Into the Dreaming Imaginative Fiction from Author, Editor, and Writing Coach Christine Amsden

Category Archives: Chitchat

A Time for Reflection

 

Liberals, Democrats, and Independents: Beware! Now is not the time to charge blindly forward along the same path that led us to where we find ourselves today. Now is the time to STOP and THINK.

Eight years ago, Republicans lost to Barack Obama in a veritable landslide and I distinctly remember hearing Democrats telling them to consider carefully how they got to that point. They did not. Oh, they gave the idea some lip service but ultimately they only gave birth to the “tea party,” a hyper-concentrated version of what they already were. They didn’t learn. They didn’t listen. Then, they nominated Trump and Democrats said, “Surely, this is the end!”
This morning, amidst shock, anger, grief and despair, I see a common theme: It’s time to fight! Now is not the time to mourn, now is not the time to bury our heads in the sand, now is the time to stride forward, ever onward! To save our country from hatred and bigotry.

Whoa! Hold on there. We still haven’t got a clear answer to: WTF happened?

I see plenty of ready answers, especially: The country is swimming in more hateful, ignorant, racist, sexist, deplorable people than we thought.

Maybe it is. But these are still our fellow Americans, part of our system of government run by the people. And calling them hateful, ignorant, racist, sexist, or deplorable is NOT the way to win their hearts. If we learn nothing else from this election cycle, I hope we learn that.

What would happen if we took a moment to listen? Not just to hear and to judge, but to truly try to understand the fears of a nation willing to set aside a hugely qualified candidate in favor of … (leaving out my usual adjectives for the sake of avoiding hypocrisy) Donald Trump?

Among other things, this vote split alarmingly between urban and rural voters. My husband is from rural Arkansas, his family (Trump supporters) still live there, and he has many Facebook friends who share these ideals. Last night, even before it became clear that Clinton would lose, even when it was simply clear that the election would be astoundingly close, we talked about why.

Democrats don’t speak to rural voters, he said. Most of the social programs and changes they want to enact disproportionately benefit city dwellers. And yes, this is partly due to infrastructure problems, but it’s no less true.

Meanwhile, he said, they’re afraid. They already live a life that takes them from paycheck to paycheck, they’re fired up with pride in their own hard work (ie they don’t want handouts), and they’re frankly being talked down to by Democrats. Is it any wonder that when Republicans give them something to fear, that they latch onto it?

I’m still processing all of that and I have no answers for you. Answers are not the point of this post. The point of this post is to implore Democrats to ask the questions.

Some say political discussion is futile, that it can only end in anger, and that no one ever changes their mind. As someone who has changed her mind a great deal over the years, down to some fundamental issues like abortion, gun control, gay rights, taxes, and health care, I know this is false.

But I never. Not once. Ever. Changed my mind when someone insulted me.

Political discussion is, in fact, essential to a free country. But it has to be a discussion, with give and take, with open minds and willing hearts. We have to give one another the benefit of the doubt that being on the opposite side of a political issue does not make someone a bad person.

And I know … believe me I know … that Republicans do it too. But they won. So let’s grow up and figure this thing out the only way anything has ever been figured out: By thinking things through, talking, and listening.

A Dark Day in America

It’s a dark day in America.

Don’t tell me to have faith in Democracy. Don’t try to assure me that we’ve been through hard times before and come through them. Don’t even tell me to breathe.

Today is a dark day in America, and I need some time to mourn.

There are five widely recognized stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. And I haven’t even started on them yet because I’m still in shock. So forgive me if I need more then eight hours, most of them spent trying to sleep and failing due to nightmares, in order to get to a calm place in my mind.

Today is a dark day in America, and I’m afraid.

It’s not even the politics, although that’s scary enough. It’s the nuclear launch codes. It’s our standing within the international community. It’s the fact that there are serious conflicts going on in the world today that need a serious leader to handle them.

Today is a dark day in America, and I’m heartbroken.

I want to be angry with the millions of Americans who chose a pussy-grabbing racist over an e-mail sending slightly left of centrist but I can’t manage that right now. I’m too sad. Who are we? I thought I knew what America was and what it stood for but I woke up this morning and it turns out, I know nothing.

