Friday, October 27, 2017

A Halloween Treat

When I interviewed a neighbor, a retired firefighter, to gain some insight on arson fires for a novel, we spent a lot of time on Davenport’s St. Elizabeth’s fire. It wasn’t arson, just a bad one. Local newspapers had reported on it a couple of times since I moved to the area. When I needed a ghost story for a local contest I mixed that story with my SEE YA Book Club experiences—this is the result.

The Last Watch

By Mary Davidsaver

It was the best Halloween party ever. Totally awesome. So what if I got home after curfew? Way after midnight. It was worth it. Even with my dad going all parenty about it. Going on and on about responsibility and the honor system. I would do it again if I had the chance—and he knew it.

I braced myself for the grounding. The extra chores. The “no computer time.” He threw a curve instead. He told me to pull on some sweats and get my warmest coat on. We are going out.

“What? It’s, like, 2 a.m. I have school tomorrow. What about that responsibility thing you were just talking about?”

“This is important. I’ll write you a note.” He crossed his arms over his chest and stared me down. Sleeping in on a school morning that was sure to be a sugar-charged disaster had its appeal. I wouldn’t have any trouble catching up on homework tonight. I got ready to go out and met him in the car.

We drove through Davenport’s streets, past homes that were still lighted by Halloween decorations. I watched them go by without paying attention to where we were going, until we turned onto Marquette St. I guessed our destination would be the park and went back to staring at the passing scenery and sharing my dad’s stiff silence.

Instead of going into the park, we turned into the parking lot of Genesis Medical Center and parked in a remote corner.

I got out and followed along a couple of steps behind him hoping this would go fast. We’d meet up with whatever old loony pal he had up his sleeve, get my lecture, and then slide on back home. My warm bed was calling.

He stopped across the way from a small white building and checked his watch. “Not long now. He’ll show up at 2:40. Five minutes.”

“Ok, I’ll bite. Who are we waiting for?”

“Your great-grand father.”

I flashed on the old photo of me as a baby being held on his lap. I’m sure I was placed there for the photo op and then removed before I could do any damage to his suit. He looked ancient then.

I had to say the obvious, “He’s, ah, like, dead, isn’t he?”

“Oh, yeah.”

“And he’s going to show up here. Next to the hospital parking lot.”

“He does it all the time.” As Dad looked at me the creases in his face seemed to soften. “We’ve all been here. It’s a tradition. And now it’s your turn.”

“But why …?” My question trailed off as the ghostly form materialized a short distance away.

“Because your great-grandfather was a firefighter and this here was his worst fire. It haunted him throughout his life.”

I looked around at the neatly mown grass. “There’s nothing here,” I said.

He swept his hand out in a wide arc. “It’s all here. Graves over there. Sixteen of them. St. Elizabeth’s was back over there. It burned to the ground on the morning of Jan. 7, 1950. Forty-one dead. Forty female mental patients and one nun, a nurse, Anna Neal.”

The apparition drew closer and became more solid looking. My father politely addressed it. “Granddad. This is my youngest.”

I could make out the old-fashioned firemen’s uniform. The cap set at the proper angle on his head. He was all spit and polish as he studied me. Then a crooked smile of approval crept over his face.

My nerves were getting to me at this point. “Is he going to say something, you know, profound?”

“No, none of them speak.”

“Them?” I stammered. “There are more … like him?”

“Yes, firemen, second responders, nuns. They all come.”

When a nun showed up next to my great-grandfather, I was still at a loss to believe what I was seeing.

“Is that the nun who died in the fire?”

“No. She helped to identify the …” Dad couldn’t finish the sentence. I knew his meaning.

“She didn’t die in the fire. And great-granddad didn’t either.”

“None of them did.” More men and women appeared around us and shook their heads.

“Then why are they here? Where are the ghosts of the women who died in the fire?”

“They are safe now.” Dad said.

“I don’t understand.”

“These spirits watch over those women who died in the fire so they can rest easier. So they don’t have to come back into this world and re-experience the tragedy. Granddad was always a firefighter first, and he chose to stay with them, the victims—to serve and protect—forever.” Dad paused. “Now you know why there are so many firefighters in the family.” Dad rested a hand on my shoulder. “Not everyone is up to the job. It’s your turn to decide.”

Great-granddad led all the ghostly others: the firemen, the second responders, and the nuns back towards the graves. They held their heads high as they slowly faded into the night, to go on with their vigil.

Dad and I left. Dawn would come soon and there was school tomorrow. I think Dad was saying something about my getting some sleep. I knew I wouldn’t. I had too much to think about. I buried my hands in my pockets to warm them up. This was awesome. So totally worth it.

©copyright 2017 by Mary Davidsaver. All Rights Reserved. 

Friday, October 20, 2017

Becoming the Beta Reader

I've volunteered to act as a Beta reader and wanted to dig up the critique rules I was given in an old writing workshop. I found a blog post from May, 2014 instead. The thoughts on feedback and editing are still good. Here it is:

Constructive Criticism and Magic

I don’t think of constructive criticism as an oxymoron. Constructive comments as a term might sound less harsh. Better yet, feedback. Whatever you call it, it is invaluable for a writer seeking to improve skills and a story.

Writers need not fear revisions and rewrites. That’s where the magic happens.

I’ve recently gathered the confidence to let my novel out to a few trusted readers with the instruction, request actually, to give me comments and feedback.

