Playing God

Two orphans, Amara (11), a servant, and Tadpole (8), a reluctant and hunted royal, escape and find their way through the Gallic countryside to Britannia.

It’s a classic story, fun to write. So I wrote the whole thing, some 40 plus chapters, rewrote the first 12, sent it to Elaine the Reader, got it back, rewrote those chapters, then the next 12, and then stopped. That’s where I am now after several weeks (could it be six or more?) of realizing the kids got off too easily.

Real children don’t have it easy. Last week, three of my grandchildren came to live with me while their parents took a work vacation. Children argue, fight, like each other, joke around, tease, and get hurt. They try out independence. Jon (barely 9) reveled in riding his bike all around the far reaches of our desert acreage, forbidden territory until now for him. They cheat, too. Indoor hide-and-seek became a lesson in peeking, faking the count, changing hiding places, and helping the seeker when you weren’t supposed to.

They also made characters out of plastic clay and we took pictures. The children were not doubtful about the one that lost a leg and then an arm. “He fell down the cliff!” “He got run over!” These little guys (aliens of some sort) had a rough time in the desert but finally found a place to rest.

An author is the god of his/her world, decreeing choices and plot. If the characters are to have a chance of becoming real to the readers (and hopefully there are some), their lives have to follow a pattern that fits them. Often the author is surprised by their choices, but allows them their independence. If the plot and characters have been reasonably set up, then the surprises will strengthen the story and make it more believable.

During the six weeks of not writing, I came to realize I’d let my two orphans off too easily. I’m a protective mother and grandmother. I love Amara and Tadpole. Why would I put them in real danger? What would they do out there in the woods if one of them was badly injured or sick? How could I do that to them?
If they didn’t encounter real danger, there would be no reason to write about them, would there? Why read a fictional travelogue? To be meaningful and perhaps even memorable, they had to have conflict, work to resolve it, and emerge changed for the better.

I’m ready for it. Just a couple of projects to finish up at home and then I’m back to four or more daily hours at the keyboard, drowning, eating wild poisonous berries, losing the boat, and being attacked by this and that.

Bad Luck, Good Luck

I just got back from a week in Vancouver BC with middle daughter Alisa, Maya (6), and Sahana (1). Vivek was off on a business trip, so they wanted company. It was cloudy and drizzly, a comforting relief from the desert heat.

Bad luck – I can’t upload the picture of rhododendrons. They were in their glory with enormous, pink to purple blossoms. The upload page choked on “crunching” five times for I don’t know how long because I stopped trying after ten minutes.

Perhaps remembering the fun I had is why my brain malfunctioned on the flight to Seattle. I left the first 20 chapters of Amara (working title) in the seat pocket in front of me. I’d put the folder there for takeoff. It never came out. The flight was only a half hour, just enough time to chat with my seat partner about why so many travelers these days are grandmothers flying to our far-flung children.

I’ve just confessed to working on a printed version, stark evidence that I don’t have a laptop. I’m not against it. But The Amulet’s first e-version had an embarrassing number of errors simply because it’s harder for me to catch mistakes on the monitor than on paper.

It’s OK. Elaine, my “I’ll read the early version” volunteer, saved her comments and re-sent them to me. They are now tucked away in a safe file ready to be applied to version 1b, on screen or on paper.

Because I had no manuscript and thus no work to do on the flight to Ontario CA (that’s California, not Canada), I took out a copy of The Amulet and started reading it. I hadn’t looked at it for weeks, so it felt fairly new. Here’s my opinion: It’s a good book, not a world-changing masterpiece, but entertaining enough to warrant the time spent.

I hope that if you’ve read it and enjoyed it, you’ll pass the word along. I don’t always do that with books I’ve liked, but those authors have a wider audience than I have.

Text message alert! Maya just found a four-leaf clover right next to a dime! That’s got to mean a hundred times more good luck than finding a penny! Maybe she’ll send some of that luck grandma’s way. Or not. I was lucky enough just to be able to see her again.

Finally Done!

The Amulet, in both paperback and e-book, is officially for sale on Amazon now, with mistakes corrected and looking good. As for those who already bought the e-version, Amazon is deciding whether or not you can get a free “upgrade.” Why they don’t automatically upload the new version is beyond me.