Today is a dark day in America, and I’m afraid.

This time it is about the politics. The last time the Republicans won such sweeping control over the nation, they destabilized our economy and hiked up the national debt. They still espouse the same principles of “trickle down economics” that caused issues during the Bush years. Also, their ability to affect the Supreme Court will leave a stain on justice that we’ll feel for decades to come.

Today is a dark day in America, and I’m embarrassed.

Donald Trump is a buffoon. Let’s not overlook the simple fact that he is an unintelligible moron who can barely string a sentence together. I almost grammar checked the debates — maybe I should have. Listening to him speak is painful, but it will be a hundred times worse going forward because that voice, the voice will represent our nation for the next four years.

Today is a dark day in America, and I’m perplexed.

Why, America? Why!!!! I mean … no. I have no words. There are no words. Just … why?

Today is a dark day in America, and I’m angry.

There. I finally managed it. Anger. I’m angry with the Democrats for allowing such an unelectable person to win the nomination, especially in a year when America was clearly looking for an “anti-establishment” candidate. We had one. His name was Bernie Sanders and in every Trump mock-up poll he wiped the floor with the man. Clinton barely edged out. And while I could choose to be angry with the voters for weighing her dubious e-mail scandal against the load of horse shit that is everything Donald Trump is and has done in his life, the fact remains that there were warning signs. The truth is, Trump was the only candidate against whom Clinton had the slightest chance, AND SHE COULDN’T EVEN MANAGE TO BEAT HIM!!!!! I’m an independent, and this election reminds me why I consider myself to be an independent despite the fact that I largely vote democrat. If the republicans scare me, than the democrats often disgust and disappoint me. This should have been a winnable election.

I’m angry with the news media … for getting it wrong, for projecting such overwhelming false hope, and for their part in ensuring a Clinton nomination in the first place.

I’m REALLY angry with the electoral college system, which is likely (yet again) to produce a president who lost the popular vote.

Today is a dark day in America, and it’s only just beginning.

The next four years are going to be tough. Hopefully, they won’t be earth-shattering or irreplaceable, but they will certainly be tough. I’m not even sure how to have faith in checks and balances right now, since the constitution’s checks didn’t count on the rise of a party system that would supersede these measures. There are no checks. There are no balances. There are only Republicans.

Today is a dark day in America, and I have the right to mourn.

I will do my level best to regain some faith in America over the coming days, weeks, and months, but don’t push me. Don’t push us. A dream died last night. Think about that before you walk into my wake and tell me to just get over it. Join me in mourning if you will, then give me time and space. That’s all I ask.

Defining Freedom and Power: A Rebuttal

In a recent blog post, Christopher Nuttall, author of the bestselling Schooled in Magic series (which I proudly edit), made some assertions about Freedom and (Women’s) Rights. In it, he has this to say about my own Cassie Scot Series:

Cassie Scot is a squib, if I may borrow the Harry Potter term. She’s the daughter of powerful magicians – and sister to several more – but she has no power of her own. And this has inevitable consequences.

Throughout her four books, Cassie is constantly objectified. Not in the sense that she is treated as a sex object, but in the sense she is constantly treated like a minor child. She is powerless in her community. Her very safety depends on protection from her parents; later, when she loses that, her (eventual) love interest makes decisions for her, meddles freely in her life (sometimes without telling her) and generally continues the tradition of treating her as a cute but wilful child, rather than a grown adult in her own right …

And the hell of it is that he (and her parents) has a point. Cassie may act like a confident adult, but it’s based on other people, rather than on her inherent power (she has none) or human rights (she has none of those either). She is staggeringly vulnerable. And so is Julianne. And so were far too many women throughout history. The powerful women were often the ones who were born to power, like Queen Elizabeth.

Now let me just start by saying that Chris and I don’t see eye to eye on many things. Luckily for the both of us, I have no problem speaking my mind and he’s happy to work with editors who challenge him, whether he ends up taking their advice or not. This is the mark of a successful author/editor relationship, IMHO. 🙂

To give his article some context: In his most recent novel, Past Tense, I made some comments about a primary character that seem to have been echoed by at least some portion of the reading public. Due to editorial privilege, I won’t go into details past those Chris himself mentions in his own blog post. Yes, I said that Julianne was weak and unconvincing as a character. She came across to me as a symbol more than a person — a representation and amalgam of that which has plagued women throughout history.

