Tag Archives: fiction editing

Tips on Writing “The Boring Stuff” Readers Tend to Skip — Fiction University

[J here: I spend a good deal of time trying to guide writers to remember what I like to call the readercam, another term for point of view. There is a tendency to head-hop, which means to shift the perspective from one person to another. Managed well, this is workable. Managed badly, it is not. And when writers choose first person, many do not realize that they are setting limiters on what they may do for the rest of the tale. This article touched on structural matters of that sort, the kind I often encounter in the editing process.]

By Jenna HartePart of The How They Do It SeriesJH: Readers skim when they read, especially if nothing is really going on in the story. Jenna Harte shares tips on keeping readers engaged in your novel.Jenna Harte is a die-hard romantic writing about characters who are passionate about and committed to each other, and frequently…

Tips on Writing “The Boring Stuff” Readers Tend to Skip — Fiction University

How to Write Rich Characterization: A Cheat-Sheet — Fiction University

[J here: I found this a nice list of quick character development suggestions. Quite a few writers struggle with character development in fiction, but non-fiction writers often flat neglect it because you can’t just make stuff up in non-fiction. No, you can’t, but you can use some of the same principles to identify what makes a character intriguing.]

By Bonnie RandallPart of The How They Do It Series JH: Wonderfully rich characters typically leads to a wonderfully rich novel. Bonnie Randall shares tips on how to reveal the depth and richness of your characters. A character is infinitely more than just who the author says they are. Like their living, breathing counterparts, fictional characters often…

How to Write Rich Characterization: A Cheat-Sheet — Fiction University

Ten pros and ten cons of living in Beaverton/Aloha, Oregon, USA

This area, which is part of Washington County, Oregon, represents the first suburb to the west of the Portland metropolitan area. Portland mainly makes the news when there is some form of protest or other confrontation, or in listings of places with good food and drink. Just as Everett and Tacoma are not Seattle, Portland’s burbs are not Portland. They just share a border.

Important note: Beaverton is an actual city with its own government. Aloha (pronounced uh-LO-ah) is simply the name of a region of unincorporated Washington County between Beaverton and Hillsboro (the county seat). In combination they house maybe 150,000 people. The only practical distinction is which police respond to emergency calls (city police vs. county deputies) and whether one is misgoverned and overtaxed by city or county officials. I have come to designate this area as Aloverton, and to go by the local chuckles, I might just be one of the first to assign it. Anyway…

Pros of living in Aloverton:

