Friday, July 28, 2017

How to Write a Novella...and Why Readers Love Them


Books are getting shorter these days. Amy Collins at The Book Designer reports the average NYT Bestseller is now half as long as it was in 2011.  And the brand new Smashwords survey shows bestselling romance novels have decreased by 20,000 words since 2012. 


The fastest growing fiction form right now is the novella. 

Novellas, once the pariahs of the publishing industry, are now in demand with readers. The stodgy Big 5 publishers are still demanding a word count of 60K plus. (And alas, newsletters like Bookbub won't take them.) But I'm sure that will change with their growing popularity. 



  • Traditionally published authors self-publish them to fill in the time between the snail-speed production schedules of their own publishers and increase their revenue stream. 
  • Indies use them to explore characters in their series that readers want to know more about. 
  • Readers who have less time to read than they used to enjoy getting into a meaty story that has a satisfying beginning, middle and end, but doesn't take weeks to get through. 

Perhaps the popularity of the novella also comes from our love of movies. As novella author Paul Alan Fahey wrote for our blog in 2014, the novella has a lot in common with a screenplay. It is also the fiction form most easily adapted to film.


My own publisher keeps encouraging me to write novellas to fill in the gaps in Camilla and Plantagenet's history.

Have I followed the advice?

Nope. The new Camilla book, The Queen of Staves, due in August, is the same 83,000 word length as my others.

I find writing novellas really hard. I think in terms of the "long game". How can I explore a big topic in 20,000 words?

But I know some talented writers who can do if brilliantly

In January 2014, I asked award-winning novella author Paul Alan Fahey for some advice. Paul's book The Other Man was honored by the American Library Association , and received a Rainbow Award in 2013. The View from 16 Podewale Street, the first of his beautifully-crafted novellas set in WWII Britain, won a Rainbow Award in 2012. Since then, his books have won many more awards, including the anthology Equality, which was nominated for a Rainbow this year.

I hope his advice will help us all to keep up with the new trend....Anne

How to Write a Novella

by
Paul Alan Fahey

Author of The Short and Long of It


Years ago, when I started writing fiction—as opposed to journal articles for career advancement in academe—I fell in love with flash fiction. That love affair lasted throughout the 1990’s, well into the millennium, and beyond. I loved the form and was quite content to stay within those teeny-tiny word limits. At the time, I also took classes in flash, presented writing workshops on the form, and participated in several online critique groups for flash writers.

When I taught at Allan Hancock College, I edited Mindprints, A Literary Journal, devoted to flash fiction and memoir pieces of 250-750 words. Here's a piece I wrote giving tips for writing good flash fiction.

During that time, I managed to write and publish a few short stories other than flash, but nothing beyond the 5,000 to 6,000-word range.

With the advent of the E-Age, I began to think seriously about writing longer work. The novel absolutely terrified me, so I gravitated to the novella: something in between a very long story and a novel.

When I began writing my first WWII novella, The View from 16 Podwale Street, and later with Bomber’s Moon, I told myself I was only writing flash, and that each scene or chapter was a kind of mini-flash piece with its own story arc. Little did I know that this strategy would work, and I’d soon be off and running with a romance series and a much larger story to tell.


Novellas in the E-Age: A Definition


Searching for a precise definition of a novella can be a maddening experience. Some consider novellas very long short stories, while others call them short novels, or say they’re synonymous with novelettes.

Nothing specific there, right? I was just about to give up when I stumbled upon a terrific article in the New Yorker by British novelist and screenwriter, Ian McEwan. Not only did he define the form, but he specified word limits most publishers, including my own, would agree with—give or take a few thousand at the top or bottom of the range.

"Novellas are between twenty and forty thousand words, long enough for a reader to inhabit a world or a consciousness and be kept there, short enough to be read in a sitting or two and for the whole structure to be held in mind at first encounter.”

McEwan went on to discuss the strong similarity between novellas and screenplays in their overall unity and economy.

"To sit with a novella is analogous to watching a play or a longish movie."

I have to admit I was totally stoked when I read that. I’d been using screenplay techniques as a pre-writing strategy for flash fiction and short stories for years. In fact I wrote an article for Byline magazine about the flash-screenplay connection in 2005. It's since been reprinted at Fiction Fix. Is it any wonder I was drawn to the novella form?


THE PREWRITING STRATEGY


Let’s see how this prewriting thing works. We’ll take a look at my novella, Bomber’s Moon, and apply the strategy.


