Thursday, 15 December 2016

I finished my first draft!! Now what?

I've been anticipating the end of my first draft for about a month now.  I could see the loose threads of several stories beginning to come together.  Plus, the word count was creeping up.  I even jumped ahead and wrote the last scene, as it sat in my mind, ready.  Then, of course, I had to go back and fill in the rest.

So what's a writer to do once they've finished the first draft?  Since reading On Writing by Stephen King, I've mostly been following his advice.  "Congratulations!  Good job!  Have a glass of champagne, send out for pizza, do whatever it is you do when you've got something to celebrate. . . Take a couple of days off -- go fishing, go kayaking, do a jigsaw puzzle -- and then go to work on something else. . . How long you let your book rest. . . is entirely up to you, but I think it should be a minimum of six weeks."  Stephen King, On Writing p. 196-197

So this morning, I finished my first draft.  I turned to my husband (who was fortunately home) and said "I finished my first draft!!"  He asked how many words.  "70727!" I said proudly.  I recorded the date, page number and word count in my little notebook with the words "1st draft complete. Ahh.  Then he went to work while I celebrated with toast and a second cup of coffee (it was too early for champagne and pizza.)  Then I added a few more details.  Then I save it and emailed it to myself.

Next a nice hot bath, a little read, a nap on the couch and another little sentence at the end of the book.  I think I'm ready to let it rest.  In the meantime, here's a little warning that it's not a Jane Austen adaptation this time.  However, I think my main character has many similarities to Elizabeth Bennet in that she loves dancing and isn't afraid to draw out a quiet man.  Here's a little picture clue as well.

Monday, 28 November 2016

Can Writer's Dance?

I'm extremely blessed to have a fun and creative husband.  Sunday night, he set up a mystery date for us in the city.  Waiting in the ferry line-up, he revealed we were going English Country Dancing at a Legion in Kitsilano.  I would not have guessed that!

Phil and I took ballroom dancing when I was pregnant with our first.  It was a fun way to meet people, but became increasingly difficult with my growing belly.  That was thirteen years ago.  Now our baby is old enough to baby-sit, so we are free to dance again.  But should we?

English Country dancing is the type shown in Jane Austen movies.  It has similarities to square dancing in some of the shapes, patterns and steps.  For instance, a do-si-do is called "back to back".  The English Country Dance group in Kitsilano is an amazingly welcoming place.  Phil called ahead and was greeted by the woman he spoke to as soon as we arrived.  We were whisked away to the dance floor so we wouldn't miss the first dance.

We were each assigned a more experience partner and were immediately walking through our first dance.  There was a live band including a piano, fiddle, bodhran and several others.  My partner was patient and encouraging as I frequently went the wrong way or stood looking widely confused.  The best advice came from the caller who said, "whatever you do, don't panic!"  After each dance, we traded partners and learned more steps.  I felt okay about the first three dances, but then my brain began to fail me.  At one point I stood in the middle of the floor with absolutely no clue what came next, but I did not panic and the moment passed.

I don't know if it's because I'm getting older or because I've recently moved and want to keep things low key, but I find I have fewer things I actually enjoy doings.  I like to be home, read, write, go for walks and have coffee with friends.  I'm glad my hubby still surprises me into trying new things from time to time.  I don't know if writer's can dance, but I think we, like everyone else, should try.  If nothing else, it will probably make a great scene in a story one day.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Book Review: The Vancouver Stories

I bought this collection of short stories and novel excerpts in the hopes of attaching stories to my new
home.  I imagined beautiful odes to our incredible surroundings, mysterious histories and poetry.  Instead, this collections seemed dedicated to the weird and depressing.  I supposed it has something to do with Douglas Coupland being the mind behind the collection.  His introduction states that he wants to disprove the idea that Vancouver is just a "nice" city.

This book included an excellent variety of writers.  From Pauline Johnson to Alice Munro to Shani Mootoo, I was introduced to many Canadian writers I had never read before.  I found The Bravest Boat by Malcolm Lowry extremely irritating, even with it's surprise ending.

I especially loved Alice Munro's story, which included a reference to my new home.  "The last days of May are among the longest of the year, and in spite of the ferry-dock lights and the lights of the cars streaming into the belly of the boat, she could see some glow in the western sky and against it the black mound of an island -- not Bowen but one whose name she did not know -- tidy as a pudding set in the mouth of the bay."

I was intrigued by Timothy Taylor's excerpt from his novel Stanley Park titled The Canvasback which tells the story of a a chef meeting his father at night in Stanley Park.  His father, The Professor, is so obsessed with studying the homeless people who live there that he has moved in with them.  He pridefully displays his ability to survive in the woods by killing and cooking a duck.  I am similarly curious about what happens at night in this amazing park.

The collection also includes a poignant family story by Madelein Thien titled A Map of the City.  Thien is the most recent winner of The Giller Prize.  She certainly gave me a new way of seeing Vancouver.

It took me a while to get through and I don't think I understood some of them.  While this book was not what I was hoping it would be, I'm still glad to have read these stories.    

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

An Overheard Conversation

I am still having a great time taking my online Creative Writing course from Wesleyan University via Coursera.  It's inspiring to learn from other published authors and to get feedback from fellow writers.

I am currently studying the Craft of Character with Amy Bloom.  For this week's assignment, I was to imagine a conversation between two people overheard by a third person.  The first person was to be an "insider", the second and "outsider" and the third the eavesdropper.  In addition, we were limited to only three "speech tags", ie he said, she said.  Here's what grew in my imagination:


