ALL MY SISTERS

I have so many of them that I’m afraid I might miss to mention one or two. Just kidding.

A while ago a friend of mine asked me if I was the “middle sister.”

Funny, but I had to stop and think, for sometimes the simplest, ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions have not-so-simple answers.

“Well, I am the middle sister,” I said. “And I’m also the oldest. And the youngest.”

I hold multiple sister positions in my family thanks to the long string of multiple happily-never-after marriages and happily-ever-after divorces.

Photo by Ludmila Shumilov on Unsplash

There is something called ‘the middle child syndrome’. The little ‘in the middle’ person is squished between the oldest sibling, typically an over-achiever, the most important child and the one with the most privileges, and the baby of the family, which is the most looked after kiddo and can get away with almost everything. There could only be one oldest and one youngest, while multiple kids can hold the middle position. I don’t know if there is a hierarchy among them, as well. Being a middle child doesn’t seem fair, and often is not, but it seems to be the natural order of things. It’s not a surprise, then, the middle kiddo, according to some research, is often left out and somewhat neglected.

As if being the middle sister isn’t enough, I’m also the one on the left and the one on the right, depending of what set of parents and step-parents we’re talking about. As the middle sister, I was indeed squeezed between my older and younger siblings. (For the sake of accuracy, I should throw my brothers, one half-, one step-, into the mix as well, but since this was about sisters, I’ll keep my brothers in brackets.) My older sisters were quite older – one twelve and the other one eight years older. One of my younger sisters is five years behind me. Looking from my middle position, I can easily identify both the ‘achievers’ and the ‘babies’ in my family.

But then I shuffle this unconventional deck of cards called my family, and all of a sudden I’m the oldest – the achiever, the responsible, reliable and mature sister. A surrogate mother to the younger siblings. The family babysitter, cook and cleaning maid. Another shuffle, and I’m the youngest, the ‘baby’ of the family, my father’s favorite, overprotected, pampered and a bit spoiled.

One more, bringing my step-family into the picture, I’m again in the middle, having one older and one younger step-sister.

Having older sisters had lots of advantages, from rummaging through their clothes and shoes and picking what I liked, to spending summer holidays with them and their families, to having nephews close to my age. Thanks to the same logic (having much older cousins, that is) I became a great-aunt at the age of thirty-two, years before I became a mother myself. Having younger ones, I could be protective and sometimes a role model. Hopefully, not too much or too often.

I’m particularly close to the one that I turned into a middle sister. She’s eight years older; she married young so I became an aunt when I was ten. I’m also close to my step-sister, thanks to whom I could be crowned as the “middle sister”. She’s only a year older; we grew up together and shared more than sibling love. We shared a room. School friends. Secrets. Dreams. Other siblings… Hardship. Lots of it.  Feeling of not belonging…

We’re sort of sibling soul mates, even though we’re opposite personalities (think of Yin and Yang). Thanks to me, and my middle position in this particular deck of cards, she is the ‘achiever’, the mature and reliable one. And I can relax a bit and rely on her for guidance, advice and support.

How many sisters do I have? Gimme a sec. Five. Yeah, that’s about right. Some of them have only two, myself included. Some of them three.

I have all of them.

And I love them all.

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Hidden colours of black-and-white

A visit from the inner child

The dress was bright yellow, with small black squares on it (image 1); the sweater white, or beige (images 2 & 3). The pants dark brown, the suede shoes were brown too, only lighter. I still remember how determined I was to put them on by myself but finally had to give up. My grandmother would then crouch beside me and help me do it.

The monkey bars (back then I only knew the German word for them: die stange) were painted dark green. My palms would tingle and smell of iron after swinging on them.

The bicycle was blue and white; the word “Universal” was written across the blue horizontal frame bar in thick, white cursive. The bullet light was surprisingly strong and shaped like a chubby white rocket. It had wide black tires and white handles. Several generations of children learned how to ride a bike using my “Universal”: after me, there was my younger sister, then my even younger cousins and then numerous neighbourhood kids… When I saw it for the very last time, in spring 1991, it was still being well used.

I don’t know if “Universal” survived the war that had already started. But that spring, which, on a personal level, turned out to be the most wonderful and the most horrifying time of my life (isn’t it interesting that heaven and hell often walk hand-in-hand?), was the last time that I saw my grandmother. And my father, who had bought me “Universal”.

