Oct 28, 2007

Southern California Fires

I get tired of living in a disaster area ... actually, it could have been a lot worse. The fire department fought quickly and efficiently. Every time a new fire started, it looked as if helicopters were dropping water on them immediately. They stopped a lot of fires before they even got going.

These photos were taken last week, when the smoke started rolling in.

smoke-filled sky

acrid air

early afternoon sun

rolling smoke

Pretty, but I had a sore throat all that week!

Several neighborhoods near me had to evacuate. None of them lost their homes. Unfortunately, thousands of people did lose homes in San Diego and other regions of Southern California.

Right now, the sky is a clear blue and back to normal. We finally got some rain.

Oct 14, 2007

Home Sweet Home

I've had an eventful week, but I'm going to blog about something news-related. Last night there was a major accident that closed the 5 freeway at the Newhall Pass. Several people died in flames. Traffic was stopped on the freeway for upwards of 7 hours.

On Friday, I spent the day with a friend who visited me from New Hampshire. We toured around Los Angeles and saw the play "Avenue Q" in the Ahmanson Theatre. Then I dropped my friend off at her hotel on Wilshire Blvd. and headed north for home. That was around 10:30pm.

First of all, it was raining. This was the first rain we've had in many months, and traffic accidents always happen in L.A. during rainy nights, so I was prepared for some heavy traffic. I figured I'd be home by 11:30pm.

I needed to get to any northbound freeway in order to get to the 5 freeway. Most freeways of Los Angeles feed into the I-5, which runs through the center of the city and continues south to San Diego and Mexico, and north to San Francisco and other states. I drove over a bridge across the 110 freeway and saw how clogged it was, so I skipped it and headed towards the 170 Hollywood freeway. In my limited experience, the 170 moves fast.

I crossed Hollywood Blvd. and headed up Highland Ave. Traffic stopped. It inched along, and then it completely stopped. I sat at the same block for half an hour. I figured a concert must have just gotten out from the Hollywood Bowl, and decided that the 170 was a bad choice. So I turned around as soon as I was able, which involved a lot of manuevering and luck. I made my way through a warren of traffic-clogged alleys and finally back to Sunset Blvd., which was mostly empty. I decided I'd cross the city on surface streets and take the 405 freeway.

Around 11:30pm, I was on the 405 freeway. I passed a sigalert roadsign that said the 5 freeway was closed, and there was a detour at Balboa Blvd. (a two-lane street). I thought: WTF?! The 5 freeway DOESN'T close. Impossible. It's a vital freeway to the city. The last time it closed was when the Northridge earthquake destroyed an overpass in the year 1994. As far as I knew, there was no reason for it to close. I drive it every weekend, very often on Friday or Saturday night, and I've never seen it with heavy traffic near midnight. The heavy traffic is reserved for rush hour...

I saw brake lights around a bend. A bunch of cars quickly exited at the nearest exit. I got into the exit lane, and figured I'd use the next exit if traffic turned out to be really slow.

It stopped. For 7 hours.

I was very fortunate, because I was only stuck for 2 and a half hours. I don't know what happened to the cars in the other lanes; I suspect that some of them were stuck there until dawn or later.

I had no entertainment except for radio and music. The guy in the car next to me had a reading light and was reading a book or magazine. I shifted my gear into park, and there it stayed. People were getting out of their cars and walking around in the rain, trying to see what was holding up traffic. I tuned in to the radio news stations.

The news claimed that the 5 freeway was closed, and so was the 14 freeway, and the 210 freeway. Balboa Rd. was hopelessly clogged. In other words, there was no way for anyone to get to the suburbs 15 minutes north of L.A. unless you took a loooooooooong detour of 3 or 4 hours. None of the channels could give an ETA of when the freeways would open. Every channel reported a different story of what the accident was. One report claimed that four big rigs had collided and caught on fire. Another report said it was fifteen trucks. Another said they were in a tunnel that was collapsing from the heat. But none of them explained why that would close an entire freeway of 6 lanes northbound and 6 lanes southbound, or why two other freeways were closed. I later learned that the explosions in the tunnel created a danger of road collapse. All of the surrounding freeways and surface streets near the accident were clogged enough to necessitate closure.