Guidance Counsellor
Pamela leaned over the giant industrial stove to stir the macaroni.  It was an ongoing battle to keep it from burning.  It had happened before and now the will to burn seemed ingrained into the oversized stainless steel pot.
            “That’s not how you do it, dufus.” 
Pamela heard a familiar, bored teenaged voice behind her.  She turned toward the buffet line-up and recognized Erika, a senior with striking long black hair and perfectly penciled cat eyeliner.  What was unusual was that she was speaking to one of the new grade eight students.  The boy hardly looked old enough to be standing in the cafeteria.  His hair was cut too neatly, his clothes looked brand new and his voice, when he spoke, had an unmistakeable squeak.
“I know how to get food, Erika.”
Pamela whipped her head from the scene to return to the noodles.  She wound the spoon around the pot, focussing on the bottom to release any resting pasta.
“You do not.  You’ve never done this before.  Let me help you.”
Erika’s voice had lost volume.  She must be worried that other students would notice the exchange.  She hissed.
“You have to get a tray first.  You can’t just grab a plate like you’re at home.”
“Why not? Look, it works.  I have food on my plate.  I’m going to be able to eat it.”
Pamela stole a peek at the pair and noticed that Erika had turned her back on the boy.  She bunched her long hair between her fists and gave them an exasperated squeeze.
“Where are you going to put your cutlery?  Or are you going to eat with your hands.  Seriously, how did Mom manage to raise you with so little brains?”
Pamela hid a chuckle in her white cooks uniform.  So, the popularity queen had an annoying little brother!
“Shut up.  Leave me alone.  I don’t need you.”
There was a loud clattering of broken plate and thudding food.  Pamela left her post to attend to the scene, but Erika and her brother were nowhere in sight.  Little hooligans!  But, when Pamela peered over the top of the sneeze guard she found the siblings bent over the mess, their heads together, scooping food and glass onto an extra tray.
“Don’t cut your fingers.” 
Sniffling was the only answer. 
“You’re gonna be okay.  I did this exact same thing my first day.”
Pamela gazed about, hoping no other students noticed the commotion.  Fortunately, it was halfway through lunch and most kids had already eaten and left.  No line formed behind the two students.  Pamela returned to the stovetop, whisked the steaming pot from the heat and poured the cooked pasta into a waiting sieve.
The rest of the conversation was too low for her to hear over splashing water and the clanging dishwasher.  She abandoned the noodles to check on the leftover food.  Erika was wiping the remainder of mashed potatoes from the floor with a handful of rough school napkins. 
“Thank you.  I should’ve listened.”
“That’s right you should have.” 
The mess was cleaned and Pamela reached out for the tray.  “Thank you.  Why don’t you help yourself to a new tray?  I won’t charge you for the spill.”
The boy’s dark eyes filled with tears. 
“Just a joke!  Really, the rest of the food’s just going in the trash.  Thanks for cleaning up.”
Pamela turned away.  She should have kept out of things.  She separated the macaroni into the prepared chafing dishes and then poured on the cheese sauce.  Kids always loved cheesy noodle day.  Even the seniors. She was all ready for tomorrow.  Now to clean up the rest of today’s mess.
The bell rang for the cafeteria to close and Pamela noticed Erika paying for her brother’s meal at the cash register.  He carried a tray with a full plate, cutlery and a glass.  He gazed out at the crowd of students and took a deep breath.  Erika murmured something before she strode away to her usual table.  Whatever it was made her brother smile, stand taller and face the chaos before him

Saturday, 12 November 2016

The Light Between Oceans Book Review
I picked up this book on the advice of my sister.  It's the story of Tom and Isabel Sherbourne, lighthouse keepers in Australia in the 1920s.  After three miscarriages, they discover a boat washed up on their island.  Inside, they find a man dead, but a baby alive.  The choice they make next will affect the rest of their lives.

It was a gripping story and the choice to tell it from multiple points of view makes it even more fascinating.  I found the descriptions of the island and post-World War I Australia especially satisfying.  However, due to the heavy themes and heightened emotions, it's a rather exhausting read.  I need to pick something a bit more lighthearted now to relax!  I look forward to seeing the movie version.

Friday, 28 October 2016

Book Review: Strange Things Done

Strange Things Done is Elle Wild's debut murder mystery novel set in Dawson City, Yukon.  Like
most people who move to Dawson City, Jo Silver is trying to escape her past.  She arrives in Dawson just before freeze up to take over the local newspaper.  When a local MP dies mysteriously the night Jo arrives, she wonders if she's ready to be trapped in her new community all winter long.

My favourite part about the book was certainly the setting.  By spending time researching and living in the Yukon, Wild was able to include brilliant sensory details.  Buildings, rivers and the permeating cold were realistically recreated on the page.  Local characters seemed grown from the harshness of their surroundings.

Jo Silver's background formed an interesting side mystery to the story, although I found it a bit hard to relate to such a hard-boiled, hard-drinking journalist.  Her weaknesses of self-doubt and distrust helped create some empathy.  However, her decisions to break the law, take enormous risks and continuous running outdoors in inappropriate clothing were sometimes difficult to swallow.

The story is filled with action and has a satisfying conclusion.  The reader is left with several questions about Jo Silver which would work nicely into a sequel or series.

Monday, 3 October 2016

Book Review: The Jewel That Was Ours

Being a big fan of the BBC Masterpiece series, Endeavour and more recently, Inspector Lewis, I
became curious about the books that inspired these series.  Colin Dexter's name comes up as the creator behind these excellent detective stories and so I searched for him in my local library.  I hoped to start at the beginning, but the series is a bit old and so I made do with starting at book #9.

Like Endeavour, The Jewel That Was Ours starts with short chapters/scenes of several different characters with no seeming relation to one another.  As the book develops, like the T.V. episodes, the connection between these characters slowly comes into focus.  However, unlike watching the episode, it takes longer and is more difficult to keep track of names and stories.  Perhaps I have a poor memory, but I found this difficult in the book.  However, I understand that confusion is the mystery writer's friend.
The Inspector Morse of The Jewel That Was Ours is entertaining and endearing with his curmudgeonly, hard-drinking, obsessive nature.  I could see some similarities between him and the young Morse in Endeavour.  His head is quickly turned by a pretty woman, which seems to be his blind spot much of the time.  He forgets to eat and sleep and often makes a large error in solving the crime, which he overcomes and then properly unravels.

I enjoyed this look into the book behind the T.V. show, but I'm not in a hurry to read any more.  I can't wait until the next Endeavour season comes out!

Monday, 19 September 2016

Finding new inspiration

Last week, I was feeling a bit down about not working or publishing.  I took a walk, which is one of my favourite ways to unwind and let my mind wander.  It's no surprise that I get a lot of
ideas in this way and this walk was no exception.

I remembered a few friends had told me about free courses you can take through public libraries.  When I had the chance, I checked out courses offered through the West Vancouver Library and found Coursera.  They have four courses related to creative writing and allow students to audit their classes.  I am loving this course on plot and thought I'd post this week's assignment in the hopes of getting some feedback.  Here goes!

Assignment:  Write 100 - 200 words about a visit to the doctor or dentist.  Use the ABDCE (Action, Background, Development, Climax, Ending) formula.  The action leads you to the doctor's office.

"She noticed the page beginning to blur around the edges.  She blinked her eyes quickly in succession, one – two – three.  She carried, on, worrying about losing control of this roomful of preteens.  Their regular teacher had selected this story about the earth and their duty to protect it. 

The page continued shrinking and Favia had to follow the words with her finger.  She found herself tripping over simple, one-syllable words.  She knew what was happening.  It wasn’t a common occurrence, but she recognized the experience from when she was thirteen.  She read faster, hoping to make it through the book.  The classroom was beginning to grow louder.  She surreptitiously reached into her purse for the pill that would solve her problem, but the bottle was empty. 

