Monday, July 30, 2018

Free fantasy short--the opening, at least

I've always thought this story should be read more widely than it is. It's a fantasy about a peasant girl who gets into trouble because a magical dagger takes a liking to her. . . .

by Shalanna Collins

The festival float was intended, according to Jalial, to look like a beehive. A beehive made of flowers and woven grasses. A man-sized beehive with wheels, pulled behind two beautifully bedecked white horses, true; but still, a recognizable beehive, representing one of the principal products of Ladenia.

Sarina was no artist, and had never claimed to be one--although her uncle had, apparently, told Jalial so when he'd hired Sarina out as a worker for Festival week. So far, her handiwork hadn't transformed the wooden wagon into anything resembling a hive. Perhaps more of an anthill. A muddy one into which horses had trampled a faded bouquet or two.

And the market parade was tomorrow morning. She'd already been at this for hours. The incessant back-and-forth shouts of her neighbors, from their perches atop successful wagons that were looking more and more like works of art, were irritating, but even more awful than the joyous noises constantly ringing out through the festival's preparation area was the unrelenting humidity. All morning she'd felt as if she were in a steambox at the public baths.

Sarina pushed her damp hair back and out of her face for the third time since the last bell. This infernal float just wouldn’t start looking like anything but a stack of crushed hayflowers. These might be the Mayor's prize-winning blooms from his maze-garden, but you couldn't tell it by her. She hated roses--especially red ones--and the stink that came with them. A sneeze took its good time coming out of her, and she didn't even bother to lay her finger under her nose or cover her mouth.

No one could say she hadn't done her best on this blasted wagon, pinning fresh roses and peonies and leaves and those hand-pricking garlands of speargrass into the wood in the patterns her employer had marked on the paper, but it wasn't taking on the shape of anything pretty. The more she fiddled with it, the worse it looked. The old, rotting wood of the wagon itself would not take the pins most of the time, and she couldn’t make anything stick by force. She turned away from the mess and looked around for her mistress.

No sign of Jalial. But what she did find was that the afternoon had aged much later than she’d realized. Already the evening festivities were gearing up, vendors and strollers alike bustling past with an air of eagerness. The Festival would, by sunset, be in full blossom.

She smelled hot chestnuts and roasting meat as a vendor rolled past, readying his cart for set-up. Her stomach growled again as she caught hold of the loose pins one by one, pulled off the fading flowers, and placed them back in the basket. Jalial had told her this morning, "You won't eat until you've earned it," so she sucked her tongue and wished for at least a mint leaf to quench her thirst. She didn't want to leave her post without telling Jalial, but she was about ready to head to one of the vendors who was opening up with a wagon full of delicacies and spend some of her own coin on a joint or a palmful of nuts.

She turned back for a moment, gaining a new perspective as she caught sight of the wagon from slightly further away. She wasn't prone to giving up easily. Perhaps she ought to try a different approach. Just tying on the garlands and the ropes of woven grass--now, that she could do. Jalial could live with that. Because sticking them on this way wouldn't work, not without a touch of magic. Which Sarina didn't have, thank goodness. She had enough to worry about.

She picked up a rope of grass, shaking her head at her own frivolity. Magic, indeed. Talk about something that often--usually--turned on its own masters. She just needed to buckle down to work, that was all. She'd figure this out.

She felt somebody’s hand land on her shoulder and start squeezing. Jalial was back; Sarina winced. Well, she'd explain, and her mistress would understand. She turned.

It was a sergeant in the city guard, or at least he wore the uniform of that office. But he looked terribly young, too young to be certified to work the festival, probably sixteen as compared to her twenty-two years. Maybe she misjudged the skinny rack before her; after all, he might be older than he looked. Hair sprouted from his ears and nose like an old man's. But he had the spotty complexion of a youngster.

"Yes, sir?" She lowered her head and tried to make her attitude subservient. He probably wanted a bribe. Which would be standard practice, she supposed, but which should be paid by Jalial, not her employee. Sarina sighed and started to reach inside her tunic for her purse, but he stopped her by grabbing her arm roughly.

His eyes gleamed. He had breath like a mule and teeth to match. "Not so fast. May I search your pockets, miss?”

It wasn’t a request one could actually turn down.

"Might I ask why, sir?"

He grinned. "You are hereby accused of stealing a magical dagger."

She gaped. "By whom, sir?"

He pointed. Standing on the stoop of the tavern was a group of men, looking cranky. "On yonder tavern steps. These men say you came and pickpocketed them, but the only item of value that they want back is the dagger."

Her heart began to thumpa-thump as she realized this wasn't just a fancy way to demand a bribe. Frantically Sarina scanned the crowd. She could make out the figure of Jalial standing on the steps of the tavern near the men, which was odd, because it wasn't a typical place anyone would expect to find a respectable merchant woman like her. She seemed to be smiling. Sarina waved frantically, but couldn't catch Jalial's eye.

Sarina pointed her out to the guardsman, carefully avoiding any quick movements that might make him think she was reaching for a weapon or planning to strike a blow. "There's my employer, sir. Surely she can vouch for me."

"It doesn't matter what others say about your character. Street urchins like you turn to crime suddenly." He grinned as Sarina smarted under that appellation. "Will you submit to the search, or shall I take you to the guardhouse and have you face the captain?"

She'd taken nothing and done nothing wrong. What choice did she have?

She submitted to the search, feeling confident.

It was humiliating, but things went well until the man--really, the boy--reached her purse, a leather pouch tied under her tunic. He pulled out a dagger, glistening sunlight chasing the length of its blade. Sarina's heart filled with dismay. She realized he must've planted it. She was about to become the latest victim of whatever scheme this young cad had going.

If you'd like to read the rest, the story is up on Amazon Shorts. Ask me for a free copy by emailing me at anytime!

Friday, April 20, 2018

What Should Be In a Story? Chocolate? Pizza?

(It never hurts to have those. However, I'm thinking of something more general.)


You may be familiar with the Dwight V. Swain/Jack Bickham terms "scene" and "sequel." Others use other terms. Basically, a scene is the dramatized part ("showing") and sequel is the character's thoughts about what just happened, planning for the next action, introspection, and so forth ("telling"). Both components are important in any story.

