Boo-ville beneath
Was busy, just now, hanging a black, glossy wreath

"And they're plotting their sequels," he snarled through his beer
"Tomorrow they'll query, it's practically here!"
Then he growled, his red pencil nervously drumming.
"I must find a way to keep queries from coming!"

For tomorrow, he knew, all the ghoul girls and boys
Would start typing away on their bright Macintosh toys
And then they'd do something he liked least of all
The ghouls down in Boo-ville, the tall and the small,
Would all gather 'round for group therapy writing!
And yes, in each story, there would be zombie chaps biting!

Then he got an idea, an awful idea!
The Steve got a wonderful, awful idea!
"I know just what to do," the Steve laughed in his throat
And he made a quick skeleton skull and a boat

"All I need is a paddle…" The Steve looked around,
But since paddles are scarce there were none to be found.
Did that stop the old Steve? No! The Steve simply said
"If I can't find a paddle, I'll make one instead."
His assistant, a fox, he wrapped in black thread
And he tied a big board on top of her head.

Then he pulled on a black cloak, peered at his clock
Fetched up his assistant and pushed off from the dock
Then the Steve said "Ahoy!" and the boat started down
Toward the homes where the Ghouls lay a-snooze in their town

All the homes were dark, quiet groans filled the air
As the Ghouls were all dreaming dead dreams without flair
"This is stop number one," the old skeleton hissed
And he climbed to the roof, red pen in his fist

Then he slid down the chimney, like an arm through a sleeve
If Santa could do it, then so could the Steve
He never got stuck, not for a moment or three
(There was little to him but some old bones and one flea)

And the little Ghoul keyboards all sat in a row
"Those keyboards"," he grinned, "are the first things to go."
Then he slithered and slunk, with a smile almost daft
Around the whole room, and he took every draft!
Zombies! And Vampires! Apocalypse drums!
Werewolves! And Chick Lit! Articulate bums!

Then he slunk to the cabinet. He took the plot feast!
He took the chapter titles and giant squid beast!
He cleaned out that cabinet as quick as a flash
Why, that Steve even took the last can of Ghoul-Rash!

Steve snatched up the drafts, and he started to slash
When he heard a small sound like the kiss of a lash
He turned around fast, and he saw a small Ghoul
Little Cindy-Lou Ghoul, who was eating a stool!

The Steve had been caught by this little Ghoul hood
Who'd got out of bed for a bite of cool wood
She stared at the Steve and said "Skeleton, why?
Why are you cutting our manuscripts? Why?"

But you know that old Steve, he was so smart and so slick,
He thought up a lie and he thought it up quick
"Why, my sweet little rot," the fake skeleton lied,
"There's a verb in this draft that I just can't let slide.
So I'm taking it home to my study, my dear,
I'll edit it there, and then I'll bring it back here."

And his fib fooled the child. He patted her head
Then got her a drink and sent her to bed.
And the last thing that he did was to light up the fire
And he threw on every manuscript, oh what a pyre!

Then he did the same thing to the other Ghoul houses
Leaving ashes too small for the other Ghoul louses!

It was quarter past dawn… all the Ghouls still afloat
All the Ghouls still a-snooze when he packed up his boat
Packed it up with their hard drives! Their iPhones and wrappings!
Their post-it note memos! Their sketches and flappings!

Three thousand feet down, down the length of Lake Slumpit
He rowed and he rowed to the middle to dump it.
"Ha Ha to the Ghouls!" he was Steve-ishly humming
"They're finding out now that no stories will be coming!
Their mouths will hang open for a minute or two
Then the Ghouls down in Boo-ville will all cry Boo Hoo!"

"That's a noise," grinned the Steve, "that I really must hear!"
So he paused. And he put a hand to his ear.
And he did hear a sound rising over the glow
It started in low. Then it started to grow.

But the sound wasn't mad! Why this sound sounded merry!
It couldn't be so! But it was merry! Very!
He stared down at Boo-ville, the Steve popped his eyes
Then he shook! What he saw was a shocking surprise!

Every Ghoul down in Boo-ville, the tall and the small,
Was typing! Without any stories at all!
He hadn't stopped the zombies from coming! They came!
Somehow or other, they came just the same!

And the Fox paddle stopped in the midst of a row
Steve puzzled and puzzled: "How could it be so?"
It came without outlines! Came without speech tags!
It came without realism, but, yes, yes, with great bee plagues!
And he puzzled three hours til his puzzler was sore
Then the Steve thought of something he hadn't before
"Maybe zombies," he thought, "don't just come from a bore
Maybe zombies, perhaps, are a little hardcore!"

Well, what happened then? Well, in Boo-ville they say
The Steve's in-box shrunk three sizes that day
And the minute his inbox shrunk right out of sight
The Steve sat back in his chair in the bright morning light
And he penned a form letter as black as the night
For just such a moment as this, quite right!
He penned it with venom and vitriol spite
(So hoping you'll jump from a very great height)

Yes He, He Himself, signed the grim form
Because zombies, yes zombies, are only lukewarm.

Friday, October 30, 2009

I Want to Burn You to the Ground

And this isn't even about The City of Windsor!

No, really, I swear. (Plus, you know, the city won't burn too well once it collapses into the Detroit River)

Here, a clue on the real topic:

Some of the genre/Lit talk over at Nathan Bransford's got me thinking, as a lot of people mentioned what they want out of a book they read, whether escape, entertainment or enlightenment. Which in turn made me flip that idea around and wonder about what it is I want my own writing to do to a reader?

Not easy, really, as the answer is likely variable. I don't want the same thing from everything I write. I mean, sometimes I just want to get a laugh. And entertaining is good... but in the end I want the reader to feel something, to experience something outside themself. And yet maybe even more than that... I suppose my deepest ambition is to write something searing. I want to pry a situation open and let out the pent up heat. I want the reader to feel their skin parch. No answers offered... only questions, only the heat of an almost ungraspable experience.

I think that's what I want. That something I write (someday) will burn you to the ground.

So, after kicking off the ashes, what is it that you want for your readers? No wrong answers! I mean, that's even better than fill-in-the-blank. Hell, it's even better than multiple choice. (Thank you, psychology department, for always having easy exams. Oh a, b, c, d and sometimes e, I love you so)

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Book to Book (to Book)

I've been thinking lately about my fickleness as a reader, and was wondering if it was just me. I think I'm a moody sort of reader... what I want can change from month to month, week to week, even hour to hour.

One of the reasons I like having a large amount of books (and boy do I have lots...) is because of this fickleness. It's hard to know in advance what I'll want to read, as my mood will shift. Even during one day... I'll know I'm nearing the end of one book, and I think I know what I want to read next, but when I get to that point and pick up the expected book... suddenly the impetus is not there and I'm in the mood for something else.

Which in turn makes me wonder if there's any meaning in my choices, any pattern in the arrangement of books I read. Do they connect? And, if so, how? What makes me pick a particular book off the shelf at a particular time? Is it related at all to the previous book I read, or to something else in my life? Things are complex, so I want something simple... things are dull so I want something complex...?

So I'll turn that question on you: what makes you pick a particular book at a particular time? Do you have a list and an order well in advance? Is it moody, like me, or a random grab? Do you buy and read one at a time and then buy another?

Help me out here. It may even help me with a blogging idea...

(gotta love those suspenseful endings, eh?)

Saturday, October 17, 2009

I for Inklings

So I was interviewed on the news last night, tweaking The City of Windsor, my dastardly arch nemesis. ZING! I carved a great I for Inklings upon the villain's chest with my rapier wit.

Okay, I didn't actually see the interview, so I may have actually looked like a doofus. And sounded worse. Though I refuse to admit that I was bested by The City of Windsor!

