Back in the early 80s I worked as a cook at Coffeehouse Extempore on the West Bank of the University. I cooked dinners and baked brownies and cookies praised on air by Garrison Keillor. I lived off Franklin Avenue not far from where the Light Rail runs these days, close enough to walk home after work if I took my short-cut behind the high rise complex and cutting across some railroad tracks onto a quiet back street.
Late one Saturday night after work I had just crossed the tracks onto the side street when I noticed a tall, dark man following behind me. He soon caught up to me and announced, “I’ve got a gun.”
I didn’t actually see a gun, which I may have noted unconsciously. Consciously I was mostly aggravated that this guy would choose to mess with me. I turned and put my fist on his heart and started lecturing him about treating women with respect.
Eventually he shook my hand. I offered him some of the chocolate treat I was bringing home with me. I was surprised to hear he had wanted to rob me. If I’d had any money would I be walking when I might’ve called a cab? At any rate, I made my way home from there on an adrenalin high.
On another occasion I was at a party with friends, but grew tired and bored and decided to walk home rather than wait around for a ride. It meant walking down Franklin Avenue at an hour when the bars had recently closed. The night air was refreshing, but the loneliness of the street started to make me nervous. I started thinking about self-defense, and the little knife I carried.
The knife had a cloisonné sheath and hilt and was far more decorative than practical, but I realized that the reason I thought of it as a defense was because of my fear. And I asked myself how a potential attacker would react if I threatened him with my knife. (If he didn’t just laugh), he might be at least a little fearful of being cut. And if my fear made me prone to violence, adding more fear to the equation wasn’t likely to make things better. So I tucked my little knife away.
I was still only a few blocks from home when I noticed a group of three large, (larger than me anyhow) drunk guys walking down the other side of the street, approaching me. They were loud-talking and one of them had a baseball bat and banged it against the occasional sign post and trash receptacle. They crossed the street to start following behind me.
Just as they came close, I turned and tapped out a drum-beat on the side of a newspaper-dispenser, turned to the guy walking ahead of the others and started telling him about a music video I’d seen recently, in which a drummer used his sticks to ‘play’ the street like a set of drums. He played against the street, mail-boxes, sign-posts, etc. Very cool. (If not exact video, something similar: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TND-LQBRHow)
When we’d established conversation, the guy asked about walking with me, but I told him I just wanted to go home – alone. He and his friends turned back and went off the way they’d originally been going.
My sister, Jolie was born on June 29, 1959? – when I was four years old, five, come September. I had already adjusted to two younger siblings, David and Melanie, who were just old enough to be getting interesting, so the new infant didn’t make a huge impression – other than the tininess of her fingers and toes. It’s always amazing to see how tiny an infant’s digits can be.
As we three older siblings played together, Jolie learned to get around by scooting on her diapered butt, not crawling until she could already toddle. By the time Jolie turned two we, her elders, ranging in ages from four to six, were not terribly responsible care-takers of our little sister, who our working mother sometimes left us to look after. Jolie managed to get into some rat poison she found under the refrigerator and had to have her stomach pumped. A few years later, when we got tickets to the Shrine Circus, we somehow lost track of her in the crowded aisles and are lucky the adults were able to track her down.
She was always a couple years behind, two years behind Melanie, four or five years behind me. David was closest in age to me, with Melanie close behind him and we three had more to do with each other than with our tag-along little sister. But Jolie did tag along. She was there during all our improvised games, our squabbles over choosing tv-shows and grabbing the front seat in the car or the best chair in front of the television, and whose turn it was to do the dishes. I only later learned how much she observed in her mostly background role. It only later occurred to me that she looked up to me as any kind of example, or that she might have appreciated more of my attention.
As eldest, I might have had an inflated sense of my own importance, but it never occurred to me that my good opinion had any importance to her. (Or to our two youngest siblings, Jon and Rea who came along after her.) I was a child then and some of these things only become clear as we gain the perspective of years. It probably didn’t help that, as eldest, the younger siblings were often presented to me as duties, responsibilities for me to watch over – not so much the playmates David and Melanie had been.
