Sunday, May 23, 2010

Mom Replaced by Free Download

It happens every year.

Every major school project is due the same week in May. Now that Tristan is in middle school, it is worse than it was before; and I don’t see it getting any better until he graduates from graduate school and starts taking care of us.

Until then, Jack and I will just have to bare with it.

Last week, Tristan’s social studies project was due. It was on the country of Poland, where his ancestors originated. It was very last minute. He only received the assignment right before Christmas in December.

Don’t get me wrong. For the last five months he has been working on it. He’s been doing the fun stuff: research and putting together a PowerPoint presentation complete with audio and special effects for his oral report. However, forty-eight hours before the project was due, he only had the rough draft of his twenty page research paper completed.

In came Mom, the professional writer, to the rescue. With the rough draft completed, I could have edited and polished it in a matter of hours, but I had visions of Tristan in graduate school. “Mom, my three-hundred page dissertation on the chemical components of the beagle nebula is due the day after tomorrow. I have the rough draft done and some really cool pictures. Can you help?”

Sorry, kid, they don’t have computers here in the nursing home.

So last weekend, Tristan and I sweated together, as mother and son, to complete his sixth-grade social studies project. By noon, he cried out, “Mom, can I have a break? I’m hungry.”

“Okay, twenty minutes.” I continued on. Three pages and an hour later, I realized that Tristan was nowhere to be found. I woke up Jack, who was thinking with his eyes closed on the sofa. “Where’s Tristan?”

“He went to Bronson’s house.” The kid escaped!

An hour later, I tracked him down and dragged him back to the computer to teach him more about the fine art of punctuation. “Did any of your teachers ever introduce you to a comma?”

It was with a big sigh of relief that I sent Tristan off to school on Monday morning. That was over. I could now sit and relax with my own writing projects.

At three-thirty, Tristan returned home with tears in his eyes.

Language Arts: The assignment was a twenty-five page story assigned over a month ago. Tristan was excited about this project. He had been researching and writing it for the whole month. He had the twenty-five pages written—in long hand—which were now missing!

When was this story due? Wednesday!

Unfortunately, Mom had her own deadline. So I told Tristan to start typing and when he got home the next day he could dictate what he didn’t have done to me and we’d get it done.

Before he went to bed, I asked Tristan how many pages had he typed: A whole three pages!

What had the kid been doing since he got home from school? Researching a speech to text software to help him finish the project. “Mom, can I download it onto my computer?”

I bristled. That’s cheating!

“How?” Tristan wanted to know.

It was cheating the same way word processing was to the electric typewriters, and electric typewriters were to manual typewriters, and manual typewriters were to the pen.

Tristan failed to see my logic. The next day, as soon as he got home from school, he downloaded a freeware of a speech to text program. While he dictated his story to his laptop, I fumed in the kitchen while cooking dinner.

Where was this free download when he was sobbing over his missing pages? Was it able to give him the benefit of its life experience and advice directly from the bottom of its heart? Was it going to give him a hug and an “atta boy” when he brought home his “A”? Did this free download even care enough about Tristan to brag about him on its blog?

How dare he replace ME with a free download?

By dinner, Tristan had printed up his story and presented it to me to review. It had a thrilling beginning, an intriguing plot, and a cliffhanger ending. Unfortunately, it lacked capital letters, periods, commas, and paragraph breaks. This, I firmly believe, his language arts teacher would want him to use.

“Where’s Tristan?” I asked Jack when he came to the dinner table.

“He went to James’ house.”

So, I went in search of Tristan and dragged him back to his computer where I sat on him until he finished his story, after which we celebrated with hot fudge sundaes.

There are some things you just can’t replace with a free download.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Kill Me Please

Most writers, like me, are die-hard introverts. We are most content when we are home alone with our imagination, laptop, and dog or cat or goldfish or whatever it is that keeps us company without making too many demands.

I don’t get cabin fever. This past February, I cursed when the snow plow came through three days after the blizzard. It was so unfair. My friend Jill who lives in the “flatlands” as I call the valley below our mountain got to stay snowed in for two more days. She does get cabin fever.