From a literary perspective, this opinion isn’t a death sentence. Plenty of characters in plenty of books have been more symbolic than anything else. It’s a valid literary technique.

As an author, I shy away from that particular literary technique almost to a fault. Honestly, I spend so much time trying to make sure that my secondary and tertiary characters have clear motivations (at least to me) that it takes me at least a year to write a book … when I’m on form. If you’re in the market for fantasy you can rely on coming out every few months, check out Christopher Nuttall’s work, which involves creative world-building, clever twists, and a bit more focus on his main character. 🙂

The point is, Chris and I didn’t see eye to eye on this particular issue. And when he wrote a blog article explaining his perspective, he cited my own work (with my permission) as an example. When I okayed this blog article, I did warn him that I would have my say!

Cassie Scot has no magic. She lives in a world of magic. On a very superficial level, this makes her powerless.

On a very superficial level.

The #1 theme of this series of books was this: There is more than one type of power and more than one way to be powerful. Cassie herself didn’t understand this at first. Her family and her love interest didn’t understand this at first. And really, it’s a challenging thing to get your mind around.

In a world full of magic, wits, courage, and a bit of attitude can become a form of personal power.

Let’s go back to Chris’s points: That Cassie was treated as a minor child, that she had no power or human rights, and that the only power she did have came from the family that surrounded and protected her.

First of all: Yes, Cassie was treated a bit like a child. Because the people in her life thought she couldn’t take care of herself, because they thought they had to protect her, they overstepped — especially her parents and her love interest. Cassie had to prove to them that she could stand on her own and that she could be a value, something that she would never have had to do had she simply been born with magic like her many brothers and sisters.

But to take this a step further and assert that in the end she still has no human rights and no power other than that which is handed down to her by the community in which she lives is to misunderstand the role society plays in ALL of our lives.

Another theme in the Cassie Scot series is: No one can do it alone.

*I* don’t have any human rights that aren’t handed to me by the United States government and protected by a (sometimes fragile seeming) representative democracy built on the will of the people. My powers and human rights are further defined by my social affiliations, my husband, my skills, and my own personality.

There are women today, right now, in THIS “free” country who are not free. There are victims of all kinds of things — abuse, mental illness, fear, degradation … there is a slave trade still going on in the world today!

Power is more complex than the law. It’s more complex than society. It’s more complex than culture. Power is all of that and it’s our own personal energy.

Going the other direction, you can go back throughout history and find many examples of women who, despite their lack of status in the eyes of the law, were powerful cornerstones of their own community. Or at least a power in their own families.

Cassie Scot is not the type of woman who lets herself be walked upon. Even in a world where she almost doesn’t seem to belong, she’s got too much fire to let it happen. And that is why I love her. She’s not me — I’ve often told readers this — she’s who I want to be. In a world where I sometimes feel powerless to change the things that matter most to me, Cassie has shown me a truth that was immortalized in the Serenity Prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference.

That’s power. Strong women (and men) throughout history have known it.

A Chocolate Snob’s Favorite Winter Drink

Hot Chocolate Taste Test

VS

The leaves have almost left the trees, cold fronts are on their way, and the news is predicting snow in the next couple of weeks. That can mean only one thing — It’s time to stock up on HOT CHOCOLATE!

As a chocolate snob, I disagree that Swiss Miss or Nestle should even be called hot chocolate. More like chocolate flavored water. And don’t even get me started on the “light” varieties. (See “Mindful Eating: 5-Star Desserts“)

Land O Lakes has been my go-to chocolate for many years now. It is readily available at most grocery stores (which is one of my biggest challenges as a chocolate snob). It is rich, creamy, and delicious. A little  piece of heaven on a cold winter’s night that satisfies even my most urgent chocolate craving.

But last weekend, while perusing chocolate at the new Hy-Vee on 151st street, we ran across Stephen’s hot chocolate. The price was similar, and it had a guarantee: “The best hot chocolate you’ve ever tried or your money back!”