The years between us were always a barrier. I went away to college for four years and wasn’t there when our parents separated. Jolie stayed in Bloomington with Dad to finish high school while half the siblings went with Mom to Washington DC for her job as a lawyer with the Navy. I was fully absorbed in my studies and my interests in science-fiction and fantasy books, and Star Trek and Kung Fu and the arts and philosophy and the future of Mankind. I didn’t think much about the family now scattered between Minneapolis and DC, but always trusted them to be well and to be living their lives as decent, intelligent people.
Jolie and I lived very separate lives. In retrospect, I’m sorry I didn’t spend more time with her, get to know her better as she became a young woman and a creative writer* and a mother. *Jolie was a posthumous winner of the Minnesota Book Award.
As it was, I was very impressed with her strength, capability and courage in taking on the role of single mother. As a struggling artist, I found it challenging to take care of myself, let alone take responsibility for a helpless child too. Jolie excelled as a mother; and I think did a good job of relating to her children as people with hearts and minds of their own (as opposed to some sort of extension of herself). It probably helped that she had only two rather than six of them.
Because of her interest in creative writing, I felt that we did, nonetheless, have something in common, including a common sense of the importance of the arts in creating meaningful lives. Of all the siblings, I felt that she and I had the most in common with our artist father, a kind of unspoken understanding among us of the importance of things not spoken.
Thank heavens I do not live in Hawaii and have not had my home swallowed by molten lava – and my heart goes out to those who are dealing with that kind of devastation.
But I have been dealing with one of life’s most stressful events: moving house. It all came together suddenly, despite my having been condo-hunting for months. I’d about given up hope of finding anything – after making three offers on three different places (and looking at many more) and having every property snatched up ahead of me by investors making cash offers above the asking price. (Janette, my realtor found out that these investors were going after every affordable condos in hopes of turning a profit with them through Air BnB.)
I’d gone so far as to tell my apartment manager at the end of March that I expected to sign up for another six-month’s lease at the end of May. I wasn’t happy about that. What prompted me to start my hunt for a condo in the first place was the new management of the apartment complex raising my rent twice in the last year. And a new lease would mean yet another rent increase.
So, in the third week of April when Janette and I found a place with potential, Janette recommended I write a personal letter to the sellers, explaining the situation with Air BnB investors, and how I was just looking for a place to make a home along with my athletic cat, Rajesh, who needed more room to run.
Thankfully, the letter made a difference to the sellers. The condo had belonged to the wife’s mother before she went into a nursing home, and they liked the idea of it going to someone who’d appreciate it more as a home than as an investment.
Suddenly I had an offer accepted! My goal turned immediately to closing on the mortgage and moving in to the new place by the end of May. That required a scramble on the part of Wendy, my mortgage banker, and if I had fully understood how much of an effort it would take on my own part, I might have put it all off for another month – I just couldn’t stand the idea of paying the apartment owners their outrageous month-to-month rate. (Another $130 on top of the increased rent).
Between my 40hr/week day job and keeping daily life going for me and Rajesh, I packed and planned and completed an online course necessary to qualify me for some down-payment assistance.
I arranged for transfer of the Xcel Energy account, and attempted to arrange transfer of internet service, the result being that CenturyLink cut off service early and couldn’t restore it in any timely way and my attempt to save money by buying my own modem, one that turned out to be incompatible with my old computer, all resulted in my having no home internet service for ten days before moving and a full week after moving. (Until I got a Wireless USB adapter and made a bunch of calls and finally got the new service working. But I get ahead of myself.)
Closing was set for May 25th. I arranged for people to come on the 26th and rip out the carpeting from the condo and arranged for wood laminate flooring and the help of my Hero, my brother Jon, to install it. (Let me just say, carpeting and asthma do not mix well for me.)
I arranged for movers to come on the 30th, and friends to help on the 29th in moving computer equipment and musical instruments best handled gently. I expected to return to the old place on the 31st to do some final clean-up. If only things had gone as smoothly as planned.
Well, they did at first. The closing went smoothly on the 25th. The carpet was expeditiously ripped out on Saturday the 26th – and in less time than quoted – by a pair of Somali men who were observing Ramadan, so I couldn’t even offer them refreshment. I gave the hard working team a bonus. The wood laminate boards were delivered that same afternoon with only a little angst, when the store couldn’t find a record of the sale or delivery arrangements after I called them, wondering about the delivery time.