If you have read it and liked it enough to recommend it to a friend, that would be great. If you didn’t like it, wait for the next one which isn’t a sequel but a parallel story.

To find The Amulet, go to Amazon and search for Victoria Paulsen. Thanks, everyone, for your support and patience!

First Draft Done!

Last Tuesday, 2/21/2012, I finished the first draft of Amara, the sequel to The Amulet.  Now I wait a few weeks before reading it through to see if it holds together at all well.  And then start the first revision.

I spent so many hours writing and researching almost every day, that at first I didn’t know how to handle the extra time I gained by finishing.

Fortunately, I got work calls, then the weather warmed and the garden called.  Weeks before, I had planted seeds – carrots and spinach.  Maybe it was Wednesday morning – no, I was subbing that day and Thursday, so it must have been Friday morning that I went out to check if the seedlings had come up and saw a little fat lizard in the middle of where I expected seedlings to sprout.

Hurrying inside, I googled about lizards in the desert and discovered that they’ll eat most anything, including seeds.  Aaarrrgh!  The netting over the garden bed probably deters the little critters and such who wander in, but nothing can keep a lizard out!

Saturday Thrim and I drove in to Barstow and went to Home Depot where he got cement to keep the new fence posts in place, at least the corner ones, and I bought spinach plants and a rosemary.  Giving up is a form of winning.  At least the result will be edible.

I’m including a picture of my violets which are blooming idiotically.  I first tried violets in Champaign IL where we lived for six years.  Our house had a south-facing windowed sunporch, perfect for violets.  This is the first time since then that I’ve had such good conditions, including an air-conditioned house.  Good results, right?

Researching Amara was so much fun!  Like hair coloring.  I needed the mixed-background Tadpole (mom northern Europe, dad northern Africa) to get his tightly curled light-brown hair darker.  Romans used boiled walnut shells!  One recipe said to add leek, probably as a fixative.  In calligraphy, we use walnut ink for a delicious dark-brown color, so it was a kick to find another use for it.  I need to address the running of the dye onto the boy’s face and Amara’s hands.  How easily is it removed?  How long does the hair retain the color, especially if the kids are boating on the river and getting wet?

Note for today:  Mix up some walnut ink with an onion and test it on my hands – and a tiny bit of hair.

A huge discovery for me was finding that the Loire river has its beginning about 80 miles south of Roanne, which is 54 miles west of Lyon.  The kids needed to escape somewhere, so I sent them west.  There’s also a Roman road going north from Roanne because the kids need to get to the port of Juliobone.  Web photos of Roanne show the Loire to be calm and wide, so I decided to put Optimus on the road and let the kids go by boat like people do now, when they rent barges to float down the river.

It’s odd to write “floating down” when you’re going north, because I always consider north to be “up” and south to be “down.”  The Nile always confused me – Upper Nile and Lower Nile flowing south to north.

I guess it’s like mountain ranges.  If you grow up with mountains going east-west, that’s how you know your directions.  Then if you move to where mountains go north-south, it takes years to unwind your instincts, so you are constantly getting lost.  It’s true.  I grew up with east-west and moved to north-south (Colorado).  It’s a wonder I ever got the kids to school (north) those first years.

Exclamation Points!

Amazon’s recent novel-writing contest accepted “only” 5000 entries.  Imagine!  Five-thousand people have written full-length novels they hope to have published.  Many more than 5000 did not enter the contest.  All these voices yearning to be heard!  All these men and women spending untold hours typing away on their computers far into the night and early in the morning, squeezing creative time into the corners of their busy days.  See the list of entries now pared to 2000 at

http://www.amazon.com/b?node=332264011

In the Young Adult category, the 1000 chosen to go on to the second round were mostly written by women, whereas in the General Fiction category, the split was more even.  With women writing them, YA books are geared more toward girls than boys.  Look through any book store and you’ll see the evidence – romance and fantasy for girls fill the YA shelves.  Could it be that girls are reading while the boys play video games?

Here are some titles, chosen at random, that made the 1000 YA cut – Black Myst, The Waters of Nyra, Light Dancer, Into the Hourglass.  They look like fantasy to me.  Probably others deal with teenage angst, boyfriends, and girl jealousy.  But they steer clear of graphic sex scenes, brutality toward women, and things like that which drive most adult fiction, especially that written by men.  Have you read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo?