Blind taste test time!

My entire family participated — my discerning husband and my enthusiastic children, a six-year-old girl and a nearly nine-year-old boy. We put stickers on the bottom of 4 identical mugs so we wouldn’t know which mug was which until after the test. Then we made the cocoa, mixed them up, and started tasting.

The first thing I should note, out of a sense of honesty, is that the blind taste test didn’t work as well as it should have because even me (I’m severely visually impaired) could tell that Stephen’s was a darker chocolate than Land O Lakes. But I went forward, trying to be as honest as possible.

I began with my tried-and-true Land O Lakes, which tasted just as delicious as I remembered. One counter-clockwise shift later, I had a mug of Stephen’s in my hand. And … I LOVED it!

Since Land O Lakes is the richest hot chocolate I’ve ever had (I did grow up on Swiss Miss and Nestle), it was hard for me to imagine a richer hot chocolate. But Stephen’s is. The margin isn’t staggering or anything, but Stephen’s topped Land O Lakes on richness.

Land O Lakes is slightly sweeter than Stephen’s, and even now I am not entirely certain which one I like better. I think Stephen’s by a hair. These are both EXCELLENT hot chocolate options that I highly recommend for the upcoming winter. For my part, I plan to buy whichever is on a better sale.

My son, almost 9, seemed to think Stephen’s was quite a bit better. After our initial taste-testing we checked which was which; he grabbed both Stephen’s mugs and refused to give them up! My 6-year-old daughter didn’t have a preference, she just wanted marshmallows already. 🙂

In conclusion, I am pleased to report that there are excellent hot chocolates in the world. Buy them because I can’t support the industry all by myself!

Judicial Retention

Vote buttonLocal (Kansas) friends listen up! 🙂

 

Judicial retention is one of those things that many voters either skip, vote all yes, or vote all no. But it’s an important aspect of our democracy, and it deserves due consideration. Alas, it is difficult to find good information on judges. I think this is primarily because there is rarely a political incentive to retaining or failing to retain a judge.

 

At any rate, I’ve done my homework. And if you like, you may copy my answers. (Uh oh, I think I just had a high school flashback! 🙂 )

 

Short answer – vote to retain all judges currently on the ballot in Johnson County.

 

Long answer…

 

The duty of a judge is to uphold the law. They must employ wisdom, and at all times remain impartial. They may deal with emotional cases, but they must follow the law at all times.

 

I am not a lawyer. And I certainly don’t have the time to read through endless court decisions to determine if the judges are doing their jobs. (You can – just check out Judgepedia http://judgepedia.org/Main_Page.) Instead, I rely on the opinions of lawyers and judges who have worked with the judge in question. You can find their survey results summarized here:

 

2014 Judicial Review Survey

 

The above link is to the summary page, but more detailed results are available.

 

Two state supreme court justices are up for retention, Rosen and Johnson. You may have heard that there is currently a push to get them taken off the bench, arguably due to a recent decision they helped hand down. I say arguably, because this may also have been politically motivated. When I dug deeper, I discovered a few important truths: First, that this decision was handed down at a 6:1 margin by the current supreme court and only these two have the misfortune to be up for retention at the moment. It also struck me that both judges have good reviews by lawyers and fellow judges. Were they right about the actual decision in question? No one has said that the judges were wrong, only that they are angry over an understandably emotional situation that they had thought was behind them. The decision, FWIW, was that each of the two convicted rapists and murderers should have received separate sentencing trials, and that the judge at the sentencing trial gave incorrect instructions to jurors. As a result, their death sentence was suspended. There was also something about overturning redundant/overlapping convictions. As I said, I’m not a lawyer. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but at least 6 of the 7 experts whose job it is to know says it is. I also know that these two felons are still in jail and that they will probably have new sentencing hearings … hopefully done according to the law this time. (Maybe the push should be to fire the judge responsible for the sentencing fiasco? Assuming this is a pattern, and not a one-off mistake.) In the meantime, I will vote “yes” to retain these judges.

