Category Archives: Memories

Memoir: The Poet In Spite of Herself

The Poet In Spite of Herself

I stood before the audience, my notebook open as I prepared to read an excerpt from my novel The Curate’s Brother. It is a historical romance based off of Jane Austen’s novel Persuasion. It was one of many readings that I would do to promote my new book that year. The moderator of our panel gestured to me and said, “I present to you our next reader, author and poet, Wendy Van Camp.”

I remember blinking and tilting my head to one side, like a puppy that is not quite sure of a knock at the door. I do write poetry, but until that moment I never considered myself to be “a poet”. In those few seconds, before I began my reading, I had an epiphany. The moderator was correct, I am a poet! The irony was not lost on me.

When I was in grade school, I remember saving money from my allowance in order to buy a notebook that had caught my fancy. It had a green cover with gold foil embellishments and the pages were smooth white paper without lines. I put the notebook in a place of honor among my growing book collection, but could not decide what to do with it. Then it hit me. I would fill the notebook with poetry. I had never written a poem before, but how hard could it be? I was already writing novels, stories filled with Tolkien style dwarves and elves or mermaids who did battle with titans. Not that anyone read the stories but my own young eyes.  Poetry would be compatible with my childhood dream of becoming an author when I grew up.

I cradled my green notebook late at night and sprinkled the pages with little ideas that came to me in my dreams. After I had written a dozen poems, my younger brother swiped the book from my room, read my words and then proceeded to mock everything that I had written. I wilted in embarrassment. My parents mentioned that I shouldn’t be wasting my time writing in the first place. I put the recovered green notebook deep into my stacks and forgot about poetry. I continued writing my novels, but since poetry didn’t make money and was not respected, it would not be part of my life.

The years went by and after graduating college, I found myself working in government and corporate television.  My idea of becoming an author shifted into a dream of becoming the next big director in Hollywood. By this time, I had spent the past five years producing and directing a half hour band showcase series called Musician Discoveries in addition to working full-time at the local cable station. Bands traveled from other states for the chance to perform on my studio stage and be featured in my low budget, labor of love.

After going through a few different hosts for the program and the threat of our studio losing its funding and thus losing access to its equipment, I decided that it was time for a change. I ended my musician series and took my programming out of the doomed studio. Instead, I purchased an expensive prosumer camera and software to edit video on my home computer.

The equipment needed to produce television was thousands of dollars in those days and there was no such thing as YouTube or even the Internet to distribute the work. I would have to leapfrog the program on public channels, hand delivering the broadcast quality tapes to the cable outlets. Yet, I felt it was time to go rogue and create television on my own terms.

I needed a new art form to showcase for the new TV series. Music had been kind to me, but I was tired of it. I thought about paintings. The cliché of being “as boring as watching paint dry” nixed that idea. Then I considered poetry. While I had not written a poem since perfunctory assignments in high school, as a director, I didn’t need to create the content. That would be the talent’s job. Readings were dynamic, the performances would be easy to capture and the thought of shooting on location in the various coffeehouses in the city was appealing in its own right. I put the production together and marched forth, a young intrepid television director with a dream to share poetry on my new program Coffeehouse Poetry.

Realty hit hard and fast. The coffeehouses would cancel my shoot time without informing me. One went out of business and I didn’t learn about it until I arrived a few hours before production. Editing on home equipment was more difficult than the broadcast quality machines I was used to.  I was used to editing on analog equipment and my new home studio was in the then-new digital style.  I was never happy with the production values I could afford on my small budget.

And then, there were the poets.

Never had I worked with such unruly creatives in my life. They were demanding, rude, and unreliable. As the months went by, I sunk lower into depression as each setback destroyed my program.  Every time I received a rude letter or phone call from one of the poets, I felt myself give up a little more. The musicians I used to work with for Musician Discoveries understood the value of exposure that television offered.  The poets did not.  In the end, I produced around a dozen programs before I closed my doors. I bitterly swore to myself that I would never work with poets or have anything to do with poetry again.

