Saturday, March 26, 2011

Moving Through Time.

Apologies for the blogging break. It was not intentional. I biffed off to the mainland on only a few hours' notice to help my sister and her family. They had come down with stomach flu. I helped out for two days, spent day three on the couch with the aforementioned stomach flu, and then promptly caught my nephew's cold. You can't tell a toddler not to cough in your face. Another week of cleaning and cooking and whining (mine) followed. I returned on Wednesday hugely overdosed on Mucinex so I would not cough or sneeze on the plane and bathed in hand sanitizer. I had called the airline to ask if I could move my ticket to this coming Monday, when there would be no chance of passing it to my fellow travelers, and was told by the agent in a fascinating bit of time-travel that she had "looked several weeks out in both directions" and could not find a flight change that would not cost a thousand dollars. Okay, then.

Moving a story through time is something new writers often make more of production of than it deserves. No reader is going to fling your book aside should you start a chapter with "On Monday morning" or "The week before school started." Like the word "said" as a dialogue tag, these are fairly invisible and painless ways of getting from here to there, or from now to then.

Being clear is Priority #1 in all writing if you're not James Joyce or equivalent. Don't get too tricky when moving in time. Don't try to be subtle by mentioning your character's newly-long hair or changing all the classes he's taking or having it start snowing when we think she's sunbathing on a hot day in the back yard. Unless, of course, something has gone drastically wrong with climate change. Make the bones of time clear for your reader.

Once you're moving through time clearly, look at how to do it well. Some writers hang their shingle on knowing how to end a chapter on a cliffhanger, of not wrapping up a moment in time, which forces the reader to keep going to find the closure that never quite arrives in any chapter. See Dan Brown for this. Others are so dextrous and brilliant that they don't have to flow in order with the clock or the calendar (are you listening, American Airlines?). Read Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude to see this genius.

Possibly the best lesson in moving through time for any author comes from a genre of literary fiction popular among Serious Male Writers, which I call the Somewhat Interesting Woman's Life Story. These women are usually taken advantage of in their youth or even childhood by men, think they come to terms with it through various relationships which then explode, and only then finally deal with everything, either swearing off men or finally finding The One in middle age, too late for the happiness of which they had early dreamt, but nice enough and on their own terms.


Anyway, I was reading about the third of these novels this year and I was about to fling the thing at several points, but inevitably the author cut the scene, and that part of the tale, within a few pages and leapt into the next misadventure. So there is the final suggestion: jump ahead in time when you can. Especially when the story is shouting "Move along— nothing to see here!"

Saturday, March 12, 2011

What I Have Learned from the Red Cross.

I have been a Red Cross Disaster Services volunteer for two years, and I have now participated in two local disaster alerts. These were two tsunami incidents, neither of which resulted in a local disaster. The Red Cross was not called upon to open shelters, and I was simply in place in case of that eventuality. I spent some hours at evacuation centers, in the last event receiving fifty people at a nearby elementary school for an overnight stay.

From those experiences and from my training, I have learned:

1. Emergency responders have limited resources. We will do our best with what we have, but it's probably less than you imagine. No, we don't have a warehouse filled with supplies nearby that can be brought out in moments. Our local group has a trailer with cots and other supplies, but we know it won't be enough. And be aware that in all likelihood, every person you see from the Red Cross is a volunteer.

2. Pay attention to what you are told to bring to an evacuation center. We don't have bedding. We cannot hand out any cots or other supplies or start providing food until after the disaster. Anything you need to make yourself comfortable during an evacuation you need to bring. We will try to round up snacks. Imagine you are unexpectely forced to spend twelve hours or more in an empty elementary school. What would you want to have? If you can bring more supplies, food, or water and wish to share with others, please do.

3. Bring your medications. We had two people in the last incident without critical medications. They both left them at home. Had the tsunami been more serious, their medications would have been inaccessible and might have been destroyed. The Red Cross can and does help replace medications, but it takes time. In an urgent situation, someone without their medications may require airlift evacuation they would not have otherwise needed. On a related note, refill prescription medications early. Don't have a two-day supply. Have a two-week supply.

4. Drive carefully. Your fellow motorists will be stressed, on their phones, and fiddling with their radios. Some of them will be driving impaired, not knowing they were going to be on the road. Drive as though everyone around you is impaired. Drive as though you yourself are. If you do not absolutely need to drive or leave your home at all, don't.

5. Donate. Not just money and time to the Red Cross or other relief organizations if you can. If you are in a safe place but live near an evacuation area or shelter and want to help, we can put you to work or happily accept donations of food and water. Heck, just come along with any current information you may have. That's the #1 need for many folks in the early hours of a disaster, and we may not have access to the news sources you have. Again, only if you can come to us safely.

6. If an evacuation becomes an emergency, seriously consider how you will survive, with or without help. The better prepared you are, the less of a burden you will be on available resources. Whether you can shelter in place at home or come to the shelter with food, water, medication, and bedding, the more you can serve yourself the better off we will all be.