But the interesting thing was really doing the interview. I actually found myself analyzing how I talked even as I did it. It was a little odd... a little meta-narrative running through my head, critiquing and planning even as I spoke. A little bit out-of-body, if you know what I mean. I found myself thinking about word choice and sentence structure, about the rhythm of the language. Almost like writing dialogue... what would this character say? What's the best way to convey the mood?

Except, you know, the character was me. Standing in front of a camera. So... rapier wit? Or doofus? I'm not sure I want to know. But it was interesting from a writer's standpoint, a sort of self-conscious understanding of my own speech in progress.

Makes me think about times when real life and the writing life bleed together. We have odd brains, we writers. Has that ever happened to you? Where the writer in you has superimposed itself over the normal you? That is, if there is such a thing as a writing you and a real you... WhoooOOOoooOOOooo... WhoooOOOoooOOOooo...

(Halloween is coming, you know. Sound effects are needed)

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Opportunities and Turkeys. And Ducks.

So, it's Canadian Thanksgiving this weekend. We Canucks like to get a jump on things. Why wait until November for a holiday when we can just have two in October? Plus November is dreary. And I was born in October.

I swear there's some applicable logic in there somewhere.

So, a time to give thanks... and I thought, coming off the last post, that I should give thanks for my opportunities. So many of them... First, of course, is the family I came from, a wonderful little crew in a house full of books. A family that valued books and knowledge and education. My mother's father was a doctor, and my father's parents were a teacher (his mother) and a principal (his father). My mother is a nurse (who once taught nursing) and my father was a history professor (and published historian). So, books and education... a wonderful opportunity, and one that shows up as much in attitude and obsession as anywhere else.

My parents supported me, too, in what I wanted to do, and paid for much of my education. Two degrees in Creative Writing, another wonderful if perhaps impractical opportunity. But it's what I loved and they supported that.

And, of course, my wife, who is always there for me and always supports my writing ambitions. First reader, fellow writer, she makes everything possible. She understands what writing means to me, and that is no little thing. She permits me my obsession!

So, I have been blessed with many opportunities on this odd path. And I'm guessing it's good to sometimes stop and reflect on those opportunities, and be thankful for them. While eating my turkey this weekend I'll try to keep those things in mind.

Okay, yes, I'm actually making a duck. Duck is good. And if I burn it, um, it's your fault. Yes. Yours. That's my theory and I'm sticking to it.

Anyone else have writing opportunities they're thankful for?

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

10,000 Hours Under the Sea

One of the things I find inspiring about ol' Snoopy is his perseverence. He may not be the best writer in the world, but he sticks to it. He puts in his hours. Even rejection and criticism can't keep him down...

He's always back on top of his doghouse typing "It was a dark and stormy night..." There's something to be said for that. I've been reading Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, a book about success, and his 10,000 hour theory struck home with me. That is, for most things it usually takes about 10,000 hours of purposeful practice to achieve true mastery. Music, sports, art... 10,000 hours.

Now that's a daunting number in many ways, a whole ocean of hours weighing on your head. Start doing a little math... if you write an hour a day (which is great!) for a year you will end up with 365 hours of purposeful practice. And suddenly you see how daunting that number of 10,000 hours really is. Do that hour a day schedule for ten years... and you'll be a third of the way to true mastery. That's... a lot of work.

And yet there's something freeing about it, too. There are no limitations, with the exception that you will get out only as much as you put in. You need some talent... but success will be determined by how far and how hard you push that talent.

The trick, of course, is persevering and finding that time. Life intrudes... which means we have to take advantage of our opportunities. And that's really one of Gladwell's key points... it's often our opportunities that define our success, but only if we take advantage of them. Opportunity is not enough... nor is drive and effort. But opportunity combined with drive is a path to success. Bill Gates, for example, had a truly unique series of opportunities presented to him, a one in a million sort of series. His success was determined by those opportunities... and by how he exploited them. In a sense, his opportunity was really a chance to acquire those 10,000 hours of mastery before anyone else and at just the right time. Fortuitous. But only because he took advantage of what was presented to him.

I think this holds true for writing. I have a BA and a Masters degree in Creative Writing, and the process of acquiring these allowed me an opportunity to see a lot of different writers up close. I got to see how they worked. And by the end of that experience I had pretty clear ideas on which of those people had a chance and which of those didn't, and these were based not on raw talent but on how much the writers worked, how much they put into their writing. One of the girls in my MA class had the least amount of raw talent among the students, but she had a chance... because she would outwork the others. Who improved the most over those two years? You guessed it. Now, of the ones who didn't apply themselves, well, a few might at some point be struck by an epiphany, by the necessity of work, and apply themselves. But not many, I think. Gladwell, I'm sure, would note missed oppportunities, missed hours of practice. But the girl who worked... she was giving herself a chance. She took an opportunity and ran with it.

The only one who wrote more than her, in that class, was me. I'm thankful for this now, because I can see Grad School for what it was: an opportunity. Not because it would sprinkle me with the Magic Pixie Dust of Talent, or that the credentials would open doors for me... but simply because it was an opportunity to focus on writing. Two years with writing as my primary focus... and that held true for every writer in the class but few of them took full advantage of it. It's easier to drink beer and throw a few pages together to meet a deadline than it is to write four or five hours a day. And how many would have written nothing at all without the deadlines?

So that M.A. program was an opportunity, a chance to work toward those 10,000 hours. I took advantage of it, and am thankful I had that chance.

But that isn't always easy. We're not always presented with such opportunities. Working a day job, taking care of children, friends, family, housework... opportunities can be difficult to find. You have to root out those little opportunities... and then exploit them.

So... perseverence. What helps you get up on that doghouse each day? What helps you put in those hours? What helps you come back to the next story in the face of rejection or criticism (or the Red Baron shooting down your plane)? What pushes you to keep looking for those opportunities to write?

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Nuclear Powered Writers... Or Maybe Some (Environmentally Friendly) Hybrid Writers?

Something I rarely hear writers talk about: writing takes a lot of energy.

Is it just me, or is this something you don't hear much about either?

And I don't just mean physically, though it can be a little draining to hunch over a keyboard for hours on end. But I've done lots of things that were physcially more demanding. Here, though, the sort of energy I'm thinking about is really the mental and emotional sort. Writing sucks up this energy more than most things, I think.

It requires a lot just to start writing, to create something, to face that blank page. I think of it as a sort of metaphysical momentum - stories need a certain amount of energy to force themselves through you onto the page.

It takes energy to start something, to continue it, to finish it. It's a personal sort of energy, a well that endlessly varies in depth. Sometimes you have a lot, sometimes less so. Part of it, I think, is the simple act of creation. Nothing comes from nothing. Every idea needs a spark of energy to drive it, to allow it to fulfill itself. But more than that there's an investment... you put some of yourself in a story, something to make it real. It takes energy to invest yourself in a character, to see through their eyes and feel what they feel. And feeling what they feel... it's not unlike feeling a shadow of the real thing, an emotional ghost that haunts you and eats up a bit of your own life.

It's rare to have an endless capacity to write. Sometimes, oh so rarely, you might have the capacity to write for a day, ignorant of hunger and thirst. Usually it will be for a few hours, or a single one. Perhaps only minutes. Or perhaps it's just a second or two before your fingers are tired and the words start limping.

There's something draining about writing... and some of this mental and emotional energy is used for other things, and used up by them. How do you navigate that?

I've started a revision that's been requested of me, and yet I have a lot of drains going on right now. Certain things, whether good or bad, pull the energy out of you, always demanding a little more. So if you had an umpteenth revision on a book to do, and were low on that necessary energy, what would you do? What are some of the things that get you jazzed for writing, that help re-stock that strange well of Liquid Muse? Nuclear power, or clean hybrid energy, or solar... heck, I'd take some dirty coal energy right now and screw the environment. (Not really, though, with the coal, unless it's for a barbecue...)