Step 1: Find a Story Idea


The idea for Bomber’s Moon came from an incident in my childhood. Mom and I were sitting at the breakfast table discussing a lovely Englishwoman she worked with in an upscale dress shop, someone who had lived through the London Blitz and still suffered in the late 1950’s from what we’d probably now call PTSD.

I took this idea and went into a “what if” frenzy, asking myself all sorts of questions: How did Londoners manage to survive day to day under such unimaginable conditions? What was it like being gay back then, and in a relationship, having to keep it all a secret except perhaps from your closest friends? These questions and many more would later guide character development as well as plot development in Bomber’s Moon.


Step 2: Turn the Idea into a Logline


Anne has previously written an excellent post on loglines. So there’s really no need to reinvent the wheel here other than to say a screenplay logline is a short, one-sentence statement of the film’s premise. Think TV Guide descriptions of cable movies.

Here’s an example:

Nebraska: An aging, booze-addled father makes the trip from Montana to Nebraska with his estranged son in order to claim a million dollar Mega Sweepstakes Marketing prize.

And another one:

August: Osage County: A look at the lives of the strong-willed women of the Weston family, whose paths have diverged until a family crisis brings them back to the Oklahoma house they grew up in, and to the dysfunctional woman who raised them.

Here’s the logline for Bomber’s Moon:

During the London Blitz, and after losing his life partner in a tragic accident, Leslie Atwater, a young gay man, discovers his lover’s death may not have been an accident and sets out to uncover the truth.

**I know, I know. It ain’t Shakespeare. You’re using it as a guide or throughline for developing your story. No one but you will see it.


Step 3. Write the Story Theme from the Logline


Often I know the book’s theme before I start to write. Sometimes I don't and it surfaces later in the writing. Still, it’s a terrific bonus if you do can articulate theme because it provides a wonderful subtext for scenes and dialogue.

"Journeys end in lovers meeting" is the main theme of Bomber’s Moon.


Step 4: Determine the Three Acts and As Many Plot Points as Possible


First, here’s a quick overview of three-act structure.

  • Act I, Set Up: Introduces setting, characters and the main story conflict or the inciting incident. 
  • Plot Point 1: The first major turning point or event that closes the first act and moves the characters into… 
  • Act II, Confrontation: The main character struggles to achieve his/her goal amid ever increasing obstacles. 
  • Midpoint: A subtle turning point in the plot midway through the story. 
  • Plot Point 2: A devastating setback or reversal in the main character’s fortune that leads to… 
  • Act III, Resolution: The final confrontation and highest point of action (climax) before the character reaches goal. 

Here’s what I knew about Bomber’s Moon before I began writing:

  • Act I: Set Up: During the day, Leslie works as a clerk in a modest bookshop in Central London. By night, he’s an air raid warden in his district responsible for the safety of his “flock.” In an effort to feel closer to Edward, he spends his evenings in their flat reviewing his partner’s sketches and soon discovers irregularities he can’t explain. 
  • Plot Point 1: Leslie, convinced his lover’s death wasn’t an accident. Despite warnings from friends to let well enough alone, he sets out on a journey. How did Edward die? 
  • Act II Confrontation: Leslie learns more about Edward’s work assignment the day he died. He begins to question family members and colleagues at The Globe. This leads him on a journey through London and into the countryside as he follows the clues. (Vague? You bet, but it works for now.) 
  • Act III Resolution: I envisioned a climax in a lighthouse overlooking the English Channel with enemy aircraft overhead. The ending would be a happy one—journeys end in lovers meeting—since Bomber’s Moon is a romance, and I was following conventions of the form. 

This pre-writing three-act paradigm for Bomber’s Moon, adapted from a screenwriting text by Syd Field is far from complete. But having the structure planned out as much as possible beforehand, kept me focused on the storyline, while I filled in the blanks of the paradigm as I went along in the first draft.

For a more thorough discussion and examples of the three-act structure, please see: The Elements of Cinema.

This process may or may not work for you. I can only say it does for me. And in a big way.

***

Paul Alan Fahey created and edited Mindprints, an international literary journal for writers and artists with disabilities, at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, California. During Paul’s seven-year tenure, Mindprints made Writers Digest’s “Top 30 Short Story Markets” list for two consecutive years. He is the author of the Lovers and Liars Gay Wartime Romance series, published by JMS Books. Paul is the editor of the 2013 Rainbow Award winning anthology, The Other Man: 21 Writers Speak Candidly About Sex, Love, Infidelity, & Moving On. His first WWII novella, The View From 16 Podwale Street, also won a Rainbow Award in 2012.