I listened to this news, and I considered taking an obscure mountain route home. The obscure road is known as "A Street" in Filmore, also known as route 23. It has a section of tall, sheer cliffs and hairpin turns. It's a dangerous road to take at night in the rain. This is mudslide country.

Even so, I had hours in which to ponder. The obscure route 23 is not common knowledge even to local residents. I'd be home in under two hours if I could exit and get on the 118 freeway towards Moorpark.

I happened to be parked near the next on-ramp. As I pondered, I watched cars drive up the ramp, pile up, and then drive down the ramp on by one, in reverse. It was like a parade.

Around 2:15am, a motorcycle cop wove between the parked cars and went to the on-ramp. He began directing cars to drive down the ramp. At long last, traffic was moving ... off the freeway. Even so, most people chose to stay. I guess they didn't want to lose their place in line, and they believed traffic would HAVE to move soon. Traffic accidents are statistically common in Los Angeles. Locals depend on the fact that accidents get cleaned up swiftly. Otherwise, we'd be stranded all the time. The city is too spread out for freeway closures.

When I exited the freeway, I had no idea it would remain closed for days. Like everyone else, I believed it would be open within a few hours; I just was unwilling to wait those hours.

I drove down the least clogged surface street until I was well away from the freeway. Then I stopped at a gas station for a bathroom break. While I bought a drink for the road, a man in white collar business attire walked up to the register and asked me if I knew what had happened on the 5 freeway. He'd been stuck there since 11pm. He lived in the same town as me, and was also trying to get home. I told him about the obscure mountain road, but I couldn't remember the street names necessary to give driving directions. He was distraught, because he had nowhere to stay. He bought a toothbrush and asked the gas station attendant for directions to the nearest motel.

I'm fortunate, because I have someone to stay with. I called up my boyfriend, Phil, and warned him that I might need to crash at his place for the night. Then I headed for the obscure mountain route.

As soon as I got onto the westbound 118 freeway, I saw a line of traffic on the eastbound side, all of them trying to get onto the 405 north, where I'd been parked for the last two hours. I finally pictured the scope of this traffic jam. The standstill went for miles and miles. These freeways all have 4 to 6 lanes. They can carry hundreds of thousands of fast-moving cars. If it had gotten to this state between 11pm and 2:30am, it would get much worse with the morning traffic.

If I turned back, I'd get stuck in the eastbound 118 traffic trying to get to the 405 north trying to get to the 5 north. Wow. But it wasn't too bad yet. In a few more minutes, it might be.

The rain became a downpour. I imagined myself navigating the hairpin turns on the edge of that cliff, with the road slick from dust and oil loosened by the season's first rain. The road might become impassable from a mudslide.

I turned around, and I made it to Phil's place by 3am. I'm grateful that I had a place to go. I kept thinking about all the cars still stuck there, and the exhausted man who had to get a motel room less than 15 minutes from his home.

In the morning, I watched the news to make sure the 5 freeway was open. It wasn't.

I got a horrible, frustrated feeling that's hard to convey here. I couldn't get home. I wanted a change of clothing, and I needed to do my laundry, and so forth ... and I couldn't. My home was less than 40 miles away, but it might as well have been in another state.

We researched detours. It turned out that the obscure mountain route 23 was being used by trucks bound for Los Angeles and San Diego. I shuddered to think of all those trucks on that cliff. I imagined them shoved sideways on the hairpin turns, or stuck in mud. The auto traffic was diverted to Calgrove Blvd. and the 14 freeway. Estimated travel time to my home: At least four hours.