I need some of this...

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Humor me.

So I decided to try my hand at humor again—nothing extravagant, just a short piece. I love to read humor and I sometimes inject a bit into my more serious stories, but I'm beginning to understand that sitting down and making a commitment to write humor—all out, full throttle—is not as easy as I would have thought. This puzzles me as well-written humor seems to flow more naturally from the author's own personality than say horror or science fiction, which tend to have more technical aspects.

I guess humor is more personal for each one of us. I tend to have a dark, dry humor that my wife often doesn't get, much to her exasperation. Some people prefer the more direct slap-stick approach. And then there's everything in between. I suppose, to a certain extent, romance is romance, horror is horror, but humor is often in the eye of the beholder. So I'm taking a survey, of sorts. How do you look at the funny stuff? Does it come easy for you? Or is it a challenge? Possibly you wouldn't even attempt it—or maybe it's all you write? Do you like to season your more dramatic pieces with a pinch of it, or do you feel that it detracts from serious writing?

What are your thoughts? Humor me.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Cement Boot

The City of Windsor today stuck a woman in wet cement up to the calf. Nefarious, I say. I think it's a warning... This Could Happen To You, Inklings Bookshop. Be Warned. We Bury People Alive. In Cement. And When We Accidentally Collapse the City into the Detroit River, Cement Will Sink...

Luckily, however, I know the City of Windsor, and thus know that due to some Engineering Error the City of Windsor will likely be forced to tear up any cement they lay down, freeing everyone from imprisonment. Apparently newly laid cement is irresistable to City of Windsor steam shovels. It's hard and tar-like surface is, apparently, much akin to toffee.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Oh, Shit is a Low Blow Even For You, City of Windsor

Okay, the City of Windsor just had a waste truck outside my store. A waste truck pumping (or dispersing?) shit. Through a big tube. A big leaky tube. And to prevent this from getting all over the sidewalk (the brand new sidewalk) the City of Windsor worker used a giant wooden board to deflect most of the shit. And then he left the giant wooden plank in the middle of the sidewalk. Covered in shit. And then he drove off. With the board still on the sidewalk. Did I mention it was covered in shit? Yes, shit.

That is a low blow, a dictionary definition case.

So... Inklings Bookshop is now officially at war with the City of Windsor. It will be a short war. Since, well, I'm closing. But also because I'm going to win! Ha ha! Once the City of Windsor fully subsumes the downtown core beneath the Detroit River I'm going to rally the mer-people and revolt. The City of Windsor won't be laughing so smugly with large tridents sticking out of their chests. "How's that for a public service!" ZHAM! (Notice the wonderful sound effects. I bet you didn't know giant tridents made that sound, but they do.) ZHAM! (See?)

Friday, September 11, 2009

Finger Choppings, Book Sales and Writing Sabbaticals

So, there hasn't been a post in awhile. Why, you ask? (I knew you'd ask that) Well, the first thing is that I chopped the heck out of my finger on a broken ceramic tile (Thank you, City of Windsor construction team!). Cut a nerve for free! I love bonuses. So, a painful and numbed fingertip equals less typing. And also, on the brighter side, my sale has been going great! Customers! They're this amazing breed of people who come in and give me money. I should have met these folks a long time ago. Whew, life would have been easier. So, no time to type on account of the need for money collection. :)

But this week in absentia got me thinking about time away from writing, whether physical or mental. Have you spent time away from writing? What was the experience and what was it like? And I think the big WB fits in here. Writer's Block, though I don't entirely believe in it. Or, rather, I'm not sure I entirely believe in writer's block as a thing in and of itself.

I think, in a sense, we've romanticized Writer's Block. We've made of it an enemy, a writerly Arch Nemesis, the big bad wolf who's coming to huff and puff at our door. I think this is a little simplistic, however, and find it a little dangerous to concede to such an idea. Perhaps you have a fear of failure, or a fear of success... labelling it as Writer's Block is misleading. There's no entity there. Maybe you're just lazy and don't want to face the necessity of work. Perhaps you don't have the energy for any number of reasons. Writer's Block, I think, is a shield, a mask, a boogey man to hide our challenges behind, to conceal the difficulties we face.

A little story: My father passed away in 2003, just before I was married. Grief mixing with the inevitability of starting a new life... I was moving, had just finished school, was just starting a new career while dealing with the onset of a chronic disease... life was a whirl, a maelstrom of demands and tensions. Some of these demands were wonderful and positive, yet others were less so. And amidst this I didn't write much of anything. A year? A year and a half?

To complicate things further, I'd just gotten an agent for a novel I'd written. What little creative energy I had went into final edits for that book, a project I'd poured a whole lot of myself into. And when my agent died just at the submission point... well, things came to a halt.

I was burnt out with that novel. I put it on a shelf (it's still there, awaiting a rewrite). Perhaps I was burnt out with writing in general... but I'm not so sure. Writer's Block? Again, I don't think so. I think it's a matter of human energy. One only has so much. I wasn't so much blocked as temporarily empty. And yet I wasn't bothered by this. I thought about writing, sometimes, and still had the occasional idea. But the vital energy wasn't there, and I accepted that. I knew it would come back. That energy was part of who I was... but I had depleted it, and it needed a little time to refill.

Grief was a big part of it, I think. Mental energy was being spent on memory, on an adjustment of the self in regards to its interaction with the world around it. I had to assess this new world, this new life I had come into. I had to make some sense of it before my eyes turned outward again. I needed to assess that foundation of self from which all fiction must spring, however well buried those foundation stones must be.

And, slowly, as I found new patterns in my new life, I found that energy replenishing itself, found that interior drive returning. I was still a little burnt out with that old novel. I had started a new career once again, and this was both tiring and invigorating. So I returned to writing full time, starting some new projects for a new stage in my life, and over the next few years I wrote two novels (or three, in a sense, if you look at them as they are now) which are now coming to fruition, as well as a number of stories.

And yet looking back I don't see that dry spell as a bad time, but rather as a necessary one. I think writer's block is sometimes what we make of it. If you make it a Boogey Man don't be surprised if it haunts your mental closet every night. I think, at least for me, there are more apt metaphors. Sometimes when I remember that period I think of the fields that lie around my house. Fallow fields are an old farming trick. If you plant rich crops every year, sometimes this abundance of life will leach the nutrients right out of the soil, and soon nothing will grow there, or nothing, at least, that you'd want to consume. Scraggly and withered is not good. So farmers would leave one of their fields fallow each year, unplanted, and each year they would rotate it to a new field. So every few years each field would have a fallow year, a year in which to replenish itself, to absorb the wind and rain and light, to feast on insects and plants and flowers. This is not done for the present, for quick gain, but rather for the future, as a way of ensuring rich and bountiful crops.

We are not so different, I think. Fallow periods feed productive ones. Vibrant stories come from rich imaginative soil. And sometimes that soil needs time to replenish itself.

So what are your experiences with fallow periods? Was it the big W and big B Writer's Block? Or something more specific? And are you better or worse for that period?

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Anecdotal Life of a Bookshop: The Moat

Yes, I have a moat in front of my shop. No lie. I thought I would move to a more medieval look, and this would be better for scaring intruding customers away.

And it was free! The city did it for absolutely nothing.

I came in today, excited, as it's sort of an important day: the first day of my big two month closing sale. The day I advertized for with that cold hard cash that had to be pried from my tight, tight fingers. And I arrive to find... no sidewalk. The city chose this day of all days to tear it up. And when I mean tear, I really mean tear. Tearing to the measure of a trench three feet wide and three feet deep. A wonderful moat. Apparently customers will really have to earn their book sale. By hurdling a moat. Plus the dodging of jackhammers, plows and steam shovels. I'm only awaiting Indiana Jones to swing in on his whip. I may have to rig up the flaming arrows myself. If I want the proper atmosphere, that is. And, you know, atmosphere is everything. There's no joie de vivre without flaming arrows.