 

The Kansas City Star had an excellent article on the topic you may want to peruse:

 

http://www.kansascity.com/opinion/editorials/article3356404.html

 

And as sad as it may be, that Kansas City Star article is just about the only clear information I could find on the question of whether or not to retain the district judges. The Kansas Review only does supreme court and appellate judges. If anyone has additional information regarding district judges that they would like to share, I’m happy to hear it.

 

In the meantime, I believe that the judges up for retention at the moment are doing their jobs and deserve to keep them. I will vote “yes” to retain all judges.

Audiobooks: Because you can’t skim them.

A few weeks ago I spotted a blog hosting a 2014 book review challenge — the more books you review, the cooler your bragging rights. I was keen to sign up; after all, I read hundreds of books a year (yes, 2-3 per week). But the guidelines specified that audiobooks were not allowed. 🙁

I pouted. I got self-righteous. After all I’m legally blind, reading books in a text format (print or ebook) is not a viable option for me. And why shouldn’t an audiobook count? Am I not really a reader because the thousands of books I’ve read in the past decade were almost exclusively enjoyed in audiobook format? Did I waste all that time? Are my honest reviewer opinions less valuable because the story came through my ears rather than my eyes?

Listen, I know it’s a different experience. You’re using different parts of the brain to access and filter the information. But different does not imply that one experience or the other has to be inferior. Some readers enjoy both listening and reading the text for an even more complete experience, and why not?

You may think it’s easy for me to say, seeing as how I’m visually impaired. But believe it or not, it took me a long time to accept audiobooks in my life. I used to read so many books the library couldn’t stay ahead of me. And when my vision first began to fail me (16), I resisted the shift to audiobooks because of the cultural disdain. Listening to audiobooks, for me, was like surrendering to my handicap. When I first picked up audiobooks, I felt it as a personal failure.

And yet…

I’m not just a fast reader, I’m an impatient one. I might have read entire books in one sitting as a teen, but there was a lot of skimming involved, particularly when it came to long passages of description. Seriously, who cares what they’re wearing? Get on with the story! My eyes darted across the page with practiced skill, picking up on the important keywords and phrases that I knew would move the story itself along.

I can’t skim audiobooks. There are times when this is frustrating, but in the 14 years since I seriously started reading audiobooks it has done me a lot of good. I am forced to read more of the story and the resulting picture is far more complete.

I can’t speak for other’s reading experiences and I won’t presume to try, but I know that audiobooks have been helpful to me as both a reader and a writer. When many people ask, “Why audiobooks?” the first answer usually has something to do with how easy it is to read while doing something else — like commuting to work. And I do get a lot of reading done while I’m doing other things. But I think there are other advantages as well, and this is one that would serve the impatient reader well.

My first two audiobooks are available now through audible:

Cassie Scot: ParaNormal Detective | [Christine Amsden]


Secrets and Lies: A Cassie Scot Novel | [Christine Amsden]

Whodunit: Obvious or Unguessable?

Lately I’ve been reading a few mystery/suspense books in which the “whodunit” aspect was utterly unguessable. No, I didn’t see it coming, but on the other hand, how could I have done? There were no clues. No red herring. I had no guesses at all, and when I found out it was the baker, it could just as easily have been the butcher or the candlestick maker for all the impact it had on me.

Now, let me preface that by saying I don’t read straight mystery/suspense. I read romantic mystery/suspense, which may make a difference even though it shouldn’t.

Tonight I finished “Paradise County” by Karen Robards, a book that was very suspenseful, but at the end it was just, “Oh, okay sure. If you say so.” When I put the book down I thought I’d honestly have preferred it if I’d spotted the identity of the bad guy a mile away, or if he’d been named in his point of view chapters, instead of being referred to as “The Predator,” as if knowing or not knowing his identity made the slightest bit of difference to the ending.

The book, and other similar experiences, made me wonder if we’re so caught up on the idea of the surprise ending that we don’t correctly lay the foundation for that surprise, lest someone guess it. I figure that in a properly laid-out mystery, at least 10% of your readers (the ones who know how to pay attention) should guess it. And in a well-done romantic suspense, the fact that they guessed it shouldn’t diminish their enjoyment of the story.