The book dragged on, pulling the children and herself into a helpless spiral of guilt.  She turned the page, her nose nearly touching the book and she heard a boy nearby whisper “What’s wrong with the sub?”  The next thing she remembered was waking up in a hospital bed.  “Likely an aneurysm,” someone was saying.  But she couldn’t get her mouth to tell them that it was only a migraine."

Can you find the ABDCE?

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Book Review: A Handful of Dust

I picked up A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh at the local Community used book sale on the
recommendation of my friend Daniel.  I've never read Waugh before, but I assume he recommended the book based on my love of Jane Austen and other British writers.  

Like Pride and Prejudice, A Handful of Dust focuses three or four families in a country village (as well as in London).  Tony and Brenda Last are the Lord and Lady of Hetton Abbey, an extensive home and grounds rebuilt in the Gothic Style, but with "rather a shortage of bathrooms." (Waugh, 11.)  While Tony loves the country life, his wife of seven years is growing restless.  Enter John Beaver, an impoverished young gentleman with no work and little sense.  He spends most of his days waiting by the telephone to be invited to various lunches, dinners and parties when someone else can't make it.  He mistakes Tony's general invitation to visit Hetton as an actual invitation and shows up for the weekend when Tony and Brenda think they have the house to themselves.  Brenda is friendly, but Tony is continually rude without meaning to be.  Shortly after, Brenda decides to take up a small flat in London and begins an affair with Mr. Beaver.

This is certainly different from my other favourites including Austen and the Brontes, mostly in that it is more modern.  But also in that it is more wholly satirical.  At one point I wondered how Waugh could stand to write about such deplorable characters that not even their creator could love, but then I started to develop a bit of a soft spot for some of them.  Even though they are hideously self-involved, greedy and insensitive, they are completely oblivious to their faults.  I actually became quite fond of Tony Last, which was a mistake.  I found the ending quite grim on his behalf.

I also had some trouble with the death of John Last, who is only a child and quite well drawn as such.  It's fine to mock the petty habits of the rich but to kill off one of their children seems rather cruel.  However, it was a necessary catalyst for the rest of the characters and events of the novel.

I have mixed feelings about the book.  I laughed out loud several times, but couldn't help wondering if Evelyn Waugh would paint me so ridiculous.  Did he like anyone at all?  The book went in strange and unpredictable directions, the writing was smooth and I found I'd read it all much more quickly than I imagined.  I'll leave it up to you to decide if you will pick up this novel.

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Book Review: The Murder Stone by Louise Penny
The Murder Stone (A Rule Against Murder in the U.S.) is book number four of Louise Penny's Armand Gamache murder mystery books.  It begins with Armand and his wife Reine-Marie taking an anniversary holiday to the Manoir Bellechasse.  Despite stifling heat and irritating, entitled fellow hotel guests, the Gamaches enjoy their time together, away from the demands of Armand's job as Chief Inspector with the Sûreté du Québec.  That is, until murder strikes at the historic and foreboding Manoir.

Once again, Penny creates memorable and complex characters in a picturesque yet dangerous setting.  This book gives faithful readers a deeper look into returning character, Peter Morrow's, family and past.  He has always been a quiet, seething background character overshadowed by his eccentric and energetic wife Clara.  I've often wondered about some of his jarring actions and this book offered answers to some of my questions about him.

The great thing about a murder mystery series is that Penny can leave some mysteries unsolved to be answered in future books.  This keeps her readers reading and offers satisfaction when a mystery is solved several books later.  The Murder Stone also gives readers a peek into Armand Gamache's early history.

I was also pleasantly surprise by Penny's acknowledgements at the end of the book, where she reveals her inspiration for the character of Armand Gamache as well as the real-life basis of the Manoir Bellechasse.  I have now caught up to the other Gamache mysteries I read out of sequence.  My next Penny book will be A Trick of the Light.

Friday, 19 August 2016

Book Review: A Walk In The Woods

Several people have recommended I read Bill Bryson, so when I noticed A Walk In The Woods at my
parents house this summer, I took a little peak.  Fortunately, both my mom and dad have already read the book, so I was able to bring it home with me.

A Walk In The Woods is the true story of Bryson's experience hiking The Appalachian Trail.  I would expect a book on The Appalachian Trail to be written by an avid and experienced hiker, but the charm of the book is that Bryson is quite average in his hiking experience and readily tells of his shortcomings and misadventures.  To top it off, Bryson takes along an old friend, whom he calls Katz in the book, who is overweight, prone to seizures and given to hurling important hiking necessities (including his water bottle) off cliffs when he gets tired.

Bryson has the uncanny ability to make the long, arduous journey entertaining and outright hilarious in some parts.  He weaves in fascinating research Appalachian Trail history, hiking and survival as part of the story.  He writes his research in the best way possible, you don't even realize how much you've learned because it's all so interesting.

The best parts of the book are the relationship between Bryson and Katz.  I had to wonder if Katz wasn't a bit embellished.  Such a perfectly unique character seems the stuff of fiction, but I wouldn't ask Bryson to change a thing.  An excellent read, even if you have no intention of ever walking The Appalachian Trail.    

Friday, 5 August 2016

Book Review on Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End

I feel like this should be required reading for life.  And especially death.  I just finished the book
and think I need to wait to see how this books affects the rest of my life, but I also know I will forget important things if I don't write them down now.

Being Mortal is written by Atul Gawande, a surgeon at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, a staff writer for The New Yorker, a professor at Harvard, etc., etc.  Yet this book is so well written, honest, informative and thoughtful, it's as if he's spent his whole life writing it.  In some ways, this is true, as the stories and research he shares in this book are mostly his own, or if nothing else, part of his personal/professional research.

In this book, Gawande takes a hard look at current medical practices, especially focused on how they relate to end of life care.  He discusses the history of care of the old and infirm up to and including current practices.  Although Old Age homes are a thing of the past in North America, even the best and most expensive nursing homes are filled with unhappy patients.  He carefully and methodically outlines why this is and finds Assisted Living homes where patients are happy because they have more control over their own lives, are allowed to make bad health choices if they want, and statistically use less medication, live longer and are, more importantly, happier than their unfortunate counterparts in Nursing Homes dedicated to safe and healthy living.

I would find it difficult to recommend this book to friends and family members in end of life situations.  I think some of the findings would be difficult to deal with in such stressful situations.  But I hope their doctors will read this book and their family members who want to do what's best.  I'm glad I read it before facing such difficult situations myself.  I feel much better prepared. 

