Noticing Magic Everywhere

Kate Comings' journal

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Writing Fiction: “Pantsing” my way through

Not knowing what’s going to happen when I sit down to write is a lot more fun than outlining a plot beforehand. For me, already knowing the whole story turns the writing of it into “work.” The downside, though, is that not planning sometimes results in a chaotic mess, like Zen Flowers, the book I’m writing now. It’s the fourth in a series, and I’m winding up Part One. I’m worried about whether it will end up a story or just a bunch of episodes that go nowhere. Lots of things are happening; but do they make a story? I don’t know yet, but since my characters still have such a grip on me, I decided to go ahead and finish the first draft. I can decide later whether it needs massive editing and restructuring, or whether it’s something I wrote just for my own entertainment.

My characters, Niall and Celeste, have been through a lot. They’ve been together five years now, and Celeste misses the romance they once had. I want to convey how romantic they still feel toward each other underneath all the stuff that gets in the way: their work, children who demand all their attention, financial problems, and the disagreements that make each one afraid the other would be relieved if they separated. I want something different from drinking at the pub or gazing at each other across a restaurant table; they’ve done plenty of that. I decided to take them to the beach, which meant I had to go to the beach. It’s 90 miles, and it was my birthday. So, last Monday morning, I packed up my camera and drove west to Astoria, then south to Seaside, a “fisherman’s wharf” type of place with arcades and shops and saltwater taffy and a carrousel. The beach is wide and flat and has a quality of light that makes me feel like I’m dreaming, and that I knew Niall, a photographer, would appreciate. It was sunny when I left Portland; we’ve had a bout of temperatures in the 90s. It was heavily overcast and about 20 degrees cooler on the coast, with heavy, low clouds. A lot of people were on the beach in spite of the cold weather, or maybe because of it.

Beach at Seaside, Oregon

Beach at Seaside, Oregon

Seaside has lots of seafood restaurants, and I headed over to Norma’s for their delicious clam chowder, packed with so many clams that I was full before I got to the bottom of the bowl, but I ate the whole thing–yum!

I headed south to Cannon Beach. I knew Niall would want to photograph Haystack Rock, a giant, iconic boulder rising out of the surf and hosting several bird populations. The light, however, was terrible for photography. My camera has a viewfinder, so I could at least frame my shots, but the glare was so bad, I couldn’t see the light meter or any of my settings. A girl asked me to take a picture of her with her cell phone, and I could barely make her out on its screen. I was, I think, the wrong time of day. Early morning or evening would probably be better.

Haystack Rock, Cannon Beach

Haystack Rock, Cannon Beach

Haystack Rock

Haystack Rock

People were flying kites. A long time ago, a guy said he wanted to fly a kite with me. I thought that was soooo romantic. Nothing ever came of it, but… I had my idea!

Kites at Cannon Beach

Kites at Cannon Beach

There’s nothing better than a long car drive for getting the ideas bubbling. When I drove from Portland to my old university at Santa Barbara, Calif., I planned to go over the manuscript of “Playing in the Apocalypse” at the place where it happened, but so many ideas for a new book downloaded into my head on the way that I couldn’t wait to start writing “Hostages” (working title). I wandered around Isla Vista and took lots of photos, but half my attention was on my new book. Funny how that works.

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Perseverence furthers

Photo on 6-19-14 at 10.27

Playing in the Apocalypse is available now at Amazon as a paperback book!

Formatting a book turned out to be incredibly hard–I won’t be trying that myself in Word again. I admit I’m a beginner when it comes to things like section breaks, but I kept ending up with headers on the first pages of chapters, where they didn’t belong, as well as blank pages that didn’t show up in the manuscript but nevertheless ended up in the proof. I don’t know how many proofs I went through before I let it go, but it was a LOT.

At UCSB, my friends and I carted around copies of the “Yellow Book,” The I Ching, a Confucian text full of Chinese wisdom. We had no bamboo sticks, so we’d toss quarters like dice to get readings, which came out uncannily appropriate for whatever situation we found ourselves in. I most remember the phrase, “perseverance furthers” — good advice for authors. I mutter it to myself during tedious proofing, formatting, and even writing when it’s going slow.

