Sherlock Holmes and What Is Real

girl with fairy

Of course, everyone knows that in real life, fairies are horrible, evil creatures.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, inventor of the detective Sherlock Holmes, was often asked by readers to solve their own real-life mysteries. He couldn’t respond to their cries for help, though, because unlike Holmes, Conan Doyle was famously gullible. His most embarrassing gaffe was the Cottingley Fairies, a hoax perpetrated by two girls who took photographs of themselves next to cardboard likenesses of fairies and gnomes and represented the results as real meetings with fanciful beings. Conan Doyle embraced the photos as proof of other beings and was roundly denounced for it, but I find myself entirely sympathetic to him.

As authors, we’re always asking ourselves “what if?” What if there were a man with a mind like a computer who could solve even the most bizarre crimes? What if there were life on other worlds? What if I were another person with another life, thrown into difficulty and danger? Our ability to sympathize, to imagine, to create the reality we wish to see is at the heart of our gift, and I think that Conan Doyle wasn’t necessarily being gullible, but was opening his mind to the possibility that fairies could exist in the same world that he did.

Weird Tales magazine cover from 1934

Bringing you fabulous tales of “what if” since 1923!

I find myself opening up to possibility all the time. Back when I lived in San Jose, I would drive down Quito Drive, which had long stretches of orchards, and for months I saw a sign that read “Mary Ferguson Offered” outside a house situated in the middle of a grove of fruit trees. For months, I wondered who Mary Ferguson might be, and what she might have offered to the maker of the sign. Whatever it was, it was remarkable enough for the sign maker to want to publicize the event. It was only after I’d seen the sign for at least six months that someone pointed out that it actually read “Massey Ferguson Offered,” meaning that the owner of the house was getting rid of a tractor. It was a letdown.

I’ve seen the Sydney Opera House being carted down the highway on the back of a flatbed truck, I’ve seen a dead cat in the gutter that maintained bodily integrity for nearly a year, I’ve seen a skyshark. And none of those things is out of the realm of the possible in the world I live in. Just today, my neighbors were vivisecting a hippopotamus.

What is the truth of the things I’ve seen? It’s what it appears to be, because I accept what my mind tells me without question. If I see a foot-high man wearing a brilliant-blue vest and black trousers walking down the street toward me, I believe it. If I am looking at it, obviously, it’s possible, right? And, to tell you the truth, it’s kind of a let down to realize that it’s just one of the neighbor’s peacocks walking along the road toward me. The truth is usually less interesting than what my mind invents.

cover of Yann Martel's "The Life of Pi"

I like the Cheshire catness of this tiger

If you’ve ever read the book The Life of Pi by Yann Martel, you know that it’s about a boy who drifts in a lifeboat on the Pacific for 227 days with a Bengal tiger as his only companion (once the tiger has eaten the orangutan and the zebra that started the journey with them). At one point in the story, a pair of Japanese insurance agents question him. He tells them his story, but he also tells them a different story where, instead of a tiger, he’s in the boat with the ship’s cook, a sailor with a broken leg and Pi’s mother. The strictly human story is horrifying and grisly, lacking any of the wonder and hope of the story of the boy who survived more than half a year in the company of a tiger. In the end, Pi asks the insurance men which story they like better – the one with or without the tiger.

In my world, there is room for tigers, for Sherlock Holmes, for the Cottingley fairies, and tiny men wearing brilliant blue vests and black trousers. And there’s room for you, too.

My Revision Process

I went to the zoo recently, and while watching a giraffe walk like two men on stilts in a tent, it occurred to me that my own editing process looks much like the revision process I believe God went through in making the horse.

a rhinocerous

They pee straight backward. Did you know that?

The Rhinocerous Phase

I’ve finished my manuscript. It’s huge. It’s got bits on it that look like they were tacked on at the last minute, and the parts don’t feel like they fit together very well. Much like the rhino, perhaps the legs are a little thin for the body, the skin doesn’t look like it fits quite right, and the eyes are too small. But it’s got all the requisite parts, in more or less the right place. When I look at it, though, I think to myself “this isn’t nearly as graceful, as flowing, as uplifting as I was hoping for.” So, I start smoothing things out a bit.

a hippopotamus

When I was a kid, we called these “hippomopotamus.” Okay, I still call them that.