And they broke my step. Tiles are all busted. But, hey, luckily the step won't be mine for much longer. Ha! Do your worst, City of Windsor. If you cross my moat I shall smite thee with a copy of The Canterbury Tales. Annotated. Hardcover. You haven't been smited until you've been smited with one of those. The gold leaf adds an extra little flair to the smiting.

Oh, and the workers cut a gas line, too. If they really work on it I think they can get the whole downtown core to subside into the Detroit River. I'm putting it at 50-50 right now. The Union Gas guy came to check my furnace and pilot light. Apparently I'm not going to burn up or asphyxiate. Which is good to know. I'd hate to be robbed of the chance to see the bottom of the Detroit River from the comfy confines of a bookshop.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Anecdotal Life of a Bookshop: Rain, Rain...

The faded, grey light of a rainy day offers soft illumination. A little hazy. The rain comes down. The rain stops. Droplets fall from fences, from rain-darkened branches. Drip, and drip, and drip.

The streets are quiet, becalmed. Huddled might be the word, if a street can huddle. Even after the rain stops the street is quiet, as if people do not yet trust the sky. No, no, the sun has been proven false too many times with its claims and promises.

An open door, a breeze. The coolness of wet-washed air.

A bird flies in. What did it sense, or want? A dry place, a bit of food? Has the shop been mistaken for an oddly shaped tree, a dusty and geometric nest?

It's small. A white belly, mottled brown wings. It panics. Walls and books (the rectangular ghosts of trees) seem strange to it, fearful. It hits a light, flies around. I can hear its wings in the silence. When else do you hear the wings of birds? Outside the sound is lost, dispersed to the sky, to the grass and trees. But here in the silence of a bookshop on a rainy day I hear the flap of wings.

The bird mistakes windows for sky, banging into them. Frustrated and confused, and now probably hurting (though the pain must be subsumed beneath the fear), the bird batters the glass, railing against the sense of a grand cage closing around it.

The bird flutters around the base of the window, as if expecting the transparent wall to vanish. Its mouth is open... perhaps it gasps for breath.

I have to herd the small bird, and without hurting it. I scare it, of course, but that can't be helped. From below, looking up, help and opportunity are like the tip of a giant umbrella poking and prodding one along.

Finally the bird is by the door. A final prod and it flies out into the damp air. Perhaps it dodges the drops of water, the drip and drip and drip, or perhaps not. Perhaps the touch of free water is to be embraced.

It is good, of course, to have at least one customer, fragile though they may be.

Post script: Picture, By Request... (a little blurry, I admit)

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Anecdotal Life of a Bookshop: Opening

There is something special about opening the door to my shop in the morning. Perhaps it's merely the morningness of it, the optimism of a new day and the opportunities it might bring. And yet there is something more, I think, the fleeting touch of something profound, or if not profound at least precious.

There is a perfection in that first moment, a sense of time unruined. There is a soft, shadowy gloom to the shop before I turn on the lights. Just the sense of a door opening out into space, into the soft gloom, and the long rows of bookcases receding back into deeper shadows. And on each shelf of each case there is a row of books, spines out. In the light that has yet to come the covers will show their colours, like neon leaves in the autumn, strutting their eye-catching graphic designs. But in the gloom there is just a shape, forms limned in various shifting greys, shadows and ghosts and mere suggestions of hidden truths.

The bookcases are dark wood, a rich colour even in the gloom. I know them well; I built them myself. Cut, nailed, stained and sealed. Real wood, organic, still a little alive. They seem expectant in the gloom, waiting, and yet always patient.

Morning light slants in the front windows, but it's pale yet, as the windows face west. The light is soft and seems to highlight the shadows more than dispel them. A soft glow hovers at the front of the shop and does not penetrate further back. My photographs hang, framed, above the shelves. Scenes from my travels, shots of buildings from odd angles, and rivers, waterfalls, trees. Maybe the shelves like these pictures, too, remembering a former life, a life of branches and leaves and digging roots. Life's a little drier now, perhaps, but they still get to hold a rich yield of fruit, though of a very papery kind.

I like that moment, standing in the just opened door, that sense of unfolding space, my gaze trailing down the aisles, the rows slipping away. The smell of wood, of paper, of dust, the smell of books. Peace... a sense of hallowed space. A personal space, a place sacred to just one person, and sacred only for a moment. For just that moment I feel a touch of something... perhaps it is something as simple as joy, or hope, or perhaps it is something more complex. Faith, perhaps, or some strange braiding of identity and geography, place becoming intertwined with self. A momentary hallowing, like hands cupped beneath cold water.

A bookshop. A door opening. A moment alone... a moment that is mine.

And what about you? What are your hallowed moments?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Signs Are Good

So... since nobody sued me for posting up that article the other day, I decided I'd put up a story I had published years ago. The real reason, of course, is that it's about Wal-Mart. And since helping to bring down Wal-Mart is so obviously of moral benefit, I figured posting this story was simply part of my civic duty. Death to the Tyrant! Viva la Revolucion!

The Signs Are Good

July 6
The signs are good about the new boss. He was authoritative right from the first meeting today. He went right to work, and that’s always a good sign. I thought, being promoted up from another store (a smaller Wal-Mart), that it might take him some time to settle in, you know, a breaking in period. But right in the first meeting, as soon as we got in, he jumped up and pounded on the VCR in the room, shouting and yelling.

The message was clear. He wanted to review the video training program we have for new employees. It was a good message: everything was important, and he was going to look at it all from the ground up, get us back on track. The last few bosses had really gotten us down, but Mr. Ansee was just what we needed to pick us up. It was obvious he wanted to start where the company starts: with the employees, and how they’re trained. The company was built on the employees, he was saying by his actions, and I agree totally, that’s what I’ve always thought, and I told him just that, that “This great company was founded on the backs of its fine employees.”

“ooooouuaaahh oooouuuaaahhh,” he said. The Boss. Mr. Ansee.

We reviewed the films quite thoroughly, and we could tell that Mr. Ansee was not thrilled, as he kept making deep growling sounds and slapping the table. It was clear he was demanding, and wanted lots of changes, but it was all for the best, for the betterment of the company. We could all see his dedication. It was his passion for Wal-Mart that made him growl like that.

He wasn’t entirely for the hard line approach, however. He jumped up and down, and spun around, doing a little dance, which got everybody going a bit, as he waved his arms about. He was demanding, but it was clear he had his jolly side, and wanted everyone to be happy while working. It loosened the tension, and then he joked with us, sticking a whole tangerine in his mouth and chewing it up. It was good motivation for us all, and kept him from seeming too imposing.

At first glance he didn't seem all that intimidating, being only two and a half feet tall and with a sort of tanned and wrinkly face, but he had that air about him. He was in command and we all knew it. Perhaps it was the black fur, or maybe the dramatic gestures, but we all knew who was in charge. His aggressiveness was lightened by his perpetual smile, which showed lots of blocky teeth and a wide expanse of gums (you know the kind of smile I’m talking about). It lessened the impact of his intensity, which was a powerful thing, upon us, and put us at our ease.

“waaa-wa. waaa-wa,” he shouted to us as we left, leaving off with a great “eeeehh-eeeh.”

July 8
Mr. Ansee inspected the stock area today. He was very enthusiastic, climbing right up on the boxes, jumping between racks. He showed just the sort of vigor he wants from all of us, and took us on a thorough inspection tour. His daring leap into the cardboard compacting machine showed everyone that safety was a top priority, and he wanted everyone to be on guard. Everyone is in high spirits, though Nathan, the night manager, gave him a few wary looks. I am sure it’s just a matter of adjustment, however. My fellow assistant manager, Bob, said we were on the fast track now, playing with the big boys, and Ms. Delmonte, one of the secretaries, said she’d never been so happy coming in to work as today. A “whole new atmosphere” she said.