Paul's Latest Book is a memoir that's novella length. It's a fantastic read
poignant and funny and hair-raising all at once. 

Debuts on August 31st

In the tradition of Patrick Dennis, Truman Capote, and of Tennessee Williams’ memory play, The Glass Menagerie, Paul Alan Fahey’s memoir, The Mom I Knew, The Mother I Imagined, recounts a son’s loving yet often maddening relationship with his mother over four decades. Told in a hybrid mix of memoir, short fiction, and poetry, the author tells of their nomadic existence in the 1950s; his mother’s four month visit in Africa while he completed his teaching contract; and the last decade of her life.

It will debut August 31st. 

***

And I've also just read the ARC of a fun new novella by veteran screenwriter Barbara Morgenroth. It's a mystery set in 1933 Hollywood and the tone is very "It Happened One Night" and "Bringing up Baby" (two of my favorite movies of all time!)  


Available August 1st!


It’s 1933. When hard news reporter, Caro James, reveals the secret life of a politician in New York, much to her dismay, The New York Sentinel newspaper sets out to teach her a lesson about the rules of journalism. They send her to Los Angeles to write fluff pieces on the film industry.

The contact in Hollywood who is supposed to guide her for the week of punishment, is the handsome and unpredictable movie director, Sugar McLaughlin. Soon a story falls in Caro’s lap. A young, beautiful starlet has been missing for two weeks and is in great danger. Caro and Sugar must find June Fowler before she is lost forever. When the one person who knows what happened to June is murdered, Caro and Sugar can’t help but think they’ve reached a dead end. As Sugar knows, every story has an Act III and Caro is in for the ride of her life as they race to find the starlet.


Friday, June 23, 2017

You May Be a Bestseller on Tralfamadore! Why Writers Write.



This blogpost first appeared on Nathan Bransford's blog on Jan 22, 2010, and it launched my blogging career.

I thought it would be fun to revive it.

Even though the self-publishing revolution has changed the logistics for new writers, the reality is the same: only a few of us are really successful at writing fiction.

So why do we all feel compelled to keep turning it out?

It's the Tralfamadorians! 


Kurt Vonnegut's drawing of a Tralfamadorian actress
Nathan Bransford once posed a question on his blog: “How Do You Deal with the ‘Am-I-Crazies’?

Those are the blues that can overwhelm the unpublished/ underpublished novelist as we slog away, year after year, with nothing to show for our life’s work but a mini-Kilimanjaro of rejection slips.

The truth is, most fiction writers spend our lives sitting alone in a room generating a product that has zero chance of ever making a penny—or even being seen by a person outside our immediate circle of friends, relations and/or personal stalkers.

So—not surprisingly—we occasionally ask ourselves that big, existential question: WHAT ARE WE—NUTS?

Trying to answer can plunge a writer into despair. So how do we cope?

Most of the over 250 respondents to Nathan’s post answered with variations on the following advice:

1) Embrace the crazy and accept that we are, most of us, deeply and certifiably Looneytunes.
2) Chocolate helps.
3) Ditto booze and caffeine.
4) Ditto sunrises, music, and long walks.
5) Ditto the company/blogs/tweets of other lunatic writers.
6) And reading good books.
7) Or crap books, because we know we can do better than THAT.
8) Funny, nobody mentioned sex,
9) But denial is good. Really good.
10) And keep writing, even if it’s just for ourselves, or the one person who reads our blog, or the dog, or whoever…because: WE CAN’T STOP OURSELVES.

Kurt Vonnegut in 1972
And why is that?

Well, I have a theory: It’s the Tralfamadorians. If you’ve read your Vonnegut (and what business do you have calling yourself a writer if you haven’t read Vonnegut?) you know about Tralfamadore. 

It’s a planet where a super-race of toilet plungers exist in all times simultaneously. The name of their planet means both “all of us” and “the number 541,” and they control all aspects of human life including social affairs and politics.

Since these beings have infinite time on their hands, I figure they’ve got a lot of leisure to fill up with reading. And how do they get their books? Of course! They compel earthlings to write novels. Hundreds of thousands of them. Way more than earthbound publishers and readers can handle. But on Tralfamadore—hey, they’re consumed like Skittles.

On Tralfamadore, books are consumed like Skittles
In fact, the Tralfamadorians are so eager for new material, they’ve figured out how to transmit stories right from our brainwaves to their TralfamaKindles the minute you type “the end” on that final draft.