Yet, there is a danger to giving into your solitary ways when you are a writer. Inspiration comes from being “out there”. How else can you come up with interesting characters or story lines? You can’t count on anyone worthy of being put in your next masterpiece crossing your path while sitting in your recliner in your bathrobe and slippers. Agatha Christie based Hercule Poirot on a gentleman she saw at a cafĂ©. Sherlock Holmes was based on one of Sir Conan Doyle’s college professors.

Don’t assume that being called a character is an insult. I am often asked to be put in my books. It seems to be a toss-up between wanting to be the innocent accused, or the suspect that the reader hopes did it so they will go to jail, or the actual killer.

Only once, a young man asked after one of my speaking engagements if he could be a murder victim. Never before, and never since, has anyone requested to be the victim--unless you want to count the request to be killed off coming from one’s behavior.

Have you ever seen someone incredibly ill dressed and thought, “Do they ever look in the mirror?” Well, sometimes I will meet someone and wonder, “Do they have any idea of how their behavior looks to others?”

Through my years of people watching, I have met some people who seem to beg, “Kill me! Please!” They aren’t asking the neighborhood psychopath to take an ax to them, but they do seem to be begging the local mystery writer to make them the subject of a fictional murder investigation.

Recently, in my quest for inspiration, I got out of bed, kicked off my fluffy slippers, brushed my teeth, put on my bra, and went off to census training for the United States government. (If I can get paid for people watching, so much the better.) Here I was in a large room with twenty-five other adults all awaiting the opportunity to learn how to go door to door to count people…and to meet characters.

My training class was a virtual garden of characters ripe for the picking. There was the mom wanting to earn enough money to take her children to Disney World; the wife hoping to make enough money to pay her husband’s medical bills, the dog trainer who was short on funds, and the elderly couple wanting to make enough money to drive across country in their RV this summer.

Let’s not forget the mystery writer in search of inspiration.

Add to this mix an executive recently retired from a position that had two hundred employees working under her. I know this because she broadcast it several times over the course of the week. She was also the recipient of numerous awards for excellence. She said that it was important that everyone, including the instructor, know this information. Why? Her awards were real evidence of how truly far beneath her we all were.

By the end of the first day, it became clear that I had found a potential murder victim.

An hour into the training, The Executive balked at the one hour allotted for lunch during the eight-hour day. “I find that unacceptable. It violates my employment agreement.” The Executive wanted the thirty minute lunch that she had agreed to and to leave a half hour earlier, even if it was inconvenient for the other twenty-five people in the room. Since none of us ever had two hundred men working under us, our lunch plans didn’t matter.

By the end of the week, I had a room filled with readers waiting in line to buy the book I write in which the murder victim is The Award Winning Executive.

It was during The Great Lunch Negotiations that the mother trying to get to Disney World turned to me. “There’s a reason I’m a stay-at-home mom.” Like the Disney Mom, I work at home alone for a reason. Maybe it’s because my mother drilled manners into my psyche that I have never mixed well with corporate America. I actually care about the other people in the room.

I don’t actually lift a whole character and put them into a book. Rather, I will pick up looks, styles, or traits to use. I will also store away situations that I have encountered to use in a plotline.

For example, the one home I visited for the census in which the wife screamed at me about how she refused to take part. Okay, I said. But when I turned to leave she called me back. Maybe her husband will answer my questions. After bellowing for her husband, she resumed yelling at me. It seemed to take an eternity for her husband to come to the door while she continued screaming about how she was not going to participate in the census. When I once again offered to leave, she told me to wait because her husband was coming. After he arrived, she went to get a beer while he answered my questions between comments about how nosy the government is.

It was during this interview that I put together a plotline in which a couple is murdered by a door-to-door sales rep pushed over the edge by…

After all my years of people watching, I have yet to answer this question: When characters like these end up between the covers of a book, do they actually see themselves the way the writer saw them?