A towheaded little kid came over to me in the waiting room of a doctor’s office. “You have an iPad!” he said, peering down at the screen. “Do you have any games?”

“Just Scrabble,” I said.

“You should have more games,” he said. “I could find one for you. Us kids know all about technology.”

He was so cute that I indulged him by going to the iTunes store to look for games. I had no intention of buying any, but then I noticed one game was free: Angry Birds.

“That’s pretty good,” the kid said.

So I downloaded Angry Birds right there in the waiting room. Before he could show me how to play, though, his mother noticed he was causing trouble and called him back to her.

Angry Birds - The Original

The Angry Bird Triumphs

Apparently Angry Birds is wildly popular, but I’d never heard of it before. Later I gave it a shot – literally, since the game consists of shooting birds at fortified targets with a slingshot. The goal is to break through the fortifications of wood and stone to destroy the green pigs within. If the player manages to eliminate all the pigs, the soundtrack erupts in raucous crows of triumph. If not, the remaining pigs gloat by snorting and grinning.

Angry Bird is an elegant game. Its design is perfect for the touch screen of the iPad, and winning requires logic as well as a steady hand and true aim. The fortifications must be hit in the right spot to bring them crashing down on the pigs.

Angry Birds is also dangerously addicting, as I discovered over the next few weeks. I had essays to read – dozens of essays – yet I wasted hours playing Angry Birds. “One game,” I told myself, knowing better. I could not quit after losing, and I could not quit if my winning score fell short of my best score. Since then I have moved on to Angry Bird Rio, in which the propelled birds bust through cages to free other birds captured by evil smugglers. I like Rio even better. Avian Liberation!

The game got me thinking about the ways I waste time and whether any of them can be justified. I play Scrabble on the iPad for hours, but at least it hones my mental skills. What do I gain from Angry Birds? Relaxation. A way to engage my conscious mind as my unconscious works out some problem that has been vexing me.

I waste time by shopping online. There’s no justification for that, except the pleasure it gives. I waste time rereading books that I’ve already read and watching movies and TV shows that I’ve already seen more than once. Maybe I gain a deeper understanding of the works by going back to them, but my motive isn’t so  high-minded. I’m really just having fun. Nothing wrong with that. Except everyone’s time on earth is limited. I have only so many days left to live. Who knows, maybe only today. Do I really want to spend my last precious hours gazing at pictures of shoes or shooting virtual birds at virtual targets?

Well, no. But I don’t want to spend them listening to a clock tick either. Everything I enjoy doing – from writing fiction to riding my horse to playing Angry Birds – has one thing in common. It makes me forget time. For a little while, anyway, those lost hours feel like forever.

Quack, quack!Sometimes I feel unlucky.  Then something happens to remind me of the good fortune in my life

In the early ’70’s, I attended Knox College, where I earned a B.A. degree with Honors in creative writing. Back then, Knox had one of the few undergraduate creative writing programs in the country. Now you can thumb through any issue of Poets and Writers or The Writer’s Chronicle and see ads for dozens. But Knox’s program continues to stand out.

Earlier this month, I read twenty-four stories by Knox students and chose the winners for two contests, the Proctor Fenn Sherwin short Story Award and the Davenport Literary Prizes in Fiction. I travelled to Knox and met the eight writers whose stories were winners or runners up.I asked these students why they chose Knox College. All eight of them declared they came because of the creative writing program. It has a national reputation. Catch, the student literary magazine, has won four prestigious prizes in the last six years. The stories I read confirm this excellence. All showed talent and craftsmanship. It was extremely difficult to narrow the field and select the winners.

Clearly Ma has better things to do than garden.Two weeks ago I blogged about a reading I would be giving for the Knox Writers’ House. I had no idea what to expect. Here is what I found. With help and guidance from their advisor, Monica Berlin, students travel throughout the region and record writers as they read their own work and that of writers they admire. The students also conduct interviews, asking biographical questions and questions about place – the rewards and challenges of being a writer in a particular place. They asked me about Charleston, Illinois, where I’ve lived for years. (I couldn’t find much to recommend Charleston except that I belong to a great writers group here and the town offers few distractions. And this area has some  engaging quirks as the photographs show.)