A story is a string of units, each connected with the next through *cause/effect* relationships. (Motivation-Response, or M-R, to others.)

(I often get dinged because the cause/effect is sometimes separated by other events and activities. However, I eventually get around to showing the effect of the actions. Just ignore people who get after you about this, as long as every scene causes something else to happen later.)

Most units in commercial fiction are dramatic, played out in real time through action and dialogue. ("Scene" in Bickham/Swain-speak.) Other units are reflective, played out in the character’s mind. (called "sequel" in the Bickham/Swain terminology.) A third type of unit provides a transition between other units. This is generally thought of as narrative. Occasionally it can be exposition or backstory.

A scene should be all about: Goal – the focal character wants something Conflict – the character meets resistance trying to attain the goal Reversal (preferably disaster)

In each scene, define your POV character’s Goal (you can even have them state it straight out), then immediately show the Conflict, and let the Conflict build until the ending Reversal (disaster).

Reversal means that the focal character enters the scene with one attitude and exits with a different polarity. If Jane's attitude is positive going in – joy, hope, love, etc.— by scene's end her emotional state/attitude has changed to negative – sorrow, fear, anger, loathing. (Failure or steps backward) A negative attitude going in changes to a positive attitude as the scene ends. (Success or steps forward)

One school of thought suggests that in the most riveting stories every scene except the final ones end in disaster. In other words, with each scene the character gets into more and more trouble, going farther and farther from attaining the overall story goal. But! If everything leads to disaster, how do you do the positive/negative attitude flip?

First, consider disaster. Each disaster is relative to the scene context. Not every scene ends with a cheating lover getting caught or a plummet down an elevator shaft. It can be more of an everyday happening, perhaps nothing more than a broken fingernail. But in context, that broken fingernail means disaster to the POV (focal) character. No more surreptitious nosepicking until that one grows out! Or what if she's a hand model and she has JUST gotten a manicure and is about to leave for a photo session with Palmolive?

Disaster takes one of three forms. The focal character either

a) does not get the goal

b) gets the goal but also gets something unwanted

c) does not get the goal and gets something unwanted

Example a: John wants to marry Marsha. He practices his speech and finally gets up nerve to ask her. Marsha says no. (John does not get the goal.)

Example b: John wants to marry Marsha. He practices, asks her, and Marsha says, “Oh, John, I thought you’d never ask. Let’s marry right away. Mother can leave her retirement home and come live with us.” (John gets the goal but also gets something unwanted.)

Example c: John wants to marry Marsha. He asks her, but Marsha doesn’t want to talk about marriage right now. John persists. Marsha says, “John, maybe we should have a cooling off period. I’ve been seeing someone else. I need to decide where it’s going.” (John does not get the goal and gets something unwanted.)

A scene is never a flashback. It is always happening right now on the page. It is not summary; it is not the character thinking about what has happened or will happen. It always includes conflict (tension) and usually includes dialogue as well as physical action.

Now it's time for the reflective unit or sequel. This is the time for characters to think about what they're going to do next, or mourn for the lost opportunities, or make a list of suspects. Occasionally this can include a mini-flashback in which John remembers that when he met Marsha, she had mentioned that she was ready to get married so her mother could come to live with her in a big house. Or it can include a mini-flash-forward in which a character fantasizes about a meeting she's about to have and plays it out as a winning situation (especially if the reality is going to completely crater and the reader needs to know how much the character hopes for this to come off well.)

The sequel is typically shorter than the scene. It sets up the next scene.

BUT BEFORE YOU WRITE VERY MANY SCENES, think about the overall structure of the book.

Most stories have:

A Clear Basic Goal – What the character wants. This motivates him or her. It has to be WORTH whatever she's risking. Don't have it be "get a stick of gum." Epic fantasy and thrillers ask you to have it be "save the world." Maybe it's more of a "save the neighborhood from the evil developers and get the guy" thing. Whatever. Just make sure readers know she has one.

Two Key Points that Change Acts - These are big moments for your character and mark the transitions between the acts of your story. Stories typically (but not always) have three acts. These are the Turning Points (and the second one may be a Black Moment/Last Chance as well).

Opening Image that sets it all up – This is something that evokes the theme/mood of the piece or the character. I (Shalanna) generally have an overview scene in mind that has come to me with the idea for the novel and its main character. Frex, with Camille I "saw" her stepping off a bus in a strange city and holding the stolen gewgaw. I also knew she would escape this town in a boxcar, but that's because her origin was in the collaborative novel that we wrote in 1987 or so when she hopped the freight train with Rebecca's main character. I knew a lot about Camille because Silk (Brianne Campbell) and I had written stuff about her and sent it back and forth. This happened just before Silk fell ill and died of pneumonia. If Camille is ever pubbed by a mainstream publisher, the dedication page will mention Brianne.

Anyway, if you have a central image that sets it all up, that's great.

Catalyst/Inciting Incident – Starts the craziness. Your character’s world is suddenly changed by something that happens.

1. Put the inciting incident near the beginning. The first 25 pages is good.

2. Put the first big plot point at the end of Act 1. This first plot point is where your protagonist has a Holy Cats moment, where they think, “Can I really do this? How much am I really willing to do to get this vampire dude to love me, to defeat this evil dark wizard, to get away from my horrid aunts, etc….” This is where they are tested. I predict a total word count and then aim for the end of the first third. So if it is 1000 words, word 330.

3. Put the second big plot point at the end of Act 2. This is where the crisis happens. This is where your main character has had enough of dodging fangs and bullets and giant carrots. Their world is a dangerous place and they need to fix it. Again, I take a word count. I aim for the two-thirds mark.

4. At this second plot point, I try to make there be a new focus on the main goal, throw in an element of time (ticking clock) to make it more scary/urgent, and then I hang on and hope for the best.

Don't reverse cause and effect.

~~She jumped, surprised. "Eek! You scared me!" she said to the man who had just sneaked up behind her and put his hands over her eyes.~~

That is a classic example of not only putting the action that causes the reaction AFTER the reaction, but also of showing surprise in dialogue as well as showing it in her actions. Sometimes, though, you will want to move the most important thing in the sentence to the end; this works well in humor, as when you're doing a Benchley/Dave Barry pastiche. If you save the punchline for the end of the sentence, it's a lot funnier. But that is the special case and not the usual.