Oh, well … I have the rest of my life to contemplate the juxtaposition of light and dark, and love and pain, so now back to my “Universal”. At that time, it was probably the best children’s bicycle that money could buy. When I got it, I was only three, and my legs were too short to reach the pedals. It didn’t stop me riding it, though. I would mount my bike, legs dangling on its sides, and devoted family volunteers– my grandfather, my grandmother, my great-grandmother, my young aunt, and my mother–would push me up and down the street, as long as I wanted to ride it.

That same year my father also bought me a fancy sled, with a back rest. The above-mentioned volunteers would bundle me up, put me in the sled filled with previously warmed blankets and cushions, and drag me through the town wrapped in deep snow. The part of the country where I was born is Saskatchewan-flat, and there is no other way for kids to sleigh.

Well, almost no other way… When I was a little bit older, my father would tie the sled to the end of his motor bike, and pull it at a slow, walking speed, around the nearby park (also on the photos). I would lean on the back rest and immerse myself in the serious business of catching snowflakes on my tongue.

Winter holidays are over, old memories carefully stored, like delicate glass ornaments, until next year: of the Christmas trees of my childhood, of sugar candies wrapped in shiny, colourful papers… Of three January weeks I would spend with my father… Of smells and tastes of other places and times.

I still wish I could fill my lungs with the sharp and moist air of the winters of my childhood, which smelled of upcoming snow and smoke from the red-brick chimneys, and hold my breath until ‘there and then’ blend with ‘here and now’, so that I could be whole again.

I wish I could touch my bike and my sled, just one more time. Run my fingers along those thick white, embossed letters that read “Universal”, and over the smooth honey-brown wood of my sled.

And take that little girl into my lap, hug her tight and tell her that everything would be okay.

Only that, nothing else.

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Like Day and night

Recently I haven’t been inspired for blogging, which is, under normal circumstances, one of my favourite things to do.

Perhaps I suffer from post-publishing sadness.

It should be a happy moment; it’s not a small thing to publish a book. Even if it’s not the best novel ever written, still it’s a great achievement. Alas.

Photo by Daniele Levis Pelusi on Unsplash

Once Upon a Night is a small book, the size of a novella, yet still it’d been almost a two-year-long journey, from the first word I wrote until I published it. And then — the roadblocks. Amazon doesn’t want to publish legitimate reviews. It’s been taking my library forever to purchase an e-copy… My book is invisible, and soon, when the 30-day Amazon ‘promotion’ is over (yes, it’s laughable), it will end up on the bottom of the Amazon waste sea.

I did everything that everybody says should be done: I had a good story, a great cover, a title that fits the story and the genre, good blurbs… I’d tried my best to chose the right categories and keywords… Still, the Amazon algorithm doesn’t like me.

Oh, well.

I’ve been curing my blues with reading (my remedy for many other things). After several not-so-good reads (one of which I wrote about last time), I ‘discovered’ Sylvia Day’s Crossfire novels. Loved them! The comparison with their predecessors, the Fifty Shades series is inevitable since they belong to the same genre, and have similar story lines. Fortunately, the rest is like Day and night. Like some serious writing and some silly writing. Like some great heroine and hero, whose every act comes out of their characters and their past, versus annoying, whining, weak, unmotivated, absurd Anastasia Steel (steel, really?), an English major with the vocabulary of a high-school drop out, and her even more absurd and emotionally, mentally and physically abusive lover-stalker. Like some super-interesting subplot vs. no plot or subplot… And so on. The list is long.

I’m glad Sylvia Day wrote her books and had a chance to publish them. But I can’t help not to think about many great stories that haven’t gotten published and will never get a chance to find their readers.

Which brings my melancholy back.

But, there is J. R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood, book 5, to heal me.

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The Snowman, or, what happened to Jo Nesbø

What is the magic ingredient for a bestseller? Must be luck, for a good story certainly isn’t.

And I think I know what happened to Jo Nesbø, but you’ll need to read to the end of this blog to find out.

I’ve just finished reading The Snowman. Years ago, Nesbø became a famous, bestselling author of crime fiction novels featuring Inspector Harry Hole. I’d made a few attempts to read his books before The Snowman, but couldn’t make it further than the first two or three chapters. I thought it was me. Crime fiction isn’t my No. 1 genre. That being said, I do enjoy it every now and then. I came to love some Scandinavian Noir writers, such as Arnaldur Indriðason and Henning Mankell. So it wasn’t me.