And it could be that right now, as we speak, your first novel—the one that has been sitting in the bottom of a drawer along with its 350 rejection letters and the restraining order from that editor at Tor—could be at the top of the New Tralfamadore Times bestseller list.

Think about it. You could be the Dan Brown of that whole part of the galaxy, where readers are desperate—pining, pleading and panting—for your next book.

And that voice in your head telling you to pound away, day after day, trying to finish that opus, even though everybody, even your girlfriend—and your MOM for god’s sake—says it sux? That’s a transmission from the Doubleday Company of Tralfamadore saying, “Hurry up, dude, we gotta have this for our Christmas list!”

Hey, just prove to me it’s not true.

What about you? Do you feel compelled to write? Even if nobody much seems to be reading? How do you deal with the "Am-I-Crazies?"


THE CAMILLA RANDALL MYSTERIES
Smart, funny mysteries with a touch of romance

"Anne R. Allen is P.G. Wodehouse for the 21st Century!" 
... Sidonie Wiedenkeller


GHOSTWRITERS IN THE SKY:  Camilla Mystery #1 

After her celebrity ex-husband’s ironic joke about her “kinky sex habits” is misquoted in a tabloid, New York etiquette columnist Camilla Randall’s life unravels in bad late night TV jokes. Nearly broke and down to her last Hermes scarf, she accepts an invitation to a Z-list Writers’ Conference in the wine-and-cowboy town of Santa Ynez, California, where, unfortunately, a cross-dressing dominatrix named Marva plies her trade by impersonating Camilla. When a ghostwriter’s plot to blackmail celebrities with faked evidence leads to murder, Camilla must team up with Marva to stop the killer from striking again.

Ghostwriters in the Sky is available in e-book at all the Amazons iTunesGooglePlay  KoboInkteraScribd and NOOK.

It is available in paper at Amazon  Barnes and Noble and Walmart

It's FREE at iTunesInktera, and Kobo!

Friday, May 26, 2017

Poisoning People for Fun and Profit: Can Bleach and Ammonia Kill?



I don't know if it was my own mother or somebody else's who first warned me of the dangers of mixing bleach and ammonia. But like most kids I knew, I was told when I was very young that the mixture was lethal and would produce "mustard gas."

We were told bleach and ammonia made "mustard gas"
In fact, one of my first attempts at writing a mystery, when I was in about third grade, involved a mysterious corpse found in the girl's bathroom of an elementary school, and the deceased had been done in by mustard gas made from bleach and ammonia.

I thought I was terribly clever, since those were cleaning supplies that could be found in any janitor's closet in those days, so anybody could be a suspect.

I never could decide on a murderer or a motive, so I never finished the book, which I started writing with a schoolmate who lost interest in it before I did.

But it's just as well, because it seems that I (as well as our moms) got it wrong.

Bleach and ammonia do form a toxic gas, chloramine, but it's not "mustard gas" otherwise known as "Sulfur Mustard" the horrific chemical weapon used by the Germans in World War I.

Mustard gas actually smells like garlic and it's a "vesicant," which means it causes corrosive burns on the skin.

Chloramine gas, which is what happens when you combine bleach and ammonia, doesn't burn the skin, but it can cause respiratory damage and throat burns.


However, it's not likely to kill you unless you're cleaning in a very small unventilated space.

But…if there's more ammonia than bleach, the explosive hydrazine might form. Hydrazine was used as rocket fuel in WWII. Explosions do kill people, so in that way the combo can be lethal.

But it's certainly not a surefire way to kill somebody. So I wouldn't recommend it to any mystery novel villains.

In researching this article, I ran into an awful forum where teens were bantering about how they planned to kill themselves. One young man was convinced that mixing bleach and ammonia and inhaling the fumes would take him off on a fairly painless trip to heaven. (I'm not going to link to it because it don't want to give those idiots the clicks.)

Luckily ammonia is so stinky it would probably put him off before he got very far. But all he'd do was burn his throat and maybe permanently damage his lungs. Very painful, but unlikely to be deadly.
Window cleaners usually contain ammonia

Mixing bleach and Drano is apparently more likely to kill, although again, the conditions have to be exactly right.But it's definitely not a good idea to pour bleach in the toilet after you've poured in Drano to unclog it.

In general, it's good to remember that mixing your household cleaners isn't wise. However, if you're a mystery author, forget the homemade mustard gas as a murder weapon. A nice dose of Warfarin or a Hemlock salad would work better. 