The boards had to sit and acclimate for a couple days, so I spent Sunday packing, and on Memorial Day, Jon and I started by picking up some of my artwork he’d had stored in his garage, and going first to the Veteran’s Cemetery to visit the graves of our father and his father. Dad was an artist, so I brought a pinwheel to place beside his little flag in honor of his creative spirit.
I had intended that laying the flooring would be a two-person job, but Jon had more experience (and the big chop-saw for board-cutting) and his plan had him doing most of the actual work. I was happy enough to take on a supporting role and run out for hack saws and wood glue and such, but the long and short of it is that laying the floor turned out to take a couple days longer than my plans had accounted for. Jon had to return to his day job and stop back in the evening on Tuesday (which I spent packing, having used vacation time to take the whole week off for the move.) Half the bedroom was still to be done on Wednesday the 30th when the movers came.
This meant that things intended for the bedroom were stacked in the main room. This pushed other things closer together. The piles of boxes grew higher. To add to the fun, Moving Day was the hottest May weather in recent history. It reached over 100 degrees in Minneapolis. The hot weather didn’t seem to slow the movers down; they did a champion job of hauling what was ready to haul
Unfortunately, I had vastly under-estimated the time it would take to do the final packing of the kitchen and bathroom. In the end there was a lot the movers couldn’t take because it was unpacked and they’d run out of the bins they could pile loose items into. I tried not to despair and tipped them as generously as I could.
By the 31st I was frantically pulling together what remained, as best I could. I had given up on the idea of cleaning up after myself (I wouldn’t be getting my deposit back in any case, as they wanted two months’ notice and I’d only given them one). I was prepared to abandon what I couldn’t pack. I spent the whole day rescuing and boxing what I could manage and still more remained – including arts & craft supplies, sketch books, personal papers along with the contents of kitchen cupboards.
It was June 1st and I had to return the keys to apartment management, but first made one more visit to rescue what I could. A wonderful friend, Liz came to help and in the end we got most of it. I was prepared to abandon the heavy glass jars full of dried beans, split peas, etc., and the heavy glass-jug water dispenser, and was happy to give them to her when she expressed interest. Even after clearing the old apartment, it took a couple more days before we had everything offloaded from both our vehicles at the new place. By the time we did, I felt like I was living in a disaster zone among all the piles of boxes (mostly books – but also a lot of arts&craft supplies). But Rajesh seems happy enough climbing the mountain and has found a favorite perch for himself at the very top.
In the midst of the chaos, I got a call from my supervisor on the day job, who told me our security company has lost the contract at the place I’ve been working for nearly four years – and a new company is taking over – but dealing with that is a story for another time.
Two weeks into June and I’m still living with a considerable pile of unpacked boxes (there’s not much time for other activities while back on the day job and I’ve had to deal meanwhile with the internet situation and car issues and the hunt for alternate employment.) But I have been pecking away at it, and can foresee how nice a place it will be when everything is finally squared away.
Recent political talk of a border wall has me thinking about walls in general.
My primary experience of walls comes from years of living and working in buildings composed of walls supporting a roof. Houses and apartments buildings, schools and offices, mainly.
I’m in favor of the sort of wall that protects me from the elements. Residing in Minnesota, there are periods during the year when the cold climate alone is enough to kill an unprotected person. Walls can hold in enough man-made warmth to help us all survive the winter. It’s more about keeping that precious warmth in than keeping anything out – but the walls also keep out the wind and snow, the rain and hail – and block the sun during the stifling heat waves of summer.
There aren’t a lot of wolves, bears or cougars wandering around my part of the world these days, but walls would exclude these predators too.
There are human predators as well, but humans are often clever enough to find their way past the walls that would stop a wolf or bear, and I’d personally recommend social solutions to social problems that lead some people to prey on others. (Another topic for another time.)
There’s a lot to be said for walls. Walls and a roof allow me to keep my precious books and papers dry. They give me a quiet refuge from the noisy traffic of the streets, a place to sleep where I won’t be disturbed by passing strangers – or predatory ones.
Walls in this sense are all about choices. What do we choose to keep close, to protect and harbor? What do we choose to exclude? And why?
