The Perfect Writing Surface by Lani Longshore

I have a pad of paper on a magnet on the refrigerator for the grocery list. There are stacks of scrap paper by the telephone, and a legal pad on my nightstand for ideas that wake me from a sound sleep. One could believe I am a die-hard devotee of paper as the perfect writing surface, except that I also keep a white board to jot down menu ideas, and my novels have been composed and edited on my computer. Still, when I need to write something quickly, I grab a piece of paper.

Most of the time I think more about what I want to write than what I have to write on, but two books on the history of paper have me thinking about how what I write on shapes what I write. The first, The Paper Trail by Alexander Monro, describes how writing in China developed from divination on turtle shells to court histories on bamboo to massive bureaucratic files on paper. The second, Paper by Mark Kurlansky, explores how Europeans ignored paper for centuries after it was available. Then came an explosion of quarrels about politics, religion, science, and just about everything else. Suddenly paper was king, because it was cheaper than parchment and better suited to the printing press, which was better suited to spreading ideas quickly than an army of scribes.

The notes I make on scrap paper are usually short commands – remember this, buy that, return this call. If I want to keep information, I’ll grab a pad of paper or even a bound notebook. With those formats, I generally write in complete sentences, sometimes complete paragraphs. I’m not sure what this says about my character, but I might explore that in a short story someday.

The Last Generation to Remember the World Before Photocopiers by Lani Longshore

The last of the Baby Boomers and the first of the Gen Xers will be the last generation to remember the world before the internet, or so I heard at a lecture by Scott Thomas Anderson at CWC Tri-Valley Writers September meeting. That’s a bit of a shock, but there’s a bigger demarcation line in my opinion. I remember the world before the photocopier.

My high-school business classes included learning how to type with carbons, both single and multiple. I struggled to master the intricacies of mimeograph machines and thermofaxes. Research for term papers meant spending hours copying out texts I wished to cite, and tracing diagrams or drawings from reference books. Sharing my work with friends meant reading it out loud to them, or letting them borrow my one typed copy.

The photocopier became standard office equipment when I was in college, but even then there were only a few machines available regardless of the size of the institution. I remember trudging across the campus to the business center to make copies of tests for my professors, and counted myself lucky because at least I didn’t have to deal with smelly chemicals and persnickety mimeographs. “Cut and paste” meant literally cutting out paragraphs and taping them together when someone wanted a change in a report, then covering the edge of the tape with a thin line of White-Out or Liquid Paper, copying the new page and assembling the report again. I was thrilled, because at least I didn’t have to retype entire pages to make the edits.

I knew we had achieved a higher level of civilization when small, affordable machines became available for home use. The internet is useful in its way, but the tool that changed my life was the photocopier.

When Disaster Strikes by Lani Longshore

The most recent natural disaster, Hurricane Harvey, reminded me to review my earthquake preparedness file. It contains lists of what to do before, during, and after an earthquake. Most important, there are lists of things to keep packed and ready. I suggest that a writer needs to add a notebook and supply of pens to the list. When disaster strikes, we need to record it.

Without meaning to sound morbid, bad times come to everyone. When we’re caught in the middle of a crisis, our attention quite naturally should be on survival. Nevertheless, we should also keep recovery strategies in mind. One part of that process is to recognize the magnitude of loss, honor the conflicting swirl of emotions, and remind ourselves that we still have value.

Being of service is sometimes a recovery strategy, and as writers we can help others articulate their feelings. We can listen, and put in simple, concrete terms what we hear. We can publish our personal essays on blogs, on Twitter, wherever there is a venue. We can incorporate those experiences into stories and novels so that readers far away in time and space from the disaster we endured can benefit from the lessons we learned.

Living through the worst of times takes courage. We as writers can document the acts of courage, kindness, and humanity we witness. It may be a small thing, but it is one thing we can do. Perhaps those words penned during a crisis will bring a glimmer of hope for the future.

Trust and Perseverance by Lani Longshore

Every time one of my writing buddies gets a nibble from an agent, I wonder if I shouldn’t trust the universe to provide and send out another round of queries myself. I’m happy enough self-publishing. No, my sales aren’t good, but the chances of them being better with a traditional publisher aren’t guaranteed, and at least my writing is out there now. Still, the validation of having someone you don’t know say, “Hey, I like your book well enough to help you” is priceless. Then I do a search and maybe—maybe—find one agent whose interests could possibly be a good match for my book. I’ve been through this dance long enough that I am not always willing to persevere with the queries.

Then the annual agent issue of Writer’s Digest arrived in my mailbox. I almost didn’t read the issue, figuring what’s the point? Still, I had just enough trust that somewhere out there’s an agent for me that I opened the magazine. This time, there were half a dozen agents that I thought might be interested in my work. Those are good enough odds for me.

I hope you, too, will trust yourself and your writing. Querying agents, finishing that rewrite, entering contests—all this takes energy and confidence. Persevere, and let me know when your efforts are rewarded.