What about you? Were you told that bleach and ammonia make mustard gas? Where do you suppose the myth originated? Anybody know?  

Here's a List of All the Posts in the Poison Series


Part 27: Warfarin

 ONLY 99C!!!

GHOSTWRITERS IN THE SKY:  Camilla Mystery #1 

After her celebrity ex-husband’s ironic joke about her “kinky sex habits” is misquoted in a tabloid, New York etiquette columnist Camilla Randall’s life unravels in bad late night TV jokes.

Nearly broke and down to her last Hermes scarf, she accepts an invitation to a Z-list Writers’ Conference in the wine-and-cowboy town of Santa Ynez, California, where, unfortunately, a cross-dressing dominatrix named Marva plies her trade by impersonating Camilla.

When a ghostwriter’s plot to blackmail celebrities with faked evidence leads to murder, Camilla must team up with Marva to stop the killer from striking again.

Ghostwriters in the Sky is available in e-book at all the Amazons iTunesGooglePlay  KoboInkteraScribd and NOOK.

It is available in paper at Amazon  Barnes and Noble 

and it's now available at Walmart! 
Paperback is only $10.19 at Walmart

The ebook is FREE at iTunesInktera, and Kobo!

Friday, April 28, 2017

Poisoning People for Fun and Profit #27—Warfarin




Did you know that warfarin, also known as Coumadin—that stuff that Grampa takes to prevent a stroke—was originally developed as a rat poison? It came as a surprise to me.


Kale can combat the effects of Warfarin
In high doses it can kill a human. It's a touchy drug, that doesn't get on well with lots of food. Especially green leafy foods like broccoli and kale and parsley, which diminish its effects. (Any food that's high in Vitamin K will interfere with it.)

It becomes more potent when taken with aspirin or other NSAID drugs like Advil and it's also given a boost by garlic and ginger.

The substance now called warfarin was first discovered in the
Warfarin was first discovered in spoiled sweet clover
1920s when American and Canadian cattle started dying from a mysterious bleeding disease. After some medical sleuthing, scientists discovered that the stuff causing the disease came from some fermented sweet clover in the cattle feed.

This mysterious substance prevented vitamin K from forming blood clots, so the cattle would die from minor cuts and abrasions or develop internal bleeding.

It wasn't until 1940 that scientists at the University of Wisconsin isolated the anticoagulant that caused the bleeding and gave it a name: dicoumarol.
Coumarin makes new-mown grass smell sweet


This powerful anticoagulant is produced by a fungus acting on a plant molecule called coumarin. Coumarin is the substance that makes new-mown grass smell sweet. But if the grass is allowed to ferment, rather than dry, the fungus grows and produces dicoumarol.

After World War II, researchers at the University of Wisconsin patented the substance as "Warfarin," a name derived from the acronym WARF: (Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation) and the suffix "arin" from coumarin.

Warfarin was first registered for use as a rodenticide in the US in 1948.


Rats soon became immune to Warfarin
Apparently it was very effective in killing rodents because it's odorless and tasteless, so the rats and mice would keep coming back for more until enough Warfarin accumulated in their bodies to do them in.

In 1954, Warfarin was approved for medicinal use. But patients have to be carefully monitored to make sure the right balance of Vitamin K is preserved. It can cause skin necrosis and "purple toe syndrome" if the dose is too high. It is risky enough that pregnant women are advised not to take it.

But it stopped working as a rodenticide because rats developed immunity to it. That led scientists to produce "superwarfarins" brodifacoum, diphenadione, chlorophacinone, and bromadiolone . These superwarfarins are marketed under a number of colorfully named brands like Pestoff, Ratshot, Mouser, Havoc, and the better known D-Con. 

Superwarfarins stay in the body much longer and reduce Vitamin K more quickly, so they are much more lethal. Like warfarin, they can be absorbed through the skin, so people need to use care in handling them.

Both warfarin and superwarfarin can kill humans. The Handbook of Pesticide Toxicology reports that a 32 year old man was murdered by being given warfarin for 13 days. Since the drugs are odorless and tasteless, they are easy to administer, but the killer has to stay around for at least a couple of weeks.

In 1988, two teenaged girls tried to murder their parents using the superwarfarin D-Con. But luckily the parents went for medical help for the symptoms before they succumbed to the poison.
It's not a good idea to add warfarin to your weed.


The American Journal of Hematology reported that some wildly misguided stoners have found that if they mixed superwarfarins like D-Con with their weed, it will extend their high. When they land in the emergency room with mysterious bleeding, they often don't disclose that they've been exposed to surperwarfarins, which makes treatment difficult.