As with any "rule," you don't want to take it too seriously. Once you have a hammer (rule), don't see everything as a nail to blam blam blam down. Occasionally the entire point of the scene is that the nail is sticking out and ready to snag a reader.

Okay, here comes the analysis that makes people say, "You think you're smarter and more well-read than your readers." It comes from an old course I took years ago. Skip if you want to take the rules too seriously.


1) Choose your motivating stimulus carefully. It should be significant to the character--her personality and/or goal will influence what she notices around her. It should also be pertinent for the plotline--your reader will assume every stimulus is important for the story.


DUH!! Well, at least they have some idea what they're talking about HERE. I will see different things upon entering a room than will my mother, a Sensor Judgmental type if there ever was one. I will immediately spy the baby grand piano and make a beeline, or I'll see the library and try to read the titles. SHE will say, "What a lovely painting, and this is wonderful upholstery, and see how they don't have a lot of nasty old books cluttering up the table tops and the floor?"

2) The stimulus should require your character's immediate action.

I don't agree here. But now at least I know where the people are GETTING this. I was going sorta bugf**k over the idea or concept that all these official publishing types had such poor reading comprehension that they couldn't retain what had happened for a few paragraphs. But no, I don't see the effect always coming along right as the caboose of the cause.

Perhaps a "stimulus" comes along and my character does not recognize what she is supposed to do, like the Stupid Dog who tilts his head and thinks, "I know she wants me to do a trick when she snaps her fingers, BUT WHAT?" Or my character delays the action on purpose. We can all stand and watch as the stimulus jumps up and down and has a hissy fit because we are not doing what we're told.


1) It should be a reactive feeling, a chosen action, and/or specific words spoken. Not all reactions need to include all three (feeling, action, speech), but at the very least, your character's actions and/or speech should indicate her reactive feeling. Emotion is the key.

Um . . . what?? You mean . . . she should cry after Alan tells her she isn't good enough for him and he's leaving her for somebody better? Oh! Sure!

Specific words spoken, instead of indistinct mumbling that no one can quite make out except for the German word for "sh*t." Got it.

2) The reaction should be in character (or reveal the character's personality) and a reasonable response. Nothing will put a reader off more than a stupid reaction to a stimulus--the infamous "Too Stupid to Live" heroines from horror flicks.

I have to agree with THIS. At last someone says that what my character does can reveal her personality, rather than doing what the reader thinks he or she would do in the situation or getting accused of furthering the writer's own beliefs. But . . . I see so MANY books that are on the shelves and being lauded here and there in which the characters have TStL reactions that the authors apparently think are normal. I can't tell now what is real.

3) The reaction should serve to move the story forward.

No!! I want the story to go BBBBLATTT with its tongue and loll on the floor licking the hardwood planks. It doesn't WANT to go forward. It wants to stare at you until you blink!

The M-R Unit:

The simplest M-R Unit is two sentences:

a. Write a sentence without your character (motivation, or cause)

b. Follow it with a sentence about your character (reaction, or effect)

{The sky fell. Chicken Little jumped in the air, squawking!}

Uh . . . right. Never any kind of musing about why something might happen or might have implications. Well, have fun with that! (It doesn't make one lick o' sense, but whatever makes them happy!) I never give a moment's thought to why the sky might or might not be falling, myself. Squawking's more fun.

And there it is, laid out for you like a patient etherized upon a table. Hope that butter isn't too melty.

("Sometimes you perplex me," said the Platypus.)

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

DULCINEA opening--high fantasy, YA, funny, first in series

Did you know about my YA fantasy novel that came in first runner-up in the 1996 Warner Aspect First Fantasy Novel Contest? It also received high praise at Viable Paradise II (which I did by phone, as my father-in-law was gravely ill at that time.) Many people love it, but I was told not to work any more on the sequels until the first one took off. I think that "common wisdom" is now defunct!

*UPDAE*: RELAUNCH AS EBOOK! DULCINEA is being released today as an e-book! If you buy it on Saturday, maybe we can test the theory of the Amazon rankings and how many books must sell within a 24-hour period.

Only $2.99! Check it out at

DULCINEA opens with Raz'a magical audition, using Dulcie as the willing Nellie. The audition is funny AND during it, Dulcinea sort of falls in love with the older boy . . . to her consternation.

Do you love high fantasy with comedy like this? Fans of Rick Cook, Diana Wynne Jones, and other high fantasy/fantasy stuff may like it . . . a lot. And Harry Potter peeps, I had many of the same ideas years before he crossed the Pond. Oh, well. I'm told people like the Colonial level of technology and the somewhat Southern dialect of Ladenia. I miss being in this world to write her adventures. I still like it a lot. Do you?

Or Wizardry A-Flute
by Shalanna Collins
Chapter One

I was scraping orange logan-bark crystals off the coated sides of one of my alchemist’s bowls--a delicate operation any time, let alone in the heat of the harvest-time afternoon--when I heard my Daddoo calling.

“Dulcinea! Ho, child! Come up front at once, my girl.” Then, as an afterthought: “Be ready to have yourself bespelled. And bring my mage’s-sack.”

“Yes, sir.” Another aspirant had turned up, I reckoned. Soon after our old Chiro's entry into the next world, Daddoo had decided that he needed a new apprentice. Preferably younger this time. Over the past fortnight, we’d welcomed a constant stream of unsuitable youths.

I kind of missed Chiro, like I’d miss a splinter after I’d worried it a-loose. And I was ready for some company around this shop besides Daddoo, who could be difficult in his way. It wouldn’t hurt if I had a little help, either. In an apothecary, so many tiresome daily tasks demand attention, including collecting logan powder without scratching the precious bowls, tending the herb garden out back, and keeping the wizardchamber swept clear of majick.

These days, all the fiddly, exacting parts of making up products were left to me. Until Da could acknowledge that I was grown up--I’d turn seventeen next Colinsday, though people thought me younger because the top of my head barely reached Da’s shoulders--he would keep me at this level without even testing me for majickal talent. When I’d hinted that I might make a good apprentice, he’d laughed and patted me on the head.