  1. Powell’s. This famous downtown Portland bookstore has branches in Beaverton and eastern Portland. While our branch isn’t as cavernous as the one downtown, it’s still the size of a Costco and much more fun than going out to buy a 5-gallon bucket of grape jam or enough paper towels to absorb a small lake. Every editor reads, and every reader enjoys bookstores.
  2. Max. This is Portland’s light rail network linking Aloverton with the rest of the metro area. It’s efficient, generally safe, and reasonably priced. You can live out here and get to Gresham (the extreme eastern burb), the airport (north, along the Columbia), as far south as Clackamas (in a different county), and to the Expo Center (way up north). Ride all day for five bucks.
  3. Great Korean food. This is Portland’s main concentration of Koreans and Korean-Americans, and the result is a very high standard of Korean dining. Nak Won (downtown Beav) is always at the top of the metro area’s Korean restaurant listings, and there’s a reason why people line up to get in when it first opens in the evening. I never knew how much I loved Korean food until I moved here.
  4. Diversity. While it is true that Oregon was founded as a racist Utopia, and still has a lot of ugly racial history to confront, I regularly hear Spanish and other languages in my local travels. I see kids in my neighborhood playing with toy cricket bats. It is not strange to meet a variety of races, faiths, and outlooks.
  5. Industries. Nike’s world HQ is about three miles from me, and many tech companies (Intel, Tektronix for example) have local presences. There tend to be jobs in Aloverton, sometimes pretty good ones, and we have lots of business parks.
  6. Coast. If you want to show that you’re a visitor, refer to “going to the beach.” Most people here say “going to the coast.” Aloverton is about seventy minutes from Cannon Beach (which I am always tempted to call Cannon Coast, just to mock the trend). Close enough to get there in an hour and a half, but not so close as to be swamped with coastgoing tourists–nice location.
  7. Beaverton library. This is large, nice, adjoins a pleasant park, and has almost enough parking plus a friends-of-the-library bookshop across the street. Comfortable, easy to use, doubles as a ballot drop box area at election times, well organized, not too many riff-raff using it to get out of the rain. I like.
  8. Nearness of natural areas. I don’t have to drive more than about fifteen minutes to see nothing but farmland. While that might get more difficult, I remember living in Seattle’s northern burbs where the countryside felt like it might as well be in Idaho. This area has a number of water control wetlands that remain undeveloped, and some very pleasant local nature trails. You can get out into the woods.
  9. Mt. Hood. While we are not physically close to this dormant andesite volcano, some urban planner had a great inspiration. Two major east/west arterials flow through town. For a short stretch, the southernmost one shoots right at Mt. Hood; the northernmost one does so for a very long stretch. So it’s a sunny day, you’re coming home from one of Hillsboro’s many strip joints or car dealerships, and you’re just watching out for the speed limit changes. And in the distance, you can see that you’re aimed directly at a beautiful snow-capped mountain set against the blue sky. Yes, please.
  10. Coffee and cannabis. If you like legal stimulants and relaxants, it’s easier to find a coffee place or dope/CBD store than it is a gas station. I’m not exaggerating. If you drive at random, you will find coffee or dope before you will find vehicle fuel. Most of the coffee is all right and some of it is great, especially a couple of the non-chain downtown Beav places. While a number of the dope places are staffed by kids who obviously qualify to work there mainly through product experience, there are enough that one can find a place with people who know more about the products than “whatever kind you want, dude.”
  11. Bonus pro: friendliness. While it’s still a suburb of a large city with the associated distancing and space bubble tendencies, there is a certain easy, polite friendliness about the area. It’s that general Western US friendliness that one finds most places, a sort of relaxed outlook. Yeah, we have some amazing jackasses, but not many. If you can’t figure out where something is, most people will be glad to direct you.

Cons of living in Aloverton:

  1. Bad Chinese and Thai food. As well represented as are many Asian demographics including Chinese and Thai, most of the local restaurants in these specialties are…forgettable. We knew of one Chinese place we thought was good, but it closed. We know of one good Thai place and we help keep it afloat. You’d expect better here.
  2. Mediocre Mexican food. We lived in former sundown town Kennewick for sixteen years, where the population of Hispanic origin was considerable (more so across the river in Pasco). Beaverton’s best Mexican restaurant in our experience would be about the sixth best in Richland/Kennewick/Pasco, which makes no sense given that absolute numbers here are greater. We know one rather good place and one street taco place, and we help keep them afloat. Most would not be missed, ranging from “okay” to “not doing that again.”
  3. Rats. A decades-old problem, significant new construction has stirred up many squadrons of varmints. Worsening the problem are people who feed birds and feral cats, and who keep chickens in their back yards (quite common here). The result is Too Much Mickey. This year we had to get serious about the battle, but not enough locals take it seriously for us to make progress against the problem. It’s the same old thing: people can’t be bothered to change anything just because it might help the community as a whole.
  4. Police. During my first week here, I had a shakedown attempt from the deputies in the form of a certified letter accusing me of a false alarm without a permit (the spot for a date of infraction was blank) and strongly suggesting I buy an alarm permit. I investigated and found there had been no monitoring here for five years. I didn’t even get an apology. Beaverton is infamous for traffic ticket cameras, traffic stings, and fascist enforcement of even the most minor laws. Speed limit changes are frequent and seem designed to encourage infractions.
  5. Property crime. Mail theft, porch piracy, petty burglary, car break-ins, illegal street races, and the like are quite common here and one should probably expect them to get worse. The police have their hands full setting up stings to catch people not stopping for pedestrians at unmarked crosswalks, I guess. When it comes to protecting your property here, you’re on your own.
  6. Downtown. Aloha, not being a town, does not even have a pretense of downtown. Beaverton tries so hard to have one, but there just isn’t much to it. The area’s two main east/west arterials roar through such downtown as there is, which contains a few interesting places and more uninteresting ones. It only gains any ground during Saturday markets, which one learns about from all the signs warning against parking in business lots on market days.
  7. Street disposal. In this area, getting rid of large junk is not simple or cheap. Very often, people’s solution is to just put the old washer or computer hutch on the sidewalk, assuming someone will snap it up; failing that, eventually the city/county will come get it. I understand this with a box of books or something else of rational value, but not with a dead refrigerator. Jeez.
  8. Street name changes. One of this area’s civic pastimes is changing street names in mid-run for no evident logical reason. I’ve alluded to two main east/west arterials, Oregon State Highways 8 and 10. OR-8 is called the Tualatin Valley Highway until the edge of downtown Beav, when it becomes Canyon Road. No sane reason. OR-10 is Farmington Road until the center of downtown, where it changes its name to the Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway. Got it. Why? Who does this help? Another example? All right: There’s an arterial named SW Allen Street. Then it’s SW Davis Street. Then it’s SW Oak Street. This all happens within one mile. That’s some fine naming work there, Wally.
  9. Transportation infrastructure. The road system and Max park-and-ride lots have not nearly kept pace with the speed at which developers throw up apartment buildings. Combine that with a street system in which you often can’t really get there from here, and it can be annoying and difficult to navigate. While the growth is goosing our property value, it’s not making the area more livable. Or more walkable. I live in an area where there is not one single business within one mile. It’s as burby as a burb can get.

