A Dilemma

She opened her portfolio and turned to Martha’s picture. It had been hastily chosen, but it perfectly captured the image of the washerwoman Ziana had wanted. She held her hand over the image and said the word alive. Martha appeared in the room and without command, began cleaning the messy kitchen.

Next she found Jackson’s image, that of an old English gardener. Ziana brought him to life and sent him out to trim hedges and mow her expansive lawns.

She released Jacques and set him about preparing a fancy dinner for twenty. She loved watching him work. His arms flew with lightning speed as he chopped, diced, mashed and rolled. And his creations were divine.

Ziana was pleased with her life. From the time she was a small child she had been able to animate pictures. Her skill had been honed by a series of private tutors, the most recent being Suzanne, from the Illustrators Academy in Woodside. Suzanne taught her not just animation, but anything Ziana was able to learn. She wasn’t adept at all skills, but at many.

When she was of age, she enrolled in the academy where her progress was rapid. She graduated well before her peers and then was hired as an instructor, where she taught a variety of skills, but specializing in animation. She was happy in both her career and her abode, nestled deep in a wooded enclave in Woodside, California.

The one thing that Ziana had never been able to magic was a suitable boyfriend. Her first attempt was a strongman from an ad that appeared in the Sunday paper. He was handsome with blond hair and bulging muscles, but all he could talk about was cleaning products.

Her next boyfriend was a well-dressed man in a three-piece suit. His smile was seductive, and Ziana imagined herself falling into his arms. Unfortunately his repertoire was confined to the quality of the fabric, and limited to the fact that his clothing was made in America.

She had tried a race car driver, a politician, a late-night host and a singer whose voice gave her goosebumps, but all had failed miserably. These so-called boyfriends lacked depth, which Ziana yearned for in her life. She did not want a poster-man as a husband and father to her children.

And those children were important to her. She wanted them to be gifted like her, but to also be able to survive in the greater world. To be college professors or town mayors, engineers or even, well, yes, to be president. She knew what she liked in a man, but unless he was a living, breathing real-life person, she would never fulfill her dreams for herself and for the future of her magical world.

That left the employees of the academy as her only options. She had to marry someone who understood the importance of magic and who wasn’t repelled by its use. The man had to be able to speak about a variety of topics in order to hold her interest, but to capture her heart, he would have to focus on her and her many attributes.

To win that man’s heart, she created her people on this day, of all days. Tonight she was hosting the Spring Dinner, a formal affair for all those who resided in the academy’s private grounds. It was a time to see and be seen, to walk about her gardens and have private chats. To stroll arm in arm and fall in love.

Ziana wanted the stage to be perfectly set, so while her house was being cleaned, her yard trimmed and her food prepared, she brought forth a hairdresser she liked and a dressmaker whose skills she had used many times, who would add the finishing touches to her gown. She smiled, for in a way, she felt a little like Cinderella whose bidding was done by birds and animals and eventually by a fairy godmother.

Among the many who would come tonight, there were two men who she thought might do. James, who taught the art of growing things, was tall, slim and a tad handsome, but not gorgeous. He was intelligent, kind and patient, qualities which Ziana admired. And single. He was the one that all the single women lusted over, but Ziana had never seen him walk about with any of those women. She felt her chances were quite good to snare him.

But there was also Parker, the headmaster. He was recently widowed after the death of his wife of thirty years. He was a bit old, but still intellectually stimulating and not too bad looking, despite random hairs sprouting from his nose and ears and hair that was rapidly disappearing from the top of his head. The good thing about Parker was that he ran the academy with aplomb, not favoring particular students or skills, but rather treating all as equals. And he was rumored to be an old-fashioned romantic.

Once the house was in order, Ziana retired her helpmates, and called out three who would serve drinks, food and cater to the whims of her guests. She sent them off to a room reserved for staff, and had them dress in evening attire, black suits with crisp white shirts.

Her guests arrived in a flurry of excitement. The married ones brought spouses and the singles arrived either alone or in small clusters. There was much talk and after a few rounds of champagne, quite a bit of giggling.

Ziana began to panic when an hour had passed and neither Parker nor James had arrived. She asked a few of the guests about them, and found out that the two had last been seen going into the academy’s observatory, a room that only a select few had ever entered. Rumor had it that James was being promoted, but only if he could demonstrate mastery of invisibility, a skill that few ever attained. If completed, James’ repertoire would include all the major magic skills, making him the best candidate for headmaster whenever Parker retired.

While she waited and worried, Ziana flitted about. She kept an eye on her employees, correcting here and there when she found them lacking. She spoke with teachers about students, the caretakers about the condition of the academy’s many buildings, and the spouses about children that seemed to be appearing with alarming speed. One woman already had five kids, four of which had magical skills, and was soon expecting twins. Another had just given birth to her tenth, the most recent one being without talent.