I grabbed Da’s mage’s-sack from the kneehole of his big loganwood desk, careful to touch it only by the drawstrings, so as not to discharge any wards he might’ve laid on it. Backing out of the wizardchamber, I quickly rewove the spellweb protecting it. I threaded my way through the stacks of supplies in our storeroom, mentally noting several items ready to be restocked, and reached the front just in time to keep Da from hollering for me again.

I pushed aside the beaded curtain separating our downstairs rooms from the shop and squinted against the bright mid-afternoon sun shafting in through our front windows, much brighter than the magelight in the back. Stepping behind the counter, I visored my hand and blinked until my vision adjusted.

Sunlight softly illuminated the merchandise lining our shop’s walls, which were shelved floor-to-ceiling all around. The implements of majick and of the healing arts lay all up and down the shelves. Mortar-and-pestle sets and scrying bowls sat side by side with muslin bags of herbs and lengths of soft linen. Liquids sparkled in light amber and cobalt bottles, and powders crouched in their translucent jars, gleaming with secret power and mystery. Silhouetted in front of the medicinals that lined our west wall was the figure of a skinny young man.

In front of the counter stood Daddoo in full majicker’s white, arms crossed and head tilted, sizing up the young man. Da has always been a great pot-roast of a daddy, so round that people would whisper, “He’s wealthy enough to be greedy at table.” But he wasn’t particularly gluttonous, just generously sized all over. It was unfortunate that his ponytailed red hair had recently started to thin, backing up towards his crown like a tonsure (I kindly said he wore a horseshoe haircut) at just around the same time when he'd decided to grow a graying red beard. This made him look as though he had his face on upside-down.

I bowed my head and bobbed a knee-bend, splaying my feet like a duck’s and going into a momentary half-squat as a proper sign of respect. “Sirs.”

Da shot me a look. “Dulcinea, you dawdler. You look a mess.”

As an apology, I ducked my head toward the young fellow. His clothes seemed oddly matched: they were simultaneously prim and disarrayed. His shirt’s ruffled cuffs and jabot I judged somewhat dandified; peeking out of the jabot was a silver sigil, gleaming on a satin neck-cord. Over all this he had thrown a gently worn purple robe. The robe was only knee-length, too short for his stalky frame; it hung loose on him, its satiny sleeves rolled to mid-elbow on his lanky arms and tied in place with gold braid. He must be at apprentice level two already, then, because he’d never dare wear the purples unearned. But just barely, I judged, because he looked scarcely old enough for it. Maybe twenty.

He grinned back with his big, squared-off, horsy teeth. “It is indeed a distinct pleasure to make your acquaintance, Dulcinea Brown.” His deep, resonant voice surprised me, booming out of such a rawboned lad. He seemed exceptionally bony, his face all angles and points. Perhaps this was made more prominent by the way he wore his long raven hair, combed straight back and reaching down to his midback. Exactly the way that mine used to until a fortnight ago, when I’d done something I regretted. He sported bushy, surprised-looking eyebrows, mutton-chop sideburns, and a black mustache which drooped down to crescent-moon curls on either side of the smile below. I couldn’t get over how much nicer-looking he was than any of the village boys, or our previous aspirants, for that matter. His green eyes sparkled with excitement, as if he actually looked forward to undergoing majickal examination.

As his emerald gaze fell on me, I wished I had taken a moment to tame my flying hair and throw off my stained apron. At least I could’ve cleaned off some of the logan powder with its sharp, chalky scent. I could feel the dust from the crushed crystals on my cheeks. The layer of orange powder on my hands and forearms gave me the look of jaundice, reminding me of that foolish village girl last Quitain who’d bungled turning her faithless suitor into a pumpkin. I brushed ineffectually at myself. Nothing works but a bath; the stuff’s a nuisance, but fortunately inert by itself.

Da dragged over a round burlap-covered ottoman that we used for spellcasting and waved me towards it. “Sit.” He reached around the curtain in our front window and stuck in our “Back Shortly” sign.

I sat, squarely in the center of the large stool. Apparently, I was to be the nellie of the audition. A nellie is a willing recipient of a spell, but the spell has to be a benevolent one, the kind of spell that won’t work on a body who balks. I assumed the first devotional position, in which each foot rests on the opposing knee and the elbows fit into the hollows between the legs and the arches of the feet. It’s sort of like a vertical cat-curl.

“No, no. Please kneel here for me.” The newcomer wiggled his fingers to indicate my new location and position on the edge of the seat. I glanced over at Da, who nodded his approval. I untangled my legs and resettled.

“Dulcinea, this is Raz. Raz, my daughter Dulcinea.” Daddoo was one for belated introductions. Of course, Raz would have known better than to give his real name; this would be his traveling name, the one he gave at inns and to acquaintances who had no need to know a man’s full identity. The fewer who know a majicker’s true name, the safer. “Raz shall now prove to me the level of his skills. You’ll kindly behave and do whatever he tells you.”

I smiled politely and met Raz’s gaze. He seemed nice enough, but I was always slightly wary of doing just whatever someone might tell me. Of course, Da wouldn’t let anything happen to me, the worst fotchfinger notwithstanding. Anyway, aspirants hardly ever fumbled their demonstration spells, though it could be touchy. Once I had itched for a blessed quartermoon.

I whispered a quick prayer to Saint Alyncia that Raz would be more talented than the previous three.

Raz clasped his knuckledy hands in front of his chest. “First, Dulcinea”--something in the way he said my name made it sound musical, not clangorous, as I had always heard it before; I couldn’t quite place his accent, although he wasn’t from around here--”I’m going to set wards on you. So I’d like you to place your hands on your ri-”

Da interrupted Raz’s instructions. “Not quite so fast, please.” To me Da said, “First, off with all the wards you now have.”

That didn’t seem to me such an outstanding idea, since it would leave me open to whatever mistakes this Raz might make. But I knew there was no arguing with Da, particularly not before a stranger.

I did need to make sure what he intended, though. “All of them, sir?”

Da’s eyelid twitched. “All.”

“Just checking.” Wondering what Da was up to, I pulled my safestone necklace over my head and handed it to him, to go safely back in his mage’s sack until he felt like reconsecrating it. He motioned for me to unlace my charged wrist-dangle as well, which I did. Between the two, I’d had a pretty fair set of physical protections.