Different spaces serve different purposes. A home is a space to harbor family and pets; many people open their homes to friends as well, at least from time to time. Some say ‘drop in any time – and mean it. Others plan the occasions. Some people take in boarders, some are more reclusive. Apartment buildings and hotels offer more or less temporary refuges to larger numbers of people than a single-family home could accommodate.
Charitable groups offer sheltering walls to those who can’t provide housing for themselves. More charitable societies embrace the cause of making sure shelter exists in quantity adequate to the need, for those who can pay compensation and for those who can’t.
We build walls to shelter our domestic livestock: barns for cows and horses, sheds for chickens and sheep and goats, nurseries and greenhouses to shelter plants. We build walls to protect our tools and machines: tool sheds and garages.
Some walls enclose business places: offices and factories that are dedicated to particular purposes and are open to the people who help fulfill those purposes while remaining closed to those who don’t.
We build walls to protect people, animals, objects and functions that we care about and that may be vulnerable to damage if left unprotected. We build walls because we care about the well-being of all these people, animals, objects and purposes. We build walls in the interests of caring for and protecting them. We build walls because we care.
There are public spaces like libraries and civic centers enclosed by walls, but open to the public – at least for certain hours and events. Market places, parks and streets are open spaces that serve the interest of a community by establishing venues where people of all sorts can come together to do business, interact, share common interests and travel from place to place.
It would be counter-productive to build a wall across a busy highway. But people do put up toll booths or border inspection posts. Walls and fences are also used to delineate the boundaries defined by legal and political interests.
When we attempt to shut some populations out of our public market places, what are we choosing? Do we imagine that one population includes only predators and criminals and so seek to exclude that element by excluding everyone else who bears some superficial characteristics in common with them? Do we see only competitors and rivals for our limited resources, and imagine that newcomers would have nothing to contribute? Are the available resources as limited as we might suppose? Are we excluding potential customers, helpers, friends, teachers, students, craftsmen or entertainers?
A border wall built for purposes of excluding one group of people from territory claimed by another group is a matter of political dispute – and if nothing else, a debatable use of the massive funds and resources it would take to build such a wall – especially considering how clever humans can be at circumventing walls. Might the energy and resources be better spent looking for ways to meet the needs of all concerned?
What’s had me too busy to write a blog lately? As of January, I’ve requested and received rights reversion on all my titles published through Champagne Books and Kensington’s Lyrical Press. I regained my rights to the stories, but not any rights to the cover art the publishers had supplied.
That was okay by me. Those original covers might be of professional quality, but they lacked any cohesive, branded look – at least within a series, and most of them seemed too generic to give potential readers a real clue as to what to expect from the stories.
For instance, the cover of Spirited showed a blonde woman running in a night-time desert setting. Never mind that she showed a closer resemblance to one of the antagonists than to the heroine – there was nothing in the image to tell the reader that the hero of the story was a magical djinni – a feature that distinguishes this story from the majority of other urban fantasy/paranormal romances.
If a reader were actively looking for a romance featuring a djinni, there was nothing on that cover to let them know this book fit the bill.
The Team Guardian novellas involved members of a near future crime-fighting team composed of people with super human powers – yet nothing on the covers pointed to the presence of special powers, or the superhero nature of the characters. Some readers reported taking the covers as ordinary contemporary romances. I enjoy a good contemporary romance, but these are not that. Readers looking for contemporaries would have been disappointed; readers looking for superhero romances might not have guessed they’d find them behind these covers.
The novellas were all related, but their covers had no unified or cohesive look to them.
Wonder Guy’s original cover suggested a superhero – but missed the element of magic and the whimsical tone of the story that are among its key features.
In short, everything I’d had published needed new cover art.
Creating new cover art for the Team Guardian stories represented a challenge. My first thought was to go for a ‘comic book’ look. I started with Sweet Mercy. I liked the colors of the original cover a lot, though the character shown was presented as much more vampish than the story’s heroine – a yoga-practicing empath whose power to project serenity and compassion could tame evil doers.
My first attempt at a comic-book-style cover was too simplistic and for one critic too dark. The complaint was that it conveyed ‘horror’ or suspense more than romance.
I added a male companion beside the female caped hero, but the whole graphic style still seemed wrong.
More feedback told me my next, more realistic effort looked ‘home made,’ too blurry, with unprofessional typography.