So let me turn my original question over to you guys: Obvious or unguessable? In an imperfect world, where you can only have one or the other, which is better and why?

Tips for Writers: Thank You

There is a good reason that we call “please” and “thank you” magic words. The hold within them the simple power of politeness and the fathomless power of professionalism.

Whether you’re an amateur or published pro, you need to get used to saying the words “thank you” and then stop talking. The part where you stop talking is important. Though you may have to grit your teeth as you say it (Behold the power of the Internet, for no one can see the expression on your face only the words on your fingertips!), saying thank you even when someone just belittled your life’s work scores you points in the end.

You may find it hard to believe, but any publicity is good publicity. The fact that someone is talking about your book, even in a bad way, means that it was worth talking about. People are more likely to remember that they’d seen your book somewhere before than that some reviewer didn’t like it, especially if other reviewers do like it. But there is one thing they will remember if you rise to the bait — YOUR lack of professionalism. If you argue with the reviewer or say anything other than “thank you,” it will be noticed.

There is a growing trend of hot-headed authors out there misusing the power and anonymity of the Internet. Yes, it gives us unprecedented abilities to connect with our fans, but with great power comes… yaddah yaddah yaddah. You know what I mean. 🙂

It may interest you to know that years after I’ve had some of my books reviewed, readers have remembered me as being “a nice person.” Even reviewers who gave my book a lukewarm 3 or 3.5-star review have said so, and been interested in reading more. Why? What magic did I perform?

Thank you. And I stopped talking. 🙂

The Life Cycle of a Novel: Discarding the First Draft

At this point, I am delving somewhat into the realm of opinion rather than fact. The truth is, every author tackles that first draft in his or her own way. Do you outline first or just go for it? Having gone for it, do you keep writing until the end?

I do outline, at least roughly, but the story doesn’t come alive until you have words on the page. But I do not write my first draft to “the end.” I’ve tried, based on recommendations from other authors, to just plow through and get words on the page, but I find that at some point, those words stop making sense and stop being useful.

The first draft is an exploratory draft. It isn’t even a rough draft. I write until the foundation is insupportable. I don’t sweat the small stuff — [Note to self: Mention this in chapter 2] or [Note to self: Look this up.] are perfectly fair things to put in an exploratory draft (or rough draft, or really anything short of the draft I send my publisher).

But today I realized that I had gone left when I should have gone right. I am now hopelessly lost in the wrong state, and the only way back is to start over. That’s okay — this is what exploratory drafts are for. Actually, in the life cycle of this particular novel it couldn’t have come at a better time. I’m going to have to step away from this novel for a couple of weeks due to the holidays, and while it would be nice to feel like I’m getting something done in the two days I still have left, in the grand scheme of things it’s not going to be a big loss. The thing I need to do right now is stop and think. Luckily, I have some built-in time to do that.

While I’m at it, I’ll write a new outline, one that incorporate the truths I learned from exploring this story. I’ll do a bit more research (just a couple of things that came up as I went along), and I’ll be ready to pick this up again after the holidays.

I feel good right now. Not because of what I’ve done — it’s rubbish, of course! But because I know what I need to do next.

The Life Cycle of a Novel: The First Doubt

Ah, and it doesn’t take long, does it? No sooner do words begin to intrude upon the perfection of the blank slate than the first doubt creeps in. Possibility turns to reality, and the reality never truly lives up to the dream. The first doubts are niggling, tearing at my confidence and trying to convince me to give up or turn back too soon. But this isn’t a final draft. This is an exploratory draft. Some sentences will be brilliant, some ideas will be brilliant, and some will need to get cleaned up in revision.

Doubt can drain the will of an author who is not strong enough to fight it. Doubt is inevitable, and to some extent it is true. There is no perfect book, there are only the ones we write.

Yet without doubt, our stories would never evolve past the rough draft.

So no sooner is the first word set to paper, then the first doubt suggests that it wasn’t the best first word. I am in doubt right now. I’ve written three chapters, and they’re no good. Well, maybe a bit from the first. And I did end chapter three well, it will lead nicely into the introduction of the romantic hero. But how will this ever grow from some whim of mine into a real, satisfying book?

Oh words! Have you failed me or have I failed you?