One young Einstein in Utah decided that if smoking rat poison was good, eating it would be even better. He nearly died of the bleeding disorder before he admitted he had been munching on D-Con.
You'd need a lot of these to do in nasty old Aunt Augusta


But most poisoning with warfarin and its cousins is accidental. The good news is that if a person or pet takes it by mistake, they will achieve full recovery if they get to a hospital, where large doses of Vitamin K combat the action of the drug.

To the mystery writer, warfarin and its nastier cousins might provide some interesting plots. If the wealthy, bullying matriarch everybody is hoping will die is already taking warfarin for a medical condition, a little of the colorless, tasteless rat poison in her cocoa might make for the perfect murder. Hmmm.

What about you? Have you read a mystery where warfarin is used as a weapon? Can you think of a good plot for murder by warfarin? 

Here's a list of all the posts in the poison series

Part 25: Yew
Part 26: Toxic Relationships


Enjoy the post? Take a look at some of my books!

THE LADY OF THE LAKEWOOD DINER is a comedy that pokes fun at the myth of a Golden Age, making parallels between the Grail legend and the self-mythologizing of the Baby Boomer Generation.

Someone has shot aging bad-girl rocker Morgan Le Fay and threatens to finish the job. Is it fans of her legendary dead rock-god husband, Merlin? Or is the secret buried in her childhood hometown of Avalon, Maine?

Morgan's childhood best friend Dodie, the no-nonsense owner of a dilapidated diner, may be the only one who knows the dark secret that can save Morgan's life. And both women may find that love really is better the second time around. Think Beaches meets Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe.

The Lady of the Lakewood Diner is only $2.99 at all the AmazonsiTunesKoboNook and Books 2 Read

Friday, March 31, 2017

Toxic Relationships—The most Dangerous Poison of All?


Poisons come in many forms, and psychological poison can be the deadliest. 
This week I saw a tweet for a piece I wrote for Compose literary journal in June, 2013 where I talked about psychological poisonthe kind that can kill relationships and destroy souls. 

It was "the story behind the story" of  my poem, No One Will Ever Love Him, which Compose published in its debut issue in early 2013.

I hadn't read the piece since it came out. After reading it again, I realized it was about three different poisonous relationships:

1) The one I had with a talkaholic friend who refused to allow me to speak but was determined to monopolize my time.

2) The relationship she had with a narcissistic, philandering man.

3) The man's unresolved relationship with his long-dead, alcoholic mother.

Toxic relationships can be as lethal as any poison, but sometimes they can also inspire art, the way mine inspired this poem.

But I'm glad to say I'm finding healthier sources of inspiration these days. 

First I should explain that I’m not really a poet. My muse seems to have a comfort zone of 60K-100K words. I’ve only had about twenty poems and short stories published over the last decade—most written before I was publishing novels.

No One Will Ever Love Him is included in my story and poem collection, Why Grandma Bought that Car, which came out with Kotu Beach Press in 2014.

I didn't set out to write a poem that day. It kind of hijacked me. When a poem or flash-fiction piece comes to me, it often emerges as a whole, needing only a few alterations. 

It will inevitably show up when I’m working on something longer or my focus is elsewhere. 

Like a needy little kid, the poem will keep tugging on me until I give it the attention it needs.

This one emerged while I was on the phone. I’d been listening to a talkaholic friend complain about a bad boyfriend, which she did for hours nearly every day. She’d get home from work and dial my number and dump her complaints of the day on me. I became kind of an emotional garbage can for her. 

She had a lot of issues and I felt sorry for her. But the problem was she'd never reciprocate. She was incapable of listening to me. She probably knew what I was likely to say about her toxic boyfriend, and couldn’t bear to hear it. So she shut me up whenever I tried to comment on her monologues, orheaven forfendtalk about what was going on in my own life.

She'd talk over me, hang up, or—weirdest of all—make fake "listening noises" that were often comically inappropriate. If I mentioned a friend had died, she'd say "Great! Isn't that wonderful!" and go on with her monologue. Or if I said I'd had a story published in a prestigious journal, she'd say "Oh, I'm sorry," and chatter away. 

At first this seemed kind of funny, and I used to test it all the time, dropping in ridiculous things like "I have a date with Johnny Depp tonight!" (Response, "Awww. I'm so sorry") or "I have six weeks to live." (Response: "Fabulous!")


But after a while, this stuff took its toll on my psyche. It was like having duck tape put over my mouth for two hours a day. It started to make me doubt my own self worth and my sanity. It was like slow poison.