I tweaked the art, sighing at letting go of the ‘painterly’ background effect I liked that had come across as ‘blurry,’ going for a clear, night cityscape, and trying out several fonts for a combination that looked professional and could work across the set of three novellas. I finally came up with versions that fit the bill.
I had never liked the cover of the Team Guardian omnibus volume, featuring postage-stamp-sized versions of the three original covers slapped onto a plain black background. The one thing I did like about the cover was the addition of a logo for the Team.
Because of copyright issues, I came up with my own version of a team logo for the new covers and used it on each one to help tie the series together visually.
For the new omnibus cover, I borrowed a panel-effect from the comics genre, taking slices of art from each of the new covers for the novellas, and framing them against the night skyline of Minneapolis – the main setting of all the team’s adventures. I stuck with a modest Century Schoolbook font for the title and used the same cross-series font Naomi Stone now gets on all her covers.
Spirited was a stand-alone book (not to say there might not be followers to come). The story is rated ‘R’ and the hero is a powerful djinni – therefore a bare-chested djinni on the cover gives the potential readers some idea of what to expect. But the first attempt at a new cover got more negative than positive reactions on Netgalley – even from a reviewer who loved the story itself. Feedback was vague. The art was among the batch labeled ‘blurry:’ another of my attempts at a painterly effect that didn’t make the cut. For a revised version, I used hi-res source art and multiple layers of background effects to replace an overly abstract attempt at indicating time travel by a fade between a modern cityscape and an ancient desert. The new background emphasized the magical powers of the hero.
The font choice for the title was the one element I’d retained from the original cover. I now de-emphasized its drop shadow for a subtler effect and for author name chose a simple sans-serif font that could carry across my various series to bring uniformity in author branding.
I did some further tweaking after a few more comments and lengthened the djinni’s ‘tail’ of smoke and made the tagline text more legible.
This brings us to the set of Fairy Godmothers’ Union stories. Wonder Guy is the only novel in the bunch (yet – I’ll tell you later about my plans for future books). Originally, Wonder Guy was published by Lyrical Press. I signed the contract over to Kensington Books when they acquired Lyrical as their digital-first imprint.
I liked the concept of showing a man as he transformed to a superhero – but not this man, who wore a business suit! Greg, the hero of the story, is a geeky grad student described as wearing t-shirts printed with physics or math-based jokes – something like you might see on The Big Bang Theory. And there was nothing tying this cover to its Fairy Godmothers’ Union series or suggesting the link between superhero powers and fairy godmother magic.
During the brief period between Lyrical’s buy-out and my signing with Kensington, I designed my own version of the cover… though recently, I decided I wanted something that did even more to suggest the fantastical nature of the story.
Meanwhile, the Fairy Godmothers’ Union story collections needed a remake as well. The original covers were very abstract. At first I wanted to stay somewhat abstract. I thought close-ups of roses would suggest romance and sparkly light-effects would suggest magic, and I would frame the covers alike to tie the series together. I liked the effect well enough but got a lot of negative feedback on it, and I realized that they had a point about the typography being illegible at smaller sizes – and I realized that while the look might fit short story collections, it wouldn’t carry across to the novels I have in mind for future inclusion in the series.
Sigh for the roses – especially the large bunch of cream-colored blooms used for the cover of the brand new omnibus edition incorporating all the Fairy Godmothers’ Union stories to date.
I needed something that did more to convey modern fantasy fairy tales.
I did a lot of browsing of covers through Amazon’s Top 100 in related categories and got a good sense of what was selling. The new cover art for Granted Wishes is the result – and I just love it.
It’s been much longer than I realized since I posted here. A lot has been happening. The politics of the wide world has been distracting. Life has been distracting.
In addition to the sad loss of Tigger, my companion for sixteen years, I suffered a few personal disappointments during the year.
I finally completed ‘Thanksgiving,’ (Yay!) the first novel of my Holiday Enchantment series and submitted it to Kensington Books according to the contract giving them the option on it. After long last they replied, reporting that they liked the series concept and the writing, but they declined the book because they have trouble selling ‘that kind of fantasy.’