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Holiday Find

It's our first day back from holidays through Alberta and Saskatchewan.  It was so good to see family and friends and to visit the places we used to live, but it's also nice to be back in our own beds.  I took the two weeks off of writing.  I know this is a controversial choice, but I wanted to just experience life for a moment, soak in all that was going on around me and recharge.  I ate, played, visited, read, took  pictures and daydreamed as we drove and drove and drove.  I'm hoping this little rest will revitalize my writing.
Shuswap Lake, BC
A highlight of my trip was finding my grandma's treasure trove of photos and family history.  The book I am currently writing has been inspired by part of her life and I have been asking my Dad for stories and memories about his mom.  He told me he had some pictures I could see when we next visited.  I never imagined it would be such a find!

I'm following the advice of Stephen King, Julia Cameron and C.C. Humphreys to not give away my novel idea during the first draft, but here's a sneak peak at a one of the amazing photos.

My Grandmother is the teacher in this photo.
Do you take a holiday from writing?  Where do you find inspiration?

Friday, 15 July 2016

Book Review: On Writing by Stephen King

I recently bought this book because I loved it so much the first time around, I needed to own a copy.

What makes this book so good?  I believe it's the honesty and the writing.  I have never read another Stephen King book; I'm afraid of nightmares, but he writes with a clear, direct yet poetic style.  His years of experience with the craft make it an important read for any writer.  Rather than go on and on about how amazing it is, I thought I'd write some of my favourite lines, currently high-lighted in yellow in my copy.

"Fiction writers, present company included, don't understand very much about what they do -- not why it works when it's good, not why it doesn't when it's bad."  xix, On Writing

"In my character, a kind of wildness and a deep conservatism are wound together like hair in a braid." p. 39

Quoting John Gould "When you write a story, you're telling yourself the story," he said.  "When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story." p. 43

". . . stopping a piece of work just because it's hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea.  Sometimes you have to go on when you don't feel like it . . ." p. 63 - 64

". . . put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn't in the middle of the room.  Life isn't a support system for art.  It's the other way around." p. 87

"Similarly, I don't read fiction to study the art of fiction, but simply because I like stories.  Yet there is a learning process going on.  Every book you pick up has its own lesson or lessons, and quite often the bad books have more to teach than the good ones."  p. 131

"You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you." p. 132

"Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world."  p. 149

Give yourself a treat this summer and buy this book.  Make sure to leave a comment about something you loved or even something you didn't love about this little gem.

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Why publish?

My dear friend Jeni challenged me with some questions after my previous post.  I often think of Jeni as the epitome of a critical thinker.  Perhaps it's because she's a nurse.

Anyway, her question got me thinking right away and I felt I needed some room to compose an answer.  So, here goes.

Jeni's question:  Does the place where the joy and love of writing come from not satisfy enough?  Or is there a time when it needs to be shared?  I am guessing it is like things in our lives when we want and need some recognition?

Which took me first of all to the question of why I write.  I came up with several reasons, some admirable and some not so much.  Certainly, there are times when I write for myself.  This is usually in the form of journaling when I don't understand something about myself, my life or other people and I need to write it out.  I don't usually share this with other people.  It's more of a mental health exercise, although it sometimes leads to writing to share.  My blogs may sometimes come out of this kind of place, although I'm always aware that the blog will be read by others and so I often delete certain things or even entire ideas that I don't want to be public or that won't interest anyone but myself.

Mostly, though, what I write is meant to be read.  I'm not sure if this is because I'm more of an introvert or because I'm a slow thinker, but I love the format of the page for communicating with others.  It may be argued that we read to find and understand ourselves.  I have repeatedly had the comforting and encouraging experience of reading a sentence, story, poem or book which so perfectly described the world or myself in a way I would never have put together on my own.  I hope that my writing does this once in a while.  I had the supreme compliment once from my good friend Katie, who was dealing with the passing of her grandfather-in-law, that she felt I was there with her because she was reading one of my books at the time.  I am so glad she told me.  That, in a nutshell, is one of the best reason I write.

Publishing and the desire to be published is different and yet, maybe not entirely.  Publishing is business and money and a certain amount of fame and or recognition (although for most this amounts to very little).  I'm sure that not all of my reasons for desiring publication are honourable, but I think some of them are.  Publishing is the way a writer connects to a reader.  Self-publishing allows for some of this, but without self-promotion, it won't necessarily get to anyone.  I loath self-promotion, and yet I do it in the hopes of connecting to a reader.

Traditional publishers have connections to readers.  Some of them promote for you, or at least with you.  It is also an affirmation that my writing is worth reading.  I can't deny that I struggle to write sometimes because I doubt it's a worthy occupation.  Apparently I'm not alone in this feeling.  Stephen King wrote "I think I was forty before I realized that almost every writer of fiction and poetry who has ever published a line has been accused by someone of wasting his or her God-given talent.  If you write (or paint or sculpt or sing, I suppose) someone will try to make you feel lousy about it, that's all."  From On Writing.  I don't even need someone to tell me this.  I already think it on my own sometimes.

Who needs another novel?  Especially one of my novels, which really aren't that important.  I need more novels and more people to make sense of things for me through each confusing and overwhelming stage of life.  If I can share this experience with my writing one day, I feel that the pursuit of publication is valid.           

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Rejection Letter

A page in my journal of rejection letters.
Every so often, I forget how difficult it is to deal with rejection letters and wonder why I haven't been sending out my writing.  I become motivated and send out everything I've written, expecting that this time things will be different.  I've been writing for even longer now, I must be ready for publication.  A few weeks of hopeful expectation passes and then the rejections letters begin.

Mostly, rejection letters are form letters.  When I started sending things out, I used snail mail and I collected these letters in a notebook.  Now, I can save my postage most of the time and send my writing via email.  But, other than than, the process is the same.  Write a cover letter, send out what you think is your best work and wait in hopes of being accepted.

Today, I received a rejection with notes.  This response to my submission was optional.  I opted to hear the truth.  It was brutal.  While I greatly appreciate the time it took to reply to my work, I can't help but wonder if it could have been tempered with something good.  Perhaps this is hypocritical of me, but as a teacher, I know how important it is to look for the good in student's work while gently suggesting a bit of improvement.  It's so easy to focus on the negative.  Now, I'm thinking this story is beyond help.  Perhaps I should never have ventured outside my genre.

I'm trying to encourage myself with Julia Cameron's advice.  "And so, in order to be a good writer, I The Right to Write, p. 23).  She also says "The best and rarest criticism is constructive, and very few people know how to give it. . . "All (a writer) needs to find (their) stride . . . is encouragement and safety.  This does not mean that aesthetics go out the window.  It means, however, that we need to take the time and the space to discover our own aesthetic, and that does not happen when we get involved with instant cup of soup criticism and art by consensus." (p. 177).
have to be willing to be a bad writer.  I have to be willing to let my thoughts and images be as contradictory as the evening firing its fireworks outside my window."  (

So, perhaps the reaction of not wanting to send out any more writing is a healthy one.  Cameron calls it "Containment".  I'll let this batch of submissions run its course and allow myself to forget the sting of rejection until I'm ready to try again.  I am tempted to post the rejected story here, however.  I don't think I'll be able to send it out again.  It's tarnished now by the impressions of others.  I'd love a bit of advice here.  