This may be why women write YA novels.  We want to write and read about strong, independent, free-thinking girls who will become positive contributors to society after they go through all the scenes that the novelist throws at them.  (The too-popular Twilight series negates this argument, making some of us cringe at the implications of it.)

After my initial minor disappointment at not making the cut (The Amulet is historical fiction about a girl in the Roman empire, definitely not a winning subject), I went for a walk in my desert and found that I was absolutely glowing with joy knowing that thousands of women have been writing their books, just like I have, with no promise at all of ever reaching the millions of readers we dream about!

What oddly magnificent women we are!  Creative dreamers!  Not just dreamers, but dreamers who bring to pass the actuality of the dream!  Days, weeks, months after the dream begins, we find that the end has come.  We have written a staggering number of words, weaving them into a story that’s never been told by anyone in the whole history of the world!

For this achievement, no matter what the future of our stories is, we deserve exclamation points!!!!

It Began in Boulder, Colorado

Plato wrote,  “Lying is in general wrong, but it is permissible for the ruling classes to tell ‘white lies’ when it is for the benefit of society.”  [Greek and Roman Classics, by Meyer Reinhold]

In researching my novels which take place during the Roman empire (196-198 so far), I’ve found so many captivating and unexpected “Eureka!” moments like that quote from Plato, that I thought it would be fun to share them with others who are intrigued, but not fanatical, about the stories  commonly known as “history.”

Around twenty-five years ago, in Boulder, Colorado, I started writing a novel.  Every morning I would leave the house at 5:30 a.m., so early that the raccoons were still out searching through garbage cans, and walk three miles to work, arriving two hours before my actual job began.

I worked at JILA, a scientific institute at the University of Colorado.  It’s one of the best in the world, with a governing body of Fellows that includes physicists, chemists, astrophysicists, astronomers, and variations such as physical chemists and chemical physicists, and of course theorists who collaborate with all of them.  A really counter-intuitive thing is that the arrangement is half NIST

Me and two of the grandchildren
Me with Vancouver, BC, grandchildren

(U.S. Dept. of Commerce) and half University!  Administrative duties are divvied up between the two!  It works so well that numerous prestigious awards are common – Nobel Prizes, MacArthur “Genius” awards, Gold Medals, grants, etc.

Best of all, for me, was an atmosphere that allowed me to mold my administrative assistant job to fit me, rather than the other way around.  What a concept!  It was a great place to work.

The university let employees attend classes for free.  One year, I took Latin from a graduate student named Gerald.  The hardest class I ever had, but I loved it!

That class inspired me to find out more about the Romans, and eventually to write The Amulet .  It is about a young girl from Britannia whose actions help determine who will become emperor, Albinus or Septimius (196-197 AD).

I would write for two hours, then work for six or seven.  After work, I’d take the bus home, do the family things (three children and a baby), and then write for another couple of hours or so if I could.

With family traffic swirling around, I’d sketch out the next scenes by pen and paper on the dining room table.  In the morning, I’d take the notes in to transcribe and flesh out on the computer.  It amazes me now that none of the kids suffered from this compulsion of mine.

The book grew and grew until it was finally finished.  I sent it out to a few publishers and a few agents.  In those days before the Internet, big manila envelopes held manuscript pages and SASE envelopes for the inevitable rejection letters.

Discouraged, I put The Amulet away for 25 years until last year.  Gosh, it was embarrassing to read some of the passages I’d been so proud of before.  Not just one but several rewrites later, I sent it off to Elaine, a friend and poet who had also worked at JILA.  She helped enormously by finding things that didn’t fit, by asking questions, and by making suggestions about things like the care of horses and the spinning of wool.

We went back and forth for months until finally I thought The Amulet was ready.  So far, no agent has taken it up, but I’m writing the second book now.

Whatever happens, it’s exciting to keep finding correlations between the Romans and us.    They and the Greeks whose culture and literature they adopted – and adapted – are surprisingly relevant to our time.  Half of the expressions we use every day seem to be quotes from Plato or Sophocles or one of those guys.

I promise that you will enjoy what is coming!