Photo by Azzurra Visaggio on Unsplash

I wouldn’t say The Snowman was bad. But it wasn’t good either. Not bestselling material in any case. An average plot, predictable twists, out-of-character (silly) behaviour here and there. When I read mystery fiction, I want to be surprised with the resolution. This is the whole point, no? I don’t try to figure out who the bad guy is; I don’t want to know it before I should. In The Snowman I knew it in the first half of the novel (certainly long before Inspector Hole did). Where’s the fun in that?

There was something else in this book that I found super annoying. Jo Nesbø’s such a show-off (there is a better phrase for it,  but I don’t want to be impolite). He endlessly prattles on about music and movies for no reason (except to show his ‘erudition’ and to teach us which of Coppola’s movies is underrated), and makes tons of (American) pop culture references, which only clutters the story.

The translation is horrible, but of course, we can’t blame Nesbø for this, too. Just saying. Sometimes I had a feeling I was reading in Norwegian. The book’s full of odd idioms, funny word choices, wooden dialogues.

The Scandinavian Noir authors are known for boldly addressing burning social issues, xenophobia, abuse… and I salute them for that. Nesbø does it, too, but in this particular novel it sounds forced, politically correct (like, everyone’s-writing-about-it-therefore-I-also-have-to). When Arnaldur Indriðason or Stieg Larsson do this, you can feel their stands, their passion to expose these social deviations and diseases. You have no doubt this is something that deeply hurts and troubles them as human beings. Alas, when Nesbø does it, it’s only décor.

I liked Harry Hole, though (and not because the paperback edition I picked up had Michael Fassbender on the cover). It pisses me off that Nesbø doesn’t want to give him a break, so I feel as if I have to protect him somehow. Inspector Hole is an alcoholic, a drug user, he’s depressive, he can’t sleep, he’s haunted by his past, he doesn’t believe in the future, he can’t enjoy the moment. That’s not all. He’s lonely, doesn’t have a sense of humour (not that I mind that part. I like people with no sense of humour perhaps more than those with it).  He’s not a hero; he isn’t an anti-hero either. Nesbø made him strong and broad-shouldered and painfully thin at the same time, as if he couldn’t make up his mind about his physical look (it’s hard to imagine a crossover between Steven Segal and Father William of Baskerville). He loves a woman who loves him in return; he loves her son as if the boy’s his own, yet he doesn’t want to stay with them, and (spoiler alert!) after saving their lives, decides to go to Hong Kong and do drugs.

Oh, come on.

In short, the main reason I like Harry Hole is because his creator, his literary father, hates him so much. I like him because he’s a much better man than Nesbø believes he is. I wish I could tell Nesbø that.

I met my CEO today in the elevator. He saw me with The Snowman in my hands. Between the main and the fifth floor we agreed it wasn’t a great read (he’s a well-read man, and I’m a well-read woman, so we quickly came to a consensus). “His early books are better,” my CEO said as he got off the elevator. “Try them.”

If this is the case, then I know what happened to Jo Nesbø. Before he became a famous, bestselling author, Jo Nesbø had written for the love of writing.

And then he got lucky.

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Once Upon a Night

With a new title and a new cover…two stories and two songs that inspired them.

My two-story novella is available on Amazon and Smashwords for preorder. The launch date is January 25, 2018.

Thank you, Susan Toy, Kristin M. and Merry from Anessa Books. You’ll know why.

The first story, Once Upon a Nightis a retelling of Cinderella, inspired by the embedded song (click on the title!)

At first glance, Angela and Nick don’t seem to have much in common: she’s a young widow trying to make ends meet, and he’s a self-made billionaire in his mid-thirties. He’s confident, well-educated and eloquent; she’s shy, has struggled through school and communicates more easily with horses than with people.
But they share a deep, aching loneliness and the need for a brief escape – Angela from the ghosts of her past, and Nick from his uncertain future.
When the clock strikes midnight, will it bring the end or a new beginning?

 Blind Date from an unorthodox beginning to happily ever after in one hour and a half. The embedded song is a kind of clue–Lovers at first sight in love forever.

Two years after her divorce, Hannah is ready to move on. But when her friend pushes her to go on a blind date with a gallery owner, Hannah is hesitant. She’s attracted to Edward, an architect who works in the same building, even though they’ve barely exchanged two words.
Edward also has a blind date. The woman he’s about to meet, according to his friend, is “brilliant and gorgeous”. Edward would be intrigued, if only he could stop thinking of the quiet, shy and sexy-as-hell Hannah, the book editor from the top floor.