Eventually the archives of the Writers’ House will be posted online as a public resource. It’s an ambitious project, but these students have the energy, enthusiasm, and dedication to make it happen. Those were qualities I observed in nearly all the student writers I met. They want to work. They enjoy reading. They love literature and writing.

Free eats!

Their teachers deserve some of the credit for that. The creative writing program has grown to a core faculty of seven, with as many visiting and/or cooperating faculty. Two were teaching when I attended Knox – Robin Metz and Robert Hellenga. It was wonderful to see them again. Others were new to me, but all have the same devotion to writing and teaching. Some writers see teaching as a gig, an easy way to make money. Not the faculty at Knox.

My appreciation for my alma mater has grown through the years as I came to understand the value of what I learned there. Returning has reawakened my love for the place and my dedication to writing. It has reminded me who I am.

I’ve been asked to take part in a project called The Knox Writers’ House.  At this point I don’t know much about the project, only that  it’s associated with my alma mater, Knox College, and that I’ll be interviewed then recorded as I read two selections – something I wrote and something by a writer who inspired me. Choosing my own work was easy. I decided on “What Love Is,” a story about childhood sweethearts whose love ends in disaster. It’s the right length and reads well  out loud. The other choice was harder. So many writers have inspired me at different times in my life.

My first idea was to read the opening of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. The novel shocked some people when it was published in 1955 because its hero is an unapologetic paedophile. But any literate person knows we’re not talking about porno. The tale of Humbert Humbert’s love for thirteen-year-old Lolita is a tragi-comedy written in elegant prose, lyrical and satiric, razor-sharp in its intelligence. It begins, “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.”

Lolita is the greatest novel of the 20th Century, but I also love it for personal reasons. Two courses shy of graduating, I left Knox and moved to Chicago, where I moved in with a friend and looked for a job. I was deeply depressed and drinking a pint of vodka every day. Unsurprisingly, the only job I found was waiting tables at a seedy restaurant, the sort of place where I wouldn’t dream of eating now.  I was fired after a week or two. Not that I cared. Now I had more time to go out drinking. Remembering some of the crazy things that happened then, I feel like I’m channelling someone’s else’s nightmares. During the day I slept and watched TV. Only friendship kept my roommate from kicking my ass out.

One day I got sick of soap operas and picked up a book. It happened to be Lolita. I was awed. I remembered something I’d forgotten – that a writer creates meaning from the chaos of experience, and I knew chaos would swallow me unless I escaped. A few days later I took a train back  to Galesburg and moved in with Joe Heumann, now my husband. I forgot to warn Joe I was coming, but that’s another story.

I owe my life to Lolita, but in the end I decided to read “The Grave” by Katherine Ann Porter instead. For one thing, it’s brief. I can read the whole thing, not just a chapter. For another, it’s an unforgettable story with a kick-ass opening sentence: “The grandfather, dead for more than thirty years, had been twice disturbed in his long repose by the constancy and possessiveness of his widow.” Right away the reader knows that some things don’t stay buried. But most of all, I couldn’t have written “What Love Is” without having read “The Grave.” Porter showed me how a story can span decades in a few pages and that buried memories are the most haunting.

I feel incredibly honored by the invitation to help with this project and look forward to telling you more about The Knox Writers’ House. Meanwhile, you can find “The Grave” in The Virginia Quarterly Review and “What Love Is” in The Scream Online.

The Amazon KindleIf you hang around Amazon’s Kindle store, you probably know that many customers are pissed about the higher prices of Kindle books. They grouse endlessly in various community forums and spit invective at Amazon, at publishers, even at writers. Now their protests have found another outlet. Furious that the Kindle edition of Michael Connelly’s latest thriller cost more than the discounted hardcover on Amazon’s Web site, readers began posting one-star reviews of the Kindle edition. They made no pretense of having read The Fifth Witness. Most conceded they love Connelly’s novels. But they felt something must be done to make Amazon and Connelly’s publisher, Little, Brown and Company, take heed.