Something was happening, but no one could explain. It used to be that magical parents had magical children, period. But over the past few years, change was robbing the community of talented heirs. Doctors had been crafted and scientists set to work, but so far none had been able to identify the cause nor stop the downward slide.

Ziana hoped to counter the trend. She knew that if she married either James or Parker, their kids would have the best possible gene pool. With their combined skills, they would represent the entire magical spectrum. Such power would counter whatever negative factor was destroying the future of the community. Or so she hoped.

When it was time for dinner to be served, Ziana had planned on seating James to her right, Parker on her left, but since neither had yet to arrive, she sat between too old teachers whose spouses were not in attendance, claiming fatigue and illness, but Ziana thought it was probably due to boredom. Too tired to keep on living, a symptom of the rising death rates of an aging population that wasn’t being rejuvenated by the young.

One of the teachers, Tabath, was a dour woman whose face was shriveled and covered with fine white hair. Her voice was grating, but her command of magic and her ability to teach was unparalleled. “Have you heard from James?” Tabath asked.

“No. Sorry, but I’m expecting him shortly,” Ziana replied.

“I’ve heard he’s going to take over next year,” Quinton, the dean of discipline, contributed. “That’s why the meeting tonight. To formally pass the baton, so to speak.” He winked at Ziana as he laid his hand on top of hers. Which she quickly removed.

“James would make a wonderful husband,” Tabath said as she leaned toward Ziana conspiratorially. “He’s kind, smart and dependable. Plus he’s handsome. Have you considered marrying him?”

“What? Why, no. I mean yes,” Ziana stammered. Before she could embarrass herself further, she arose and stood by the large window at the front of the mansion.

Just at that moment a limousine appeared, stopped, the chauffeur jumped out, ran around and opened the door. Ziana smiled as first Parker, then James emerged. Both straightened their tuxedo jackets, then walked in tandem to the front door.

Ziana greeted them both with a handshake, saying, “I’m glad you made it, but dinner has already been served. I can have the staff heat up plates for you, if you like.” She escorted the men to the dining room, where they were heartily greeted by a round of upheld champagne glasses and shouts of “Hoorah” in rather drunken tones.

“Parker, please sit here,” she said as she showed him an empty seat next to Stephen, a large, sweaty man who oversaw the academy’s grounds. “James, take this spot,” which just happened to be between two married, but not on speaking terms, teachers.

Ziana sauntered to the head of the table where she stood until silence filled the room. “Ladies and Gentlemen, I am pleased that so many of you were able to come this evening. Together we are the most talented magical community. Our combined skills are incomparable anywhere within the state. In fact, most likely anywhere in the world. It is with great pleasure that I present Parker Masterson, our headmaster.” And then she sat.

Parker stammered a bit, seemingly embarrassed by the hoopla. He raised his glass, saying, “To my coworkers and friends. May we be blessed by many happy years of magical living.”

When the meal was over and the table cleared, the guests moved into the back gardens, where they split into small groups as they meandered through the beautifully blooming flowers. Ziana walked side-by-side with Parker and James. “So, how did your meeting go?” she asked.

“Pleasantly,” James said.

“We think we have a solution to our problem,” Parker said. “Our scientists have found an increase in lead in our water supply. After much testing, they have decided that lead is damaging our children. That it is robbing them of their full potential.”

“Oh, dear,” Ziana said. “What can we do about it? Doesn’t our water come from the reservoir that feeds the city? So it isn’t just affecting us, but the nonmagical community as well.”

“True,” James said. “But there is a solution that only people with our talents can handle.”

“Yes,” Parker said. “We will construct a filtering system that will remove lead before it is able to enter the reservoir. For the nonmagical community, it would be cost prohibitive, but for us, it is quite simple.”

“How so?” Ziana asked.

James touched her lightly on the arm and turned her toward the maze in the center of the yard. “We create it. Just like you create people and I create plants and buildings.”

“The scientists have given us a design. All we have to do is magic it into being,” Parker said. “I’ve put James in charge of the project. It will be a good test of his ability to manage and direct groups of people both inside and outside of our community.” At that Parker bowed, saying, “I’m sorry, my dear, but I must go. There is much to be done in preparation. Besides, you two lovers must have time alone.” With a wink, he left.

“Lovers?” Ziana sputtered. “What did you tell him?”

James smiled. “Nothing. He’s an emotions reader, remember? Besides, would it be so awful if we were a couple?” He touched her on the arm and led her to a stone bench near a bubbling waterfall.