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Deja Vu: Tear Gas and Mayhem

Command Vehicle

Command Vehicle

Around 8 o’clock on Saturday evening, I clipped on Kieran’s leash and went walking after a day of writing. I love these long, June days. A breeze along with the setting sun felt good after the sultry heat, but about 8 blocks west of my house, police vehicles and yellow crime scene tape blocked the street. Lots of people were out enjoying the balmy evening, but no one knew what was happening. The police weren’t telling. Kieran and I cut over to the next block, and the next, but the police had blocked off the whole area all the way to Wellington Park. Cops stood around, leaning against their cars. They looked bored.

A guy in the park was checking all the news sites on his iPhone. He said KOIN Channel 6 reported that homicide detectives were investigating the whole area. I decided to turn around and head back home.

I was sitting on my bed, reading, my bedroom window open, when the pop-pop-pop of what sounded like several gunshots went off. It could have been gunfire… but it also sounded just like tear gas being shot at our apartments in Isla Vista—not a noise I will ever forget.

Sunday morning, I combed the Internet for news. The police actually had deployed enough tear gas into someone’s house to necessitate evacuation of several nearby residents. There was no explanation, just reassurance that no shots were fired, just tear gas–WTF? Talk about deja vu. Isla Vista was a peaceful, sleepy college town when I moved in, and Portland’s Roseway neighborhood has been quiet for the thirteen years I’ve lived here. It’s full of kids on bikes, skateboards, and scooters, playing ball in the street. There’s a basketball hoop on just about every block. I love it here.

I decided to see if the streets were still closed. They were, but Mason, the street with Wellington Park, was now open to the west. Kieran needed a good walk, so we walked out to Cully the way I had intended the night before and took Cully north to Skidmore and circled back up through the park to Mason. A guy with blue hair and a camera was talking to one of the police officers.

Mike BlueHair talking to policeman

Mike BlueHair talking to policeman

I decided to try and get a shot of the “command vehicle” on 66th and Failing street before I went home, and ran into the guy with blue hair again. He asked about my dog (Kieran’s a schipperke), and we got to talking. He’s Mike BlueHair of Film the Police, a police accountability organization.

The police still weren’t giving any answers other than that a woman was missing under suspicious circumstances, whatever that meant, but the homicide detectives and the Special Emergency Response Team (SERT) were involved, and the fact was that they had closed off an area of several blocks, had a command vehicle, and had requisitioned an empty Trimet bus, where they put the tear gas evacuees.

I went home and wrote some more. Sunday night was quiet. Today, Monday, my daughter texted me that The Oregonian had an article online about the doings in my neighborhood. Holy shit! It looked like they had done some serious damage to the house in question. The owner of the house, Gary Lewis, and a woman tenant, Renee Sandidge, who lived in a basement apartment are missing. They had been having a long, ongoing dispute. It sounds like the police thought Lewis was holed up in the house, so they used tear gas to make him come out. But nobody was there. During the investigation, the police somehow managed to wreck the house and utterly destroy the travel trailer in the driveway. I grabbed my camera and ran down there to take photos. I figured the street would be closed, so I had my telephoto lens so I could photograph the house from a distance, but there was no need. Media people were all over the place, and I joined them. The house was a mess, and we still don’t know what happened, but for a little while, I felt like it was 44 years ago in Isla Vista.

Wrecked House

Wrecked House

This was a trailer--what happened?

This was a trailer–what happened?




Thought I’d share a bit about my own creative process since I spend so much time parked in front of a computer. The great thing about writing is that you can do it anywhere. Sometimes I’ll take my laptop to a coffee house or to the library, as a change of scene stirs things up and lets new ideas download into my fingertips. I often don’t know what’s going to happen until my fingers type it. My friend Kelly and I sometimes get together and write for a couple of hours at one of the Burgerville hamburger joints here in Portland.