Da wasn’t satisfied. “Take off the intangibles, too.” He reached into his mage’s-sack and handed me the consecrated silks. Inwardly, I winced. I hated silking; it made the fine white hair on my arms stand on end, and it could itch or sting, depending on the weather. Still, I obeyed, taking the knotted bundle of silk and starting to rub it over all my exposed flesh. The stubborn orange tinge didn’t budge, naturally; it merely sank in deeper.

“Not enough. Do all of yourself.” Da’s jaw was firm.

I gaped. “Sir?”

“All over.” He spread his palms and wiggled them for emphasis.

I blinked. “But. . . .” I couldn’t believe Da expected me to go skyclad before this boy--no, this young man. As though I were still a little girl. And this was hardly like changing my tunic in front of my own Da and that dried-up raisin Chiro. I felt my face go ablaze with shame.

Daddoo’s left eye began winking erratically. The tic meant he was getting cranky, so I jumped to my feet and reached shyly for my buttons. But Da grabbed my hand away, then stretched behind the counter and tossed one of our burlap robes over to me. I wasn’t ready to catch it, so it landed practically in my face. “No, silly porcupine. Go on back and change.”

“Oh.” I felt the rest of me light up with scarlet. Da made a noise down in his throat, and in his silent gaze danced merriment. Raz’s fist flew to his mouth, where he bit down on his lumpy knuckles.

I’d never feel dignified again. “Of course. Pardon me for a moment, gentle sirs.” Quickly I backed toward the door to the storeroom. Unfortunately, I forgot to duck, so I bumped the back of my head right into one of the bunches of herbs that I’d earlier hung from the ceiling to dry. It showered me with withered flower buds and twiggy debris. That startled me sufficiently that I dropped the robe into a basket of assorted soaps. I opened my mouth again, then shut it because talking was useless. I knew Raz must think me a complete cudge. I snatched up the troublemaking garment and disappeared through the curtain into the back rooms, wishing I knew a spell of vanishing.

I stripped off my dusty apron and tunic, wrapping them into a ball around my leggings, boots, and dainties, then donned the ceremonial burlaps. This was a set of short-sleeved tunic and knee-length breeches, made to be baggy on a normal person, but managing to be ill-fitting on anyone. The tunic was scratchy and rode up in the back on my rear. The orange stain on my skin, especially my forearms, was so hopeless that I couldn't even see my freckles. After rubbing my hair with the silk until it practically frizzed straight out on end, like a crown of five-inch spikes framing my powdery face and ears, I supposed I was as ready as I could be. I trusted Da knew what he was doing.

I stomped back out into the front room barefoot, keeping my eyes looking determinedly at the wooden floor, and knelt again on the round seat.

His voice betrayed no suppressed merriment. “Clasp your hands together on your right knee, please, Dulcinea.”

Still too shy to meet his gaze, I grasped my kneecap through the burlap. At least Raz (or whoever he was when he was at home) hadn’t made some sly or smart remark, as I felt certain some of our past auditioners would have. This thought put me a bit more at ease.

Raz already had some sweet herbs cupped in his hands. He crumbled them, muttering something, and sprinkled them on my head. Then he took what smelled like pewterbark and cinnamon, mixed together and made into a salmon-pink paste, and daubed that on my Seven Holy Points: between my eyes on the bridge of my nose, on each earlobe, at the hollow atop each shoulder blade, and at the midpoint of the arches of my footsoles.

I supposed this was his invention, a new anointing he’d come up with to replace the foul brown salt Da used. This ointment smelled like hedge-roses. I knew then that it couldn’t work right; certainly this fragrant concoction was preferable to Da’s stinging mudsalt, but how could one expect majick without mess and discomfort?

But I sat still for the treatment, because Raz deserved his audition. Like a round-eyed toad I goggled up at him, playing the trusting nellie despite my growing apprehension. His lips formed into a slight smile, as though I amused him, yet his concentration never wavered.

He took his flint and lit a cat’s-tail branch with its majicking flame. With the resulting fiery torch, he traced a majick square around me, pressing its imprint into our packed dirt floor. While he worked, he murmured something that might or mightn’t have been “cherosa bisanker.” Then, going sunwise--never widdershins--he traced the contained ellipse, the one you draw inside the square to focus the spell, and marked its foci. A splash from Da’s drinking-jug properly quelled the firestick.

At the corners of the square, Raz marked the four runes with his sanctified blade as Da looked on, nodding. Then he took a spark of sacred flame by lighting a stick of incense off the banked flame in our brazier of purification. At the powerful points of the rune-square, he set candles--cherry, fern, cherry, fern--and lighted them in turn from the stick. Finally, he placed tapers, one black, one white, at the foci of the contained ellipse. He lighted them by setting black taper to red candle and white to green. I had to admit he seemed to know his stuff.

He gathered in his big hands the fine silver chain he’d use for my bindings. Suddenly I was filled with shame; I knew he couldn’t fail, as he apparently had up until now, to notice my extra digits.

I’d been born cursed--or blessed, depending on who you talked to--with a doubled middle finger on each hand. Once people got to know me, they usually forgot about it, but sometimes at first they were afraid of me; some people believed I carried a witch-sign. Would Raz show his revulsion? Worse, he might be abruptly cowed, shrinking from my touch. I braced myself against whichever emotion he betrayed.

Raz took hold of my hands. His expression registered nothing, not even curiosity. I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I was holding.

I tingled at his touch as he wrapped chains around my index fingers, crown, and big toes, then joined them with the blessed twine. I was starting to prickle with fear and excitement. Or maybe it was just the aura of impending majickal enchantment. Little shocks stung my skin all over, as if somebody were shooting stretch-bands. It was like being caught out in needle-sharp rain, yet remaining dry. And I could feel that the power was coming from Raz.

The familiar fiery glow began to trace round first the square, then the ellipse. A pale apricot line strengthened to dark clay-pot red as the working gathered strength. While we waited for the power-wall to peak, Raz looked me full in the face and winked. He certainly was good-looking.

“We have a moment, now. Shall we make you a personal charm?” He plucked a hair from my crown.

“Ouch!” I rubbed at the pricked place with the heel of my hand, without thinking, disarranging my tie-ups.

Raz quickly set them right again. His green eyes gleamed as he took my measure with his gaze. I felt naked as a peeled egg. For once, I found my mouth empty of words, without a smart retort.