Ziana smiled. “You’re right, I suppose. But first and most importantly, did Parker appoint you to take over as headmaster?”

James frowned. “Is it that important to you that you must know my status before we could date?”

Ziana thought for a moment before answering. She liked James, found him both attractive and intellectually stimulating, but could she love him? Marry him? Live with him forever and bear his children? “I…I don’t know. It’s important, yes. I want my husband to be powerful within the community. To be able to travel between worlds and be influential in both. But I also want to be in love.”

James brought her hand to his chest. “Feel the beating of my heart,” he said. “It pounds a love song for you. But no pressure. I will build this filtration system and then I will ask again.”

After all the guests were gone and the workers put to rest, Ziana slid into bed. She considered the challenge that she had given James. It was demanding, but honest. She knew that Parker could do these things, but he had shown no interest in her. Among the remaining staff, there was no one but James who Ziana considered worthy. Maybe that made her arrogant, but she wanted future children to have the best chances for being born with tremendous talent, and that meant James.

Time passed with no word from James. Children were conceived and born. Marriages performed. Houses built and the academy expanded to include a more modern science lab that competed with the nonmagical ones at universities and research centers around the world. And in all that time, Ziana waited and watched.

Parker retired. James took over. The filtration project long completed, lead no longer polluted the reservoir. No longer were children born without skills and the magical world was sound.

Ziana still dreamed of love, but time had not been kind to her. Despite creating the best physical trainers possible, her body had unaccountably shifted. She was no longer slim and trim, but matronly. Her hair would have been gray if not for the hairdressers she created from advertisements. Thanks to designers she found in magazines, her clothes were modern and stylish. But her life was empty.

All was well except that James had found love when a new teacher moved in a few years ago. Ziana wasn’t worried, for Sharone, a lithesome dark haired beauty from Nevada, was severely lacking in talent. But Sharone had lured him in. They married and had a gifted child. A son, who was expected to be the most powerful creator in the history of the magical world.

This was the son who should have been Ziana’s if only she had not been so diffident. So determined that James show his worth. She had thrown away her only chance for love. She had only an empty house to look forward to, to spending her days creating whoever she needed, whenever she needed them, to teaching at the academy, and to looking dreamily whenever James passed by.





Conference Take-aways

February 16-19 I attended the San Francisco Writers Conference at the Mark Hopkins Hotel. It was a sold out event, with hundreds of “wannabe” authors as well as established publishers, authors, agents, editors and author coaches.

There were many interesting sessions, in fact, too many for one person to attend.

I took notes, so as to remember the bits and pieces of advice given. Following are those things that seemed most important.

  1. Creative nonfiction is now called narrative fiction. Memoir falls into this category. The nice thing about the title change is that it allows for the recalled essence of dialogue that most likely took place.
  2. Book Club fiction are those pieces that inspire discussion and tends to appeal to women readers. Think JoJo Moyes. Commercial fiction are titles that appeal to a wide range of reader. Think Gone Girl.
  3. In terms of what agents want to see and don’t want to see, here are a few tips:
    1. No prologues or epilogues for debut authors. They feel this is “a lazy way to jump start tension”
    2. No first lines of dialogue.
    3. Skip flashbacks altogether unless there is something about the memory that adds to the emotional history of a character.
  4. Be careful about including diverse characters unless you are well informed about the particular group. For example, when including an African-American character, verify with a trusted source to make sure that you are not typecasting or stereotyping. Avoid writing in dialect unless you are very familiar with that dialect, and it is important to the essence of the story.
  5. Within each scene, look at how the flow of time is reported. How much time has elapsed? But avoid terms such as “three days later”.
  6. Within scene, also be aware of change. In each segment, there must be a starting place and then an ending place, and change must have occurred. There is external change, in which a character moves from one place to another. Internal change is the most powerful, as this lets the reader see how it impacts the character.
  7. When editing, it nothing is happening in a scene, no forward movement, no choice-making or risk-taking, then delete.
  8. Characters should behave in a logical way, unless strange behavior is part of the character’s M.O. People come to story to see logical human behavior, verified with an underpinning of evidence. Must believe that the character is a living human being. People do stupid things all the time. Readers question what in their lives forced them to act that way.
  9. Be watchful for the “dreaded middle”, which is the part of a scene where things get too slow. When this happens in your work, cut the scene or condense it into another. Ask yourself if the scene needs dialogue or action. Make it fast and punchy to keep readers engaged. Introduce a new obstacle that must be surmounted.
  10. Make sure there are no passive characters. Empower them by putting them in situations that force them to take action.
  11. Avoid dreams, waking up and overheard conversations.
  12. Your villain, whether it be a person or a force, needs to arrive early.
  13. Create a history for each character before you write the first scene. Know who your character is, what he/she wants, what motivate him/her, and when confronted with a problem, does the character feel trapped or betrayed.
  14. When writing an emotional scene, try to channel that emotion before beginning. Feel the anger or the hurt. Remember what falling in love feels like.