A couple of years ago, the price of a new release on Kindle was $9.99, far less than half the cost of the hardcover. This price was set not by publishers but by Amazon. The online retailer took a smaller profit (or perhaps even a loss) in order to sell more Kindles. “Look!” Amazon told customers. “Buy a Kindle and never pay more than $9.99 for a book!” Then publishers rebelled. When Apple launched iBooks, they had another venue for their ebooks and threatened to withhold their lists from Amazon unless they determined the price. Amazon capitulated but accompanied the higher prices with the message “This price was set by the publisher.” In other words, don’t blame them for breaking the promise they made when they sold you a Kindle.

By the way, The Fifth Witness now costs $12.99 as a KIndle book, still less than half the full retail price of the hardcover and less than Amazon’s discounted price.

As a writer I have some sympathy for Connelly and other bestselling authors targeted by the protest. Not that they need my sympathy, they’re doing just fine, thank you. Still, the unfairness of those reviews must sting a little. Today I posted a brief review of The Fifth Witness on Amazon, giving it one more star than it deserved to compensate for the many undeserved low ratings.

I have less sympathy for Little, Brown and Company. Commercial publishers style themselves as “gatekeepers” who make sure only quality books are offered to readers; in fact they publish whatever they judge will sell. I once had lunch with an editor at a large publishing house who told me so, bluntly. For a long time traditional publishers have had a monopoly on book publishing, but new technologies are changing things. My dark side is gratified at seeing the arrogant, inbred, weaselly bastards scramble.

Nor do I have much sympathy for Amazon, though the company has always been courteous and fair in its dealings with me. Amazon plays hardball with publishers. They can hardly be surprised when publishers do the same.

In the end, two things determine the price of ebooks: what its costs to produce them and what readers are willing to pay.

Many people argue that ebook prices should be low because unlike hardcovers and paperbacks they cost next to nothing to produce and distribute; only a royalty to the author must be paid. This might be true if you ignore the many expenses of running a business – maintaining office space, paying editors, etc. It seems reasonable to include these expenses when determining what it costs to publish an ebook.

Blow aside their smoke about championing literary quality and nurturing writers and it’s clear publishers are in business to make a profit. Of course they charge what the market will bear. Of course they resist when retailers lower prices to undercut competition and promote sales of other merchandise. And there’s this: the longer readers expect ebooks to cost $9.99, the more difficult it becomes to raise the price. Seeing the long-term stakes, publishers fought hard to wrest control of the pricing from Amazon.

The market for ebooks has created a new economic model, and readers are a major force in shaping what it becomes. When enough readers buy ebooks instead of going to the bookstore, bookstore chains like Borders file for bankruptcy. As bookstores close, Internet retailers acquire a larger share of the market, allowing them to raise prices – up to the point where readers refuse to pay. Those customers protesting the price of The Fifth Witness on Kindle claim that bogus one-star reviews are the only way to voice their outrage. But there’s another way that’s fairer (though less emotionally satisfying). Just don’t buy the book until the price goes down.

By the way, my novel Talion can be downloaded from the Kindle store for only $2.99. (See the link below.)

My Face in the Mirror

Exam week looms. I have more than sixty research essays to read and mark. They must be finished in time to return at final exams. Grading research essays requires additional work because I require photocopies or printouts of written sources, and I check to make sure students are citing correctly. The workload is daunting enough that I thought about skipping this week’s post, but then something happened.

The second essay I read contained plagiarism. This was not a case of the writer forgetting to put quotation marks around language taken from somewhere else. The plagiarized sources were not on her works cited page, nor would they have any place there. Both came from Web sites that sell essays to students. Typically, samples of the proffered essays are shown. My student copied and pasted two of these samples, one for her introduction and one for her conclusion.

Other instructors will understand how I recognized the plagiarism. Every writer has a voice. Part of it consists of the writer’s facility with language, vocabulary, and sentence construction. When a marginal student suddenly uses polysyllabic words, creates complex sentences, and strings together three or four cogent thoughts, I get suspicious.

My student received a zero on the research essay, which counts for twenty percent of her total grade. As a result, it has become impossible for her to pass English 1002. It will cost her considerable time and money to retake the course. No doubt some people think I’m being harsh. Only two passages, after all. Only fifteen percent of the essay. But students take the risk of plagiarizing because they count on leniency if they happen to be caught. Many of us exceed the speed limit on the highway figuring the cop will let us go with a warning, and even if we get a ticket, paying it isn’t a crushing financial hardship. I sometimes drive too fast. I’ll no doubt complain when the cop pulls me over, but I’ll deserve the ticket.