Like an idiot, I kept letting it happen month after month, thinking that someday it would be "my turn" to speak. (Yes, I tend to suffer from chronic Pollyannaism.)

She'd had a series of boyfriends who all seemed to have substance abuse problems combined with difficult-mother issues.

On this occasion, my friend told a story about how her bad boyfriend had abused a dog. It upset me a lotand because she talked over me when I tried to respond, as usualI wasn’t able to tell her what I wanted to say: "Run! You’re going to be next."


She nattered on about this man’s terrible childhood, and how she was the only one who could give Bad Boyfriend the love he'd never had.

"No one has ever loved him!" she kept saying.

"And no one ever will," I said when there was a tiny breathing space between her words. "Not the way he wants. Because he doesn't believe he’s lovable. Can’t you see how hard he’s working to create a self-fulfilling prophecy?"


She hung up on me.

I grabbed a piece paper and wrote the poem, No One Will Ever Love Him.

I also stopped taking her phone calls. That call was the moment when I realized that if I ever wanted to revive my writing career, I had to remove the things that were keeping me from success. 

And number one was toxic relationships.

The hours I spent listening to the talkaholic were hours I could have been spending on my writing. For writers, time really is money, and she was stealing from me. And I had allowed it.


Also, being talked at every day by someone who has no respect for your work, your opinions, or your time can poison every aspect of your life. 

I realized her daily calls left me feeling diminished and emotionally battered. I'd been sinking into depression, losing hope and confidence in myself. 

This was because I was getting a daily dose of her poisonous message: "your words and ideas are worthless. Nothing you say or do has any value. You are only a listening device."

I had allowed myself to be the prey of an emotional vampire—because I was afraid of hurting her feelings. 

But she had no compunction about hurting mine. In fact, I'm sure it never occurred to her that I had feelings. 

So I turned all the energy I had been using to empathize with her and listen to her problems into my writing and my blog. Within a month of cutting her off, my blog stats exploded and I got three offers from publishers. and one from an agent. 


A year later I had two best sellers, making thousands of sales a week. 

Just recently, I went back and looked at my journals from that time. I was amazed to see how long I spent writing about how that talkaholic "friend" made me feel depressed and exhausted. It was as if I had been deliberately poisoning myself. 

But finally, on that day she told me the story of the dog, I realized what had been happening. I was as guilty of staying in an abusive relationship as she was. I was doing exactly what I wanted to tell her not to do. Not only had she not been listening to me, I had not been listening to me. I was voluntarily ingesting the poison. 

I'm sure the talkaholic found a new host to feed her need for an audience, and never missed me at all. 

And my reward was a healthier, more fulfilling life. Poison-free. And a poem.



NO ONE WILL EVER LOVE HIM


by Anne R. Allen


No one will ever love him the way his mother did
between her first and second drink,
while they waited for Daddy to come home,
when Daddy still came home
sometimes.

She’d love him with puppy-promises and bicycle-dreams—
a silver-blue one with tassels on the handlebars; a dog named Shep,
and going out for ice cream, maybe, after dinner,
and those trips they'd take into the Bronx, to the zoo
someday.

They only got to the zoo that one time
After Daddy left, and she tried to sneak him in
on a kid’s ticket even though he was a big, fat thirteen-year-old by then.
They were escorted off the property by men in uniforms, after she made
a scene.

He never did get the bike—or the puppy.
Although he dog-sat for the neighbors’ Rottweiler once.
He locked it in the cellar and sat in the silver-blue Barcalounger,
eating Rocky Road, and watching reruns of
Scooby Doo.


What about you? Have you ever had a poisonous relationship that held you back from your goals? What did you do about it? Have you ever turned a toxic relationship into a story or poem? Have you ever been exploited because you're a "good listener"?

For my Poisoning People for Fun and Profit Series, click here.

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A collection of my previously published stories and poems. 

Portraits of rebellious women at various stages of their lives. From aging Betty Jo, who feels so invisible she contemplates robbing a bank, to neglected 10-year-old Maude, who turns to a fantasy Elvis for the love she's denied by her patrician family, to a bloodthirsty teen version of Madam Defarge, these women—young and old—are all rebelling against the stereotypes and traditional roles that hold them back.