Now, I have to wait and fret. I’ve spent the better part of four years building up to this point. If the consensus is totally negative, what can I do? Start completely over after investing so much? That will hurt. I’ve heard of writers doing just that. They put a bad manuscript in a drawer and go on to the next something else. Sadder, but wiser.

I suppose I could move on the next project. Check out writing websites for ideas. But I’d rather not. I still have high hopes for my Bishop Hill novel. I’d rather have constructive comments and ideas on how to make it better, to continue working within the framework of what I have already built.

When I took part in a novel writing workshop through the Midwest Writing Center in 2012, I had to come up with 30 pages of manuscript to share with the dozen other writers. I felt lucky to have those pages ready to go. Some of the other writers didn’t.

Amy Parker, a writer from Iowa City, led the group through the workshop process and set up these guidelines for us:

·        Read twice: first for pleasure, as with a “magazine read” and look for first impressions; second as a writer who marks up the manuscript to indicate the passages that delight, that confuse, that pose questions. In short, fill in the margins with comments.

·        Write a one page letter to the author. She wanted us to describe the story, what happens, and where we thought it was going. Readers can pick up on things the author may not have intended. We need to know what worked for the reader, what moved them, what they admired.

The goal was to get at what confused the reader. Where the story needed development, gaps filled, inconsistencies fixed, language clarified. What scenes that could be compressed or summaries that could be amped up.

I don’t expect my readers to go through a whole novel twice, but I am hoping for good suggestions for the next rewrite. After all, magic is a good thing.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Reviewing That Tough Book

Writing a book review can be challenging for a book that on first reading isn’t quite “your thing.” It’s so easy to find fault with a book, to pick it apart for grammar, spelling mistakes, and overall continuity. Taking some time, and a step back, to purposefully look for the POSITIVE elements can bring out a much better, and still honest, review.

That’s what I did for Reggie! Ringling’s First Black Clown.

I let myself get all up in arms when someone didn’t get Jerry Lewis’s name correct in a photo caption. I very nearly forgot to look at the book as a whole, complete work that had a lot more to offer than the editorial mistakes of the self-published volume.

Add to that the fact that my review would be the first one on Amazon and Goodreads put me into a much different position. I would be able to set a positive tone for a deserving book that needed a boost.

I went back and reread the preface. I found the information and therefore the balance I needed to write a much better and more accurate review. I’m glad I took the time. Here is my review:

Reggie! Ringling’s First Black Clown

This slim book covers a brief period in the life of Reginald Montgomery when, through chance and choice, he was in the crosshairs of history as a pioneer performer.

As the title says: He was the first African-American clown in a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus that was under new ownership at the time and willing to expand its frontiers. Those efforts were needed to adapt the circus, and probably save it, for the second half of the twentieth century.

Authors Hepner and Roseman piece together a narrative out of an autobiographical play, coauthored by Reggie and Hepner; biographical interviews of people who knew Reggie; and family history, complete with photos.

The action is kept mainly in the time frame of 1968-1969 when Reggie toured as a graduate of the first clown college. Background information about circus history, circus life, and current events are added as needed. 

What emerges is a poignant look at the struggles and triumphs of a talented young man who saw himself as a serious theatre actor first and foremost. 

Saturday, October 7, 2017

OMG: or the Adventure of Self-publishing

My foray into self-publishing really began with some little booklets I’d collected years ago and saved. My inspirations were small, cute, and inexpensive. (One used newsprint. Another contained only one short story. A free handout held a novel’s first chapter.) I thought I wanted to emulate them. Easier said than done, as I found out.

I had three wintery-themed stories saved up and self-edited to my satisfaction. (Christmas is always a safe season to start with.) I then found an editor to go over them for a final proofreading; I didn’t want to be embarrassed. (Yes, I paid her for her time. You don’t realize how much work this is until you do it yourself.)

I gave myself two weeks to learn how to format a book for CreateSpace … it took three weeks, maybe more. I got myself into such of a haze of confusion and discouragement that I lost track of the days I sat at my computer going down seemingly dead ends. The hazy mind came from trying to learn too many new things all at once with a deadline staring me in the face. (The deadline was of my own construction. I wanted a book by early November—a gift for Olof Krans’s birthday. Anyway, deadlines can become useful tools to shake out the procrastination cobwebs.)

The “too many new things” to learn pretty much all at once included the likes of: formatting rules, jargon, shortcuts, how to use my 2016 version of Word without bothering with tutorials, and not thinking about the end-product needing a decent, albeit simple, cover.

Will I get my finished book by the deadline? Probably not. Do I have a Plan B? Yes, it used to be Plan A before I decided to utilize CreateSpace.

Why CreateSpace? Because I wanted the full experience of self-publishing a book. (Even if it was a chapbook-sized book.) INDIE AUTHOR DAY is coming up at Davenport’s main library and I’ll be there. Becoming a real indie author seemed like a good idea. I also wanted an ISBN without paying $99. And, as it turns out, I happened into a way to design a cover that suited my purpose without a massive amount of hair-tugging exasperation. (Many thanks to my better half, the guy who can research the net faster than me.)

Here’s what have I learned so far: don’t take shortcuts, follow instructions (computers aren’t all that forgiving), video tutorials are only a beginning (at least for me), Word 2016 provides some good online help (if you look for it), and it isn’t necessary to learn it all for the first book (CreateSpace is pretty friendly for beginners). 

I will get my little book in time for this year's Christmas season. Then I might start thinking about what to do with the other seasonal stories I've got saved up ... maybe.