As seasoned criminals put it: If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.

In this situation I become the cop. I dislike the role – I’m a writer, damn it – but since I have to play the cop, I get to make the call about whether to issue a warning or impose a penalty. A zero for the assignment is actually the mildest penalty and the one I typically impose the first time someone plagiarizes. This student deserves it for stealing other people’s writing – even if it is for sale and therefore an invitation to plagiarism.

Photo by Cheryl Casey

Novel by Kazuo IshiguroThis week I decided to fill in one of the millions of gaps in my education by reading a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. I couldn’t work up any enthusiasm for Remains of the Day, the one about the butler, but Never Let Me Go is about clones. Surely, I thought, a novel about clones had to be a little exciting.

The thing is, Never Let Me Go is about people who happen to be clones. The narrator, Kathy, tells the story of growing up at a special school with others of her kind. The children vaguely understand they’re destined to be donors, but they don’t comprehend what it means.  The plot centers on the complex relationship between Kathy and her two best friends, Ruth and Tommy.  There is a love triangle, jealousy, and betrayal as well as loyalty and affection. In the usual course of things, the conflict might have resolved as the characters became adults and went their separate ways, but since these three share the same destiny, they remain entangled to the end.

As science fiction, Never Let Me Go is pretty much a bust. In its world, cloning was developed just after World War II, so the story unfolds in the later Twentieth Century. To be convincing, this sort of alternate history needs details and explanations that the author seems to have no interest in providing. Readers learn only what Kathy learns about the process of cloning and organ harvesting, which is next to nothing. Near the end of the novel, Kathy and Tommy visit one of their former teachers and find out a bit about the politics of this world, but it’s nothing the reader hasn’t already inferred. The novel’s world is subjective. It rings true because Kathy’s voice and sensibility ring true.

At times it irked me that she and the others accept their fates so passively. But they’re playing the only role they know. No other possibilities have been shown to them. Their dreams never extend beyond a “deferral,” a few years of grace before their bodies are taken apart. When I discussed the novel with Joe, he pointed out that even sheep struggle as they’re led to slaughter. But sheep can’t be taught and conditioned the way people can. Most of us want to believe in free will, but society makes its demands and exacts its price.

Many years ago, sitting in jail on a drug charge, I had an epiphany. Society sets boundaries. The people who ignore them are eventually relegated to prisons and mental hospitals. You might flout the boundaries and elude punishment, but you better not forget they’re there. If this great discovery seems a bit simpleminded, keep in mind that I was twenty – just a few years younger than Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy when their lives end.

Imagine always being imprisoned. Imagine believing those boundaries to be the end of the world with nothing beyond them. That’s the reality of Kathy and her friends.

The larger boundary, one that imprisons us all, is certainy of death. The clones are killed because their body parts are needed to keep the “normals” alive awhile longer. Yet mortality is absolute. The normals will eventually die too. They justify the killing by believing clones have no souls, but maybe they’re taking their own souls too much for granted.

Never Let Me Go wasn’t a thrill ride, but it was a compelling and haunting story. It enthralled me as much as any suspense novel. And I cried at the end.

Photo by Joe Heumann

If you’ve been here before, you probably notice that the site looks different. I’ve moved from Quick BlogCast to my hosting domain and rebuilt Ancient Children using WordPress. In many ways Quick Blogcast is easier to use, but it allows fewer design options than WordPress, and I’ve received a few complaints that the site wouldn’t display properly on some Internet browsers.  I hope the change will resolve that issue.

All previous posts are here. The construction is still in progress, but I hope you like what I’ve done so far.

Steve in Soldier Summit

Lately I’ve been sorting through piles of snapshots inherited from my grandmother. On the back of each one she diligently noted the date and who was in the shot. I’m grateful to her for that. Sometimes I can’t recognize faces from long ago.The purpose of my project is to find photos of Steve, scan them, and send them to his son, Hayden. They’re old photos because Steve died in 1987. Looking at them makes me sad. Steve died young. Life wasn’t always kind to him, and he wasn’t always kind to himself. The photos show how he grew. And changed. They stir memories that have been submerged a long time.
 