I note that I can find eleven strong pros and nine solid cons about Aloverton. I guess that fits my view, which is: While big cities just fundamentally do not appeal to me, if I have to live in or near one, this will work.

How I would hire an editor if I were an aspiring author

Life has taught me that quite a few of those who have appointed themselves editors and proofreaders are competent to do neither. If you could see the number of posts in editors’ forums full of bad English, requests like “I want 2 become an editor can u point me to any sites where I can learn grammer?” you might despair. If you can see them, you despair daily.

All right. Let’s do something about it. Knowing what I know now, but assuming I were not actually an editor, how would I do it? Imagine I wanted to be a published author and sought editing help. Assume that no matter my proficiency with the language, I’m sensible enough to realize one set of eyes isn’t enough. I also realize that volunteer first readers might be reluctant to be blunt with me.

In addition to continuing to write every day, even if it were only fifty words, even if all I said was “writing sucks today because…” I would start with short stories. The goal would be to get them published sooner rather than later, firing up the income stream. I’d give away the first few for free, hoping to build a following. But before I published any, I’d be confronting the hiring of editing services. Thus:

It’s not smart to hire people when one doesn’t know what they do. Rather than be foolhardy, I would read up on the different editing modes, so that I didn’t sound completely clueless when time came to have the conversation. When I did that, I would probably conclude that I needed a developmental edit. Even if I weren’t sure, I would desire such an edit in order to see my blind spots. I might later evolve my writing to a point where I ceased to need these, but I’d be planning to wait for an editor to tell me that.

I would not go to any of the sites that purport to help one hire editing services from a pool. Know what I’d do? I’d get on one of the writers’ groups on Faceplant, like Writers Helping Writers or Writers Unite. While some of the requests from purported writers might quease me out, this would provide me two benefits. One, it would show me the truly wretched quality of English on display for most of the likely competition, thus making me feel much better about my own. Two, it would let me see which editors participated in attempts to help these poor lost souls. I’d watch how they conducted themselves. I’d grade them for honesty, knowledge, and helpfulness. I’d make a list of the top five and order it according to how much each provider appealed to me.

Then, one by one, I’d contact my top five. I would not contact several at once. I would not waste others’ time or try to get them all to compete with each other; this isn’t buying a new car. I’d look the first one up, contact her, and see what her process was like. I would not ask her about costs until the very end of the discussion. I’d ask her for a sample developmental edit, presuming she did those, on just one to two pages of short story. I’d be very up front that I was starting with short stories to improve my writing, build a name, and work into the process.