July 9
Inspired by Mr. Ansee, I’ve started reading The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Knowledge, hard work, and the example of Mr. Ansee can take me far on my journey to become head of a store myself. A boss can be playful, but everyone has to know who’s in charge.

People have taken to leaving Mr. Ansee fruit, which he seems quite fond of (the tangerine that first day was a good sign, I think). He seems particularly fond of bananas and avocados. I don’t know why, but he really seems to have a thing for the avocados, so much so that we often see him going around with avocado juice dripping down his chin, though he always gives us a big toothy smile regardless. I can’t say where all the avocados are coming from, but he seems to enjoy them greatly. The employees all seem happy and appreciated, and I, as an Assistant Manager, urge them to look up to Mr. Ansee as the finest example of a positive working attitude. He shows them just what you can achieve with a little hard work and elbow grease.

He was even at the front door today, entertaining the customers. He’s an example to us all.

July 16
There was some insubordination today, and Mr. Ansee had to get firm with Mrs. Castles, one of the secretaries. It seems she ate one of his avocados, and Mr. Ansee screeched at her terribly, his brow wrinkled up and his teeth bared, black fur standing on end. The message was clear: there would be no theft, no filching from the company, even if the items seemed irrelevant. There would be no ‘freebies’. Mr. Ansee would brook no actions detrimental to the company. This Wal-Mart would be the finest Wal-Mart, bar none. Mrs. Castles apologized profusely, but even after that we could hear Mr. Ansee raging in his office for quite some time. But, order had been established, and now everyone knew the rules, the zero tolerance policy for detrimental behavior.

July 21
Everyone’s been a little unsettled, and Bob has cast numerous worried looks in the direction of Mr. Ansee’s office, where Mr. Ansee has been keeping himself, locked away from everybody. Some of the others think the Avocado Affair has depressed him, and it seems as if the stock getting shipped in has been getting stranger and stranger. A lot of plastic trees have been coming in, and the Garden Centre in general has been rather overstocked. Some of the office staff think something might be wrong, but that’s just everyday grumbling around the water-cooler. I have faith in Mr. Ansee. I’m sure it's all part of a new sales and marketing plan he has devised for us, to get us out of our lull.

July 29
Mr. Ansee has become quite close with one of the secretaries, Ms. Delmonte. She has often been seen going into his office, and loud growlings have sometimes been reported from within. It seems Ms. Delmonte often comes out looking quite rumpled, blouse only half-tucked, and with a dopey grin on her face. The grumblings have grown louder around the water-cooler, especially as Mr. Ansee himself can often be seen preening his fur, grinning at anyone who goes by and occasionally pawing at the other secretaries in an over-friendly way. The night manager, Nathan, heard about this and told me, before he left this morning, that he thinks such a relationship, or even the hint of such a relationship, is inappropriate and detrimental to morale in the workplace. Likely, though, he is just upset about the recent events on the night shift. It seems that Mr. Ansee has often been staying late, prowling around the store throughout the night, lurking in the corridors and the stock area. Nathan is disturbed by this, seeing it as a spy mission, believing that Mr. Ansee doesn’t respect his authority or trust him to run the evening staff, the janitors and stockers. Bitterness over this has been brewing for some time, and is likely just being voiced in the concern over the relationship with Ms. Delmonte. Ms. Delmonte herself is mum on the whole affair, and, personally, I think personal life is personal, and shouldn’t be anybody’s business. Their relationship is their own concern. Our concern is, and should always be, the Wal-Mart company, at least during work hours.

August 3
Everyone’s nerves have been a little tight lately, likely on account of the first shipments of Back to School supplies, which means store rearrangements and more work for everybody. Mr. Ansee has been tense. He even went so far as to tear apart the stuffed animal display in the toys section, scattering the animals around and tearing apart one of the giant stuffed gorillas.

“waaaarrk waaaarrkk,” he shouted, in his anger and disgust.

He was obviously disheartened by the lack of professionalism shown by everybody, and the lack of attention to detail. He demands the best, but there are many who think he has gone too far, has been too dictatorial of late. Where are the humorous antics of before, the little things that kept everyone loose?

Bob, who is in charge of the displays, has been looking a little depressed, and the secretaries are unhappy. It seems Ms. Delmonte has stopped doing any real work, usually just sitting and preening herself, waiting for Mr. Ansee to call her to his office. There has been much snipping going on during coffee breaks. Ms. Delmonte is holding herself distant from the others.

I have continued reading The 7 Habits, to try and get on top of things, predict Mr. Ansee’s future course. It has been enlightening, so far. Mr. Ansee is right to take a strong stance.

August 11
There was a catfight in the lounge today. It seems one of the secretaries, a Ms. Bartle, had a private... conference... with Mr. Ansee today, and was walking around quite smugly in front of Ms. Delmonte. It quickly came to insults and blows, and, though it was separated quickly, some damage had been done to office morale. Mr. Ansee said “aaaahhh aaaahhh aaaahhh” and didn’t seem to be bothered by the event. Some of the younger employees, in a rather callous fashion, seemed to be amused, and said it was “just like a Springer episode”.

Have read some more 7 Habits, but am still a little concerned about our current course. I’ve recently been reminded of the failures of previous bosses. Still, though, I have faith in Mr. Jim Ansee. He is top notch, and I will trust him and the plans he has for our store.

P.S. on a minor note, certain rumors have been floating around, that either Mr. Ansee is going to be fired or promoted up by Head Office. Either, I think, would be bad for us, but I trust Head Office to do the right thing.

August 17
The Back to School craze is on in full. I have worked long hours to keep everything going, keep it on track. Sales are up, but Mr. Ansee is still upset, and I often see him swinging from the light fixture in his office. He destroyed a price check machine yesterday. While making an important philosophical point, perhaps, he should have known that those machines cost a thousand dollars each, bang, in one shot. When I tried to inform him of this he threw his pencil sharpener at me and grinned.

Came home from work today a little disgruntled. Stress has mounted. Doctor says I might have an ulcer. Still reading The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Is there a point to it all? I’ll keep reading, looking for the answers.

August 18
Mr. Ansee bit someone today. It was Nathan, our night manager. They had gotten into a shouting argument, in which Nathan yelled that Mr. Ansee was running the business into the ground.

Mr. Ansee shouted “aaaahhh aahhhh rraaawwk raaaawwkk,” and then leapt on Nathan and bit him on the shoulder. After sending Nathan off to the hospital to get a tetanus shot, I tried to calm down Mr. Ansee, but he would have none of it, staying in his office with his avocados (there are those who still seek his goodwill, and apparently buy it with gifts of fruit – this sort of favoritism troubles me).

There is more trouble with the secretaries, as well. Some sort of power struggle seems to be going on, and little work is being done. We’re behind on all invoicing.

August 19
Nathan came in today and quit. His arm was in a sling. He said Wal-Mart was a terrible jungle, and he wasn’t going to stay there anymore. He said the pay was pretty crappy for what he had to put up with. He was going back to school.

Mr. Ansee took the news poorly, locking himself in his office and refusing to speak to anybody.

Stock has been misordered. Back to School doesn’t have the proper supplies. And now I have to find a new night manager at the second busiest time of the year (If this was Christmas we’d be done for sure). I might have to work nights myself for awhile, until I find someone competent (most of the employees beneath me are high school students).

Strange suspicions have been creeping over me, that Mr. Ansee is just like all the rest, no different from all the other managers. But, no, I won’t give in. I have faith in Head Office, that they sent us the right man.