Airfield

I don’t remember where or when this picture of Steve and me was taken. It looks like an airfield. Those are the Wasatch Mountains in the background. Steve and I used to make stories for hours on end, speaking in the voices of the characters we imagined. Maybe that’s why I rely so much on dialogue in my fiction.

The one with me in the ridiculous dress was no doubt taken on Easter. Every year on Easter Sunday we went with Mom and Grandma to an all-you-can eat buffet, always the same one. Steve loved their pie. But I’ve attached that sweet memory to the wrong picture. We’re too young here. The buffet came later. 
 

Easter

Steve with Grandma

 
 

Party Animal

He was a party animal who could down a six-pack faster than anybody. His favorite novel was Crime and Punishment.
 
Steve and I lived a thousand miles apart and seldom saw each other as adults. But when we did, things were the same as they had always been. He never stopped being my brother.
 

I used to have a recurring dream about Soldier Summit, the dying town high in the mountains of Utah where my parents began their marriage and my brother and I first lived. Though it has been years, my memory of the dream remains vivid. I am hiking along a road with snowbanks on both sides and mountains rising in front of me. Then night falls and it begins to snow. Music plays, haunting music with bells. Brilliantly lit houses on the mountainside overlook the road, promising warmth and rest, but I can’t stop. I have to reach Soldier Summit before nightfall. Then the lights from the houses fade. Darkness closes around me.

My mother told me how she waded through hip-deep snow to reach the Hillcrest Cafe where she waited tables and my father cooked. Before buying the cafe, my father worked as a dispatcher at the railroad station in Soldier Summit, but he wanted to be his own boss. Once Mom became pregnant with me, she stopped working at the Hillcrest. She had to be careful. She’d miscarried with her first pregnancy, an older brother or sister that Steve and I might have had.

After Steve was born, fourteen months after me, Dad’s mother came to help Mom take care of us. Nana soon claimed me as her darling, leaving Steve to Mom. Throughout our childhood, I thought Mom loved him more and forgave him things she would never have forgiven me.

I recall only moments of that time in Soldier Summit. I remember waking before dawn in the dim bedroom where Nana and I slept and watching her get dressed. She had on an old-fashioned girdle with garters and stockings but no underpants, and I saw the tuft of gray hair between her legs before she slipped into a dress. I asked where she was going. To Salt Lake, she said, just for the day. I asked if I could come. Not this time, she told me. Sometime later she took me on the train to Salt Lake. We shopped in a huge department store. Then we checked into a hotel so I could take my afternoon nap. This seems unlikely given how little money we had, yet the memory is vivid — the cool sheets and the precipitous view from the window.

Another memory: Steve as a toddler wearing a frilly pink dress, screaming, furious, his red face smeared with tears and snot. Years later I asked Nana about the incident. She told me I was imagining things, nothing of the kind had happened. So I never mentioned it to Steve. But a long time afterward, when both of them were dead, I asked Mom about the memory. Nana had put the dress on Steve, she said, as punishment for wetting the bed. When Dad came home and saw, he cussed Nana out and ordered her to get that dress off him. “It was my fault,” Mom said. “I should’ve stood up to her.”

Steve told me once I had no clue how hard it was being a man. High on speed and beer, he’d nearly fought some guys on the street because one of them said something. He got into vicious fights over matters of respect. I heard about the ones he won. He boasted of beating up a drunk who ruined his hat with a pocket knife.

Earlier this month I went back to Soldier Summit. Steve’s son Hayden, his wife Tonia, and their daughter Aspen came with me. The place I remembered was no longer there. Snow covered the foundations of the demolished houses where Steve and I once played. There were a few new buildings along the highway, but everything I remembered was gone except for one abandoned house and the railroad tracks.


In
my heart I keep hoping each new piece of technology will be the spark that sets my writing on fire. I wasn’t always this way. Once I detested the term “word processing,” which seemed to imply that the act of writing was like pulverizing fruit in a blender. My techno-lust began the day Joe brought home a K-Pro he’d borrowed from a friend. Long extinct now, the K-Pro was a clunky box with an ugly little screen, no hard drive and a tiny fraction of the memory of the simplest electronic device today.”Just try it,” Joe said.