The quality of guidance in her sample dev edit would be an enormous factor. If it was cold, that would be all right provided it was intelligent and honest. I’d make sure that the sample included some passive voice, ellipses, italic emphasis, and some other bad habits, just so that I could get her take on them. I could live with her telling me it was complete garbage, provided she told me specifics about why. If I didn’t get a good vibe and feel from this process, I would thank her for her time and let her know I needed to keep searching for a better fit.

If I did get a good vibe, I’d do some innocent cyber research. I’d see what kind of reputation she had, look into her testimonials. If her website offered a list of her credits, I might buy one of those books just to see how her handiwork might have come out. If I decided she was The One, I would not send her an NDA to sign (the only one of those I ever signed was for a tech editing project that involved being privy to the hiring party’s clients’ confidential information). If she sent me a contract to sign, I’d read it and decide how I felt about its provisions. If she wanted money up front, I’d examine that and decide whether I was comfortable with it. Also, to be frank, if she charged by the hour I’d assume she was more likely to be capable than if she charged a flat fee. There’s complicated thinking behind that, and it’s by no means perfect or universal, but it is my considered observation and experience.

Once I hired her, I would carefully consider everything she said. At times I would challenge her in ways, especially by asking her to explain the reasoning. If she had a process, I would follow it, soaking up everything I could. I would pay her promptly when the time came. I would not try to piggyback free work. At the end of the first project, I would decide whether her participation had improved my skills and the project. If it had, I would seriously consider hiring her again.

Any questions?

Bank of America: blatant lying about Occupy?

I had to stop by our local B of A branch today. While B of A is pretty odious, so are most of the realistic options. (It’s not about the local employees. The branch manager is a complete sweetheart and her employees reflect her influence.) Outside was a security guard, playing with his doodad phone.

This was new, so while I waited in line, and the bank employee was trying to handle some of the transactions with people in line, I asked him: why the security? His tone was sanctimonious. “It’s because of Occupy. Two of our tellers were assaulted in Texas by four of them; one woman had a broken leg. This is to assure the safety of our female tellers.” It was in that kind of tone that says ‘You cannot dispute me unless you want it to mean you favor beating up women.’ I expressed skepticism, and that if that had happened, it was probably done by provocateurs–perhaps even police infiltrators. He asserted that they were in jail. I’d never seen this guy here before at the branch, so one suspects that he was sent to ‘message’ this to clients.

This being Bank of America, I knew it was entirely credible that they would simply invent a story. When I got home, I did some research. Two tellers beaten up badly by those ultra-violent Occupy maniacs (who seem to be most famous for being roughed up, pepper-sprayed and assaulted by police, not the other way around) would seem a pretty big deal. No one thinks it’s okay to beat up on bank tellers just doing their work, or coming or going from it. I searched the google string “bank of america tellers assaulted by occupy,” no quotes, to have the greatest possible chance to learn about this breaking story.

Nothing about any such assault. I found some about bank robbers assaulting tellers, but Occupy protestors are not bank robbers. Same terms into a news aggregator; nothing. I found nothing to corroborate this story.

Unless I find something to corroborate it (and if I do, I will update this, of course), I have to assume that the employee was telling patrons a bald-faced lie. Sounds to me like a slick anti-Occupy propaganda trick, depending mainly upon people being too lazy to fact-check. In most cases, that’s probably a safe assumption. If there really was no such attack, it would say a lot about B of A’s opinion of the public. It would also say a lot about the corporate values–not that most observant people would bet heavily on those, at this stage of the game.

Current read: _Carthage Must Be Destroyed_

It was the phrase that defined the middle to later Roman Republic as much as any other: the statement made at the end of orations by M. Porcius Cato (“the Elder”). Delenda est Carthago. Three wars, one semi-conclusive and two more to the knife. Some of the great figures of an ancient world: Hamilcar Barca, Hannibal Barca, Q. Fabius Maximus (“the great”) Verrocosus (“having a mole/wart”) Cunctator (“the delayer”), P. Cornelius Scipio Africanus, and others. Phoenician culture vs. Roman culture. Trade and naval power vs. agrarianism and land power, mercenaries vs. citizen soldiers. War elephants vs. pila and gladii.