I hope these tips help!


What I Hope to Get Out of Conferences

Today is the first day of a major conference in San Francisco. I will have the opportunity to sit in a variety of seminars, all geared for the “wannabe” writer.

There are sessions on publishing, which I’m nowhere near needing, to beginning the first novel, which hopefully I’m long past.

On one of the days I can sign up for a free eight minute session with a publisher, author coach or editor. Last year I met an author coach who read my entire manuscript, for a fee, and helped clean up the rough edges.

I also had eight minutes with an editor, who used more ink deleting sentences than I had used printed them. It was terrifying to watch her pen zipping around my page!  I did not hire her.

This year I am going to meet with a different editor and see how that goes. I realize that my novel is a bit lengthy, so I’m sure there are places where scenes can be eliminated or condensed, but I hope that there is much to be saved.

There will be guest speakers who are all published authors. I’m to the point now where I’ve heard so many success stories that I’m not sure I want to hear any more, but there might be something to be gleaned.

The best part of the next four days will be the opportunity to mingle with agents. Last year I met six who wanted me to send them a query. Of those, only one requested more information. Eventually she turned me down.

What I hope is that there is one who will be interested enough in my book to want to publish it. Not a small wish, but it’s that main reason that I spent the money to register and will travel by BART and cable car to the conference.

My dream is to one day walk into a bookstore, or log on to Amazon, and see my book. What an amazing thing that would be!

Keep your fingers crossed that I will learn the secrets to success, hear something that will open the door to publication, meet the right editor and agent, and that all will be good.


Mic Mistakes

I’ve been singing in my church choir for a number of years now. When  I first began I was a practically silent member because I was terrified to sing loud enough to be heard. I feared being off-key or hitting the wrong notes and so would stand out.

Those fears are not irrational because I have no formal music training. I remember being enrolled in a junior high music class, but we didn’t learn how to read notes. All we did was sing old-timey songs like “The Erie Canal” that made no sense to a young child.

I’ve always loved music. In high school I bought a portable radio and took it everywhere with me. If we were picnicking or visiting relatives, it was on. Only in the privacy of my room did I sing aloud, primarily because my father told me I couldn’t carry a tune. But I loved the way the words moved me, the way the melody carried me away in its wake.

Our church had a choir and so I was able to sing along, enriching the experience for me. But I was terrified to join. When I worked up the nerve to go to a rehearsal, I expected to be laughed out of the room. When it didn’t happen, I became emboldened and returned week after week, but not singing louder for I was learning how the rise and fall of notes carry the melody.

Things went well at first. There were about five of us who showed up on a regular basis. All of the others were experienced singers, most with formal training. I attempted to blend in and not destroy the music. But one Sunday morning none of the others came. It was just me and the pianist. At first I felt like sitting in the pews with the congregation. When the choir director smiled at me and told me I could do it, I stood there and gave it my besteffort. I know I flubbed some words and notes, but I survived.

After a six year hiatus, I recently returned to the choir. Maybe it’s my age, but I’ve made some major mistakes. I’ve sung the wrong lines for verses until I realized what I was doing. Instead of singing “desert and wasteland will bloom” I sang waistband. More than once. When I realized what I had done, my knees weakened and I felt a blush creep up my neck. I listened for snickers from the congregation, but either they didn’t hear or they were too polite to laugh.

I came back the following week, determined to get all the words right. Unfortunately the director cranked up the mics, so every little thing I did wrong blasted back at me. I sang rhyming words instead of the right one. I got lost and mumbled, but pretended that I knew what I was doing. I thought about quitting, thinking that I was destroying the holiness of the moment, but I keep coming back. Maybe I’m a glutton for punishment, or maybe at my age I’m already starting to lose my faculties, but I’m determined not to give up.

I am a natural alto, but I’ve been singing the melody, which is for sopranos. My choir director decided I should sing the alto parts in the worship music. To help myself, I record the part during rehearsal and go over it, again and again before church. The song begins, I sing, but when we come to my part, I fabricate notes.

This past Sunday I didn’t think my mic was working. I sang louder, thinking maybe the  sound level was turned down. That was a huge mistake for several reasons: my voice cracked, I ran out of breath and I had a hard time hitting the right notes. After Mass I found out that the mic wasn’t working. What a relief!

Despite all the stupid things I do, the choir director hasn’t asked me to leave. I’m sure I’ll substitute more words and hit more wrong notes. But I’ll keep singing anyway.