August 23
We’ve all been caught in the doldrums. Even Mr. Ansee is not immune. I brought him an avocado today, and he simply slapped it away and disappeared back into his office.

Neither Ms. Bartle or Ms. Belmonte showed for work today.

Head Office sent some disturbing memos about receipts they had yet to receive. Mrs. Castles told me that Mr. Ansee was “currently unavailable”.

August 24
Heard Mr. Ansee only once today. It was over the PA system. He shouted “raaawwkaa raaaawwkka rraaawwwkaaaaaa,” and all the customers (and employees) thought it was a fire alarm, or bomb threat of some sort, and ran out of the building. Only a few came back in.

We have many unsold pencil crayons, and many young students will see September without a proper ruler or compass.

August 25
Finished The 7 Habits. Not sure it will help.

We are grossly overstocked with plastic dividers for binders.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


Laura Martone has nominated us for a Kreativ Blogger award! And already I'm failing miserably because I don't know how to copy the image for the Kreativ Blogger logo into my post. Yes, I write a blog despite being a techno-rube! I have overcome much.

And now, my seven internet appointed tasks (yes, think of Hercules. And me. In the same way. Heroic tasks, similar phsycal build...)

1. Thank the person who nominated you for this award. (Not too hard. Thanks again, Laura)

2. Copy the logo and place it on your blog. (Okay, yes, I've failed miserably at this one)

3. Link to the person who nominated you for this award. (Shall now attempt... bingo! Yes, html code is tough for us rubes)

4. Name 7 things about yourself that people might find interesting. (I own a bookstore. I love shoes and yet retain %100 of my manliness. Unlike Laura, I have broken and torn all sorts of bodily things, and each story is less interesting than the last. I used to be a teacher. I also used to work a nightshift at Wal-Mart... and survived - this is to be commended. My kids are better looking than I - this is obvious. My kids are smarter than I - this is also obvious.)

5. Nominate 7 Kreativ Bloggers. (Okay...)

6. Post links to the 7 blogs you nominate.

7. Leave a comment on each of the blogs letting them know they have been nominated. (I'll see what I can do... I think it may kill me, though. This award is cool, but it's also sort of the mother of all chain letters. Those poor nominees...)

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Anecdotal Life of a Bookshop: In the Beginning

The last post got me thinking about that strange need, that strange want of book. I think all readers (and writers) have this: a want of book. A desire for books, a little cerebral itch. And, really, that's what having a bookstore was all about for me: a massive want of book. A neurosis, perhaps, a want of book grown beyond all bounds. And joyously so.

In particular that idea of the want of book started me thinking not just about the drive I had to open a bookstore, but the actual beginning of it, the first steps of acquisition. I needed books, and I had to find them... and purchase them. A book lover's dream, perhaps. Free rein to buy books...

I started travelling, hopping in my car and driving to book sales all across the province. Church sales, charity sales, store sales, library sales... A family trip to the zoo even detoured into a purchasing spree at a closing bookstore. Books!

It's a pilgrimage, of sorts. My trips grew longer. Into a new country, through the states of Michigan, Ohio and New York. Long drives with only the lure of books to draw me on. But in the end... a sale, a place full of books (and cheap books, at that), where I could grab and handle them, could smell and almost taste them. Filling one box, and then another, and another. I could look at each cover, brushing my hand across the pages. Each title, each writer. A little blessing for each and then into the greedy box. Long drives to get there. Six hours, eight hours, ten hours... yet the drives home were always longer. The book want temporarily satisfied, and missing my family... driving the highways, an endless slick of blacktop flowing beneath, passing out of mind and memory.

Yet always another sale. And if these trips were pilgrimages, Mecca was Ithaca, New York. In the spring and fall Ithaca holds a book sale, each time spread over three weekends. Each day of the sale the book prices drop. And they have, each time, up to 300,000 books for sale. A two day trip, a long long drive down, a cheap hotel, and then a sale to end all sales. A warehouse with endless shelves, shelves always seemingly refilled, inexhaustible, a basket of blessed bread and fish.

A long ride home, of course. But before that I stopped at a few parks. Ithaca is located in the beautiful Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, an area comprehensively checker-boarded by state parks. The most beautiful, perhaps, is Watkins Glen, where a river has carved down through the forest, down through the rock, carving out a steep canyon draped in a lush forest skin. The water peels and tumbles over stone, down waterfalls, winding and cutting ever lower, ever closer to a welcoming lake. Shadow and mist shape the way, colouring it in extremes. Paths wind along the water's edge, sometimes below the cliffs, sometimes above. The path ducks behind a waterfall, where my fingers feel the flood of white life falling down, ever eager to continue its journey. Light is dappled into bright slants through the leaves of overhanging trees.

Above, climbing through the forest, I stumble out into a graveyard. The sun touches it on this high hill overlooking the world, as if the dead want to see for miles and thus remember their own travels, their own lost movements. History rests in the stone markers. 1900s, 1800s, 1700s... stones worn and weathered, a little faded and yet holding true, their words lingering.

Yet the most amazing thing was that I was entirely alone. It was in the park's off season, a monday morning. And it was entirely empty. Just me. Not another car in the parking lot, not another person on the paths. I'd been here before, as a child, and I remembered the water and the gorge and the hot sun and the press of people, the families vacationing and wandering about, kids complaining, asking for drinks, for snacks, for ice cream. Yet now... I was alone. The park was mine, and in that moment existed only for me.

A connection remains, between the book pilgrimmage and the gorge. In my head the experiences are intertwined, resonant, mutually reflective. Connected by time and geography, yes... but also by a feeling, by a sense of something ineffable. The park that day held a sense of both solitude and communion, and I sometimes think that ambivalent feeling is the perfect metaphor for a book.

A book is its own world, self-contained and communicative... you share a world, and yet you share it in solitude. You commune, but inside the strictures of your own imagination. You have a whole world to explore, and yet you explore it alone, with only the memory to share. Yet there is, I think, in that solitude, something profound. In that solitude is a most perfect and willing moment of shared story, a communication that slips the bindings of time. It is a piece of life framed in pages.

And so what was a bookstore but a collection of these infinite little worlds? Shared pieces of life, so many of them, becoming a vast quilt, but one ever shifting and changing. A place where others could come and share too, partaking of those moments, those lives, those worlds. Slipping a little further through time, a little further into story.

Each trip was a pilgrimmage, and yet so is each book. A trip to solitude and communion.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Anecdotal Life of a Bookshop: I Don't Want a Book (Apparently)

People are odd. And one of the ways people are odd is to be odd about books. And one of the oddest of such oddities occurs when a customer comes in to ask for a specific book. This happens a lot, and normally it's a simple and painless process. Someone asks for a book: I can say "Yes, I have it," or I can say "No, I don't have it," or I can say "Let me check."

Checking is better than saying "No." Checking draws the customer in, and if I don't have what they're looking for, well, they may find something else just as good. Get them looking at the shelves themselves, that's the key. See, salesmanship! Hard to believe, I know, but I've learned a few things. Not many, admittedly, but a few.

The interesting thing, though, occurs when I do have a book. Actually, most of the time it's not interesting, but simply profitable. And happy! "Yes, I do have that book! Here it is!" "Great! Here's my oodles of cash with which to feed your children! I'll bring more the next time I come through!" Everyone's happy, Amen, Hallelujah.

But sometimes people come in, eager and excited, a question on their lips: "I'm looking for Book X. Really, I've been looking for it everywhere. Do you have it?"

"Yes, I do! Come this way."

I present the book. It's shiny. It's exactly what they want. They came into the store for just this very thing. Eagerly, bouncily, happily... they are the Tiggers of the book world, and they are getting just what they want.