Testing the hair by pulling it, Raz looked pleased when it stretched at least two thumbslengths before it snapped, curling. “This is delightful. In excellent condition, and quite saturated with your life-energies. May I take a proper lock?”

“Seems easiest.” I shrugged, feeling a spot of apprehension, but knowing that anything he did to my head would be less damaging than what I had done to it myself a fortnight ago, and by accident, sort of. My braids had vexed me, constantly falling into the solutions as I tried to learn how to titrate herbal liquors, so I’d tried to bind them atop my head as the mature ladies of the village did--in fact, all the girls who’d already had their coming-of-age rite had developed elaborate upbraids or birdnests in which they stuck feathers or combs. Some of them, I thought, could hide a dozen eggs in their coiffures with no one the wiser.

But I had no one to show me, and Da was completely oblivious to my need for feminine advice. I had picked up a handful of hairpins and stabbed my head with it at first, ending up with a sore scalp. Then I’d gotten curling-twigs all tangled in when I tried to roll my hair into a twist like the Widder Groop’s next door. Finally I’d just grabbed the knife in anger, intending to cut the ribbons that fastened the ends of the braids and start over; but, instead, without really meaning to, I kind of lopped one plait half off, where it looped over one ear. Then I had to bob the other. That made each side collar-length, but when I unwound the stubs of the plaits, I hadn’t got the sides even, and had to repair that. It wasn’t easy. Hair, I noticed, could not be uncut, and was strikingly easy to whack away. So it all ended up not quite touching the bottoms of my ears.

The loss of its accustomed weight then frizzed out my babyfine hair, creating a headful of ugly, angry-red twirls that cascaded down hopefully but ended too early, like an embarrassed drapery that’s shrunk in the wash. It was exactly the mess that the Widder Groop’s glance said it to be (perhaps I should’ve swallowed my pride and asked her to help, but I thought of that too late.) I hadn’t fretted too much over repairing my hair, because after all I never saw anybody but the customers and my Da. Now I was sort of sorry I didn’t at least have on a hat.

Raz snipped a lock from the front. If my hands hadn’t been all arranged in the proper position, I would’ve grabbed. “Hey, watch it! That was a long piece.”

“I was careful to take only from the bangs.” He quirked a black eyebrow, challenging me.

“I’m growing them out.” I winced.

“Don’t be peevish.” He pulled away the lock of hair--quite a thick one, and I felt another pang, similar to when I’d first ruined my hair. Instantly repentant, I had kept the hacked-off braids rolled in sad little coils in Mawmoo’s cedar chest. A good thing, too; I hadn’t thought at the time about how powerful hair-charm was if saved for majickal rites. I was glad I hadn’t let it go to the dump, where whoever found it could work all sorts of spells on me. Thinking back, I realized I’d allowed that to be done with the results of all past trims, some of them also pretty drastic, as I remembered. Who could tell which hands that power might’ve fallen into? I absolutely needed this charm.

He took the lock between his middle fingers, in the center of its length, and twisted. The ends fanned out like little brushes. Raz tied them with blessed thread about every thumb-joint-length or so. “This is what mages call a ‘broomstick.’”

“You don’t say.” I hoped I sounded properly nettled, letting him know I knew perfectly well what he was up to.

“Hush,” said Da from his vantage point in front of the counter. I’d almost forgotten he stood there.

Raz knotted the rope of hair in the middle and threaded it with center-drilled tiger-eye beads at each knotted station. He fastened this into a hangman’s loop, which he threaded onto a brown leather thong and put round my neck. His tasseled sleeve-cords tickled my ears, and I felt feathers all over the surface of my skin. Solemnly he tapped the amulet against my breastbone, and I imagined I felt power flowing into it, heating it from within.

“Wear this inside your neckline.” He spoke so softly that for a heart-stopping moment I thought he didn’t mean Da to hear; it seemed just the two of us in the ellipse, sharing an intimate secret. “Out of view. Else people will wonder what charms you fear.”

“None.” I couldn’t help popping off when I was this nervous. “I can take care of myself.”

“Quiet,” said Da. “You’ll scotch the working. It’s nearly ready, if you please.” In fact, the red glow had reached its strongest, the lines looking like rows of banked coals ready for cooking over.

“We’re doing quite well, quite well.” Raz’s tone was mild. I didn’t know whether he meant to reassure himself, me, or Da. “Charm’s done. Now lift your hands in front of your face.”

I knew he meant to focus the power he’d collected. Now he would lay his palms against mine and generate the field of warding. I squirmed; irrational as it was, I felt as though once we touched, he could sense all my secrets.

I hesitated, then slowly put up my hands. Raz adjusted my posture, leaning me forward by placing both his hands gently on my shoulders and moving me into the precise position he wanted. Then he frowned. Before I realized what he planned, he’d lifted me whole and set my knees on the hard dirt floor. As he stood before me, I could feel the warmth of his body; my nose filled with his strong peppermint smell.

I felt a spark of static, as though I’d rubbed my feet on a woolen carpet, as our fingers touched and our palms met flat together. Then Raz knelt on the hard dirt with me, our knees almost touching. Our gazes met. This gave me peculiar, unfamiliar stirrings around my kneecaps. For some reason, I thought of a dragon.

He raised our hands to cover my face, our forearms together skin-to-skin now, all four elbows resting on my knees as I followed his lead, doubling over. My sensations were unlike any others I had ever experienced during majickal contortions. Surely my strange reactions were obvious to Raz--and, worse, to Da. I felt my cheeks burning and squeezed my eyes tightly closed.

My ears filled with his voice and my lungs with his exhaled breath as he muttered words of power in the language of the mage. Of course I forgot them the moment I’d heard them. Still, I could feel the Words doing their work inside our ellipse. In quick succession, I saw stars, thought I would sneeze, couldn’t get my breath, felt my spine go icy, had a hot rope momentarily laid across my shoulders--all illusory, of course. The power had entered us, sandwiching me between the wardings of protection. I felt myself glowing with energy. The very air was charged--and not merely with majick. I prayed the way I felt wasn’t some kind of sin.

He completed the sequence with an incantation, his hot breath quietly entering--it seemed--into my ear alone:

By moonlight, water, rock and leaf,
We ask thee, Lady of the Green
that while it does remain unseen,
this charge shall keep Dulcinea safe.