I’m not even nearly finished with it, but I’m enjoying Carthage Must Be Destroyed by Richard Miles. Any attempt to understand Carthage suffers from a problem that is the first thing Miles points out: most of our information comes from non-Carthaginian sources, most of whom had serious biases against this non-Roman, non-Greek nation. We don’t really have extant Carthaginian sources from the ancient world; most were obliterated. We thus are faced with the historian’s challenge of evaluating sources, piecing together information said to be taken from them, examining the archaeological record’s findings, and forming a composite and credible image with as little incorporated bias as we can.

This is why I love ancient history, why I majored in it, why I continue to study it. We are challenged to use our minds to deduce and discover all that we may in spite of evidence that can be minimal, fragmentary, contradictory and elusive. We are further challenged not to conclude too much when we cannot, but to suppose or conjecture based on the most reasonable or probable reality in light of what we do know. Antiquarianism is demanding, never complete, and (like all historical study) benefits from understanding of all disciplines and sciences on some level.

What I like most so far about Miles is the rigorous level of critical thought on display. He doesn’t seem to have come to glorify or vilify Carthage, but to assemble honest understanding. I dislike works that seem to have begun with a conclusion and then focused on the evidence that supported it. Miles seems free of this flaw from what I can discern, as far as I’ve gotten. He could later disappoint me, but I’m not expecting that. I am anticipating a fair, nuanced, common-sense portrait of a poorly understood society that stood as an embodiment of all that many ancient writers scorned. They bequeathed that bias to Western historical tradition, and I relish seeing how Miles will assess the evidence to see where that tradition deserves challenge.

Some cold realities about getting published, for your information

This is adapted from an e-mail I wrote to a client, when asked for advice about publication and marketing of one’s own books.

Most of the publishing world is parasitical. It wants you to do all the work and provide all the content so that it can make most of the money. It operates on the principle of the remora.

Your decision is between self-publishing, small press publishing and New York. The main difference between the three is that with New York, New York gets all the money and also locks up more of the rights. Small press probably treats you more humanely and pays you a little better. With self-publishing, you keep all the rights and make all the money.  Also, with New York and most small press, they want ‘exclusive submission.’ That means that they entertain the fantasy that you should pitch it to them, then wait for a reply before you pitch it to anyone else. I’ve seen more credible fantasies in Penthouse Variations.

Notice I didn’t specify any actual benefits from small press or New York. They confer mainly the ‘I made it’ prestige/legitimacy factor, a commodity that is fading faster than the big houses want you to believe. They will mostly do minimal to no editing or marketing for you. They will do a cover for you, but they will inflict it upon you without much input allowed from you. They will typeset it for you, but they can screw up real, real bad, such as accidentally publish an early draft rather than the one you worked so hard to refine. (I am not joking. It happened to a pretty respected author I sort of know, Allen Barra. When I wrote to him to ask, “Al, say it ain’t so, how did this get so screwed up?” he wrote back and told me what had happened. Since I was writing a review, he insisted on paying to send me a copy of the right version. If I was going to write a review, he wanted it to be his best work, which is not what the publisher fricking printed. Unbloodybelievable.)

Suppose it sells for $12. New York will pay you $1 per copy sold. You’re still on the hook for most of the marketing. If you self-publish, you keep $12 per copy sold minus the printing cost. This means that NY has to outsell you 12:1 just to break even, and you signed rights away to them. If you succeed well enough on your own, publishers may come calling. I’d be careful. Publishing is a business. The main reason for them to call is because they want some of the money. The burden is on them to demonstrate why you would make more money with them than you are now, and that that is worth the rights you sign away. Many of them count on you being so wowed that you won’t read the contract too carefully, much less send it to an intellectual property attorney for review.

Your odds of getting an agent are minimal; your odds of a lot of terse rejections are high. Publishers at least sometimes act like you are also a customer, which agents know you are not. Just as many publishers want to buy the home run best seller that will make them zillions for no work, many agents want to pitch the easily pitchable book that will make them thousands for no work.

There are exceptions to all of the above. These are trends, not universal realities.