I spent the day with Phil. He cheered me up, but I still had to face a long journey to get home. The drive usually takes me half an hour. Instead, I figured I'd go all the way around to Ventura County. That would be about three hours, if traffic stayed light.

I changed my mind mid-drive and headed for mountain route 23 after all. The radio news reported that southbound I-5 traffic was diverted that way, but they never mentioned northbound. I figured it was worth the risk, since traffic tends to be light around that time, and it wasn't raining.

What a pleasant surprise! I encountered no northbound traffic whatsoever. I began to think the 5 freeway was open again. Then I saw a long line of cars and trucks heading southbound over route 23. Now I'm left to wonder why northbound traffic wasn't diverted that way. I made it home in less than two hours.

The latest news is that the 5 freeway might be open as early as Tuesday. Until then, thousands of suburban commuters have no useful way to get to their jobs. All the residents of Los Angeles and San Diego who flocked to Northern California for the weekend will have a hard time getting home. All the trucks that deliver produce and goods to these major cities will have no good way to deliver them.

The 5 freeway closure had to happen, because that was a hell of a serious accident. But I think this is a warning that a valley with only a few routes in and out can become a trap. I hope something good will come from this disaster. Maybe whoever is in charge of Los Angeles infrastructure will add a few more roads through the mountain passes.

Aug 1, 2007

Photos of New Hampshire

I just returned from a vacation to Colorado (4 days) and New Hampshire (7 days). I figured I'll post the photos in order of most recent to earlier, so they'll show up in correct order to anyone who scrolls down my blog. So here's the "last" installment!

welcome to Bedford

Above: I grew up in a historic district of a New England town. I always found the thick woods to be creepy. In summer, it's a bug-filled jungle. In winter, it's a Robert Frost poem.

Below: High noon in New Hampshire during a thunderstorm. It doesn't get very bright even during the rare cloudless days, because the trees block out the sunlight.

July thunderstorm

Ah, the old view out my bedroom window. I grew up with this view. No matter what time of year, it was always gloomy, because the overhang of the roof and the trees blocked out the light.

bedroom view

I like to try to describe New England to Californians, because it's such an alien place to anyone who grew up in the western states. This is a typical road in New Hampshire. They're hilly, winding, in poor repair, overgrown with trees and other plants, with many blind turns and hidden houses. You never know what's around the bend. You can't see it until you get there. Very often, street signs and even STOP signs are obscured by plant growth during the summer months.

road in NH

Here's an oak tree that serves as a landmark for many locals. In California, the trees are fewer but older, whereas in New England, trees grow like weeds and are mostly younger than a century or two. This tree is unusual because it's more than two hundred years old.

old oak tree

One of the many things that always struck me as weird about my hometown was how much trash and litter you can find on the roadsides, despite the love of nature professed by the locals. I don't see this much litter in western states.

litter and trash

Some more typical New England scenery. This is in Manchester, New Hampshire.

churches in Manchester

And then my vacation ended, and it was time to fly back! (Don't worry, I'll post more of these vacation photos soon.) For now, here's an aerial view of New Hampshire.

New Hampshire from the air

As you might suspect, the logging and paper industries are big in northern New England. So is the export of maple syrup. Lots of tree products. The forests grow back very quickly, and logging companies tend to plant new trees in deforested areas.


Above: I got a lot of nice cloud shots from the airplane trips. More to come.

Below: Back in the West! This was approaching Las Vegas.


Jun 17, 2007

Dune Buggy Ride

I have a photo gallery on my website, but I've decided to give blogging with photos a try, since Blogspot makes it so easy.

So Phil took me on a dune buggy ride for our 6 month anniversary of dating. It turns out that we can't rent dune buggies and drive them ourselves. I guess there's some kind of liability involved, since it's somewhat dangerous. So we rented a ride from a guy in Desert Palm Springs, and let him drive us around.

Here's the rental place:
rental place near Desert Palm Springs, CA

The ride was somewhat wild! The dune buggy was actually a VW bug chassis with a topless shell on it.
flying over sand dunes

At one point, our driver pointed out this oasis:
oasis in the desert

And had us hike to see it up close!
oasis was a short but steep hike

Later, we visited the windmill farm and finally learned why those windmills exist. Apparently each windmill is sponsored by a different company (like Texaco, Enron, etc.) and produces tons of electricity, which they sell to the grid for a profit. The companies pay to maintain their own windmills.
windmill farm up close

The windmills are a highly efficient energy source in the wind corridor of Desert Palm Springs. According to our guide, each windmill generates enough electricity to power a small town. Why don't they build these things across the windy deserts of America and save on oil-based fuels? Anyone who's driven from California to Arizona or Nevada knows there's hundreds of miles of empty land.
windmills on a ridge

May 25, 2007

Sculpting a Novel

A couple of weeks ago, I finished the rough cut of my novel rewrite.

I'll assume that most readers of my blog haven't followed along with the trials and tribulations I've experienced with this project, so let me give you a quick recap. I wrote the original first draft in the year 2000. It was 519,100 words (roughly the size of Stephen King's unabridged The Stand). When I look back at that original, I judge the story to be good, but the writing to be amateur and bloated. I went through a long learning process. I split the book into three books to make it more palatable to editors. I reduced the total word count to 475,600 words. I let strangers read it and give me their honest reactions. I edited and polished it frequently. I submitted it to literary agents and publishers, and got one excited manuscript request (without a follow up) from a well-known agent, and one rewrite request from Baen Books.

As I became a better writer and learned the ways of the genre book industry, I realized (around 2004-2005) that my masterpiece needed a complete overhaul. So I set out to restructure it, to tighten the pacing and get rid of the bloat.

In order to focus on this huge task, I shoved aside my other writing goals and projects, many of them ideas which I was (and still am) excited about. I immersed myself in Thomas's and Alex's journey until I got sick of it. I reread my original epic in bits and pieces, then sliced it up and pasted the paragraphs into new places, and reread them, and slimmed them down, and changed details, and reread them again. I took notes on my own writing so I wouldn't forgot what I'd put where. I applied techniques I'd learned at the Odyssey Writing Workshop and since to my reborn novel. I gained more of a social life while I procrastinated facing this huge project every night. I gained a sense of the work involved in being a professional writer.

After all that, I won't know if my hard work paid off until years from now. I have a feeling that it will, but I've never trusted hunches or feelings. I only know that this confidence is highly unusual for me. Even though I'm sick of the project, I still look back and think it's good. I still get excited about it. I hear opinions from people who've read the first three chapters or more, and I hear good news. I don't think this is wishful thinking, since I've heard and given my share of harsh critiques. I can tell when readers genuinely like something.

But there's no immediate payoff. By now, everyone around me must think I'm a jack-off, just someone who creates endless busywork for herself and talks big. I know I'm not this person. When I started this rewrite, I knew I'd be in for a difficult journey, with a gamble for a payoff. I took the journey, gamble and all, because I believe in the power of my words. I'll market this book any way I can, because I see a fan following in its future. I'm fully aware that I may be self-deluded here, but I can't ignore the possibility that I'm right. Had I decided not to do the rewrite, I'd be second-guessing myself for the rest of my life, always wondering if it could have been the next major best-seller. What's the point of living if you don't take risks like this?

I combined the first two sections of my original and reduced the word count from 278,300 to 127,400 words. That's amazing. That means my total word count (including the original, unrewritten third section) is down to 324,700 ... and I'm positive that I can cut out another 100,000 words from that third section (it will be book 2 instead of book 3, now). The story didn't change. The characters are the same. Most of what I removed was excess description and wordage.

Is this new version much stronger than the original? I'm not sure. I wish I was. Parts of it are definitely improved. The whole is lighter and faster, with tons of excess wordage deleted, but I'm afraid I may have accidentally deleted crucial bits of character development and story pacing. I might have taken out the spice that gave it its bite. If it turns out that test readers respond with less enthusiasm than they did for the original, I'll try to fit the missing character development back in there without overinflating the word count.

But these are worries for later. Right now, I'm working on new material for the first time in two years. It's a short story!


I absolutely needed the break. I needed to write something fresh before I forgot how a first draft feels. It's pure joy. And I also need a couple of months when I'm not thinking about slavery, snobby mind readers, and berserk giants who kill people.

In July, I'll return to the Yeresunsa universe and polish my rewrite. My goal is to have it readable by September 1st. Would you care to be a test reader this winter? Here's the synopsis!

Thanks for reading my blog.

Apr 17, 2007

The Blame Game

Against my good judgment, I'm going to blog about a current event.

I just went to a section of BBC.com where readers can post comments about the Virginia Tech shootings. As I scrolled through the comments, I saw a few condolences for the victims and survivors. I saw a lot of America-bashing and pro- and anti- gun control rants.

Why is it that when a tragedy makes world headlines, people IMMEDIATELY fling accusations and blame around? People seem unable to just sit and absorb the news. A disturbed man murdered 33 innocent students. This is not the fault of the students, the school faculty, the senators, the NRA, America, or TV and video games. It's the fault of the guy who locked students in a building and shot as many as possible. Please, assign blame where it's due. He deserves your anger. He's dead, but that doesn't make him any less guilty.

Mar 20, 2007

Lake Tahoe and Squaw Valley

I went on a ski trip this weekend! It was St. Patrick's Day and the snow was melting, but we had a great time. Click the photo to see more.
Lake Tahoe and Squaw Valley

Mar 7, 2007

Scott Smith's "The Ruins"

It's been a long time since a book made me so angry as the one I just finished.

I can't stop thinking about it, which I suppose is the sign of a successful author. And I finished it, which is usually a sign of enjoyment. I'm not compelled to finish books I hate. Yet I'm angry. I wouldn't recommend this one. I can't voice my criticism without giving spoilers, so brace yourselves. There's spoilers.


This is a book about a man-eating vine. It sounds stupid, but it's surprisingly well written. This author has been compared to Stephen King, and I understand why: He can make you believe anything. Giant alien spiders that lure children into sewers? Sure. Sentient jungle plants? No problem. Scott Smith is one of those authors who brings you into the weirdness step by careful step, starting in the land of normalcy and ending in the land of lunacy. He takes you into the characters' heads in such an intimate way, you feel their terror, and their struggle with insanity as they try to comprehend the incomprehensible. This is Horror fiction.

But I felt like I was watching a train wreck. The self-absorbed idiocy of the characters had me wincing from the beginning. They harbor secret resentments towards each other. At first, I struggled to like them, because the quality of writing drew me in. They hiked into the jungle for a good reason, to find their buddy's missing brother. So what if they ignored all the classic signs of impending danger? I mean, if it were me, I would have turned back when the creepy truck driver said, "This is a bad place," and drove off in a hurry. But not everyone thinks like that.

When they became trapped on the vine-covered hilltop, surrounded by natives with pistols and arrows, I read breathlessly to find out how they would escape. They heard a cell phone ringing at the bottom of a mine-shaft. They decided to send someone down to find it. Did they check the rope? No. The rope had been sitting out in the weather for countless weeks, and no one bothered to uncoil it or test its strength. Of course, the rope broke, and we've got our first major injury. Pablo broke his spine. He's lying at the bottom of the shaft, screaming. What do the characters do? Well, they spend the entire rest of the day figuring out how to send someone else down there to bring Pablo up on a backboard. Meanwhile, they're rationing their water, the hilltop is littered with the skeletal remains of previous people who've died there, and they can't escape. WTF? I'd think they have bigger worries than the guy with a broken spine. He's already a goner. Yet the characters keep whining about how they need to get Pablo to a hospital, as if they have any way to accomplish this.

By that point (about 1/4 through the book), I knew these characters would die from terminal stupidity. Maybe Jeff, the relatively smart one who used to be an Eagle Scout, would survive. The women were annoyingly dumb. I can't stand how so many male authors write about survival situations with dumb, whiny female characters. Why not make one of the women competent? In fact, I think women are better suited to survive trauma than men. Also, resourceful characters are easier to like.

I wouldn't want any of these characters for friends. Let me tell you, this book terrified me on multiple levels. It works as a horror novel for all the good reasons. There's suspense, there's gore, there's tons of creepy scenes. And then there's the horrific idea of having to die with a group of idiots. What if you were trapped in a deadly survival situation, and your only companions want to drink tequila instead of planning a way to gather water when it rains? What if no one around you even thought about escape? What if you had to trust your life to their thoughtless non-vigilance? Scary! I get chills thinking about it. And Scott Smith made these characters very, very believable.

I came away from this book with fresh cynicism about humanity.

Before I wrap this up, I need to mention a few great ideas that never occurred to these characters. I wonder if they occured to the author.

1. My escape idea.
The natives keep watch day and night, and the vine makes an alarm noise if anyone tries to sneak past the sentries. But what about a diversion? Pablo, the guy with a broken back and hastily amputated legs, is shrieking in agony. They could drag him down the hill, let the natives shoot him to death, and flee while they're busy. Pablo would then die for a good cause instead of in vain. Okay, I'll concede that the natives might not fall for this diversion, or it may be too quick. But there's always victim #2: Eric. Eric is slowly bleeding to death from multiple self-inflicted wounds made with a dirty knife. By the second day, they all know he'll die without medical attention or food. He could martyr himself to save the rest of them. But no one thinks or suggests this idea. They discuss eating Amy's corpse on the third day, but they never discuss any practical escape attempt. Even Jeff, the former Eagle Scout, doesn't think of this. I hate them.

2. My communication idea.
The natives don't speak Spanish, which is why they were unable to warn travelers away. I don't buy this. The natives live in Mexico, and they obviously trade with Mexicans, because they have things like bicycles and T-shirts. At least one of them must speak enough Spanish to communicate. Jeff (who speaks high school level Spanish) should have tried communicating. Also, these natives are too cruel to be believed. They just let travelers wander into the vine, again and again, and hold them captive until they die. Why don't they flat-out kill them? Why do they waste resources by watching the travelers suffer in a long, drawn-out process? What if a little child or baby came with the travelers? Would an entire village--men, women, children--let a child die slowly like that? I don't believe these people.

3. My S.O.S. idea.
The vine yanks down any sign they put up. They find old S.O.S. signs hidden around the base of the hilltop, the sort of signs that might have warned them to keep away. But why don't they carve into the trunks of trees? That's what I'd do. If the vine covers their etchings, they could climb up and spend all day hacking off tree branches. That would leave some strange-looking trees, which might be enough to warn other innocent people to keep away. It might even be noticed if an airplane flies overhead.

4. My suicide idea.
Every character dies in a unique, tragic, gruesome way. By the third day, the remaining survivors (all three of them) know they're doomed. Eric skins himself alive because he's convinced the vine is inside him, Mathias gets stabbed in the heart, and the final survivor, Stacey, slits her wrists and bleeds to death. Why, oh WHY, don't any of them think to set the hilltop on fire??? They have a book of matches and a bottle of tequila. The vine recedes when it gets burnt. I'd say it's time for a Molotov cocktail and a forest fire. At least that way, they'll have saved future travelers from much pain and suffering.

Okay, I feel better now. Stay away from "The Ruins" unless you enjoy torture.

Mar 3, 2007

My Blog's New Look

I'm not a programmer, so I decided to go with a quick and easy blog rather than hosting it directly on my website. Here it is! And here is a very lame post.