The Hippopotamus Phase

I’ve smoothed things out. It’s not as warty, the bits that obviously don’t belong have been taken out, I’ve made a few improvements to the flow. It’s definitely smoother, but look at it. It’s still a bit more bloated than I was hoping for. It’s not very graceful, except when underwater and all the ink begins to run and swirl, but I don’t kid myself about the way that most editors read – they don’t do it underwater. This thing needs to look wonderful and powerful and majestic on land. Time to do some cutting.

a tapir, but not the flying kind

One of my biology professors once went through an entire lecture talking about “flying tapirs.” He meant “flying lemurs,” but I have invested in a special pith helmet just in case I’m ever in the Brazilian jungle.

The Tapir Phase

I’ve cut it down. My lovely piece of writing is now about a third the size it was before. I’ve taken out long, boring expositions, lingering descriptions of scenery, pages of unnecessary background. But it’s still sort of lumpy and ungainly. It’s still not the model of effortless verbal grace I’ve been imagining. And that bit I added on the front there? I don’t think that’s working out at all. So, time to perhaps add a little back. Time to start thinking hard about what’s really important. I want my piece to be the right length, but there’s also breadth and height and all that. Color wouldn’t be bad either.

an okapi

It’s fun to look at, but stylistically, a bit of a mess.

The Okapi Phase

I’ve gone back to the drawing board. I’ve taken all the parts of my story that I felt really had something, and I re-wrote everything else. I added new characters with pizzazz and sparkle. And I gave one guy a funny speech impediment. And I added this great scene between the bad guy and his chief minion where they’re ordering pizza. And it’s really starting to look much more like what I was envisioning. The plot is all hanging together really well, but…well…it’s just not quite there. Not quite. Almost, though. I can certainly see glimpses of greatness. From a certain angle, it’s got a certain majesty to it. But yeah, maybe I’ve overdone. What am I really going for here? More The Great Gatsby, or Cat in the Hat? I have to make some hard choices.

two giraffes running

They’re every bit as graceful as a creature made entirely of knees.

The Giraffe Phase

I’m almost there! I can see it! I’ve toned it down, I’ve shaped and pared the story until its crystalline structure just sings. The plot is everything I’m hoping for, but I do have to admit, the language is letting me down in places. Too stilted in some places, too awkward in others. I’m looking for a more consistent tone and voice, and am willing to sacrifice the 17″-long purple tongue to get it. And I think that succumbing to the urge to add back the horns was, in retrospect, a mistake.

a mule

The only difference between a mule and a horse is some misplaces modifiers and too many commas.

The Mule Phase

I’ve been working on this one story forever. I’m getting sick of it. It’s beginning to smell. And yet, it’s so close! I’ve taken out the awkward bits, polished up the language, and it is now nearly everything I want it to be. Except for that place on page 68 where I typed “that” instead of “then.” And that other place where I didn’t capitalize the last name of the girlfriend. And that place where it was Tuesday at the beginning of the scene and Monday at the end. But I’m so close. I can’t taste it, but boy, can I ever smell it.

a horse

Not only is it beautiful, but it’s also fast, and can kick your ass. And it’s a vegetarian.


It’s done! It’s beautiful! No one reading this can deny that it’s a masterpiece. Yes, it took a lot of work to get here, but I’ve got a story with grace, flow, majesty…and the kind of legs that will hopefully carry me to a sequel.

Sing Out Loud, Sing Out Strong

My nephew called me today to tell me about his grades this semester. He’s been working for the past 8 years as a sort of cabinet refinisher, and he told me that he looked at guys who’d been doing that kind of work for decades, and realized that they all had the same glassy-eyed, brain-damaged affect of long-time drug users. My nephew has a wife and two small kids, and he realized that he couldn’t afford to stay in a job that would leave him a mental cripple. The problem was, he’d never been exactly a great student. He wasn’t very motivated in high school, and even at the job he has now, he’s been working at the same level, without promotion, for 8 years. He hadn’t quit in protest because he needed the money, and had begun to believe that he couldn’t do anything else.

He decided to try nursing school, realizing that he first needed to complete about a year and a half’s worth of prerequisites in math and sciences. He enrolled at a local community college, and from the minute he told his boss “I can’t work late anymore because I have school,” his idea of himself began to change.