Mostly, though, I write at my desk. I honor my writer self—put flowers on my desk, and sometimes I light a scented candle. While I’m having my morning coffee infusion (which I can’t function without), I read over yesterday’s writing to get a run on where I am and what I want to do next. I use Scrivener. It’s a scene-based application for authors. I write from multiple points of view and it’s perfect for me. Because I’m a “pantser” instead of a “plotter,” my chapters and scenes end up needing to be rearranged, and it’s a lot easier in Scrivener than it was in Word. I keep two documents open, side by side. On the left is my main/real manuscript; the one on the right is for notes, where I type in new ideas for something several chapters ahead so I won’t lose them. I also use that “notes” document for rewording something I’m not happy with, which happens quite a bit. Then when I finally get it right, I paste it in. Having the two documents open at the same time somehow makes it less scary, because I have to admit, writing can be a very scary business.

Sometimes I have no idea what to write or what comes next. When that happens, I grab a spiral notebook—I buy about 10 a year during the back-to-school sales. With notebook in hand along with my Waterman fountain pen, I sprawl on the sofa, music pounding in my ears, and free-write anything that comes to mind. Peeves I have, what the dogs are doing, what I want for my fictional characters, who by now don’t feel fictional at all and are as real as my friends. What I end up with is always a surprise—but that’s what makes writing fiction so much fun.

Music drives my pen, or my fingers on the keyboard. I have iTunes playlists for every imaginable mood: Laibach for the dump trucks full of gun-toting cops in Isla Vista; Crosby, Stills, and Nash for Joel and me, the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” for my whole philosophy at the time… music puts me in whatever place I need to write about.

How about you? I’d love to hear about how you write.

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It felt like forever…

Apocalypse Book Cover

The wait is over! Playing in the Apocalypse is out in ebook form at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, as an iBook, and directly from BookBaby, the publisher. I have put the links on one convenient page, here. I’m looking into getting paper copies made; that’ll be next.

Thanks so much, everyone, for your interest, help, and support in getting this book out into the world.


Oil Platform Holly


Oil platforms dot the Santa Barbara channel—ugly, metal structures that look like erector sets looming up out of the ocean, but at night, when they’re lit up, they become palaces. The oil company gave them names like Henry, Grace, and Gilda. The one standing sentinel in the water off Isla Vista is named Holly, but we call it the Crystal Ship.
From Playing in the Apocalypse



Moving toward publication


Yesterday morning, I received the epub file proof of my upcoming book, Playing in the Apocalypse. I side-loaded it onto my Nook reader and am reading the whole thing, inspecting for formatting errors. So far, it looks fantastic except for the title page… ugh. The title is so small I can barely read it, and it doesn’t match the much larger font in the rest of the book. I really hope they can fix that before it goes out to Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and the other booksellers I didn’t know about.

Everything about self-publishing is new to me. It’s not just all the formatting headaches—and there were a lot as I had to paste 14 separate chapters into a single Word document and do a lot of reformatting. I read Brooke Warner’s What’s Your Book? about the different publishing options and signed up for a webinar about social media. I’m on Twitter now, and I have a brand-new author page on Facebook, here

It’s a lot of fun reading all my favorite authors’ tweets and finding new authors on Twitter. I have downloaded five intriguing, self-published ebooks written by my new friends—I have to stop now until I’ve finished reading them all… then I’ll buy a bunch more.

I have about 100 more pages of proofreading to go, so I’d better get back at it.

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Platform: Dipping a Toe in Twitter’s Shark-infested Waters

Don’t you love industry buzzwords? “Solution,” “brand,” “grow the company,” “face time,” and “leverage” as a verb. Twitter has a really good buzzword: “Favorite” as a  verb. “@Severusnape favorited your tweet.”

“Tweeting” and “favoriting” are new to me. I have a memoir about my experiences during the 1970 Isla Vista riots and have written three novels. One of my novels is with an editor and will be ready soon. I signed up for a webinar and have been reading about different publication options. I’ve been to talks given by literary agents that made me want to stop at the liquor store on my way home. Everything I read and heard was the same. You can wow them with an awesome pitch, but no agent or publishing house will consider you without a platform. “Platform”–the publishing industry buzzword.