Of course that left me wondering what the hell they meant by ‘that kind of fantasy.’ Okay; admittedly, it’s hard to classify. Not sexy enough to be a standard romance novel, too romantic to be an urban fantasy, too weird to be anything else. It wasn’t until my critique partners gave me feedback on the early chapters of the next book in the series that I was told I was writing Magical Realism. And even that didn’t seem quite right… more like Modern Fairy Tales. Or something in between.
So, disappointed, but undaunted, I spent the following months seeking more feedback from beta readers, revising and tweaking, and engaging in an extensive hunt for an agent, for this book and for a middle-grade fantasy called ‘The Winter Knife.’
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that agents are interested in books that are like other books that are known to sell well. It is therefore small wonder that very few of them showed an interest in either of my completed manuscripts. (Both are good stories, which have passed through the critique-partner and beta reader gauntlets and been honed and nicely polished, but neither is easy to classify.)
Again, undaunted, I launched one Kindle Scout campaign after another. While neither campaign succeeded in winning me a book contract, both taught me more and more about book promotion and marketing, and I went on to learn more from fellow authors with the Midwest Fiction Writers group and to study and learn even more about the burgeoning Indie Publishing movement. Even now, still undaunted, I am excited about launching both books in the coming year, and am busy writing a sequel to ‘The Winter Knife’ and learning about creating audio versions of all my stories.
2016 was wonderfully rewarding in a great many other ways! I:
- completed my second year with G4S and won the support of fellow security officers to take on the role of union steward,
- received the long-term loan of a ’98 Subaru from a friend who wasn’t using it – truly a fabulous boon when commuting by bus from the suburbs represented a daily and nightly challenge, and severely limited my ability to participate in social occasions with family and friends,
- finished paying off a debt that had been eating huge holes in my paychecks – so now I’m able to pay for insurance and gas for the car,
- enjoyed many gatherings during the year with my colleagues in MFW, friends who filk, and who join in singalongs, and play board games, and attend science fiction conventions,
- attended MiniCon SF Convention in the spring, and DeCongestant in the fall,attended the wedding of my lovely niece, Julia to Andrew Zabel, celebrated (though unable to attend) the wedding of my dashing nephew, John to
- met my new grand-niece, Pippa, and grand-nephew Wren (Lawrence),
- attended a workshop with best-selling author, Eloisa James,
- enjoyed a wonderful gathering with family for Thanksgiving – thanks again to SIL, Mary for being the perfect hostess!
- I revived an old interest in archery, (with as yet limited success),
- passed a physical and got my shots (flu, pneumonia and Shingles),
- adopted the rascally Rajesh, who has liberally strewn my apartment with shredded cardboard from his scratchy box,
- contributed a short story that was published in the MFW Anthology: ‘Festivals of Love,’
- later published that story, ‘Faire Play,’ as a stand-alone title on Amazon,
- updated the editions of my short story collections available on Amazon, and the short story co-written with Avon Impulse author, Lizbeth Selvig,
- plan to offer FREE download versions of all of these before the end of the year – so tune in to my newsletter if you want to be notified! http://bit.ly/Naomi2hT6wu2
- And, most recently, I was invited to read at the annual Rivendell Society reading event, where my latest story was received with gratifying laughs in all the right places.
And now ‘The Winter Knife’ is finally available on Amazon!
This essay is part of a continuing meditation on meaning in the arts.
Everyone has seen photo-mosaics – and many have made them these days – those fascinating works in which hundreds of small images are arranged so that, when seen all together, they form another, conglomerate image. Hundreds of images of birds can combine into the image of another, larger bird. Hundreds of faces or figures can be combined to show almost anything.
In this same way, the arts are a mirror held up to humanity. All our works, taken together, combine to show us what and who we are. The more works we have, the higher the resolution of the resultant ‘image.’
We may not like or appreciate some part of what we are seeing. Some of the smaller, contributing tiles in the mosaic may seem dull or unappealing, or even displeasing. But imagine if we disliked the color gray and therefor removed all the gray tiles from a mosaic, leaving white plaster in their place – how the image would be distorted, blotched and speckled.
Who wants a mirror all blotched and speckled because we block out the parts of our own image we find displeasing? That is to say, every artist, every voice, has something to contribute to a larger truth and we are better off looking for where these contributions best fit than we are in denying them a place.