He was calling me because he was disappointed in his English grade. Until now, he’d been getting all As and high Bs, but now he’d gotten a 79.8% in the class, which translates to a C. He was disappointed, and he felt that he’d let everyone down. He told me that he’d been getting a solid B until the last class where everyone did a presentation. My nephew is prone to panic attacks, and has been on medication to treat them. He’s also got nerve damage from a near-fatal surgical accident that mean that his speech can sometimes be halting, and he occasionally stutters. The thing is, his mind is as sharp as can be – it just sounds like he’s a little slow. I suspect this is at the heart of his failure to be promoted at his current job, or the fact that the family’s expectations of him have been low. He went on to give me a litany of other ways in which the teacher had undermined his grade – telling them to use MLA format for website citations and then not accepting those citations, telling him that he wouldn’t be missing anything important if he skipped class to go to his wife’s grandmother’s funeral, then docking him points for it.

But I told him to write to his teacher. Tell her that he’s disappointed in his grade, and that because of things that were held against him in error, he got a C when he deserved a B. The worst that could happen was that the teacher would say “No, my grade stands,” and then he’s no worse off than he is now. In terms of overall grade point averaging, there’s not a lot of difference between a 79.8% and an 80%, but emotionally, a B is much better than a C.

It made me think about a seminar I took more than twenty years ago. I was doing childcare, and I was the head of the largest professional childcare association in the state of Arizona – an organization I had founded myself. The seminar was meant to make us think of ourselves as businesswomen, and to hone our business skills. At the end, we were each handed a survey sheet that asked us to grade ourselves on our performance in the class. “If we’re grading ourselves,” I thought, “I’m giving myself an A+!” The instructor collected the surveys and then, without looking at them, told us that whatever grade we had given ourselves would be the grade he gave us. Many of the women expressed dismay, having given themselves Bs or Cs.

It turns out that a lot of people go through life undervaluing themselves and their own efforts, thinking that it’s up to other people to notice when they’re doing well and to reward them accordingly. I was not raised in a family that lavished praise on others. I learned early on that if I wanted to hear good things about my performance and my choices, I had better say them myself. It stood me in good stead later, when I worked at an electronics firm and began and ended every conversation with my boss with “And you should be paying me more.” It worked – I got more raises, more often than my co-workers. It helped me later in my career when I would work into every argument with my boss the phrase “I’m not wrong,” and mostly, she believed it.

I’m not saying that blowing one’s own trumpet is always a good thing. The people in my family are a smug group, and can come off as obnoxious (I’m not naming names here, and it’s unlikely that the guilty parties would even recognize themselves). But I’m saying that if you believe in yourself and what you’re doing, it behooves you to speak up about it. I’m hoping that my nephew’s teacher sees the time and effort he’s put into his classes, the fact that he’s raising two young children, working full time and still going to school, and cuts him the slack he deserves. He’s not one of the insufferable members of the family, but I think it’s time he learned how to sing his own praises.

Tech Raising pt 3

I handed off my documents Friday night – about a dozen nodes of text, a spreadsheet showing how they all interrelated, a text description of the expected functionality, a PowerPoint presentation showing all the functionality I wanted to have in the reader.

I felt like I lucked out in the group of folks who worked on my app. First, I had written all of my nodes with the programming interface in mind, writing them all as text files and tagging each one with the relevant character names and locations. I had used a spreadsheet with linked documents to organize my writing, so the programmers knew exactly how everything fit together. The logic was there, it just needed to be programmed into an interface. After the talks we had and the questions they had asked, I felt like they knew exactly what direction I was headed.

Saturday, I hung out at the Cruzio co-working space and answered questions and nibbled on snacks. I hovered around the guys working on my project, but every once in a while, I heard other people in other places mention the name of my project. It’s like being at a party and hearing your name from across the room being mentioned by people you don’t know – that thrill of curiosity, that hope that the mention is something good.

There was plenty of talk Saturday about what folks were working on and how the work was going. I met with a guy who would do the UI design, I talked with the engineers, it was exciting. I had to cut out early to make it to the opening night of Faust, and that was nice too.