The words were a frill, not required for the power’s investiture, I judged. It tickled me to think he’d added a verse meant only to delight me.

Raz “read” me while I was still vulnerable inside the majick’s elliptical field. “You shall have witchsight and rune-knowing.“ As he spoke, he broke our connection by peeling his hands free from mine. The jolt was perceptible as he separated our flesh; I felt an imaginary ripcord jerk loose from my heart. He stepped back to the very edge of the square, peering at me closely, as if to examine his handiwork. “Philtre-making. Dream interpretation. The knack for drawing out poisons.”

I lit up like a Festival float. “You can see all that?” Of course, I’d shown no sign of any of these talents yet, but if Raz were correct, I could be trained in them once I had shown symptoms of majickwake. If I ever did. And if Da could--and would--teach me.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

I weary of the willful ignorance so many citizens are displaying.

Trump's last tweet puts it into focus. The President of the United States attacking his own intelligence agencies in order to defend Russia? How could anyone not see something is wrong here? The Congress declining to investigate the guy who resigned because "we don't investigate our own party"? Ridiculous! They investigated their own party during Watergate. We do not put party before country.

Here are links to the latest "nose-tweaking" that Russia has pulled on the USA. And a discussion of how their own actions seem to show guilt and/or complicity on the part of many legislators (and higher) as far as being Russian puppets. It makes me tired to hear people say that EVERY traditional news media outlet is "fake news," because that simply isn't true. What motive would they have to make themselves non-credible and lose their advertisers along with their position? They are not ALL LYING. The odds against that, especially because citizens take cell phone video and photos at a site and start posting them around social media to begin a story, are enormous. I think you cannot go around saying that Breitbart (which actually IS fake news) is real while ABC, NBC, CNN, PBS, CBS, and *everyone else* are all making it up. This strains credulity.

Anyway . . . .

The Washington Post story on the Russian jets buzzing one of our destroyers. There are photos of this, coming out of the military, so don't tell me this is fake. The Russians want to tweak our noses. I suspect they told their puppets in Washington to do something that they have not yet done, and so this is putting pressure on them. The Russians have some sort of blackmail material, probably obtained through the hacking that Trump double-dared them to do on Clinton's machines . . . they probably hacked the RNC as well as the DNC. The Russians are not dumb! They are dangerous enemies.

A Pentagon report on the flyover buzzing. This is the US military and thus part of the Administration's purview, so you can't say it is "lying fake news."

A Russian "spy ship" seen again by the Pentagon. (This is the second report on this; before they were within OUR waters and going up and down the coast by Washington, DC.) There is a Russian vessel sitting 30 miles off the coast of Long Island right now. That is very alarming. This has not happened since the Cold War days and yet zero response from the White House. The American people have a right to know what is happening to our country. This is the US military and thus part of the Administration's purview, so you still can't say it is "lying fake news."

When is someone going to step up and stop the madness?

Friday, June 3, 2016

Oatmeal-Banana Cookles--but first, a bit of philosophizing

Let's take a serious turn for a moment.

In these times of turmoil . . . well, maybe not TURMOIL. In this election year when people are all shouting at one another over a Grand Canyon of differences . . . well, maybe not a canyon. But I am tired of hearing bitter rants over the radio and lots of mean comments made on both sides. I would like to hear some GOOD news and some happy stuff to look forward to. Wouldn't you?

I believe we are endowed by our Creator with not only "certain inalienable rights," but also four gifts. Gifts we often don't appreciate.

The first is THINKING FOR OURSELVES, including the components of Questioning Authority and Figuring Out a Better Way, and even Doubt, which prompts us to ask questions.

The second, Reason, which allows us to determine the answers to those questions. Or at least come up with some good educated guesses. And allows for spirited debate.

Then there's Free Will, which requires us to make choices and pick the Right Action to the best of our abilities. We are never forced to choose Right Action. But we always have the option to do so and to keep our "hands clean." As the song says, "there's still time to change the road you're on." (Yeah, but "Stairway to Heaven" is telling you to change to that OTHER path, isn't it, not the one I'm talking about? Oh, hush. The fact that there's a stairway to Heaven and a *highway* to Hell says something about anticipated traffic.)

And the hands-down favorite is . . . Love! I'm not talking strictly romantic love, of course. I mean Agape, Phileo, and Storge as well as Eros. C. S. Lewis wrote a great little book exploring the four words that the ancient Greeks had to describe what we lump together as "love." Basically, phileo is brotherly love (fondness, friendship, affection that goes deep), storge is familial affection (family ties and cousin-type loyalty), agape is unconditional love (such as from a parent or the Creator), and of course eros is romantic love and the love "of the body."

In all its forms, love tempers our choices and softens our harsh reasoning-based actions.

Then there are the four pillars of decision-making.

Those four pillars are Justice, the quality of being impartial or fair; Tolerance, sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one's own; Compassion, a brotherly-loving and sympathetic awareness of others' distress together with a desire to alleviate it; and Humility, which can be as simple as the ability to accept the fact that you might be wrong (this is not a lack of belief in yourself as much as a willingness to listen to others' points of view or logic.)

If you use these pillars as guidelines for living, you will never find yourself without a moral compass or lost in the morass of popular peer pressure culture. This will serve you well as you navigate your own personal path.

OK, let's have a recipe to lighten up all this HEAVY stuff!

Virtuous Oatmeal-Banana Cookies

This recipe is adapted from an old Betty Crocker cookbook. You can be just a little virtuous or very, very health-conscious with this one, depending upon your choices. Use whole eggs, or just egg whites. Some sugar or far less at all--and they are quite edible without the sugar. Nonfat, but spray the cookie sheet with Pam (or line it with parchment paper or aluminum foil), or they'll stick.
I always freeze the bananas ahead of time, then let them thaw. They look pretty nasty in the bowl--black and slimy. But snip off the end and squeeze, and out comes the fruit in a form that mixes in nicely without mashing. Very quick and efficient for lazy people like me.
Makes a huge batch: 10 dozen of the rounded-teaspoonful size cookies, or fewer if you're in a hurry and use a bigger spoon.