But... a moment of hesitation. They turn the book over... heft it a little, as if its weight were a key factor in the process of selection and purchase. And here is the strangeness... a moment of pause, a flattening of expression, a cessation of Tiggerish bounciness. What's going through their mind? Doubt of some sort, it seems. Was this really what they wanted? They consider. A pregnant moment, a moment of stillness, where the direction of movement is not yet decided and yet still imminent. Everything teeters, teeters so precariously...

They are wondering, perhaps, what the reasons were for wanting this book. They have it now, in their hands, and yet perhaps the reasons grow distant, escaping beyond the bounds of the want that drove them into the shop... and that want has now become a thin and paltry thing. So vague, so poorly understood... like a dream when one awakes, a dream that slips away even as they try to hold it. So insubstantial. In a moment it is only the fragment of an image, a lingering mood, a feeling, a few lonely words. This is all, seemingly, that's left of their want, the need that had driven them so keenly only moments before. A disparity, perhaps, between that bright want and the dim, bookish shape in their hands.

Perhaps they had loved the ideal, the platonic perfection of the image. It was made grand by want, by distance, by the very lack that drove the want in the first place. It was exciting because they did not have it, because of the possibly of it, the maybe of it. And perhaps the concrete existence can't match this mystery. A book. A title, a picture, pages and pages of words. Sentences, too. Paragraphs. Is this really what they wanted, a collection of paragraphs?

No, this could not be it. They didn't want this, not sentences, no. Certainly not paragraphs. And chapters? Out of the question. They shake their head a little. Hum and haw and become very aware of my presence. They asked for it but don't really want it, not really. They wanted the wanting. The thrill of the chase. Now there's only awkwardness; they asked for it and now they have it. What now? What to do? Should they really offer money for this thing? Money for words?

"Hmmm, maybe..." they say, but already their hand is inching back to the shelf. Slowly, though, as if not to spook the bookcase and scare it away. Don't startle, nice and easy, just put the book down slow and everything will be alright... Slow, yes. If they put it back slowly enough no one will notice they're putting it back. Even the shelf won't notice the extra weight. Just that Dostoyevsky, the shelf will think, putting on a little extre Christmas fat that'll be gone by spring.

The customer says something unrelated. Distraction. The magician's oldest trick: draw the eye away.

The book is re-shelved. They look around the shop, but their heart isn't in it. They've waylaid their Tiggerishness, they're all bounced out. If they didn't want what they wanted, how could they want what they didn't want? They continue to browse - distracting everyone (even themselves) from the memory of that one book, it's rejection and re-shelving, as if they had always come in just to browse.

They leave.

What they wanted was not enough. What I wanted (a sale) was not enough, either. Those two wants had circled each other, snarling, marking their territory. In the end that other want, the one that lived so ephemerally as a want and never became a need, had sidled up to me and peed on my foot.

Friday, August 7, 2009

A Confidence of Vision

This post by Rick Daley got me thinking about critique, and in particular about an article I published about it awhile ago. Thought I'd toss it up here, since the rights have reverted to me now. At least I think they have. If I get sued I'll know I was wrong. I'm the Evel Knievel of internet daring.

Anyway, here it is...

A Confidence of Vision

A young writer sits at her desk, typing at the keys, her fingers connected as if by invisible strings to a dream, a vision that lurks in her head. Keys rattle and tap, and she hopes only that they might keep up with the dream, the flicker and flutter of images upon some inner screen. Lost to the world, she writes a story. When she is finished, she takes a break, breathing a little hard, exhilarated with what she has before her. A story, and it's so wonderful…

Life intrudes. Bills have to be paid, work done, friends seen, parents reassured. Days later she comes back to her wonderful story, and when she reads it she finds it is not quite so wonderful as she had thought. It needs revision. She tinkers. She's not so lost to the world, now, as she writes. She frets, and Starbucks cups gather around her desk, the detritus of anxiety. She flips a word, and then flips it back again. She is undecided. What should she do? It's good, the story, but is it good enough? Things nag her, but she is not sure what they are. The story is not right, but she can't see what's wrong.

She decides to send it to a critique group, and wonders what they will say. She sends the virgin story off, and she waits.

(More Starbucks cups appear, forming an odd mocha-scented maze through which she wanders…)

And then the critiques come, all twelve of them. And each says an entirely different thing, each wounding her in an entirely new way.

She stares at the critiques for some time, and her story blurs before her and becomes unreal, as if it had come from some other person's mind, had passed through some other person's fingers.

What now?

* * *

Criticism is an important step, though a difficult one, in the writing process. It is often necessary, yet despite that necessity it is also dangerous, and often misleading. Nothing is more likely to wound a writer, or derail a story. And yet we, as writers, keep coming back to it Necessity dictates this to us: our need for an objective view of what has become immensely personal, immensely close to us. That very closeness, which allowed us to see and create our story in the first place, has now become our enemy. It prevents us from clearly seeing our work, and from clearly seeing the viewpoints of others in regards to it.

It is this last idea I want to talk about. That is, what is the writer's response to criticism? There is a strange duality, usually, in a writer's acceptance of criticism, and their closeness to their work plays a role in both. The story is part of you, has come from you, is you. It's your child. And then somebody slaps it. Let's be real, for most writers critique of any sort will always invoke a reaction. Appreciation for time spent on our behalf? That would be nice. Due consideration for the important insights offered? We can hope. But that is not usually the first reaction, which goes more like this: "That is the stupidest thing anyone has ever said. This person is an idiot. I don't like them, and I have the feeling that nobody else likes them either. And if they do, they won't for long. This person has the morals and personal habits of a leech. Except the leech is better looking."

Hopefully, though, we can all get over this, and feel some of that "due consideration for time spent" slowly seeping in to balance the angst. Slowly we will settle ourselves, and appreciate that, yes, these people really are trying to help us (most of the time – but that's another topic entirely). But what then? We still face a difficult task. We have twelve honest critiques, and each says something different, and each sees the story in an entirely different way. We hope for those eureka moments, where a suggestion flashes in the mind as so right, so perfect, that we can't do anything but accept it, and use it. But this is more rare than we might wish, and paralysis can so easily set in. We are too close to the story, and these views are too foreign, too alien to what we ourselves see in the words.

This is a danger, and a gift. A danger because we cannot always assimilate them, and a gift because these are the very objective views we are looking for. The danger is pervasive: we risk paralysis, or we risk being controlled by the critiques. Whether sent in goodwill or not, this is always a real danger. Many writers feel compelled to answer every charge brought by every critique. And yet each will have different, and sometimes contradictory, views. And such contradictions can lead to writerly paralysis, or to the abandonment of the story. "Everything is wrong. Nothing worked. Better to scrap it."

Yet such different views are at the heart of the reading experience. There are no perfect books, no stories which perfectly please all readers. One could look at the overwhelming popularity and success of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and question this theory. And yet, for all its beloved success, there are many intelligent readers of fantasy who truly dislike the story. We would soon run out of fingers, toes, and even hairs on our head if we were to try and count each one. So why should our own rough draft meet universal acclaim?

It won't. But that is what criticism is for, to provide an opportunity for us to see our work in a new way, and to improve it. This is the beauty of those myriad views: each will allow you a new glimpse of your story, one untainted by your own closeness.

Yet we still have our dilemma. What do we do with these alien glimpses, these strange sightings and interpretations of our word-formed child? We cannot satisfy every charge against it, or take every suggestion. Nor should we. We cannot cede control to a dissenting voice merely because it dissents. We must remember that it is our story, and no matter how insightful a critique might be this person will never know the story as well as we do, because the story is ours. It lives first and foremost inside us. A critique can only comment on this outward skin, this reflection in words we have cast out onto page and screen.