From that first day, the K-Pro set me free. My writing became more fluid. I loved being able to move words around without inking corrections on a page or starting over with a blank sheet of paper. Pen and typewriter had shackled me, made me reluctant to write anything down until I felt sure of it. With a word processor I could change sentences, shuffle paragraphs, and rework passages by pressing a couple of keys.

I imagined being able to write with the quickness and suppleness of thought. Impossible, I knew. But maybe, with the right device, I could come close.

The K-Pro was succeeded by a Compaq that I named Lloyd. I loved Lloyd. I spoke to him as though he was a person. But eventually he became obsolete, and with sorrow I replaced him with a custom-made Ares. It had a hard drive and a huge screen. Thirteen inches!

The Ares cost $2000. In fact, every computer I’ve bought has cost around that much, because I always want upgrades – a more powerful motherboard, a bigger hard drive, more RAM. My techno-delusion began to cast a disturbingly sexual shadow that sometimes obscured the reason for the computer.

“You use it to write,” Joe reminded me. “You don’t need all that shit.”

But apparently I did. 

Each new computer became smaller and faster but not radically different from its predecessor. Then I bought an iPad – a computer almost as light as a notebook of lined paper, with a screen like silk beneath my fingertips. We were almost one, my iPad and I.

Almost.

My clumsy, imprecise fingers fumbled over its virtual keyboard, hunting and pecking, making a typo every other word. So I bought an Apple wireless keyboard. Thin and elegant, primed to couple with my iPad, it moves me closer than ever to the magical ideal – writing as fluid and spontaneous as thought.

With my iPad and wireless keyboard my writing can catch fire wherever I go. All I have to do is provide the fuel. No technological miracle can do that for me. Not yet, anyway.

I was halfway through the latest revision of Chasing the Light when I realized it needed a prologue. In a novel the prologue usually presents an event that belongs to the story but outside the plot – something happening beforehand or afterward or elsewhere that influences or explains the main action. I wanted the prologue to Chasing the Light to do more. Besides intriguing readers with a glimpse of the mystery, I wanted to introduce an objective narrator.

Part one of the novel is told in third person entirely from the point of view of the protagonist, Kelly. Parts two and three include the perspectives of other characters as well. I worried that changing point-of-view characters so far into the story would be jolting. After a hundred or so pages, readers are used to seeing the world through Kelly’s eyes and, unless I’ve done something terribly wrong, they identify with her. Since the prologue has a narrative voice not associated with Kelly, it signals that the narrative is larger than her. At least I hope so.

Anyway, here is the prologue to Chasing the Light.

Prologue

A photograph tells only some of the truth. Viewers cannot know for certain what’s happening outside the frame the photographer has drawn around her subject, or what has happened and will happen after the image was frozen.
 
These four photographs are black-and-white and shades of gray
.
In the first, a young man and woman are craning their necks to face the camera of the photographer who stands over them. They are seated on a blanket with a Navaho pattern, surrounded by the remains of a picnic – bottles of Corona, a half-eaten hard roll, an open jar of Greek olives, a hunk of cheese on a board, a knife. A kind of metal pipe viewers would recognize if they smoked hashish. In the upper edge of the frame, beyond the blanket, are meadow grasses and the rangy weeds that some people call wildflowers. Stalks and blossoms of the same weeds are entwined in the woman’s hair, not artfully, but as though braided into her curls in idle moments and forgotten. They are beginning to wilt.

The couple is in their early twenties, no older, skin aglow with the freshness of childhood. The young man’s head is too big for his body. He has a round face, a snubbed nose and an undersized mouth tight with disapproval – of the bothersome flies or having his picture taken, or perhaps of something far worse that he would call evil. The woman’s mouth, dark with lipstick, hangs open. Her forehead is creased. A disturbance roils her eyes. She gazes beyond the camera to where something has drawn her attention, pulling her out of the framed moment.

She sees it coming and is afraid.