7. We cannot allow your pet inside the shelter and offer no resources for your pet. Bring what they will need in terms of food, water, and medication, stock up for them as part of your preparations, and decide how they will live outside the shelter.

8. As part of your planning, arrange with family and friends how you will contact them in an emergency. In this recent event, all phone companies were swamped. Apparently, text messages were the best way to get information through. Remind your loved ones to check every communication channel. That's hard to remember when they're worried. Decide which person is the most likely to be able to receive a message and pass along information in case you only get one chance to communicate. And know that communication may not be possible.

9. The Red Cross exists, among other reasons, to help victims of disasters survive until they can get on their feet. We provide basic needs and a place to muster your own resources. We are disaster relief only. We will do whatever we can to help you survive, and then we must move on. We cannot help you with your recovery efforts. We just don't have the resources and it isn't our calling. There is another disaster waiting that needs what little we can do.

10. Come take a class. You don't have to join Disaster Services, but come to the Red Cross and learn CPR and First Aid. It might be too late next month or next year. If you can become a volunteer, all I can say is that it is very rewarding to be able to help, even a bit, in the worst of times.


I got home yesterday morning after being up all night at the evacuation center. The Red Cross was never called on to open a formal shelter, as Kauai was lucky not to suffer major damage. Yesterday I was far more thrashed than I expected to be from one night without sleep. Doubtless the stress of the situation was part of it. The stress today is different, watching the tremendous damage suffered by the people of Japan. I'm cleaning my house, so I'm physically energetic, but I feel my mind is barely ticking over. Cleaning is about all I'm good for at the moment.

Friday, March 11, 2011


I may not have mentioned it, but I'm on Kauai. I am also a Red Cross Disaster Volunteer. A couple of weeks ago I wondered if I would be sent to New Zealand. Now it looks like I will probably man a shelter in Kilauea. If you can spare it, please some good wishes. And anything you can afford to the charity of your choice. If you can, consider becoming a Red Cross volunteer.

Mahalo and Aloha. I hope I'm back to incoherent rambling soon.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Write Like a Cop.

Who knew that one of the best writing schools you could find is the local police academy?

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Declaration of Independence.

Teaches a very important lesson about conflict. I don't mean of the international variety. I'm talking about one of the Declaration's most famous bits. Our Inalienable Rights: "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness." Okay, okay, so those rights belonged only to white males, and mostly to white, property-owning males at that, but we're making progress. Let's assume most of us enjoy these rights today.

The first thing I want to point out is that these rights are stated in order of importance. Then I want to point out that one of the most worthwhile philosophical pursuits you can consider is whether one person's rights trump another's. On some levels it's simple: your right to life does trump my right to happiness if my happiness involves driving my car too fast on the public roads. When we get more subtle, or more remote, we get into trouble. For instance, I recently bought an air compressor for my convenience. Not sure that counts as the pursuit of happiness, but let's file it there. Stating that it liberates me from going to the gas station to check my tire pressures is overstating the case. But how can I spend $200 on a convenience when somewhere a child is sick or hungry? I've trumped somebody's right to life somewhere, haven't I?

I have problems with happiness, as you can see.

Look at stories in the same way. My personal idiocies don't make for much of a story, but what if you wrote a love story with one partner thinking the relationship is the center of their life and the other thinking it's a "pursuit of happiness?" Or a drama, with one character willing to do anything it takes to live and the other not willing to sacrifice their freedom for simple survival?

Know your characters' values. Know their priorities. Know their frame of reference. Something might be very, very important to one person that means nothing to someone else.

Yours in air compressor hell,


Sunday, March 6, 2011


Because I do not believe in anything so lavish as synchronicity, or won't until I've finished Brian Greene's latest book, I call this a coincidence and share this, also from the NYT:

My latest experience is more homeopathic than these writers'. Why do I keep mentioning things in which I do not believe? Homeopathy is woo, of course. It is interesting to realize how many writers have abandoned books. I suppose I have abandoned more than ten, since I'm not doing anything with my unpublished manuscripts. But in my head I've abandoned only two, one which I wrote with the wrong POV character, and one I've now abandoned twice. Make that three times. I was rewriting the same idea last week when I chucked it again.

I'll get there.

Long Weekend.

I've been off the blog for a bit as I've spent the last three days wondering if my appendix is planning to part with the rest of the team. My insurance is such that I will not be consulting any experts until I think it's closer to a sure thing. I haven't eaten much since Thursday, so I'm not going to produce anything coherent here, but I do have something to share.

I took a stab at a bit of writing last weekend. Got ten pages done over a few days, discovered it sucked, and stopped. Hemingway's built-in, shock-proof shit detector kicked in and saved me. Don't worry, I'll spare you reading any of it. What I do want you to read is at least the start of this New York Times opinion piece, because if there's a more dramatic start to a piece of writing out there, I haven't seen it: