Friday, July 7, 2023

Current reflections: Grief origins and aftermath


Heather in Hawaii around 2009, maybe?

My sister —my beautiful, baby sister — died on January 28 this year. 

I've been wondering how or if I would ever write about it anywhere publicly for a while now. I've posted bits and pieces about what I went through on Facebook, a tiny bit on Twitter, some of it in my journal, but mostly I've just thought about it over and over, speaking with the others who went through it with me, like my mom, other family members, and some of Heather's friends. In order to keep some semblance of privacy I've tried not to use any names, but when I say "we," I usually mean me and Heather's friends or some of our family, or sometimes Heather and I. Also, I have decided not to write about any of Heather's specific health issues to honor her privacy. 

Anyway, it's just all too big; the memories and feelings take up huge bits of real estate in my head and heart. So, this is my attempt to write about what happened and what I am going through now. It's a long read. If you don't feel like going through it all, you can skip to the end to see links to her obituary.

What Happened

When Heather first went into the hospital in mid-December, we knew it was serious, but we also thought it was survivable. My sister was a very private person, so at first we didn't even know she was in the hospital, until her best friend, the one who had called 911 and got her there, got her permission to let me and our mom know. 

Christmas was one of my sister's favorite times of the year. Mine and my mom's as well. We always tried to make it special for each other. But this last season, it felt rushed and off, and that was before she ended up in the hospital.  It was almost as if Heather knew she didn't have much time. She got her Christmas gifts out to us fairly early. And we tried to get ours to her early, but not early enough, it turned out. I now think of it as the Christmas-that-wasn't.

By Boxing Day, the hospital let us know that Heather's condition was not, after all, survivable, except by a very slim margin, or a miracle. She had asked for help in getting her affairs in order. I had been the emergency contact with the doctors because my mom has some other health issues that made it difficult for her. But, I didn't have what I needed to get to Oakland, and my sister didn't have the wherewithal to access her own funds to help. I was going to go by train because that was doable, when I got a call that it would be best if I could get there sooner rather than later. I had a small amount left of my IRA funds that I had slowly been eating away at since I haven't been able to find work. So, I used up some of the last of that fund to get a ticket, but you know that doesn't happen quickly. It always takes a few days. And by the time it all "settled" I ended up getting a ticket that was overpriced, but got me there, in Oakland, by the evening of January 2. By then, the doctors were sure that Heather would be gone in the next few days.

As soon as I landed, I went straight to the hospital. It was night, I was exhausted and scared. In the two-three weeks that my sister had been in the hospital, we hadn't really been able to communicate with her very well. The toxins in her system had messed with her head (sometimes she would even pull the tubes or IV lines out, or try to anyway). Her phone was either in a locked cabinet or out of juice. Sometimes, occasionally, we'd get a nurse who would make time so we could talk to her on the phone or via a tablet or iPad. But these were just moments of jumbled conversation. Cards that my mom and I sent to Heather were never given to her, just stuffed in with her clothes and locked in a cabinet. I didn't even see them until after I went through her clothes when she was transferred to hospice. There were no Christmas trees or cards or decorations or anything to celebrate. I wanted to burst into her hospital room and try to do something about it! I wanted my baby sister to at least have some kind of celebration in her life.

And of course, when I tried to do that the next day, first thing she said to me was, "don't do that to me." 

It was so sad. 

But, back to that first evening. 

If you've been in hospitals recently, you know what it's like. There's security, limited number of visitors per patient (unless they're under palliative care and then that number is loosened up a bit), none of the vending machines work, and if there are coffee shops or cafeterias, they're all closed by like 2 or 3 p.m. And I'm not sure why, but at the time, Highland Hospital never seemed to have any orange juice. Every time she asked for orange juice she got apple juice. Once it was cranberry. It got to where she just wouldn't touch it when it came. So we started bringing in OJ for her. We were told it was better if she ate, so we wanted to make sure she ate something. Plus, she was dying, for pete's sake! The least we could do was make sure she had the orange juice she loved and craved.

Hospitals, for all that they're there to stabilize and get people on the road to healing, are not user friendly. 

Anyway, that first evening, there I was, juggling my cane and my luggage, walking hallways that seemed to go on forever (after a day in the airport that had seemed to go on forever) on two knees with osteoarthritis, a bum left ankle, a right foot with its own issues (plus a handful of other health issues I am dealing with) to finally get to my sister's room. It was the same walk I took almost every day, more or less, for the next two weeks as we figured out how to settle Heather's affairs and what her next steps were.

Those long hallways, standing in line at security, walking even longer hallways to the elevators and up to Heather's room, with me hauling in photos and food and my laptop and her iPhone, etc., still pop into my head at the most unexpected times. Day after day, and not always to the same room, I wondered how I would I find her. What condition would she be in? Because, of course, as Heather's condition changed, her room changed. Don't know why they couldn't just leave her in the same room, but every few days, as soon as we got used to how to get to her, sure as anything, she'd be in a new room.

The doctors had expected Heather to be gone (and by gone, I mean dead) by the 5th at the latest, and I was crossing my fingers for her to be with us until at least the 9th, so we could "get things done." Each day she had maybe an hour or two when she was at her most coherent, snatched at small intervals. That decreased over time, eventually, and it was time we needed for her to be able to make decisions and let us know what she wanted with the Will, with hospice, with saying goodbye to friends and family. It was hard; hard on her and hard for us, her friends and family, who were with her. She wanted to sign blank checks so I could access her accounts for making some of the arrangements, but her hands wouldn't work. When it came to her Will, we needed to use a traveling notary ($237) who would verify she was cognizant and who used a thumbprint to show her intention even if her signature was unrecognizable. One of the days when she was the most aware and we were discussing it, I captured her in a video as she stated very articulately what she wanted done. She was exhausted with the effort it took at the end of these days. It was so hard to watch. However, we were able to get a Will done and signed and witnessed by the 7th, thankfully.

The palliative care team, which really did a very good job of watching over Heather's care in the hospital, had said it was okay for me to spend the night with her (comfort care rules), which I tried to do. But some night nurse always chased me out, even when Heather said, very clearly, that she wanted me to stay there (and it wasn't like I was in the way, I was just sitting in a corner of the room), and even when we told the nurses that the palliative care doctor said it was okay, they wouldn't listen and would make me leave. I really begrudged that time with her. I wanted to stay with my baby sister and spend as much time with her as I could. Each night when I went home, when her friends left, we didn't know if that would be last time we saw her alive. Whenever I received a phone call with an Oakland area code, I didn't know if it might be the hospital letting me know if it was time. Had she died? So, I really wanted to stay each night and wanted to put up a fight about it, but I also needed the nurses and doctors to be on my side, Heather's side, our side, for helping us to make the right moves. So, I went home, or back to Heather's home, actually, and spent the evenings wondering how she was, regretting not seeing her more, bawling over the loss (I had almost fallen into tears in Heather's hospital room when I first got there, but her head whipped around and she flat out ordered me, "Don't cry!" So, I set myself the task of holding back any crying until I could get safely back to her place). I was also going through her things, deciding what could be thrown away and what would need to be packed away eventually. (Tossing out the old food was easy. But it was when it finally hit me that she would never be coming back to her place and I started throwing away her underthings and socks that it broke something inside me.) Then each morning I'd get back up, wondering how Heather had fared over night, and start the whole process all over again. 

It wasn't all grim. There was some humor. When I was in her apartment I found four (4) copies of her apartment key. When I asked her why she had so many she gave me a wide grin and said, "I'm paranoid!" It was a funny moment.

At first, it was all crisis mode. Then, after the emergencies were seen to, such as medical decisions and getting the Will signed, we had to make the other decisions, such as what measures, if any, Heather wanted the hospital to take to keep her alive. The "Do Not Resuscitate" order on her chart was her decision. I was there and holding her hand when we talked about it. She was not alone. 

Finding a Hospice

Then there was the matter of hospice or comfort care: hospital, home, or hospice? Believe it or not, but the Bay Area doesn't have that many actual hospices. A lot of "hospices" are just wings of nursing homes or rehab facilities, and most of them are full up, so you have to get on a waiting list. They (doctors and providers and insurance companies) usually depend on people spending "hospice" at home, which means the family provides the care with an occasional medical technician coming in to make sure they're doing things correctly. And this might be fine if the home is a ranch-style single-family home on one level with several bedrooms and enough family members to pitch in with care, but not such an easy set up if you live in a 300-square-foot studio apartment with a hinky plumbing system that's got a steep driveway and two sets of stairs to get to the front door and is out in the middle of the Oakland Hills in the midst of winding roads (very pretty, but not so practical), with no street lighting, no public transportation, and hardly any parking. Oh, and it was going to be me being her caretaker, and maybe a couple of friends who could make it when they could.

But then, at first the doctors assumed Heather wouldn't even make it to hospice, that she would die in the hospital, which is why she was changed to a system called "comfort care," which means taking away the machines, adjusting medications so it's more for keeping the patient comfortable, and allowing more family to visit. However, Heather was strong and dying on her own schedule, which was not as quickly as the doctors at the hospital thought. So we were being gently pushed to get her transferred. There was a waiting list for the few hospices in the Oakland area (Alameda County), and again, while one social worker tried to push for us to take her home, there was no way we were going to be able to do hospice at Heather's studio apartment.

Heather and a friend.     
Photos of Heather

Heather and Mom one Christmas.

Mom and Heather at Mom's 80th birthday dinner.

Our cousin, Heather, me, and Mom.

Heather and I in about 1979.


























In the middle of all this, when Heather was able, we were trying to phone or Facetime friends and family. Our stepmother had brought in some photos of Dad and Heather and I when times were better. In going through Heather's apartment I found other photos that I brought in for Heather to look at when she was aware. They were photos of her with friends and family, or from some of her travels to Cuba, Puerto Rico, Italy, etc. Some family members were able to schedule visits. We were going to make sure that Heather could feel the love of her friends and family around her. I kind of failed at this, though, as sometimes people would call or text Heather and I would be so distracted with other things that she wouldn't get the messages until later. But we were trying. 

Mission House Woodside

The hospital social worker had overheard us talking about friends and family who lived on the peninsula in San Mateo County. It was after the 9th and I initially thought I would be going home by the 10th. But Heather was still around, albeit with a DNR wrist band and sleeping more and more each day. I decided I needed to stay for the duration, whatever that needed to be. Both the hospital and her insurance wanted her transferred elsewhere, and I've already pointed out some of the issues we had with those various "elsewheres." However, there was a hospice the social worker knew about on the peninsula, Mission Hospice Woodside in Redwood City, which did have a bed open. I am so glad we went there. It was further away from her apartment than the hospital (an hour's drive via Lyft or Uber instead of the 20 minute drive to Highland Hospital), but it was exactly the place she needed to be. 

The day we transferred to the hospice was Friday, January 13 — Friday the 13th. Heather and I laughed about that. I was able to ride in the ambulance with her when they transported her there. We didn't talk much, though, just held hands. It was a bumpy ride and we were both pretty nervous. 

What I remember most about Heather getting settled is the kindness of the staff as we were going through the steps of checking her in, and the moment when we got into the room and the nurses were setting things up, surrounding Heather. They asked me to step out while the settled her, but she was nervous and scared and suddenly more aware and looked up and around and saw me. Her eyes were wide. I said, "I'm here. I'm right here and I'll be right back as soon as they're done." She nodded and I stepped out. I was scared and nervous, too. 

Now, here's something I learned that is crucial in anyone's understanding of a hospice. While a hospital is there to stabilize and get the patient onto the road to recovery, a hospice is there to help provide comfort to someone who is most likely in their final days. While a hospital will also try to keep a patient comfortable, that's not their primary goal. And while the medical professionals do see a lot of death, they don't specialize in what people go through at the end of their lives. So, for example, one of the differences was that the hospital brought in meals on a regular schedule. While the hospital pared down the meals because Heather didn't eat very much unless we helped her, they still kept up that schedule. At the hospice, however, as it was explained to me by the administrator when we checked in, there was no set schedule. If a client (not patient, since hospices are not considered medical facilities the way hospitals are) was hungry, they could ask for a meal, and meals were made on site. And they even had orange juice! Heather's first and only meal at the hospice was orange juice and tomato soup, both very tasty. However, 20 minutes later Heather was in pain and needed pain medication. 

Back in the hospital we hadn't connected Heather's eating with her pain. And if the staff were aware of how it was all processing, they didn't explain it to us. However, one of the nurses at the hospice explained to us that with the nature of Heather's illness, her body had problems processing food, which resulted in pain about 20 minutes after she ate. And as time went on and her system broke down more, it would have more problems processing food, and create more pain. One of the best ways to navigate that, the nurse pointed out, was to make sure that Heather had just enough to satiate the need for something in her mouth, such as sucking on ice chips or using oral care swabs, and limit any food intake, and thus prevent, as much as possible, any onset of pain. 

The End

So, that is what we did, helping relieve Heather's dry mouth with oral swabs, water, and ice chips. Over the course of the next couple of weeks, her friends, our stepmom, and I took turns hanging out with her at the hospice, trading off spending the night with her, reading to her, watching some of her favorite cop and western shows as we had in the hospital. More family came to visit. Mom called and talked to her. She wasn't usually responsive, partly because of the pain killers, but we wanted to make sure that if there was any awareness, she'd know she was loved.

The staff took excellent care of her, always making sure she was as comfortable as possible and always treating her with great kindness and respect. In fact, when Heather had first gone into the hospital, her best friend's wife had given her a bracelet to wear that had a Tibetan prayer inscribed on it. She always wore it. When she went into hospice, one of the nurses, who was from Nepal, recognized the prayer and prayed it with her one day during his shift. It was so kind.

Heather passed over late on the evening/early morning of January 27/28. Her best friend was with her at the time. She was with someone who loved her and I will always be grateful for that. 

After she passed, while we were waiting for the crematorium to pick up her body, the staff did what they called a rose petal ceremony where her body was wiped down with lavender oil and water, she was dressed in regular clothes, and then her body was sprinkled with rose petals. And then we sat with her while we waited. This was my baby sister. I remembered holding her when she was a baby and first came home from the hospital when I was three years old. Since then, we had played and fought, been best friends, and not talked to each other. Whenever I thought about growing old, it was with my sister by my side. That night, it was difficult for me to grasp that her spirit was no longer in her body, that I would never see her again, that she wouldn't just wake up and tell me to get over myself.

When we said goodbye to Heather in Half Moon Bay


It has been five months since then, but sometimes it feels like it's been a year, sometimes it feels like it just happened last week. I had gone up to Oakland for what I thought would be a week and ended up staying for a month, and it felt like a year. As they say on Doctor Who, time was all wibbly-wobbly — is still all wibbly-wobbly. While everywhere else it was becoming spring and summer, and the rest of the world was talking about Mother's Day, and then graduations, and then Father's Day, I was feeling like it was still winter, like in Narnia — always winter, never Christmas.

We scattered Heather's ashes in Half Moon Bay at the end of April. It was where we had scattered our dad's ashes; she had requested it especially. It was a perfect day and all the right people were there. Still, it's been a hard 2023 for everyone who knew Heather and loved her. I can only write about it from my own perspective, but I know I'm not the only one who mourns her loss and misses her terribly. Her friends and other family members all have experienced, or are experiencing, their grief in just as many different ways. She was an intelligent, beautiful, and vibrant person and she will always be missed.

If you never met my sister and would like to read a little bit more about her, you can find links to her obituary below. The one in the Bellingham Herald even has a short video with photos.

Heather's obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle:

Heather's obituary in the Bellingham Herald, which has a short video:

Tuesday, November 1, 2022

Editing your own work: Using the "Find" Feature

When composing a document, whether it's an email to a friend or the next chapter in your own version of the Great American Novel, it's always a good idea to read through it for proofs and errors at least once before sending it anywhere. Even if you're sending it to someone like myself, whose job it is to proofread and/or copy edit your work for you, there's a lot of "pre-proofing" that you can do ahead of time. After all, as the author of your work, it's your job to "own" the work and have intimate knowledge of what your work is saying and how it goes about saying it. 

One reason to proofread is that you may have blind spots while you're writing your piece, such as mistakes and misspellings that you commonly make while your brain is in creator mode and not editor mode. And if you simply read through the copy again your eyes will probably glide over many of those mistakes. It's important to put yourself into "editor" mode before reading through your work again and make your brain see the words and phrases individually.

One way to put your brain into editor mode is to use the "Find" function in whatever application you're using (MS Word, InDesign, Final Draft, Pages, etc.). This will help you see specific items that need to be changed, and your eyes/brain are less likely to glide over the mistake. For example, you want to make sure that a name you used in your copy is correctly and consistently spelled throughout the piece. Type the first two or three letters of that name in the "Find" box, then click on the button to jump to that name in the document, and so skip from name to name throughout the document to make sure each time it shows up it is spelled correctly. 

If you KNOW that you have misspelled that name or word at least once, then type that misspelling into the "Find" box and use that to skip around the document to find all other instances where it may have been misspelled. 

Maybe you're not sure you misspelled anything, but you know you put the apostrophe in the wrong spot. For example, in most current styles, one does not put an " 's " after numerals when describing a time period like the 70s. It should not be "70's." Though at one time it was common to do that and considered okay, now it's not. Now it's considered correct to write it as "70s" without the apostrophe. You want to make sure you have gotten rid of all those extra apostrophes. So, in this instance, you type the 's into the search box for the "Find" function. It will probably take you through to all the other instances where you have a possessive, as well as the numeral you are checking for, which will feel like a pain. But in this instance (as well as the others listed above), that's a good thing. It means you are being forced to spot check your document in a way that is making you read it out of order and pay attention to specifics. In this way, you will see the document differently and, most likely, find mistakes you weren't even looking for that happen to be in the same general area as whatever it is that you typed into the search function. 

Of course, you still want to read through the copy one final time after that, because you always need to read it over one final time. That's just the way it is with proofreading.

Monday, October 3, 2022

Discovering new authors: Brooklyn Brujas


One of the cool things about using the Libby library app is how it suggests books and authors for you once it gets to know what you're looking for. Because it's Hispanic Heritage Month, more Latinx authors have been suggested on the app than normal, and I decided to try "Labyrinth Lost" by Zoraida Córdova.  It is book one in the Brooklyn Brujas three-book series. I totally enjoyed the story. I was so immersed in it, it felt real to me, the way I was immersed in the Harry Potter books when I read them. I wanted to know more about that world and the mythos that Alex and her sisters and the rest of her family inhabits. I found myself looking up prexes (bruja/o rosaries) and wanting to learn more about Los Lagos.

Just to give you a little taste of what it's about, Alex, or Alejandra, is the middle child of three daughters in a family with a bruja/brujo heritage that goes back generations. Her father disappeared when they were kids and her mom has had to work two jobs to keep everything together AND pay the mortgage, while also attending her bruja circle and keeping up her faith and trying to keep her daughters in the faith. For Córdova is very good at showing how this is a very real faith and a real subculture within the Latinx culture. But Alex doesn't think she believes anymore. She is in track at her high school, where she is a sophomore, has a best friend, Rishi (East Indian), she hangs out with (and has never told about her family's magic status), and just wants to be a normal girl. If she could, she'd give up any claim to magic. But, if that really happened, there'd be no need for a story, right?

The story touches a lot of different areas of interest, from magic, teen angst and rebellion to LGBTQ romance, heroine's quest, and dark fantasy themes.
Córdova does a very good job of showing the awkwardness, tenderness, and confusion of first love, as well as the misunderstandings and quibbling of sibling relationships.

I highly recommend this for your next read. I listened to the audiobook, which was narrated by Almarie Guerra, and a delight to listen to. I look forward to listening to the next two books in the series, and even looking up other books by Córdova. I think this is a great story to read during October for Halloween and Day of the Dead, and of course during the rest of Hispanic Heritage Month.

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Before Wonder Woman, there was Diana, Princess of Themyscira

In my search for books to listen to, I sometimes run into duds (recently sent three books back to Libby before I finished them because the narrators were getting on my nerves and the stories were not holding my attention), but sometimes I find some real gems. Recently, I found two audiobooks that were quite enjoyable, both about one of my favorite characters, Diana Prince, Princess of Themyscira, also known as Wonder Woman. 

Wonder Woman: Warbringer by Leigh Bardugo, narrated by Mozhan Marno

I read Wonder Woman: Warbringer back in 2017 when it first came out and quite enjoyed it then. Five years later, I decided to try out the audiobook, and I wasn't disappointed. The book is written for teens ages 12 to 17 years old, so Young Adult or YA in nature. There's some violence, but also plenty of teen angst, smart ass repartee, and romantic notions without any romantic situations, really. The story starts on the Island of the Amazons, also known as Themyscira, and is set before Diana has morphed into Wonder Woman. She's about 15 years old, curious, ambitious, competitive, intelligent, and really wants to prove herself. Diana also has a good understanding of the narrow line her mother, Queen Hippolyta, has to walk in serving and leading the Amazons, obeying the strictures placed on the island, and also being a good mother to Diana. 

Themyscira was set up by the gods (or several goddesses) to be the final home of women who are heroes and warriors or were wrongfully killed by men. In a sense, this is their Elysian Fields or Heaven. This is where they can practice their arts and skills, from races and horseback riding, to arts, music, and crafts, to hand-to-hand combat, for eternity (At one point, Diana refers to a gun as a coward's weapon because you shoot your opponent from a distance rather than facing them. Also, each sister-warrior is in touch with the others, so what one feels, so do the others, even when they're fighting in hand-to-hand combat.). But the inhabitants are from all over the world and from all sorts of cultures, and don't just worship the pantheon of Greek gods. While I didn't read about any Catholics or Lutherans on the island, I'm pretty sure they'd be as welcome as those who worship the Celtic and Norse pantheon of gods, as well as others. And part of me would love to see a story about the several types of inhabitants and how they got there. Are there any atheists or agnostics? Modern pagans or wiccans? If Themyscira is supposed to be a paradise for woman warriors and heroes, it shouldn't matter their creed, right? Pentacostal or Vodun?  A follower of Confucius, Tao, or Buddha? Or maybe Krishna, Vishnu, or Kali? Mithras? I just think that would be fun. Christmas/Saturnalia/Winter Solstice (or Summer Solstice if you're "down under") on the island would be a good setting for it, in case anyone is getting any ideas. 😁 You can read a little bit more about Themyscira and Hippolyta here.

However, back to Diana Prince. While she has a good head on her shoulders, she's still a teenager and still headstrong and impulsive. She breaks several rules to save and help Alia Keralis, who is a direct descendant of Helen of Troy, and could be a harbinger of the apocalypse. Logic dictates that Alia should die to save the world. But Alia is just another teenage girl, like Diana, but more of a NYC 21st century teen than Diana could ever be. Diana befriends Alia and thinks that there is a third way, one that will keep Alia from getting killed, and keep the world from falling into a disastrous war. It's got little to no chance of working, of course, but Diana is determined to try. 

Typical of Wonder Woman of later years, Diana, like her mother, seems to know she needs to walk a fine line between worlds. She doesn't know how the "real world" works, really, other than from what she's read in books. She can't talk to anyone about it because she'd sound crazy, and she wants to protect her home. She doesn't even know what she is truly capable of, thinking only that she has yet to become a true hero like most of the citizens of Themyscira. In a very real sense, Diana is in the world, but not of it. The legend is that she was created from clay and given life by her mother, with supposed help from Hades. But she has yet to discover her gifts of speed and strength, among others. Her journey with Alia is as much a journey of discovery of herself as it is a journey to save the world.

Anyone familiar with the Grishaverse series knows that Leigh Bardugo is a great writer and storyteller, and she doesn't disappoint here. I know Wonder Woman is a DC heroine, but I really wish Bardugo could continue writing stories about teenage Diana. Mozhan Marno, who is the narrator, also adds to the story, and is very good at depicting the different characters involved in the twisty-turny plot. This can be a good listen as well as a good read and I highly recommend it. 

Diana and the Island of No Return by Aisha Saeed, 

narrated by Kristen DiMercurio


After listening to Bardugo's Wonder Woman book, I was looking for something else similar and found this, Diana and the Island of No Return, by Aisha Saeed (you can read more about Saeed here). And guess what? It's the first of three books! Yay! So, I am looking forward to being able to get to the other two books as well.

This book, which came out just last year in 2021, is more Middle Grade than YA, and is for readers ages 8 to 12. Diana is herself about 12 years old in this story. And similar to the Warbringer book, she is intelligent, ambitious, competitive, yet also kindhearted. How she was created from clay is no secret. In both this story and the other, Hippolyta has been honest with Diana as to her origins. It's just with other things about Diana that she's a little more cagey. She knows that there is more to Diana than even Diana knows, especially at this tween stage in her life. But she wants to protect Diana from a wide world that Diana may not understand and that may destroy Diana. 

Similar to the Warbringer story, Diana sees someone in need, in this case a boy (no boys allowed on Themyscira!), and jumps in impulsively to help him without telling her mother. Diana learns, through use of the Golden Lasso, that the boy, Augustus, has been sent by a demon to kidnap Diana. If he doesn't do this, his family and entire village (he also lives on an island and the people there design and make chariots for the gods) will be destroyed by the demon. In the meantime, he's put everyone on Themyscira to sleep, and the only antidote is, of course, on the island that he comes from. So, even though she feels pressed into it, Diana decides to come back with him. She also brings with her her best friend, Princess Sakina, and Sakina's pet bird. 

Back on the island, Augustus, Sakina, and Diana set to finding the ingredients that will wake up the residents of Themyscira, and also the ingredients for the potion that will defeat the demon. Sakina, who is from the land of the scholars, knows what type demon he is, which helps Augustus figure out what potion might work on him. Again, as in Warbringer, this is a story as much about Diana's own self discovery as it is about catching the bad guy and bringing him to justice. And while the story is brought to a satisfactory close, there's a few tantalizing and dangling threads for readers who want to continue on with the series. 

I had never heard of Aisha Saeed before this book, but now I want to read all her books. This was a fun story. Not as sophisticated as Bardugo's, but it's not meant to be. It's action packed and full of fun scenes between the friends as they struggle to save their homes. I wasn't as pleased with the narrator, Kristen DiMercurio, but after the prologue and first chapter, I was able to relax into her style and soon forgot about the awkwardness that I heard in the beginning. I highly recommend this book and look forward to reading/listening to the rest of the series.


Thursday, August 4, 2022

City of the Lost by Kelley Armstrong, a review of the first book in the Casey Duncan series

Back in 2010, I went to a function at Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena that was part of a tour called the Smart Chicks Kick It Tour. It was a panel discussion/book signing with a number of speculative fiction authors, including Kelley Armstrong, Rachel Caine, Melissa De La Cruz, Kami Garcia, Melissa Marr, Alyson Noel, Mary Pearson, Margaret Stohl, and Rachel Vincent. 

You can see a photo from that event above. From left to right (hopefully I get these right, it's been a while), is Rachel Caine, Alyson Noel (back), Margaret Stohl (front), Melissa De La Cruz (back), Kami Garcia (front), Melissa Marr, Kelley Armstrong (back), Rachel Vincent (front), and Mary Pearson (back). 

At the time, one of my freelance gigs was proofreading for Locus Magazine, and they let me know about this event and wondered if I would be available to hang out and take photos and maybe ask questions and forward same to them. Of course I said yes, and even after several long bus rides there and back again, it was worth it. 

Rachel Vincent was the only author in this group that I was familiar with at the time, but after the discussions and the question and answer period, I swore I would find the books these women had written and delve into them. They seemed to be a fun bunch of people, and the few moments that I was able to talk to some of them I was struck by their coolness, as well as their "funness" and sincerity factors.

Well, I did delve into some of their books at the time, or short stories that I happened to read in anthologies, but then I got distracted, life happened, and keeping track of these ladies kind of fell by the wayside. 

Fast forward to the pandemic and my recent love affair with the audiobook. I'm trying to find a cool new book to listen to on Libby, and I feel like I've made some bad choices. Nothing is pulling me in. And then I see this cool cover, with an intriguing description, by Kelley Armstrong. The name made me stop. I haven't been paying attention to urban fantasy writers (other than old faves like Neil Gaiman) for a while now, but I knew the name so I stopped. I looked up the book, the author, and then I remembered what I learned about the author at this event, how I had enjoyed hearing her stories on stage. So, I check it out and begin listening and fall in love. 

For me, City of the Lost (book published in 2015, audiobook in 2017) by Kelley Armstrong (narrated by Thérèse Plummer, you can hear a sample here), hit a lot of high points and feels. It's set in Canada and has elements of Twin Peaks mixed with bits of Firefly and Northern Exposure. It's not quite scifi/fantasy, but definitely speculative in nature. It is a thriller and detective story, with Wild West elements tossed in. 

Told in first person, mostly present tense, Detective Casey Duncan, the main character, is reminiscent of Detective Benson of Law & Order: SVU. She's tough, with a marred interior. She's made mistakes, but she tries to be a good person. She's got some issues (introduced early on, mostly), but tries to make sure they don't get in the way of doing her job. Of Asian descent and with parents and a sibling who are all uber-smart and have gone into medicine, she's the outlier who has wanted to go into law enforcement ever since she was a teenager. A born rebel.

In the middle of trying to be a good person and help her best friend Diana flee an ex-boyfriend (and get herself out of a bad situation as well), she follows up on a suggestion by Diana to move to a small town in the Yukon that does not officially exist. It's a place where people can go to hide out, or disappear, for anywhere from two to five years, or longer, sometimes. They have to apply to be accepted; show that they have a real reason to fear for their lives. They also need to come up with the fee to get in, or have a vital skill to trade in return for living in this "haven," Rockton. We learn that the town, population about 200, is in the middle of the woods, somewhere outside Dawson City, and so isolated that if you disappear into those woods, you're either dead, or end up becoming one of the wild folk, "settlers" or "hostiles." There is no internet, no cell phones or computers, no mail, no contact with the outside world, no TV signals (though one character does admit to having DVDs and a DVD player and screen), no currency (just "credits"), and little electricity. Only essential services, like the infirmary, have access to generators. Most people in the town have to learn to live with wood stoves and oil lamps.
Supplies are grown, caught (as in game hunting) or flown in, and at a premium. Recycling is a necessity. All residents are between the ages of 18 and 60. There is no mayor or town council, however there is a shadowy council "down south" that makes decisions on who is allowed in and also decides on punishments when crimes are more than the average bar brawl. The "law" is a sheriff, Eric Dalton, and his deputy, Will Anders. And now, a detective, Casey Duncan (now Butler). 

And that's another thing. Almost everyone in town has a new name, not the name they had in the "real world." And while they might tell you they came to escape an abusive relationship or because they were being wrongfully accused of something, the backgrounds of these residents are shadowy, iffy, nebulous, and shifty. So, when some of the residents get murdered, Dalton, Anders, and Butler have to figure out who's stories they can trust, and who's lying. Nothing is as it seems.

It's an intriguing concept, this life of isolation and escape from the "real world." And again, while this isn't a scifi/fantasy story, it definitely has an alternative speculative feel that puts ii smack dab into genre territory. The spooky woods aspect, with the dangerous "settlers" and "hostiles," mixed with the mysterious person behind the murders, is what gives it the Twin Peaks feel, while the characters seem be, well, real characters. They reminded me of characters from Firefly. The sheriff is an asshole, kind of like a mix of "Capt. Mal," and "Jayne Cobb," while his deputy is the "nice guy," more like "Wash." Diana is like a teenager set loose on the bar scene for the first time, and seems to lose it at the drop of a hat. (I don't know who to compare her to because every time she struck out at someone — verbally, that is — I wanted to beat her about the head and shoulders.) Some of the others seem to be "normal," but in this town, you don't know, do you? One of the women, Isabelle, has the feel of "Nandi" from the "Heart of Gold" episode on Firefly. 

The narrator, Plummer, is excellent. She gives Casey's voice a throaty, earthy feel, and creates distinct voices for each of the other characters as well (not all narrators do that). I felt comfortable listening to this at a 1.10 speed, although it probably would have been fine at a regular speed (I find I mostly like listening at a 1.10-1.15 speed, or 1.25 if I'm getting impatient because I don't like what's going on and just want to get through it).

I think I had figured out "whodunnit" a little before the reveal, but Armstrong keeps the story fast paced and twisty-turny enough that even if you figure it out sooner rather than later, you'd still have a good time. There's a hint of a romance, but not too much sex, with a "fade to black" for most scenes where it appears. (For some reason, I cringe at sex scenes in audiobooks. It's one thing to read them, and another to listen to someone else reading them.) This is the first in a seven-book series, and between the setting and the characters, I confess that I am hooked. I really wanted to listen to the next in the series, A Darkness Absolute, as soon as finished this one, but alas, I had work to do and all the other copies were already checked out! So I placed a hold and can't wait for it to show up! (I love using Libby.)

If you're looking for a fun thriller/whodunnit with a slight feel of being outside your own time and place, I definitely recommend City of the Lost by Kelley Armstrong.

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Proofreading, copy editing, and developmental editing: What they are and when to have them done

When it comes to making your written piece of art — whether it be your novel, screenplay, business proposal, or even your Christmas newsletter — the best that it can be, it sometimes takes a village, as they say. You can't necessarily do it all alone. Bringing the written word to life does not happen in a vacuum, no matter what myth or legend you may hear about famous authors hiding away in a cabin the woods for months to produce their magnum opus. Somewhere along the line someone outside of yourself needs to read the thing and find the mistakes in the thing so that you can make it better. 

Sometimes, if you put the piece away for a while before looking at it again, you can do the bulk of this yourself. In fact, writers are known to go through several versions of a novel or screenplay or book before they consider it is "done." And even then, there may be more to do. And there are people, like me, who can help writers to the point where the piece is finally completed.

Typically, there are at least three different types of passes through a piece of written work or manuscript before it is published (or submitted or mailed out, etc.): the developmental edit, the copy edit, and the proofreading pass. 

The Developmental Edit

In writing and rewriting the various versions of their work, a writer may want someone with an objective eye to go through their work-in-progress (WIP) to make sure the plot, characters, flow, structure and form of their piece. Again, sometimes a writer can do this themselves by putting the WIP aside for a few months and then taking another look at it. But sometimes, it's better to hire someone else to do this. This is not proofreading or copy editing, though there may be some proofreading involved, since the editor will probably point out various errors they find. 

However, at this point, the editor and writer should have a conversation about the WIP and where the writer wants to see it go, what s/he is trying to accomplish with it, etc. Chances are, the writer has been living and breathing this WIP for months or even years, so that they can't see it objectively anymore. The editor, however, is coming to the piece with fresh eyes. As the editor and writer are about to become a team, the writer needs to let the editor in on what is supposed to be going on in the WIP. The editor then takes the notes from that discussion and reads through the WIP to see if the work accomplishes what the writer is working toward. 

Using a novel as an example, during the developmental edit, the editor pinpoints where the story works and where it doesn't work. They look at structure, plot holes, character strengths and weaknesses, and they may have ideas and make suggestions on where to make changes to a WIP. If the WIP is a Master's or Doctorate thesis, the editor will look at whether the argument works, is the logic sound, are the sources used strong enough to hold up the argument. Same if the WIP is a business proposal. The editor can't just be plucked from the ether. It is very important for the writer to find an editor who knows and understands their field of study or genre or area of expertise. Again, the editor and writer become a team at this point. The editor is helping the writer make the WIP stronger.

The developmental edit is a longish process and there may be much back and forth between the writer and editor after the writer gets the notes back from the editor. Again, the editor and writer are working as a team. 

The editor may quote a per hour charge with an estimate for the number of hours or a flat rate, but it will not be inexpensive or overnight. The manuscript may be in the editor's hands for at least three weeks to a month, maybe longer, depending on the manuscript. And again, it's not inexpensive. This is not something that you can just post on a job board and get done for $100. 

After the WIP is finished, it is ready for publication, right? No. Not quite yet. After the writer gets their manuscript back from the editor then they need to go through and make the changes that they have decided on (this is the writer's piece, they don't have to do what the editor suggests, they are suggestions). And this may spur the writer on to make at least one more set of revisions, or more, depending on the suggested changes. It's a process.

The Copy Edit

Next up is the copy edit. The writer has gotten the manuscript, whatever it is, into as close to "done" as they possibly can. Again. And now it's time for a copy editor to whip it into shape. 

A copy editor makes sure the copy itself (not the structure or plot or characters) is as good as it can get. They look for awkward sentences, the flow of words, as well as grammatical mistakes, typos, and missed or wrong words. They might check for too many long sentences or see too many short sentences, or too many ungrammatical sentences. They check for "word stacks" (when words line up oddly on a page), or if words are repeated too often and can make suggestions for synonyms in those instances. They also can do fact checking, number checking (for data and tables or phone numbers and addresses), whether a name is spelled consistently throughout a piece, or check to see of you meant Kansas City, Kansas or Kansas City, Missouri. They do a lot of nit picking on the writer's WIP. The copy editor is like the TA for your English Composition class. They don't care about your big ideas, they just want to make sure you said it well.

A copy editor also ensures that the manuscript is formatted correctly. Most people don't pay attention to format or style guidelines, but manuscripts, depending on what type they are, need to adhere to certain formatting rules and style guidelines. Most newspapers, for example, follow AP guidelines. A doctoral thesis for a Ph.D. candidate in the social sciences will need to make sure they follow APA guidelines. A Master's candidate in the fine arts will need to make sure their thesis project follows MLA style guidelines and formatting. Most books and novels follow Chicago style guidelines and formatting. Screenplays have very strict formatting guidelines, and their own programs for adhering to those guidelines, which are different from stage play scripts. 

The writer and copy editor have to discuss what rules the manuscript needs to adhere to so that the copy editor can make sure there is consistency throughout the WIP. For example, in AP, you spell out numbers one through nine and then write them as numerals beginning with 10. Chicago style, however, has you spell out numbers up to a hundred, and then write them as numerals after that. Different publishing houses and publications might have variations on that. It helps if the copy editor is knowledgeable in not just the genre/type of manuscript, but also the guidelines and formatting that need to be used.

The copy edit can also take some time to accomplish. Maybe not as long as the developmental edit, but it is a detailed process. Don't be surprised if a copy editor asks to have your manuscript for a couple of weeks, or longer. They could get it done more quickly, possibly, but then they might miss something. You don't want them to miss anything.  

So, finally, your magnum opus is done, right? You've made the changes the copy editor outlined, double-checked spellings and facts and it's perfect! Right? RIGHT?!

No. Because after you have made all those changes and can't see straight anymore, chances are you made fresh mistakes, or you (or the editor or the copy editor) have missed something. So, now it's time for the proofreading pass. It's the last chance to catch everything.

The Proofreading Pass

There are so many job boards I have seen lately that paste the proofreading label onto a job that includes everything from answering the phone to editing to data entry. Writers often make this same mistake, confusing what they need (a developmental or copy edit) with what proofreading is. There are some writers who have sent me their manuscript asking for a proofread and it's just their first draft. What they want is a developmental edit, and they should be on at least their third draft before they even try to find an editor for that.

There is no point in paying for a proofreading pass until you have your manuscript absolutely ready for submission. The proofreading pass is the final read through by someone other than the author to catch any misspellings, wrong words, mistakes, holes, dropped sentences, weird formatting mistakes, etc. The proofreader's job is to go through with a fine tooth comb and find all the leftover names that didn't get changed for example, or make sure that there aren't any half sentences that happened when the writer was making changes. 

This isn't something one asks for overnight, either, although it shouldn't take too long, depending on the proofreader's schedule.

So, again, finally, after the proofreading pass, the writer can go through and make what corrections they choose to make (again, this is the writer's WIP, so after the editor/copy editor/proofreader have pointed out mistakes and possible problems, it is the writer's responsibility to make those changes, or not, as they see fit). And then, the manuscript is ready to be submitted for publication.

But then, if, for example, the writer has submitted their work to a traditional publisher, the whole process may happen again, because publishing houses have their own style guidelines and editors.

Writing is a process. Bringing a WIP to the point where the rest of the world can read it can be a much longer process. So, don't hurry it. If you have WIP that needs an objective eye, take your time in choosing the right person for the job.

Monday, August 1, 2022

Reading vs. Audiobooks

First off, welcome back! It's been awhile. Well, it's been five years since my last post. My Wordpress Blogetary blog kept getting bombarded and attacked by viruses, etc. So, I took it down. Then, Teddy died. I adopted two new kittens, and after a while, the pandemic happened, and I just plain forgot about this dear old Blogger blog that I had set up years ago. 

Today, I was going through job posts, looking over my Etsy shop wondering what I could do to sell items, or even sell books, or get more freelance work or SOMETHING. And I realized that back in 2008 when I was in this situation, I had a blog (Blogetary, of course) where I posted book reviews, opinions on proofreading, and all sorts of other ideas as a way to get myself "out there." So, while blogs are considered "old school" these days, there are people who still happen by them occasionally. I decided to pull this particular blog out of storage, dust it off, and see what I could do with it. I've renamed it Putt Putt Productions, the name of my freelance business. Slow and steady wins the race is my motto, cuz you have to keep going, even if slowly, if you're going to get anywhere. So, here we are. 

Below is my "cat tax," as friends call it, or photos of the two felines currently in residence at Chez Olivier as a bribe for reading this post. Here are Pippin and Dakota. Thank you for reading thus far, and read on for the current events at Putt Putt Productions.

Today, I'm going to discuss reading vs. audiobooks. 

For most of my life, I have not been a fan of audiobooks. It just wasn't my thing.

Now, I have a whole passel of friends who, at this point, would jump up and try to tell me about all the different pod casts out there that they just LOVE to listen to. And I would nod and smile and make note of the programs and promptly forget the names of them. Or listen to one program and not get into it and promptly forget about it again. And when articles come online that are video vs. written, I'm the one who would rather read the article than watch the video. The video just annoys me, while I can skim the article to get to the meat of what I want to find out. One friend of mine has pointed out to me in the past that I'm a visual person at heart. I need to see the thing. Read the thing. For it to get into my brainpan.

Now, I have always liked listening to the radio, music, and sometimes radio programs, too, or stories, but especially NPR or public radio programs. The public radio programs made me feel smart, to know what was going on. But, I quit somewhere along the line for two reasons. One was that I realized that the programs and reporters all had the same cadences and sound cues when discussing or introducing a topic, which irritated me. I wanted someone to do something different. Why did it always need to be the same? (Okay, now that I've worked for a newspaper I get that it's a "style" thing. But note, that I no longer work for that newspaper anymore because one of the things that drove me nuts was that we could never be different. If you know me, you know how much that irks me.) The second reason (going back to the radio programs) that I quit listening, was that they were all getting too damn depressing. Waking up to hearing about droughts, wars, famines, and presidents who don't care about the common person just wasn't my idea of a way to start the day.

Anyway, during the pandemic, EVERYTHING was too depressing. It didn't matter if you were listening to it or watching it or reading it, it was all bad. (To be honest, it's still pretty bad if you're paying attention. We've just adjusted our norm.) Like everyone else, I was bingeing on lots of streaming movies and TV to keep the world at bay. I quit writing creatively. And for some reason I wasn't able to concentrate my eyes on a page for very long to read a story. I had to read for work, of course, but even that became hard to do, so it's no wonder that reading for pleasure somehow dropped off the radar as well. And that's when I decided to look into audiobooks. I wanted something that I could do, that my brain could hang onto, while I did something else useful, like dishes, or crochet. I didn't want to just sit in front of a screen all day. I wanted to do something, but I wanted to be accompanied by stories. 

Stories are my brain food. While some people like learning by reading articles or hearing lectures. I like learning through stories. The lectures and articles are fine, and not saying I don't dabble, occasionally. And when I was a kid there were some biographies that I read repeatedly, but they were written for kids and some aspects were probably fictionalized.

I have a brain made for fiction. That's just the way it is.

Storytelling, fiction, is like the coal or the steam or the battery or the gas that keeps me going. I need that, but watching TV and movies or sitting and reading a book all day doesn't get the laundry done. So, in short (too late!) I turned to audiobooks to get my storytelling fix while trying to be productive.

I began with books I had already read as a way of dipping my toe in, and then checked them out via Libby, which is your local public library's way of handling electronic media. 

Audiobooks are usually spendy. The publishing company has hired a producer and narrator/actor and has bought or rented equipment to bring this audiobook to the public. So, that makes sense. But, using your local library, they're free!

I feel like I fell in love with the written word, or storytelling, all over again. I've learned a lot in exploring both books I have already read and those I haven't. Some of the books, the Narnia books, for example, were each read by different famous British actors (the Brits know how to do verbal storytelling). Other books are read by the author, which I always like. Neil Gaiman is the best at this. He knows how to read a good story. Some of the audiobooks available are actual radio presentations that were on BBC radio. And there are some narrators out there that are famous in the audiobook world and are the introducers, or presenters, if you will, for the narrators of new works. George Guidall, who narrates "The Cat Who" books is one of these. He's got a fantastic reading voice. Sometimes book series, such as the Harry Dresden series by Jim Butcher or the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear, or the Sherlock Holmes Bookshop series by Vicki Delany, will have changed out their regular narrator for another one, for various reasons.

Something to remember about storytelling is that it was originally the bard's art, an oral art. Telling fables, myths, family legends, etc., was something that everyone participated in at night after dinner or supper or what-have-you, around the fire. This was how history was originally passed down over the ages, and why our current TV pastime is still so popular. Our inner selves remember the times when we gathered around the hearth to hear tales of daring do. We just happen to have those oral tales now accompanied by moving pictures.

A large part of the enjoyment of audiobooks has to do with the narrator (those of you who are bards would nod in concurrence). If the narrator is bad, the enjoyment is greatly diminished. And I admit that there are some average books that I gave up on when the narrator was bad. There was a book narrated by a famous actress that I just couldn't finish. And when I noticed she had narrated some other favorite books, I knew to skip those particular books and saw with relief that there were other versions that had been read by a different narrator that I listened to instead. It doesn't matter if someone is a famous actor, they're not always the best storyteller or reader. James Marsden, who narrates the Harry Dresden files, is fantastic. But sometimes, you I can't get past the cadence or the mispronunciation or whatever it is that is annoying. I mean, you can adjust the speed on audiobooks and I think that helps sometimes, if you're going through an annoying bit. I was reading an early JP Beaumont (by JA Jance) the other day, written in the 80s, and while the narrator was great, the story was really annoying me. Way too curmudgeonly, old-guy-gets-the-pretty-girl, ugh! But I had good memories from the series (way back when, it was the first time I read a book where Seattle was the background character when I was younger) and I wanted to know how the mystery got solved. So I played about half of it on 2x the speed to get through the bits that annoyed me to get to the end. The equivalent of skimming the pages.

But the narrator has to be someone who can voice different characters as well as read a good tale. They have to be multi-talented. With the Winspear/Maisie Dobbs books, for example, the narrator (there were two, they changed after third or fourth book, I think) needed to be able to do all the various English accents, from upper class to working class, as well as American, Canadian, German, and French accents and languages. Recently, I was listening to My Life in France, by Julia Child and Alex Prud'homme. That narrator, Kimberly Farr, had to read lists and lists of foods and some conversations in French. That was fantastic.

And sometimes books just don't translate as well into audiobooks as you would want them to. Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino is one of my favorite books. While I enjoyed the audiobook, it just didn't resonate with me the same as when I had read it. In the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett there are also some books that don't necessarily translate as well. There's almost too much going on in the story for it to work in an oral landscape.

It's interesting though, how listening to a story is different to reading a story. Reading a story is very internal. You're processing the words visually while imagining the voices and pronunciations and the scenes. Listening can also be internal, I mean, if you're using earphones in the office, for example. But it's more external in nature. Someone else is providing you with the soundtrack of the story. You're no longer making it up on your own. You have to process things differently, too, at least I do. When action scenes happen, for instance. Sometimes I have to rewind the story a few times to get what's happening, where if I were reading it, I'd just soak it all in, like osmosis. 

Currently, I'm listening to Wonder Woman: Warbringer by Leigh Bardugo. I read it a few years ago and always hoped it would be part of a series of more Wonder Woman stories, maybe by different authors. Ah, well.

It's been fun listening to it, almost like another Wonder Woman movie, but not. The narrator, Mozhan Marno, has a good handle on the characters and brings the story to life.

I haven't given up on reading in the normal way. Not at all. But I have learned a lot about the processing of words and stories in my exploration of audiobooks. I've really enjoyed it as another way — perhaps the original way? — of enjoying my stories.

If you haven't gotten into audiobooks, I suggest you try it out. You can access them free via your local library. And unlike TV,  you don't need a screen. Just download the app on your phone and find a good book to listen to while washing the dishes or gardening or doing the mind-numbing work at your desk that you don't want to do, or whatever it is you're doing in the course of your day.