5 bananas
3/4 cup brown sugar, or perhaps less (to taste)
2 whole eggs or 3 egg whites
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups flour
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons cinnamon
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon cloves
2 cups raisins (optional--I use fewer, if I use them at all)
6 cups quick-cooking oats
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine sugar, egg, bananas, and vanilla (whomp together just until smooth). Stir in remaining ingredients. Drop the dough by rounded tablespoonsful onto greased baking sheet. Bake 12-15 minutes. Remove immediately from baking sheet when done. Don't burn your fingers!

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Heartbreak of RBF--and the perks of RSF (resting smileyface)

What do you do when your resting face looks like a scowl--or, worse, a contemptuous sneer--but without conscious knowledge of it, UNINTENTIONALLY, without meaning it at all? What to do, what to do??

Resting Bytchface is a serious lifelong condition!

Why do people get upset by this? It’s in the subtle signals, like one side of the lip pulled back slightly, the eyes squinting a little,” says one researcher. “There’s a tightening around the eyes, and a little bit of raising of the corners of the lips — but not into a smile,” another suggested. Occasionally it's just a full-on scowl accompanied by a "stay away from me for your own good" glare. But the face's owner will insist that she's zoned out, not even thinking about you or looking at you. It's just . . . RBF.

But wait!! Why do some people think there is something "wrong" with not smiling like a fakey car saleman when they're not interacting with someone? Just shows how prejudiced people are against introverts, quiet types (and the people who "won't meet your gaze" because they have Asperger's or whatever) and people who don't run around acting ecstatic at all times as if life is some kind of amazing fairy tale. Whee! I wanna thank my fairy godmother! There has to be a pony under here somewhere!*

*Joke: Kid opens door to find HUGE pile of horsepoop on doorstep. He breaks into a grin, gets a shovel, and dives into the pile. "Why are you doing that?" his mother asks, getting hysterical. His voice comes out of the pile: "There's got to be a pony under here somewhere!"

My dog, on the other hand, has resting smileyface. *He* is cute.

Conclusion: smiley face attracts way more nice people (as well as flies, the only downside).

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The Darkness at the Center--preview chapter

Here's a glimpse of the first chapter of my new YA that's NOT a fantasy but an exploration of psychological and sexual harassment by a preteen's piano teacher (more serious than my normal work).

Twelve-year-old Elise Francis struck the final note of "Fur Elise" and felt the Steinway baby grand's vibrations resonate all the way up her arm.

She winced. Once again, she'd landed too hard on the last note, "banging" the ending.

Her teacher, Mrs. Robi--or at least her reflection in the huge mirror above the piano-- leaned back, nodding. "You know what went wrong?"

Elise could feel her face flaming out, just as her hands tingled with the error. "Whamming down my thumb at the end of every phrase. I forgot again."

Mrs. Robi's reflection staggered a little. "Mercy," she gasped.

"Sorry. I'll try to remember."

Instead of remonstrating further, Mrs. Robi made a strangled noise.

That brought Elise's head up and around. "Are you OK?"

"Another little dizzy spell, is all." The elderly instructor groped for the brocade wing chair behind her and sat heavily. "I'll be fine in a minute. Run through 'Doctor Gradus and Parnassum' real quick for me, and that'll do it."

Ellie examined her teacher. Mrs. Robi's face was really pale. Almost as gray as her hair. She was breathing pretty heavily. Panting, actually. "Are you sure? I can get my mom. She's right down the street at Mrs. Shirley's doing their bitch-and-stitch, but it's totally informal."

Mrs. R. shook her head violently, then grimaced. "No, no, hon. Don't bother her. I just need to sit a minute, and remember not to shake my head." She closed her eyes. "Play, dear. If you present to me a reading worthy of Saint Claude, I'll be perfectly restored."

She tended to refer to the composers by first names like that.

After a moment Elise turned back to the Steinway. The ivory keys were cool and her fingertips clung briefly as she touched them to the opening notes. She heard a sigh from behind and suspected her teacher wanted a faster tempo, so she speeded up, almost imperceptibly.

Even though she hadn't considered playing it this fast, the quicker tempo worked. Elise raised her hands at the end, pleased with herself.

"Wonderful," her teacher said. But she didn't clap as she usually did. Instead, she coughed and then choked, loudly. Elise swiveled around in alarm.

Mrs. Robi was slumped over, head on her knees.

Elise slid off the bench quickly, but her teacher raised her head. Instead of reassuring Elise, Mrs. Robi murmured, "I do feel strange," and began fanning herself with the Dover edition of "Die Fledermaus" (which she'd picked up off the coffee table, where Elise's dad had been browsing it earlier, for grins.) Bullets of sweat were building up on her forehead.

"Do you need a glass of water? Are you too warm?" Ellie swung her head towards the thermostat. No, the room was chilly as always, kept that way so the temperamental baby grand wouldn't go out of tune so quickly. In here it was forever Alaska.

"Oh, I'm all right, you know me. A hot flash." Mrs. R. wiped her forehead with the gossamer sleeve of her fancy tunic. "Go on. Let's do the Beethoven sonatina, if you have it under your fingers." She lifted an eyebrow, which made Elise feel more reassured because it was one of her typical I challenge you expressions. "Make me hear that tension in the adagio."

So Ellie turned back to the piano, took a deep breath, and finally lifted her fingers to the keyboard.

She was playing the quiet section when she thought she heard wheezing, like her little brother when he needed his inhaler, but she wasn't sure and she didn't want to ruin the flow. She'd gotten over stopping when she made a mistake and didn't want to plow that field again. Besides, the right side of her brain was in charge right now and she wasn't thinking logically; she had entered the ethereal plane of music, just sequencing the melody and counterpoint and feeling the muscle memory in her fingers where she had parts memorized. And so when the THUD came followed by the CRASH, it startled her so that she nearly fell off the bench. *is there counterpoint in any Beethoven sonatina??**zamma

Her piano teacher lay curled on Daddy's expensive Persian rug, convulsing. The crashing sound had been her mother's Tiffany roses lamp, which was now on the floor cracked into perfect halves. Mrs. Robi must have grasped the edge of that linen table runner on the end table trying to catch herself, but instead it followed her down.

"Hey! What was that?"

Elise glanced up. Her little brother Jamie hung over the polished banister halfway down the stairs, saucer-eyed, gripping the balusters as he goggled.

"Call 911!"