Thursday, 16 June 2016

A Short History of Serialized Writing

Jo-Anne Sieppert Design
I was recently invited to apply to write for, which is an online serialized writing site.  It was the invitation that grabbed me.  What, somebody wants me to write for them?  After another long spell of rejections, I was intrigued.

In the back of my mind, I had a memory that several classic writers started by publishing their longer works as short excerpts in local newspapers or magazines.  Now that I’ve signed up to serialize my work Taking Comfort, I’m curious to know how many of my favourite writers went the serial route.
Charles Dickens was the first author who came to mind.  A quick search reveals he published at least six of his novels in this form including Little Dorrit and Our Mutual Friend.  It was a way to allow the middle class to access novels, which were generally too expensive, by spreading the novel into 1 shilling chapters over time.  Without the whole novel to give the big picture, the single chapter had to encapsulate an engaging beginning and ending and leave the reader in such suspense that they would spend another hard earned shilling to read the following chapter.

Henry James published The Ambassadors in serial form through North American Review.  Lucy Maud Montgomery originally intended a seven-chapter series about a red-headed orphan for a newspaper series, but instead, it became into Anne of Green Gables.  Louisa May Alcott wrote An Old Fashioned Girl in serial form for the Merry Museum Magazine as well as many other thrillers which she published under pen names.

I was hoping to find Jane Austen amongst the serialized writers, but unfortunately, the technology was not yet available during her time.
A more modern example is Stephen King who purposely wrote The Green Mile in a serialized form so that readers could not skip to the end and ruin the suspense!  He also wrote The Plant as a serialized story in lieu of Christmas card.  (Love it!  May have to try thisJ)

So, with these literary giants in mind, I decided to give it a try.  Will my chapters be intriguing enough to keep readers wanting more?  The Channillo website is based on monthly subscriptions, and as my novel is already finished, I intend to release it as quickly as possible to keep the suspense from killing anyone.  The great thing about the site is, you can also read other authors in many genres, while you're waiting for the next chapter.

It’s a new concept, but it’s given my novel Taking Comfort new life.  I finished it several years ago, but wasn’t yet ready to release it to the world.  It’s been sitting in proof form in a drawer for almost two years.  If nothing else, I’ll have a completed book at the end of this adventure.  If you'd like to give it a try, here's the link Taking Comfort

Saturday, 11 June 2016

Taking Comfort

Cover by: Jo-Anne Sieppert
Taking Comfort is the story of four unique young women in 1993.  Mallory is confident and beautiful but seems to exude a hardness of heart.  Sybille is popular and good; not the type to have a baby at sixteen.  Her sister Kate is a shy, mousy girl with only one real friend and Theresa spends her summer at camp, miles away from her attention-seeking friends and controlling mother.  One of these girls becomes pregnant, but the reader is kept in suspense until the end of the book.
The story is written as a book from a mother to her daughter.  Cara has never learned the details of her conception or her family, but her mother has decided the best way to share all of this information is through a book.  Taking Comfort gives the other side of being sixteen and pregnant.

The idea for this book came to me shortly after my daughter was born.  I was 28 at the time and I started doing the math to see how old my daughter would be had she been born when I was 16 or 17.  I started remembering life at that time and imagining what it would have been like.
At the same time, I was listening repeatedly to the Veggie Tale story, Esther: The Girl Who Became Queen.  Somehow the idea of picturing Bible characters as vegetables made me start thinking about what these stories would look like today.

This unusual marriage of ideas resulted in Taking Comfort.  You can start reading it today in serialized form at Channillo

Sunday, 29 May 2016

Good To A Fault Book Review

This is my second time reading Good To A Fault.  I rarely reread books, but I remembered enjoying
this one and recommended it to my book club.  I’m so glad I did.  This is definitely a book worth rereading.
Endicott starts her novel in the midst of chaos – a car accident between a single woman, Clara Purdy, and a family living in their car, Clayton, Lorraine, Darlene, Trevor, baby Pearce and their mother-in-law, Mrs. Pell.  Through the guilt of responsibility for the accident, Clara takes on more and more responsibility for the Gage family.  So much so, that she has Clayton, the children and Mrs. Pell move into her home while Lorraine begins cancer treatment.
Clara, after a brief and unsuccessful marriage, has been single most of her life, most recently moving in with her parents to nurse them through their last days.  She comes to find meaning and purpose through taking care of the Gage family, and grows particularly close to the children. 
Having never been a parent before, Endicott describes the searing pain and inexpressible joy of Clara’s new life as a parent with exquisite insight.  A few examples:
“Instead she went into the bedroom and picked up the little baby, the new one, the morning dew.  The baby quieted immediately, holding her hand, his other arm clinging to Clara’s neck, his body conforming to hers, his head warm against Clara’s face. 
Mine, she thought.” P. 31
“It was impossible, being with these children.  After four days of it Clara was exhausted by their clatter and the grime that attended them, and their easy assumption that she would do everything for them.” P. 44
“The headlights were not working properly.  When she parked at the drugstore she saw the car reflected in the glass front: her headlight was burnt out.  The complication of getting the headlight replaced was so overwhelming that she had to lean against the car door for a moment before she could get the children out to come trooping in with her, parkas over their pajamas.”  P. 241
“Her head hurt with the effort of not thinking how stupid she had been to take all these people on, how bad she had proven to be at all this.  But there was no way to get out of it.”  P. 215
The book is set in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan where I lived for ten years.  Endicott also lived in Saskatoon and the details in her descriptions of the setting put me right back in the City of Bridges.  Also, I’m pretty sure I met the same curmudgeonly used book store owner she describes on p. 131.  “He thought she was rich because Clary looked after them now.  It made her laugh, secretly, and he saw that, and yelled at her some more:  “You don’t read!  You haven’t read a book in your life.  Bookstores are going out of business all over – you think you can sit and watch TV and that’s all it takes.  You walk around in a bookstore and by osmosis, you’ve read something!”
My favourite chapter was 27, called Wellwater.  Here’s a taste:
“The fresh jug of ice water dewed, pearled, on the rolling table.  The water-women must have been around.
‘May I have a drink of your water?’ Paul asked.
‘How can you, a priest, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?’”
So whimsical and yet it so perfectly shows this odd relationship between a woman in a hospital being visited by a priest she never would have known if she hadn’t been sick. 
I try not to buy books.  I use the library as much as possible, but this book is worth buying.  You need to read it more than once.  It’s just incredibly well-written and has so much to say about the complications of trying to be good.
I can't help quoting this summary by Bill Robertson in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix  "As Jane Austen taught readers two hundred years ago, a few families in a small community are just the thing to write about."  