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Merry merry, happy happy, ho-ho-ho! Happy New Year!

There are a few writing/reading-related things that made 2017 a good year.

I had the pleasure of reading three wonderful books written by friends: Betrayal, the fifth installment in the Gift Legacy series by Jo-Anne McLean, One Woman Island, the second book in the Bequia Perspective novels by Susan Toy. and A Spanish Dilemma, A Regency Novella, by Meredith Bond.

Photo by Rodion Kutsaev on Unsplash

I published Blind Date, my long-anticipated novella in two stories, then unpublished it. I wasn’t happy with the title nor the cover, and there was one typo too many in it. Now Meredith Bond from Anessa Books, my wonderful formatter, friend and fellow author currently living in Belgium,  is working on it once more.  It will be published in February under a different title —Once Upon a Night— and with a different, much better cover made by a talented designer from Greece, Annoula. Once Upon a Night is a true international corroboration. BTW, I read the second story last night, perhaps for the first time as a reader, and I LOVED IT. Very sexy *and very emotional. If someone else wrote it, I’d like to read more of her stories for sure. Well done, J. F.

I had my website revamped in August, and since then I have managed to have a new post every week. Many thanks to my editor/assistant/colleague Kristin, and occasionally my son, who’ve also been kipping an eye on my grammar and spelling (English is my second… no, wait, third… no, fourth language).

 

I took two fiction writing courses through Steven Alcorn’s Writing Academy. I discovered that online courses worked well with my personality (I’m an introvert, as you suspect).

I did NaNoWriMo. I’m not happy with the outcome. I wrote the required number of words, but the concept of reducing the creative process to a competition doesn’t make much sense to me. Yes, some people can produce a good first draft in a month, working under pressure and counting the words they write every day. I can’t. It’s not how I write, and for me, writing is much more than a competition, even if I compete against myself.

My website had a dozen followers in 2017, which is great because I started with two.

In 2017 , I was able to keep up with my normal pace of reading — two books per week. I watched Season 7 of Game of Thrones. dreamed of being a Targaryen, riding a dragon and having a reason to say “Dracarys!” every once in a while. (Embedded music is from Season 6, though, but that’s my favourite season so far.) I listened to lots of other music, mostly at work, when I needed to tune out the noise while cataloguing Arabic and Farsi books…

I don’t believe in New Year resolutions, so for  2018 I won’t promise anything.

I only hope I’ll be less alone and have more time to write.

*Music pieces: for ‘sexy’ Maurice Ravel’s Bolero; for ’emotional’ Chopin’s Nocturne Op. 9 No. 2; for ‘Season 7 Light of the Seven (Ramin Djawadi) and Game of Thrones The Winds of Winter (Ramin Djawadi);  for ‘music’ The Best of Mozart.

 

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Good novels have nine structural points. Bad novels have them, too.

As I mentioned earlier, plotting’s not my thing. If writers are either architects or gardeners, as George R. R. Martin says, I, like him, plant a seed and watch it grow.

I wrote my first four novels relying on my intuitive storytelling abilities. They’re not perfect, but they’re solid. When I wrote them, I didn’t think about three-act structuring, nine (or six, of fifteen) points, turning points, big black moments. I felt them, and I used them spontaneously. They’re all there, in my stories.

And then I made a mistake and started reading books on how to write, and got lost. Except for Steve Alcorn’s classes, which are great and teach you all you need to know about structuring, everything else only confused me, not to mention the negative effect on my self-esteem.

I soon realized something important. All the great fiction novels, regardless of the genre, have all these elements, from Pride and Prejudice, to Susan Elizabeth Philips’ romances (my favourite).

The thing is, all the shallow, boring or downright stupid novels have them, too. I know this because I occasionally read them, sometimes because I have to, sometimes because, as I like to say, your writing persona learns something useful from every book you read, so I force myself to finish reading what I foolishly started.

What makes the difference between Susan Elizabeth Phillips and total trash is somewhere else, not in the nine structural points.

I decided to go back to my writing foundation—my inner sense of storytelling.

It’s a relief.

If anyone ever asked me for a piece of advice, I’d say – don’t let anyone tell you how to write your story.

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