If it’s a non-fiction book, in order to pitch it, you need a query letter, a book proposal and a copy of the current Writer’s Market. If you don’t know what any of that is, you need to learn, because not knowing what that stuff is would be akin to trying to breastfeed baby and unsure where Junior is supposed to find the spout.

Edit: this piece prompted Shawn Inmon, the self-published author of a compelling true love story, to put forth his own perspective about self-publishing. If you felt this was worth a read, I think you’ll feel Shawn’s post is also.

Editing a book on child-raising…me, of all people

My current project is to edit a book on child-raising. This is funny.

Some of you may not know this, but I’m not real good with children. I never wanted to produce any; the day my ex-fiancée told me very seriously that she was pregnant, shortly thereafter revealing that it was a joke, ha ha, something broke inside me and I never trusted her again. I have recently learned that I can enjoy being around good children for about three or four hours. I can endure them for three or four more, after which I need a couple days in a bar. If they are relatives it’s easier, but only to a point. If they are not exceptionally well-behaved, it’s excruciating. In short, perfect kids about whom I authentically care are difficult enough for me. The other billion are rather harder.

I did not ask to be this way, and it’s not something I’m glad for or proud of. It’s very inconvenient to be missing the gene that says kids are inherently cute and funny no matter whether they are attempting to start fires, defecating in their pants, doing something that they have discovered will frustrate adults, or making a crayon drawing of your pet. My life would be much easier if I liked being around them all, and I have tried to like it. It’s like trying to like a food you must force down. It is like telling yourself that discomfort is joy, edginess is relaxation, cardboard is food. I wish them great educations, lots of adventures, good friends, drug avoidance, full safety and very happy lives, with which I’m increasingly willing to intersect as they age toward maturity. If I had to work at a school, I would rather be the night janitor than a teacher. Night janitors perform a key job to help education happen, and by then the kids would be gone, rather than in my classroom torturing me, knowing that I couldn’t actually discipline them and they could get away with making my job hell. People know when they hit a vulnerable spot, and kids learn it early, long before most of them learn that gratuitous cruelty is not a character strength.

When my wife wants to mess with me, she talks about starting a daycare in our house. She thinks it’s funny. Yuk yuk, what a card. Everyone slap your knees.

As for me, I think it’s pretty funny that I am now editing a book on parenting.

The authors made a good choice in the sense that I’m completely unequipped to debate their parenting concepts. Life has taught me that ‘bad mommy’ is this enormous bugaboo for mothers. They’ll come to blows with the one who even implies Bad Mommy. They’ll yowl that they are Good Mommies, even if their junior Satans are out-of-control unbearable (not just to me, but to normal people). They’ll follow obsessive, fearful childcare regimes in order to avoid even a hint of Bad Mommy. Not that they don’t also do much out of pure maternal love, of course; surely so. I’m not saying that Bad Mommy drives all their decisions. I am saying that in many cases, I smell fear as an additional motivator.

Bad Mommy is even a pack behavior. I used to write for a product review site called Epinions. At Epinions, there was a clique I called the Mommy Platoon. The Mommy Platoon could give you 1000 words on a diaper pail without giggling. Sippy cups were serious business. They kept offsite message boards dedicated to gang-rating reviews they deemed to take parenting insufficiently seriously. They said appalling things to people in comments. Singly, they were cravens, but with the company of a cult of mutual reassurance, they found a form of gangster courage. One of their most devastating bullying weapons was Bad Mommy, used without remorse to bring other women to tears, simply for seeing parenting differently. A number of us, with goodwill and empathy, wrote reviews that made light of parenting and its issues and products, honestly hoping to bring the readership (including the Mommy Platoon) a few good laughs. Laugh about parenting? That was as popular with the Mommy Platoon as bomb jokes are with airport security. I think a majority of the mothers at the site despised the Mommy Platoon.  In the end, a key factor driving many of us away from Epinions was this Mommy Platoon, which evidently never learned the lesson mentioned above about gratuitous cruelty. One lesson I took away from that experience was just how dramatically Bad Mommy will influence a mother’s actions and outlook. I feel for them. I’d hate to have that hanging over me.