The Big Day

Sunday was a little more involved. I got there early-ish and fielded questions from the team. Both Saturday and Sunday were a process of whittling down the number of expected features for the demo. It was important that we have a complete feature set for the demo, but that everyone involved have a good time. While I waited, Douglas Crets from Microsoft BizSpark interviewed me for his blog. Finally, my team handed me a demo already loaded with my text and, as an amazing bonus, the text of Hamlet so that we could demonstrate the ability to import existing text and manually index it for education purposes.

I gave my demo, and was told several things by the panel of judges:

  1. My hair is fascinating.
  2. I have good shoes, too.
  3. The idea of non-linear literature is brilliant.
  4. Because this is a new invention, I should be patient if people are slow to get it. People are always slow to recognize a fundamental shift in thinking.

On my way back to my seat, people high-fived and fist-bumped me. Chris Neklason, Cruzio founder who gave a lovely little talk before the presentations Sunday, told me I had nailed it.

Looking back on the whole experience, the value I got out of it wasn’t what I thought it would be. I thought that the value would be in having my idea turned into a reality and getting to show it off to people. That was certainly nice, and the first step in what will be a long process of turning this idea into a full-scale usable product, but it wasn’t the very most valuable thing. The very most valuable thing was what I did the very first night: getting up in front of everyone and asking them to confirm that this idea I had was worth something. The very best part was not just having people nod and say “Yes, I think that’s a swell idea,” but having people like it enough to spend time working to make it a reality, wanting to hang around and talk about its applications and possibilities, thinking about how to make it a reality and what all the buttons and knobs should look like.

As I go through the process of finishing what I started, I feel that the experience of having this group of smart, talented people telling me that they thought my idea was great will help carry me through the hard work ahead.


Tech Raising pt 2

The Runup

When I conceived the idea for the novel, I knew exactly how I wanted it to work. There would be a single story told from the point of view of six characters. It would take place in three countries equally spaced around a fictional world. As in the world we know, it would have a night and day, people would sleep and eat and all the things they do in real life, which meant that there would be several characters active at any given moment, but others who would be sleeping.

I started writing the content, but quickly realized that I had to figure out an organizational means of keeping everything straight. I settled on a fairly low-tech solution – a spreadsheet and a series of linked documents. The writing itself was fun. The less-fun part was constantly trying to explain to people what I was writing and how it was all going to eventually work.

The Pirate encouraged me to pitch my idea at TechRaising. I signed up and had sort of mentally prepared myself for explaining my vision to a bunch of people, but I have to be honest – at no point did the real difficulty ever enter my mind. The real difficulty was less about explaining my passion and vision to others, and more about standing up in front of strangers and laying bare my hopes and dreams. I was asking a roomful of people who don’t love me to validate my dreams. I can’t remember ever being quite this nervous.


The Pirate had prepared me for the process, letting me know that I needed to keep it short, high-level and to the point. I gave my pitch, frightened that I might literally vomit on the people in the front row. But the funny thing was that the minute I got up in front of everyone, all I thought about was non-linear literature, the possibilities for storytelling and writing, the number of people who would become re-engaged with literature through this new medium.

I got through my pitch and was received with applause and cheers, although my brain tends to blank that bit out. But the pitch turned out to be easier than the next bit. Once everyone had pitched, we were all supposed to mingle and talk. Engineers with an interest in a project were to get together with the person who pitched the project to form a team. The problem is, I don’t do well in crowds. At parties, I tend to stick to the one or two people I know, only branching out if someone I already know introduces me to someone new. Here, there was no one to help me. I knew no one except Margaret Rosas, one of the three organizers of the project. A couple of people came up to me to express admiration for my idea, but none of them was an engineer, so it wouldn’t do me any good. I finally hid in the back, and Margaret told me that if, by the end of the evening, I still hadn’t hooked up with a team, she would see what she could hook up.

But in no time, a couple of engineers approached me with questions about my idea. They were excited by the possibilities, and wanted to be on the team. They were both back-end guys, but we needed front-end guys as well. I had ideas for the logic required and for the interface, but no idea how to code any of it. The great thing about a small community, though, is that everyone knows everyone else, and these guys knew other guys at the event who were willing to help. Late Friday night I sent them everything I had, including the documents I had describing the project and a PowerPoint showing my expectation of its functionality.