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Taliban Shuffle Book Review
My first career choice after high school was to be a journalist.  Specifically a foreign correspondent.  Looking back, I think this was largely inspired by  The Zion Covenant book series.  John Murphy, one of the main characters, was a foreign correspondent to Europe as the Nazi party rose to party.  I liked his grit and dedication to the story.  I wanted to travel and learn about the bigger world.  But after a year of journalism, I faced the fact that I would never be able to interview people while they were in the grips of grief.  Walking up to a new widow or orphan to demand how they felt about their recent crisis seemed too heartless.  I switched my program to professional writing and then eventually went into teaching.  I think it was the best choice for me, but I still wonder sometimes if I missed out on some adventures.  Reading a book like The Taliban Shuffle confirms that I have missed out on some great things about the journalism field, but also that it wasn't the best fit for me.

Kim Barker tells the story of her own experiences as a journalist in South Asia from 2004 to 2009 with humour and insight.  She does an incredible job of describing a world and culture so different from ours in North America.  Reading news pieces and seeing footage on T.V. or the internet is always out of context of the big picture. Barker spent years in these countries while most other foreign workers spend only six months.  "Many consultants traded places every six months and then promptly repeated all the mistakes of their predecessors." (284)  She has this reflection on conflict in South Asia "At some point, I realized the horrible truth -- the United States and its allies could win every single battle in Afghanistan and blow up every single alleged top militant in Pakistan, but still lose the war." (298)

Despite the serious nature of her subject, Barker offers frequent comic relief.  I think this is probably a necessary antidote to all she saw and experienced.  In fact, Barker frequently refers to her time in Afghanistan as either a love affair or an addiction.  In spite of surviving bombing, corruption and hopelessness, it took some effort to tear herself away from this crumbling country.  I think the relationships she describes explain why.  Here is one of my favourite stories about her friend/driver/translator/fixer, Farouq:  "Leaning against the tape, Farouq interviewed an Afghan, who said he was supporting all the candidates, hedging his bets.  It was a typical Afghan survival strategy, and Farouq started laughing.

"'Why are you laughing?' interrupted a hepped-up, sunglassed Afghan security guard, stepping in front of Farouq.  'I will call someone and have you taken away.'

"Farouq, never one to step down from a confrontation, looked at the man.

"'I'm just doing my job.'

"The Afghan guard swatted my notebook and shoved Farouq.

"'I will kill you,' he said.

"This was how Afghans interpreted DynCorp protocol for dealing with laughing.  The guard told us to go away, but we couldn't move.  Finally Karzai walked out into the bleachers, talking on his cell phone, and everyone grew quiet, even the Afghan security guard.  (In another example of how complicated Afghanistan is, this violent exchange caused Farouq and the security guard to become lifelong friends.)  Karzai urged the crowd not to participate in fraud."  (26-27)

The movie version of this book staring Tina Fey is more overtly funny and, out of necessity, heightens and abbreviates Barker's experience.  Still, I think it's an excellent film.  Just make sure you read the book as well.  It's well worth your time.

Friday, 29 April 2016

Book Review: Vienna Prelude

I was slightly embarrassed by my answer at a recent book club meeting to the question "What was
your favourite book as a teenager"?  This is a great question, but all I could remember reading was Sweet Valley High and Flowers in the Attic.  Of course, I read the books assigned to us in English class, but none of them were favourites.  But when I returned home, I looked over my bookshelf and remembered another favourite series that I think redeems my teenage reading choices.  I was inspired to reread the first and my favourite in the series to see if it was as good as I remembered.

Vienna Prelude is the first book of The Zion Covenant series.  It is set mainly in 1936 Vienna and tells the story of Elisa Lindheim, a violinist with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.  Elisa is beautiful, talented, Jewish and largely unaware of the Nazi threat in Europe.  When she returns to Berlin at Christmas, she is shocked and disturbed by the changes to her home and the devastating threat to the Jewish people.  When she tries to escape with her father to the Tyrolean Alps, he is taken by the Nazis and she is left to travel alone with no way of finding him.

As a teenager, this book developed a great interest in World War II and its causes.  I believe it was my first introduction to Historical Fiction and I was inspired by the fictional stories to learn a great deal about the historical world around them.  As an adult, the writing holds up and I was once again swept up into the romance, intrigue and daring situations.  The story is told from many points of view which gives a realistic picture of the complexity of war and what caused the Nazi party to come to power.

I recommend this to any fan of historical fiction or to readers who just enjoy a really great story.

Saturday, 9 April 2016

The Right to Write Book Review

If you are a writer and only ever read one book on writing, this should definitely be it.  Julia
Cameron's book is full of encouragement and great writing prompts.  It is unpretentious and full of things I have thought but never put into words.  Although I didn't complete all of the writing prompts, it is the kind of book I plan to return to again and again for ideas and reassurance.

I took my time reading the book, savouring what was inside.  I didn't want it to end; it was like I had Julia's voice in my head, telling me I could do it, that my ideas were worth something and that writing is not just about publishing and writing to the market.  I love how she writes about the mysteriously spiritual side of writing, how good it is for the writer simply to write.

Two of my favourite chapters were Bad Writing and Containment.  While Bad Writing debunks the myth of having to write perfectly, Containment describes the importance of protecting your work and yourself from those who want to derail you along the way.  If I taught a writing class, I would make these prerequisite readings for all my students.

I was also excited to find that Cameron self-published and is a champion for self-publishing.  So many published authors and their publishers put down those of us who publish on our own.  It is great to have someone say self-publishing is good!

Here are a few of my favourite quotes, which I couldn't help pasting all over Twitter and Facebook:

"We are far larger, far more marvelous, far more deeply and consistently creative than we can recognize or know."

"We do not see ourselves with accuracy."

"If only we could give ourselves permission to write 'badly', so many of us would write very well indeed."

"First drafts that are allowed to find their own shape and form very often do find the best trail or something very close to it."

"When I am writing often enough, I find myself interested by what I am saying. Interested myself, it is easier for me to believe that others might be interested. Conversely, as I empty myself onto the page, there is more room for other people's thoughts, other people's ideas. There is, in short, more room for companionship. Less room for loneliness."

I can't tell you how good this book is.  You just need to read it yourself!

Saturday, 2 April 2016

The Forest Lover: Book Review

I am so glad this book came up in my book club.  I'd never heard of it before.  It is the fictionalized
account of Emily Carr's life, many of her travels and her paintings.  As someone who has recently moved to her neck of the woods, I luxuriated in the author's descriptions of British Columbia.