Bad Mommy is probably a positive thing in at least one sense. Motherhood is exhausting and endless, and it doesn’t have very many breaks. Perhaps when parenting needs doing in spite of how she feels, at times, Bad Mommy is the lash that drives her onward to do what is needed in spite of her being her own person with her own pains, emotions, desires, and so on. I’m glad I don’t know for sure. I wouldn’t want her job. I could in no way do it, and I marvel that she can.

So I’m editing a parenting book. Here’s the thing: my complete ignorance of the subject is an asset to the authors. I can play my position, which is to fix anything that is flawed about the way they have presented their ideas (as opposed to the ideas themselves). Their parenting advice sounds pretty smart to me, and I think it’ll be a great book; my job is to do my all to help that be so. They must find it a blessed relief that I have zero temptation to debate parenting with them, in much the same way as I have zero temptation to debate Sanskrit translation with lifelong Sanskrit scholars or fly-fishing techniques with a lifelong fisherman. They tell me their previous editor (who sounds very Mommy Platoon to me) fired them and said she would pray for them. I’m impressed that this did not dissuade them. When they sent me the sample chapter to see how I’d handle it, they deliberately picked the most controversial one, just to see how I’d react. When I learned that they had done this, they impressed me more.

I like the project. The authors have a very good sense of humor. I can’t imagine them in the Epinions Mommy Platoon. Along the way, I’ll teach them some stuff. You can divide aspiring writers into two categories: those who want to improve, and those who want to be Frosted Flakes with the reader/reviewer/editor as Tony the Tiger. These ladies are serious about it, which means they have a very real chance to get somewhere with the written word.

Here’s to all moms. They have a hard job.

Sedona: the truth

If you are in any way connected to metaphysical beliefs, neo-paganism, auras, or for that matter your sacred healing spatula, you’ve heard of Sedona. “Amazing, you can feel the energies.” “Such a special, spiritual place.” “I want to move there and start a natural healing center.”

Trust me, they got a lot of those. But the point is that second to Stonehenge, Sedona is to New Agers (and anyone like me who comes unglued when mistaken for them, no offense) as Mecca is to Muslims or Hagia Sophia is to Orthodox Christianity. There are those who have been, and those who wish they had been. So let’s have the candid reality.

We drove up from the southern approach. The scenery is reason enough to see Sedona even if you’re an atheist (amazing geology and views), a devout Southern Baptist (check out what God makes when he’s in a good mood), a Mormon (Brigham Young missed the southward turn, oh my heck), or whatever. You can say faaaaaaaaa to all the hematite jewelry and vortex maps and types of healing you don’t even know what they mean, and just love the trip for the sake of pure scenic loveliness. Sedona is essentially palisaded by tall red walls with very clear multicolored rock layers that are impressive even by the lofty standards of ‘Zona. An overlook near the airport lets you survey a major part of the town–highly recommended.

It is a town very stretched out, yet without sprawl. Roundabouts make it very easy to turn back around to check out that art gallery or crystal shop or restaurant. They manage to have enough parking in spite of the hordes of tourists. I admit I came in very skeptical of the whole business. I promised not to, under any circumstances, blurt the phrase ‘crystal weinie.’ Most essentially, today was for Deb. She has done much of the driving for two weeks, without complaint (I spell her on request, and navigate), and coming here was more her thing than mine. She was due a day driven only by what she desired, with me cheerfully tagging along wherever she wished to explore.

You might have expected Sedona to have a vast excess of metaphysical shops, quaint eateries with vegan-friendly menus, art galleries and enough hematite jewelry to cover the dome of the Arizona State Capitol. (I’m surprised they haven’t thought of that.) Your expectation would be 100% correct. You could not check them all out unless you devoted a month to it, as a day job. If that’s your shopping paradise, by all means make the pilgrimage. Sedona will sate you. However, most people who don’t come for the scenery come for the energies.