So I don’t know yet what I’m going to do with that novel, the first of a series of at least four. The books and webinar suggested starting with Twitter and Facebook. I’m familiar with Facebook already, so I dove into Twitter for the first time. I am supposed to look up all my friends on Twitter and follow them… only, I do not know any people on Twitter. I’m the pioneer of my group. I like being the first to test out new stuff, especially tech stuff. Still a bit of a nerd. But how to get people to follow me when I don’t know anyone? I haven’t a clue. All the same, someone in Ireland did follow me, and I downloaded his epic fantasy at once, read it, and was not disappointed.

Twitter is a HUGE info dump. I discovered that all but one of my favorite authors are using Twitter, so I must be in the right place. And here and there in the avalanche of tweets, I have found some wonderful writing advice. I have been prowling the feed, “favoriting” other writers’ posts like a madwoman.


My last post was about deciding to self publish the Isla Vista story when I realized how the whole university landscape has changed radically from the way things were. Now I realize that in addition to having a book out, what I learn from the whole experience will be more than worth the cost of having the ebook distributed and having a great cover design.


Soon I’ll be getting the book proof to review, and if all goes well, it will go out to Amazon,  Barnes and Noble, and a bunch of other booksellers I haven’t heard of. And then, who knows? 


Upcoming Book: “Playing in the Apocalypse”

A friend and fellow alumnus of UC Santa Barbara sent me this LA Times editorial. It seems that UCSB students can now opt out of any class material that might upset them. In the words of my student days, it just blew my mind. Totally weird, man—WTF?? University is supposed to be about expanding one’s viewpoint, learning about people from other cultures, races, and economic backgrounds. I know I learned about things I had never thought of before, and my friends and I had long discussions far into the night, throwing ideas back and forth. Things were a bit more dire in my day; my boyfriend got a seriously unlucky draft lottery number during the Vietnam War, a war we didn’t believe in–right after he flunked out. Not to mention Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy being assassinated one right after another, not that long after JFK. Those were some scary times, plus the fact that we faced major police brutality and had our town placed under martial law. So, excuse me if students opting out of potentially upsetting classroom material in an institution of education threw me into a tizzy. Talk about cognitive dissonance. It also galvanized me. 
About three years ago, I wrote a short book about my senior year at UCSB, 1969-1970. I participated in the Vietnam War Moratorium, when millions marched in San Francisco and Washington DC. I was tear-gassed during the Isla Vista riots, harassed by police, and I saw the Bank of America burn. After reading the latest news about my alma mater, I hauled that manuscript out of its drawer and decided to self-publish it as an ebook. 
It’s titled “Playing in the Apocalypse.” That’s what my boyfriend called those times, and it has stuck with me ever since.
I uploaded the manuscript late last night and am waiting to hear whether it needs more formatting before they can convert it for e-readers. I also ordered a cover design and am curious to see what they come up with. 
I will keep posting about the self-publication process—completely new to me. 
Here’s a preliminary description. 
It was 1970. Kate and Joel were lovers during the riots in Isla Vista, a once sleepy, palm-studed, beachfront student community next to the University of California, Santa Barbara campus. For Kate, raised by repressive fundamentalist Christian parents, Isla Vista was the first place in her life that felt like home. She loved to browse the bookstore and take long walks along the beach. There were concerts and street dances just about every weekend… and then her world came apart. Kate’s apartment was right on the police patrol loop, where armored trucks full of cops shot the tires of parked cars and lobbed tear gas canisters at the apartment buildings. She and her roommate barricaded the door and hid in their apartment until something happened that galvanized them into action.
In between the fires, the rage, and the night the bank went up in flames, a tender love story unfolded between Joel and Kate.
It was a terrifying and life-changing year. Packed with details and drawn from the author’s own experiences, “Playing in the Apocalypse” is a time capsule of a scary, but in many ways simpler, era.  
KCSB, the only radio station in the history of the United States to be shut down by police, April 17, 1970.