In the next photograph the couple is gone. A creek flows under a barbed wire fence. The angle suggests the photographer has crouched on the bank and aimed the camera low over the water, upstream. Nearby the water is transparent, and the topography of the riverbed hints at an underworld viewers cannot know. Beyond the fence, shadowed by trees, the water darkens and winds across the frame. The eye follows it to the edge.

The creek in the third photograph is narrower, rippling with current as it tumbles downhill. Again the angle is low, but this time the photographer has aimed her camera across the water and into a welter of trees. No focal point, it seems at first. But keep looking. After five seconds, maybe longer, the eye settles on the cross. Deep among the trees, carved in the trunk of an aspen with a blade too small, the cross is several inches high yet not as noticeable as the black knots and threads of lichen around it. But once seen, its wrongness stands out – the one unnatural detail in a landscape too wild to be framed. The knife cuts are fresh, and the purpose of the photograph is to record them.

X marks the spot.

The last photograph points down at a patch of forest floor that also looks wrong in subtle ways. Pine needles are unsettled, not packed as they would be after lying together a long time. The scattering of cones and twigs seems deliberate, like coconut sprinkled on a cake. And despite the unusual fluffiness of its cover, the ground looks sunken, as if the cake had fallen while baking.
 
Here lies buried the secret of the young woman’s fear.
 
No marker distinguishes this spot from any other on the vast mountainside. The photographer has led the viewer from the border of nowhere into its heart, trusting someone will care enough to follow the trail laid out in her photographs, that even after winter has come and snow has fallen, someone will wander the wilderness in search of a grave.  

In a post a couple of weeks ago, All Characters Must Die , I wondered why readers care so fiercely about fictional characters. I figured the key was identification and empathy. Readers find enough of themselves in the characters to climb inside their fictional skin and experience the story. But understanding isn’t enough. As a writer, I have to know how to breathe life into characters.

First, let me bring you up to date on Lady Catelyn, the character in A Storm of Swords whose death pissed me off. It’s relevant, I promise. You might recall that Catelyn is murdered along with her son and his followers at a wedding celebration. But that’s not the end of her. Since this is fantasy, she gets to come back – not from the dead but as the dead. A magically animated corpse, she wrecks vengeance against the villains who betrayed and killed her son. I no longer empathize with Catelyn. It’s not so much that she looks monstrous (her body was in the river a few days before the mage and his crew fished it out), as that nothing is left of her but vengeance. She orders the death of a woman who had been her friend. Alive, she would have heard the woman’s explanation and most likely shown mercy. Not anymore. Her soul is gone.

Now we jump from the fantasy world of George R.R. Martin to the gritty realism of Plain Jane, a thriller by a James Patterson wannabe. The principal characters are a female cop, her partner who is also her lover, and a brilliant FBI profiler who used to be her lover. Almost halfway through the novel, I still don’t give a shit about these characters. Oh, they have their amusing quirks (the profiler loves comic books), but somehow they aren’t quite real.

Maybe it’s because they don’t have lives beyond their trite love triangle and frantic campaign to find the serial killer before he strikes again. They aren’t shown at home or thinking about their families or eating scrambled eggs. They lack emotional depth and physical reality. I have no idea what kind of music stirs them. They never have a fanciful thought. They work without sleep and are supposedly dead tired, but nothing gives me the experience of that exhaustion.

They act in ways that seem incredible. During a strategy session, the female cop allows the profiler to pull her pants down and draw on her stomach with a magic marker. Okay, I understand he’s a dashing and charismatic guy, and she still has a thing for him. Granted, he’s talked her into helping him pull some dubious stunts. But if anyone undressed me in a roomful of men, I wouldn’t stand there thinking it was lucky I had my crotch hair waxed. Moreover, I have trouble imagining how any woman tough enough to be a cop would let herself be humiliated like that. Not that it’s impossible – human beings are capable of almost anything – but to believe it, I have to believe in the character. And the more outrageous her behavior, the more compelling that belief has to be.
 
The characters in Plain Jane are kind of like the reanimated Lady Catelyn. They have motives but no soul. I might go ahead and finish the novel anyway. I enjoy a puppet show every once in a while.

Speaking of puppet shows, anyone remember this classic?