I was also greatly impressed by the quality of Susan Vreeland's writing and research.  I think it would be easy to get stuck in relaying the many facts of Carr's history, especially given the amount of writing and artwork Carr left behind.  However, Vreeland does not get bogged down in giving a fact-by-fact description of Carr's life, but is instead free to create and imagine what it was like to be Carr and to see and feel her life.

Vreeland also weaves incredible relationships between Carr and others.  Some of these relationships are real while others are based on fragments of real relationships.  I was especially impressed by the way these bonds grow and change over time.  This is real writing skill; to make human connections in fiction seem entirely believable.

I really enjoyed this peek into Carr's world.  Vreeland has create a book to be applauded.

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

The Secret Garden Book Review

I missed a lot of Classic literature while I was reading Sweet Valley High and The Baby-sitters club
in my mis-read youth.  Now, I'm taking advantage of classic children's books during my children's childhood.  I picked up an illustrated version of The Secret Garden at the library to read to my kids.  After a few chapters, I got tired of trying to read aloud in a Yorkshire accent and switched to an audio version.  This was much easier to listen to together, although it was eight hours long.

I was very excited with the beginning of the book.  I love how Mary begins as an unlikeable, contrary girl.  There were great descriptions of the moor and the gothic mansion at Misselthwaite.  Mrs. Medlock, Martha and Ben Weatherstaff are strong, memorable characters and there is always a sense of mystery.  I am more and more impressed by the importance of mystery in any story.

At some point, I sarcastically thought this book could be described as The Secret Garden: or how every ailment can be cured by going outside.  There is something of a preachy morality tale to the story.  I believe this was popular and, actually, the point of children's literature at the time.  Still, the story is highly enjoyable and charming.
I'll confess we watched the 1993 film version before we got to the end of the book and my children
lost interest in the ending.  I read it myself and was fascinated by the differences between the film and book endings.  I had seen the film when it came out and greatly enjoyed it.  They did a wonderful job of focusing on the mystery while still staying true to the important themes in the book.  I'm glad I read the book and that my kids have heard most of it, but it was a bit of a challenge in language and length to read to children who are more accustomed to modern novels.

Friday, 25 March 2016

Not As They Appear: Chapter One

Here is another excerpt from one of my novels: Not As They Appear.  A fitting read for an Easter weekend featuring a Narnia-like retelling of Jesus' life.  In my book, he is a polar bear named Joshua.
My sister Jessica never saw the dragons.  Or at least she claimed she didn’t see them.  I kinda thought she was faking, trying to be cool and popular – but thinking back, maybe she was telling the truth.  She certainly wasn’t the only one who couldn’t see the dragons.
            I remember the first time I saw one.  I woke in my bed, covered in dried sweat, my heart racing.  Terror gripped every nerve, but I couldn’t remember why.  Did I have a nightmare?  If so, I couldn’t remember even a fragment of it.  Perhaps someone had been in my room, but I was too scared to check.
            Then I heard it – the horrid screeching like ten thousand nails across a rock.  Deafeningly wretched.  My heart thumped faster and I forgot to breathe.
            I hid beneath my pillow, but the sound penetrated, barely muffled.  I called out to my mom – our mother, the one we had been fighting over since I was born, until we wore her down to a nervous point.  Our arguments deflated her, though we didn’t know this at the time.
            For once, she did not appear instantly at my door.  Where was she?  I could always count on her at night.  Somehow, she could manage compassion and gentleness in the dark, though she couldn’t face it in the light of day. 
            The sounds continued at least a quarter of an hour and then ceased completely.  Though I was enveloped in panic, this did not translate to my limbs.  They remained frozen in my bed.  When the noises ceased, I finally emerged from my blankets, padded to my window and lifted the blind half an inch. 
            A giant yellow eye stared back.  I screamed, but no sound came out.  The eye seemed to x-ray my heart and soul.  I let the blind drop and bolted back to my island of imagined safety.  I breathed again, tears trapped inside, trembling myself to sleep.
            The following morning our mother was gone. 
            “Way to go, twerp,” Jessica said over a precariously full bowl of fruit loops.  There were none left in the box for me.
            “What?”  I whined.  “You ate all the cereal.”
            She thrust a giant spoonful into her mouth and grinned at me through the colourful ohs.
            “Yfph mph mopth leeph.”
            I punched her in the stomach and she spit the partially gobbled cereal into my face.
            “You’re gonna pay for that, you little brat.” 
            She chased me around the room and I didn’t even notice our mom was missing until it was time to go to school.
            “Hey, where’s mom?” I poked my nose into Jessica’s room.
            “I told you this morning,” she pulled a brush through her long blond hair.  “She’s not here.  I heard you screaming last night.  You must have kept her awake all night, like you always do and then she decided she couldn’t take it anymore.”
            I moved closer, worried.  “What are you talking about?  You never told me she was gone.”
            She grabbed her backpack and stormed out of the room. 
            “Jessicaaaah,” I keened with the perfect inflection to set your teeth against one another.
            She threw her hands up in the air and turned on me.  I slammed into her by accident.
            “I’m not your mother,” she screamed.  “And I’m never gonna be.  If you made her leave, you’re just gonna have to figure out what to do with yourself.”
She left the house then, turning the key in the lock behind her.  I was four years old.  I’d never been alone in the house before.

            Immediately, the silence creeped me out. I turned on the television.  After two episodes of PowerRangers, I called out:
            “Mo-om!  I’m hungry!”  Nothing happened, which wasn’t unusual.  “Mooooooom.  Moooooooooom!”  I said her name with increasing length and strength of voice. 
            When I tired of this, I wandered into her room.  She hadn’t made her bed.  Nothing seemed to be missing.  Her purse waited on the hook by her door.  I rummaged through it until I found $4.87 in change.  I pocketed the money and stomped back into the kitchen.  Jessica hadn’t finished her cereal.  The colourful circles had bloated and disintegrated into the milk, turning it an awful greenish-brown colour.  I slammed the side of the bowl, spilling the contents onto the table.  I felt some sense of accomplishment.  Then I looked through the cereal cupboard for another box, but could only find a stale box of crispy flakes.  I hated that cereal, but grabbed a few handfuls to tame the knot of hunger and unease in my belly.  After that meager feast, I found a half-full container of grape juice and drank it straight from the jar.  I spilled some down my shirt and a few drops onto the floor.  I swiped at them with my Spiderman pajamas.  Then I found some marshmallows and chocolate chips in the cupboard to round out my meal.  I returned to the solace of the television again, lulled by the high-pitched voices and gun sounds.