On one level, I think there’s something to it. For reasons I cannot explain, my knees–which frequently stiffen up and pain me lately, especially when I first stand up from a long period of sitting, such as in a passenger seat–felt twenty years younger. I felt as if I could walk ten miles or play nine innings. Deb came into town with eyes irritated, we believe by smog in Tucson and Phoenix, but they felt so fine she forgot about it until I asked her if they were better. She’d also had a headache. Vanished. One might attribute those to cleaner air. Cleaner air didn’t give me such a great knee day, I’ll tell you that. What I felt most of all was a sense of calm and tranquility, which I hadn’t anticipated in a moderately crowded place and is rarely the case anywhere I don’t exactly feel like I fit.

Except for the photo ops, of which she took fullest advantage, Deb tired of Sedona the town after a couple of hours. I think the Raven place that turned out to be a timeshare marketing front was the first point of impact. At the same time, she felt the same calm I did in the area. We disappointed the Sedona money machine by buying only one greeting card and one lunch. Fun observation, to which I was alerted in advance by my nephew (who, with my niece, graciously showed us around the natural beauty of the Sonora) in Tucson: the bulding code in Sedona demands that, without exception, all commercial structures conform to a strict code, including color restrictions. The McDonalds in Sedona has teal arches, not golden ones. Dead serious.

Deb and I did find our own spiritual connection in the Sedona area, but we didn’t find it by seeking out a ‘vortex’ crowded with eager seekers in search of energies. Here is the lesson I drew from it. Sedona and its surrounds are so beautiful that I’m not sure how anyone could sustain a bad mood. They represent a special sense of nature, spirits, gods or God–whatever you choose–presenting its/their very best. If you want to find spirituality there, you will find it anywhere you feel drawn–it is an attitude within you that you find reflected in what you see. Deb and I felt a profound sense of unity and love, and wherever we looked, we saw symbols that reflected this. Maybe the place amplifies what you bring to it. Maybe there are ancient spirits who don’t resent the masses of medicine wheel setter-uppers, Whole Foods junkies, mountain bicyclers, pagans and flabby tourists. Maybe it’s something I don’t understand and may never grasp.

Doesn’t matter what I think or understand. Take my word that the scenery of the entire side drive between Rimrock and Flagstaff that includes Sedona is reason enough for any non-blind person to go. As for the rest, bring a good heart and an open mind, seek what you wish, and you may find it. Far as I’m concerned, the shopping is overrated but the natural beauty is Grand Canyon-level smack-you-in-the-soul stuff. The rest is your call.

What I did not know about saguaro cactuses until today

Deb and I spent a couple of hours riding around the Tucson area seeing the amazing variety of stuff that grows out in the Sonora Desert. Hint: there is not very much of it you would voluntarily rub against your more sensitive parts. Since these grow in very few places, and most notably here, if you have never hung around Tucson you might know as little as I did.

They are not exactly endangered, but they are protected both by law and by the general populace as symbols of the region. No one messes with them. Developments adjust home locations for them, and rightly–most people like having one in the ‘yard.’

They are tougher than they look, as they have skeletons of woody fiber. I saw some dead ones. Imagine ropy-looking straight tree branches with many hyphens notched into them, parallel to the length. Wind blows pretty often down here, and they don’t blow over.

Owls, woodpeckers and other birds nest in them without really hurting them. The cactus sort of encysts the pecked hole.

They thrive here mainly because freezes are rare. If you have freezes, you cannot haz saguaro.

The arms don’t show up until they are fairly old, at least over 70 years old. They begin as buds that look like the little ball cactus your friend gave you that one time, but you forgot to water now and then and it died.

A green-barked, leafless, bushy tree called the palo verde tends to sprout right next to them. Seems to work out well for both plants.

They are as tall as you imagined, and more. Elderly saguaros can clear 50′ high. This is a big-ass cactus. The trunks get about the diameter of a 5-gallon bucket.

They tend to be about twenty feet apart. In between them, expect lots of other smaller cactuses: prickly pear in big bushes, cholla, ocotillo, and barrel cactus.

They produce flowers and fruit, which is edible.

Imagine what at first brief glance looks like a rocky hillside recently devastated by fire. Then remove all charring-related color and imagine the scattered damaged trees are all live saguaros, a paler green than the surrounding vegetation, and intersperse a bunch of other cactuses between them on the rocky, rusty ground. That’s exactly what the saguaro forest looks like.

Yes, they are serious about calling it a forest.