Which is, of course, why Grandma bought that car…


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Compose Literary Journal is open to submissions. They publish two issues a year, one in the spring and one in the fall. For more information check their Submissions Guidelines.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Poisoning People for Fun and Profit: Part 25—Yew



The Yew tree (Taxus baccata) is a conifer with bright red berries. It's native to Europe but was used as a shrub in a lot in landscaping in the neighborhood of suburban Connecticut where I grew up in spite of the fact it's highly poisonous.
                  
Yew berries aren't poisonous, but the rest of the plant is.

I don't remember anybody warning me that the shrubs were poisonous. Luckily the flesh of the plump red berries is not.

But almost every other part of the plant is deadly. 



Yew Poisoning


Yews can be either male or female. The male tree is highly allergenic in all its parts, and the pollen is rated a 10 on the Ogren Plant Allergy Scale of 1-10. But the female tree does not produce pollen and actually produces anti-allergens. But both genders contain poisons.


Even though the berries are harmless, the seeds inside them are highly toxic—as well as the dried needles and bark and most other parts of the plant. They all contain taxin, a complex of alkaloids which is rapidly absorbed by the body. They also have ephedrine, a cyanogenic glycoside (taxiphyllin) and a volatile oil.

If people or animals eat the berries and swallow them whole, they may be perfectly fine, but anyone who chews the seed can ingest a lethal dose with as few as three berries. 


Most parts of the plant retain their toxicity even long after the tree itself is dead.

When animals or humans are poisoned there may be no symptoms and death may follow within a few hours. When symptoms do occur, they include trembling, staggering, coldness, weak pulse and collapse.


Longevity


Yew trees can live for five hundred years or more. Ten yews in Britain are said to be as much as 1000 years old. One, the Fortingall Yew in Scotland, may be from 2000 to 5000 years old. 


In 2015, scientists discovered The Fortingall Yew is changing its gender from male to female after all these millennia. Who knew that trees could be trans? 

The Fortingall Yew in Scotland

But measuring their exact age of a yew is problematic, because the boughs often become hollow as they age, which makes ring counts impossible. 


Usefulness


Yew wood is classified as a "soft" wood, but is harder than other softwoods and is very elastic, so it has many uses.

Yew was highly prized for making longbows.

Yew was so highly prized as material for longbows in the middle ages that yews became an endangered species, and Richard III ordered that every ship bringing goods into England had to supply ten bowstaves for every ton of cargo.

Medieval luthiers also considered yew the wood of choice for lutes and other stringed instruments.

I can't find any mention of medieval luthiers or bow makers protecting themselves from the wood, but modern wood turners are warned to take precautions. Woodworkers have been hospitalized after inhaling dust from yew wood.

People are also advised not to make cutting boards or other food serving utensils out of yew. I couldn't find any documented cases of death by yew wood cutting board, but it could be an interesting plot point in a mystery novel.



Mythology and History


The yew is interwoven with the history of early Europe and is surrounded by rich mythology. The tree was sacred to many cultures.

One of the world's oldest surviving wooden artifacts is a yew spear head, found in 1911 at Clacton-on-Sea, in the UK. It's estimated to be 450,000 years old.
Yews are often found in churchyards


Julius Caesar tells of the chief of the Celtic tribe Eburones who poisoned himself with yew rather than submit to Rome.

The yew was sacred to the pre-Christian Celts, and reverence for them has survived in England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Normandy and Wales, where yews are often found in churchyards. Their longevity and deadly nature probably contributed to their myth as trees of power and magic.

In traditional Germanic paganism, Yggdrasill—the tree of life—may have been a yew tree rather than the ash as more recent tradition would have it. Most scholars now think the tree was most likely a yew. This comes from a confusion of the words for yew and ash in Old Norse. Yggdrasill is described as "evergreen" but the European ash is deciduous.

Also, the yew releases a mildly toxic gas (taxine) on hot days that can cause hallucinations.



This might relate to the story of the Germanic god Odin, who had a revelation (the wisdom of the runes) after hanging from a branch of Yggdrasill for nine days. This myth is thought to be related to the Tarot card The Hanged Man, which shows a serene man hanging upside down from the branch of a tree. 


Medicinal Uses


Like many poisons, the yew has always been prized for its healing as well as deadly
The Pacific Yew
properties. Even in modern times.


In the 1960s, the bark of the Pacific yew (Taxus brevifolia) was discovered to contain anti-cancer agents. Environmentalists feared the tree would become endangered by medicinal harvesting until a synthetic version, taxol, was invented in the early 1990s.

What about you? Did you know the yew is deadly poison? Have you ever read a mystery where yew is used as a murder weapon? 


Here's a list of all the posts in the poison series



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