Titles: A Collection by Lani Longshore

There are days when I can write stories, and there are days when I can write titles. Alas, the titles don’t always match the stories. Still, writing is writing, so I keep a file of all the titles that manage to stick to a memory cell long enough for me to record them. Whether I’ll ever write stories to go with all of them is doubtful. That used to make me sad, but then I thought, Self, share. Maybe someone else will write the story and you can enjoy it without all the work. So here they are, some with explanation, some without.

 

Accidental Mythology

An Altar of Crockery

Soren and The Flying Dachshund (My friend had a dachshund puppy that liked to play chase with her older pit-bull mix, Soren, by leaping off the furniture and soaring past Soren’s head)

The Worms Don’t Read

The Method of Exhaustion (a form of geometrical proof)

Volatile Sugar Dust (apparently it’s a thing, and can cause explosions)

Last, but not least, here is a title and cover art for Thread Brain: A Story

Writing Lessons by Lani Longshore

There are times when the universe whacks you over the head and shouts, “Pay attention!” The universe is speaking to me about my writing practice, and what I need to include.

Tri-Valley Writers started a field trip series to get us out of our writing dens and into the fresh air. The first outing was to Dublin’s Heritage Park. We were given a sheet of writing prompts and turned loose. I chose to begin with the prompt to describe the area. As I finished my notes about a building with a tin roof, I remembered a story about a cabin in West Texas with a tin roof. I jotted down that memory, which brought forth another memory, and so on all morning. I haven’t written in a stream of consciousness style in years. I have so many projects I want to finish that writing without a specific purpose seems a disgraceful waste of time. For one morning, however, I allowed myself to write without worrying about how the piece would fit into any of my projects.

When I returned home, I opened the latest edition of Writer’s Digest and discovered an article about adapting lessons from art school to improve one’s writing. All the advice incorporated a healthy dose of apparently random writing, of putting aside the idea that every session needs to have a purpose. Creative work is its own reward, and practicing writing, like practicing sketching (or practicing scales, or basic ballet positions) gives us more tools when we are doing purposeful writing.

“Self,” I said, “this is exactly what you need, so for heaven’s sake make sure you go to the next outings.”

Two sessions remain in the summer series – July 24 at Lizzie Fountain (Livermore), and August 7 at Veterans Park (Livermore). To RSVP, email newsletter@trivalleywriters.org.

Secrets and Stories by Lani Longshore

I talked with a friend the other day who told me about tracking down the truth of some old family stories. Her grandmother, it appears, may have been a waitress in a Southern restaurant frequented by mobsters on the run in the 1930s. The family had sent her to a private school, but then the Depression hit and the money ran out. My friend’s grandmother essentially disappeared for several years. Even when she was reunited with the family, the lost years weren’t discussed. My friend isn’t sure if that’s because the family was trying to keep secrets, or life went on and no one was interested in the past.

I write Sci-Fi, but I love mysteries. One of my favorites is Perry Mason. A staple of those stories is the villainous blackmailer and the woman desperate to keep family indiscretions secret for the sake of the children. Of course, the secrets have to come out to save Mason’s wrongly accused client, and rarely is anyone scandalized.

My family stories would make a splendid series, especially the ones about relatives who are safely dead. It’s harder when there’s someone alive who could be hurt, but I’ve still got the story of the man who kidnapped his own son and moved across the world, the child who set off alone after a war and created a completely new identity, and the woman who defied all of her clan’s conventions and managed to keep her place as a beloved daughter.

On second thought, maybe I’ll keep writing Sci-Fi and fold these characters into stories with space aliens and faster-than-light travel. I doubt even my own mother would recognize herself in the shape of a nine-foot, blue-skinned lizard lady.

History and World Building by Lani Longshore

I’m reading The Oregon Trail by Rinker Buck, who decided to outfit a covered wagon and revisit what is left of the Oregon Trail. He spends a couple of chapters talking about wagons. The Conestoga Wagon may be what most people remember from history class, but that wasn’t the wagon that went west. The Conestoga Wagon, which Buck compares with an 18-wheeler on our highways today, could carry eight tons of cargo and was used in the 1700s for agricultural transport. The wagon of the Oregon Trail was the prairie schooner, which Buck compares to modern minivans. It was so common as to be unremarkable, mentioned in histories and memoirs, but rarely documented on its own.

As a science fiction writer, I immediately thought of how my world-building could benefit from looking at what is so commonplace, so unremarkable, and yet so essential to the smooth running of my life. I’ve thought about the type of energy my aliens might use to power their dwellings, but never about what they might use in place of light switches. I’ve considered what my future humans will eat, but not about how it will get to their version of a grocery store.

Starting now, I will explore road surfaces, the nature of fences, and whether or not slippers survive to the 23rd century. Knowing what is available for my protagonist under ordinary circumstances will give me an opportunity to develop her character when she is deprived of these items, or perhaps be a plot twist all on its own, or even the basis for an entire novel. Waiting for “Sharing” function to be restored may not have the ring of Waiting for Godot, but it could make a hoot of a short story.

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