And this is the key. It is this inner vision, this purest form of the story that unscrolls before our eyes (momentarily blind to the world around us), which must guide us. It is important to receive critiques, and hopefully they will be good critiques. But we must remember that it is not the critiques, be they good or bad, which are truly important, but what we do with them. The most important part of the critique is the writer's analysis of it. We must break down each critique, and try to understand it, and understand it in light of what we are trying to do. We don't have to look at it just in regards to the story the reader sees, the story on the page, but rather we should look to interpret it in regards to the story only we can see. In so doing we can see the disparity between them. Our goal is to realize, as best we can, that story inside us, and to recreate it for the reader, to make the two versions match as closely as possible. We want to shape our words until they offer a story to match the dream-like vision that haunts us, so that the reader can see what we see, and feel what we feel.

Even this perfectly recreated version will not please everyone, but we can finally rest, at least, assured that this is a matter of taste rather than a failure of craft. It is a difficult thing, and yet we can do it. It is that inner vision that must guide us, our own unique view of the story we want to tell. We cannot let ourselves be derailed. Do not let someone switch tracks, and drive our story toward a destination we do not wish to reach. It is our story, and our vision, and we must have confidence in it. We must hold to it.

We can let critiques shape our story, but we can't let them shake it loose from those bright tracks we see running before us. The destination is ours, and only we know the way.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Blogging the Rings: Fellowship, Chapter 11

Aha! Thought I'd given up, didn't you? But no! I have an indomitable will of steel. Well, okay, it gets a little soft and saggy in the middle. But pobody's nerfect, right? (I had a door hanger with that on it when I was a kid. Sharp.)

A Knife in the Dark

The chapter starts with a jump back to the minor character of Fatty Bolger, watching the house in Crickhollow. The Black Riders come to the house, a scene which acts as a nice opening book-end to match with the scene at the end of the chapter (the Riders attacking the companions on Weathertop - getting ahead of myself, though...). And some moments of fine writing: "they stood, as still as the shadows of stones". I like that, both the image and the rhythm, the slight sibilance of those 's' sounds without overdoing it. And it's nice to see the danger and strength of the Black Riders growing:

"In the dark without moon or stars a drawn blade gleamed, as if a chill light had been unsheated. There was a blow, soft but heavy, and the door shuddered.
'Open, in the name of Mordor!' said a voice thin and menacing.
At a second blow the door yielded and fell back, with timbers burst and lock broken. The black figures passed swiftly within."

I like the unsheathing of the chill light, and I like the yielding door and how it falls back. A bit of personification, something of a military metaphor. The sense of forces in contention. And I like the power: a knock that bursts wooden timbers. Yes, the Black Riders are certainly to be reckoned with now. Except, of course, that Fatty has slipped out the back door and escaped. Yes, hobbits are quiet and good at sneaking... but wouldn't the Riders have thought a little more of this possibility, particularly if they think the Ring is at stake? But Fatty escapes, and raises the alarm, and the Black Riders race away, uncaring of the alarm. Only the Ring matters. And Sauron can deal with the Hobbits later... a foreshadowing for the end of the series?

Frodo awakes from a troubled dream, a transition that makes it seem almost as if he felt or sensed what was happening in Crickhollow. I wouldn't say transitions are one of Tolkien's strong suits, but he gets them right sometimes.

When the companions arise (in the Prancing Pony in Bree) and return to their original rooms, they find them wrecked. I think this helps heighten the tension, shows how close their enemies are getting... and yet I also wonder a little at the competence of Sauron's pursuers. They seem to be always close, and yet never make the right choice or figure out a way to catch up with the companions. You'd think they might be a little better at searching.

This is followed by a few pages of the commonplace: eating breakfast, getting a pony from Bill Ferny, a brief authorial jump forward in time to tell the story of the lost ponies and how they returned. This last is one of those interesting bits that I wonder if the story might be better off without. It draws attention to the narrator and away from the story, without much to gain. I mean, the reader doesn't really need to know what happened to the ponies. Why pull away from the drama of the moment?

Finally, the hobbits and Strider leave Bree, though not before Sam pings the sly Bill Ferny with an apple in the face. An interesting little reminder that Sam, for all his homeyness, has a tough side to him, especially when you consider the size difference between Sam and Bill Ferny. A rough sort of courage there, and it strikes me again that Sam is the blue collar fellow, while the other three hobbits are of a more genteel class. And Sam's even a little funny about it, with his "Waste of a good apple."

The companions cross into the wilderness, heading for Rivendell. They pass through marshland (and offere a couple of funny comments about bugs - a nice touch. A bit of humour, a bit of "show" rather than "tell"... but not too much. Nothing that bogs down the story, pardon the pun). That night they see flashes on a distant hill, "like lightning that leaps up from the hill-tops", though even Strider has no explanation for it - and this lack is worrying and adds to the tension.

The little company continues on toward Weathertop, and again we see Tolkien's penchant for foreshadowing... and for turning a bit of humor on its head for dramatic effect:

"Pippin declared that Frodo was looking twice the hobbit that he had been.
'Very odd," said Frodo, tightening his belt, "considering that there is actually a good deal less of me. I hope the thinning process will not go on indefinitely, or I shall become a wraith.'
'Do not speak of such things!' said Strider quickly, and with surprising earnestness."

A nice bit of ordinary humour, turned suddenly to a warning... and an interesting bit of foreshadowing, for this is exactly what the Black Riders intend for Frodo, looking to turn him into a wraith just as they are.

There's a fair bit of world building thrown in here, with some of the history of Amon Sul (the watchtower whose ruins remain on Weathertop) and Gil-galad, the elven king. And again a bit of foreshadowing: "'Going to Mordor!' cried Pippin. 'I hope it won't come to that!' 'Do not speak that name so loudly!' said Strider."

Arriving finally at Weathertop, they find the crown scarred by flame, and a possible message left by Gandalf... though all is uncertain. Yet it would explain the lights they had seen in the sky three nights earlier. I find I like how this is handled... things are left somewhat vague. Explanations are offered, but nothing is certain. I think it helps maintain the air of mystery and danger. Was it Gandalf? Did he survive? What happened? And I like that we only now get a delayed answer to the mystery of the lights in the sky. Set something up... and don't rush to solve it to quickly. Let it percolate a little and only then come back to it.

And then they see black specks on the road... the enemy approaching. They descend to a dell farther below and camp. Strangely, they make no attempt to run or sneak away. Is making a stand really the safer route here? It would not strike me as so. Indeed, they tell stories, which seems a little odd, though in the hope that they might be fortifying: "It is a fair tale, though it is sad, as are all tales of Middle-earth, and yet it may lift up your hearts." Interesting, really, that all tales of Middle-earth are sad... another bit of foreshadowing? It's true, in a way, as Tolkien does often eschew the happy ending. One of those elements, I think, that moves his stories beyond the simple Good versus Evil brand of fantasy. And the story Strider tells is that of Beren and Luthien. A courageous story, and heartening in a sense, as they defeat Morgoth (Sauron's old master), but also sad, as it's a tale of doomed love and tragedy and loss. Strider has an eager face as he explains, and speaks of the lineage of Beren and Luthien, which is interesting as this is also his lineage, and Arwen's, too, and the story of Beren and Luthien mirrors their own in many ways.

Finally, the Ringwraiths come. Merry and Pippin fall in dread. Again, Sam shows his toughness and stays by Frodo's side, despite his fear. Frodo himself feels a terrible compulsion and puts on the Ring, and suddenly he can see the Ringwraiths clearly, and their leader approaches, a knife in his hand glowing with a pale light. Yet here Frodo does not give in, but shouts and attacks, despite the compulsion of the Ring (sadly the movie skips this part, and keeps Frodo cowering - a slight de-heroing of the tale, it seems to me). But Frodo is wounded, and falls back, slipping the ring off even as Strider attacks the Ringwraiths with fire.

A nice cliffhanger, yes?