            Mom didn’t return, but Jessica came home from school sometime after Handy Manny. 
            “Eeeww!” she pinched her nose when she came in the door.  “It reeks in here.  Mom, I’m home.  Why didn’t you come pick me up?  I had to walk all the way home.”
            “She’s not here,” I pouted from my nest on the couch.  I’d kept the T.V. on all day for company.  I was still wearing my pajamas and the kitchen table was littered with my meal attempts.  There was a pool of spilt milk on the floor, half a piece of greasy cheese on a chair, a pathway of cracker crumbs from the cupboard to the couch and a half-eaten peanut butter sandwich resting on the arm of the couch.
            She lifted up the sandwich between two fingers and dropped it back onto the couch with a look of disgust.
            “What do you mean?  Did she have to run to the store or something?” My sister dropped her backpack onto a clean patch of floor.
            “Nope,” I stared dully at the screen.  “She never came home.  I’ve been here alone all day.”  My nose began to itch with threatening tears and I swiped at it with a crusty sleeve.
            She looked at me, scrunching up her face as if to choose the most important question to ask.  “What’s wrong with her?” she finally said, throwing her hands into the air.
            Jessica took a closer look at the mess and then back to me.  I saw a thread of concern in her eyes, but she shielded it with teenaged irritation.
            “Look at the mess you made,” she shook your head.  “Mom’s going to be totally mad at you when she gets home.”
            That was the last thing I could take.  I yelled and cried at the same time.  Furious and dejected.  I wanted my mother more than ever and I wet my pants after holding it too long.
            “Gross!” Jessica yelled, but she reached out to me and pulled me to the bathroom.  “You’ve got to have a bath.  I’m not living in a house that smells like pee.”
            She turned away when I sat on the toilet.  I stopped yelling, but I couldn’t stop the tears.  The sound of the water filling up the tub was some comfort; a reassurance that all messes could be fixed. 
            She washed my hair with more care than I’d ever imagined she could give.  Of course, her blond curls would have taken a lot of patience, but I took it for love.  At least Jessica would take care of me.
            “Come on, Matt, you can wash your body, right?”  She shoved a bar of soap into my hands, but it slipped out before I could get a proper grip.
            She rolled her eyes and fished out the soap.  “You’re so incompetent.  I’m sure I could wash myself by the time I was your age.”
            I smiled at her, hoping to gain more of her care, but I’d apparently reached the end of her tolerance.  She dumped a bucket of soapy water over me, without shielding my eyes.  I hollered in protest and she stood up and crossed her arms across her body in response.
            “Fine, do it yourself then,” she shouted and stomped out of the bathroom.
            I kept up my hollering a few minutes longer, but the bathwater grew cold and I decided to get out.  I didn’t bother pulling the plug.  I wanted our mother to see every step of the trail of dejection she’d left.  I half-heartedly patted myself with a towel, letting it drop to the floor, awaiting her guilty pity.
            I found yesterday’s shirt and jeans and struggled to put them on.  The tag of the shirt tickled my throat.  I picked up a toy, momentarily diverted from my sadness, but a few minutes later, I let it drop to the floor and lay in my bed, trying to fight the burning tears in my throat.  How could my mom have left us alone?  Were we really that bad?
            Some time later, Jessica came in my room and looked at me with a hand on her hip, but she held back the cutting remark I could see she’d been planning to throw at me.  She walked over my toy-littered floor and lay beside me on the bed.
            “It’s been a pretty weird day, Matt.  My teacher was missing and she didn’t even called in a sub.  The principal had to teach us math and he didn’t know what he was talking about.  Then our sub came and she was even worse.”
            I turned to look at her and thought about some of the nice things she’d done for me before.  There was the time she bought me a truck I really wanted from the mall.  She used to play with me if I would let her make all the rules.  Sometimes she’d even hug me at bedtime when I was clean and wearing my pajamas.
            “Where do you think Mom went?” I ventured.
            “I don’t know, buddy.  All the grown-ups at school were whispering about things, but of course they didn’t tell us anything.”
            “Do you think we should call Auntie Margaret?” I asked, using my nicest voice.
            “I don’t want to get Mom in trouble,” she fiddled with a necklace.  “I mean, she deserves it, but it has been a pretty terrible year.  Maybe if we clean up the kitchen, she’ll be back when we’re done and we can all be together again.”
            It was a lofty goal, but Jessica sounded so hopeful that I figured it must be possible.  She helped me out of bed and we tackled the mess.

            Our father had gone to jail two days after my third birthday.  They grabbed him from our house in the middle of the night.  Mom was screaming for them to leave him alone, that he had a family to provide for.  This was likely the cause of my nightmares.  She told us he died a month later.  She didn’t say how.  Her face was ashen-grey, like the soot in our fireplace. 
            Jessica knew more than I did, but mom must have told her to keep it quiet.  When I whined to know more, my sister would take me out of the room as mom slumped into a chair.  I laughed at her once because I thought her shoulders were shaking with laughter.  Thinking back now, it must have been grief, horrible, rolling fits of grief, like the ones I experienced after she left.
            Jessica got me a snack after the kitchen was clean and the room was cleared of its musty pee smell.  I sat up on the high stools against our kitchen island, watching her chew her nails.
            “Where do you think she went?” I asked over a mouthful of peanut-butter sandwich.
            “I don’t know,” she said in a distant monotone.  It was so similar to the one our mother used.
            “Why?” I tried, knowing how this question irritated her.
            “I just don’t know, Matthew.  Could you stop pestering me?” But she didn’t storm out of the room like she normally did.
            “Maybe Auntie Margaret knows,” I suggested after another huge bite.
            She sighed with impatience.  “If she knew, she would have called us or come over right away.”
            “Auntie Margaret’s nice,” I wheedled.
            “You haven’t seen her since Dad left.” She bit off a large chunk of nail.  “She’s not so nice anymore.”
            I gulped my milk in the way I knew annoyed her, but she didn’t flinch.  “How do you know?  She sent me a monster truck shirt.”
            Jessica narrowed her eyes at me.  “She told Mom that Dad was a loser,” she spat.
            I stopped chewing in shock.  “What?  He’s not a loser.  He was our Dad.”  My voice rose with incredulity.
            “I know.  She sucks and she made mom really sad.  I’m not going to call her.”
           I wasn’t hungry anymore.  I pushed my sandwich around the plate, pretending it was a steamroller that could smush our traitorous aunt.
            My sister finished chewing off her nails and wandered toward her bedroom.  I hesitated only a moment before I followed her down the hallway, but her room was locked.  I banged a few times, but didn’t have the energy to keep at it until.  I walked into Mom’s room instead and buried myself under the blankets that smelled like her soap and shampoo.