Fifteen years later, I found myself shifting away from the long hours and stress of professional television production.  Many of the corporations I worked for were sending their work overseas to Japan or Thailand where labor and studio space was less expensive than Los Angeles.  The major studios remained, but I was facing burnout and the thought of the long commute into the city was daunting.

I remembered my original dream of becoming a novelist. My hiatus from writing was twenty years in length, but thanks to intensive training via Nanowrimo, I learned the techniques of writing books and how to market them.  Science fiction is my main genre, but as a side project, I started an Austen inspired romance series.  Since the romances were easier to complete, I published this series first and became known as an Austen inspired romance author.

During my early years of returning to writing, an author friend suggested that I give poetry a try in addition to the short stories.  Due to its brief form, I could write plenty of them, submitting to more paying markets or use the poems as easy blog posts.  I thought about the idea but cringed inside.  The scar that Coffeehouse Poetry left inside me was a large one.  I put the idea aside.

One Friday afternoon, after I had finished placing my wares into a science fiction convention art show, rain threatened overhead. The heat was oppressive in the atrium next to the art show where all the workshop/panel rooms were located. I had planned to stay for the ice cream social that evening, but it was several hours in the future. A writing panel would help to pass the time until the social event started.

I looked at the placards in front of the workshop doorways, but it was early in the day and most of the programming had not started at the convention. However, there was a scratched-in workshop available and its room was close to where the ice cream social was located. I ducked inside.

There were six or seven people in the room, I assumed that they were fellow attendees who would join me in the workshop. The placard said that this was a Scifaiku workshop. I had no idea what that was, but as long as the air conditioning worked and there was ice water available, I was game to give the workshop a try.

The instructor introduced herself and then informed me that all those people in the room were friends that had come to support her class. They were publishers of poetry magazines. I was the only student and she was going to teach me how to write scifaiku poetry.

I immediately wondered if I could get out of the workshop gracefully, but being the only student, I didn’t want to be rude. So I sat back and watched methods of brainstorming poems, ideas of how haiku and science fiction could be merged, and the structure to follow when writing a scifaiku poem.

The instructor said, “Now you will write a poem for the class.”

Me? Write a poem? I hadn’t done this since high school and that was a long time ago. I could hear my brother laughing deep in my memory.  I remembered the poor grades I got in high school during poetry assignments. Yet, I had the format and the brainstorming techniques before me on the blackboard.  I was a writer of science fiction short stories and had the background research of sci-fi concepts ingrained within me.  How hard could this be? I wrote my first scifaiku, the first poem I had created in more than twenty years.

When I was done, the instructor said. “Now, I would like you to read your poem to the class.” I looked around. What class? I was the only student! All the other people in the room were publishers of poetry magazines, some of them with large followings.

I stood up. I read my poem. I sat down.

The instructor said a few words about my attempt. Then, one of the publishers leaned over and told me that she liked my poem and wanted to publish it in her magazine. She would pay me. I took her card with shock.

That would be the first scifaiku I wrote, but not the last. I sold that poem and many more after that. Later, I would illustrate the poems with simple line art and that published too. Then someone suggested that I sell the illustrated poems as art prints and suddenly, I was “an artist”.

Now here I stand, with my notebook before me, ready to read my prose to the audience and introduce my novel.  The ironic laughter within disappears in the face of reality.  I am now the author that I dreamed of being as a child through hard work and dedication. And yes, I am a poet too. As strange as it seems to be after all the ridicule this art form has caused me through the years.  I am the poet in spite of herself.


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Flash Fiction: Baptism By Fire

Baptism by Fire Header

Dreams sometimes happen at the most unexpected moments in life. When I was twelve years old, I saw the movie Star Wars at the local drive-in and found myself fascinated not only by the story and the special effects of the film but by the fast-paced new editing style of the film’s director. From that day forward, I had a dream of being a director myself. It made me more attentive to my writing in high school, and when I went to college, I selected a university that had a reputable film school, much to my parents’ chagrin.

During my second year of film school, I was given the opportunity to intern at a local cable station that produced programming for the community. I felt excited by the opportunity and wanted to immerse myself in their program to gain the hands-on experience I needed before seeking a career in the entertainment industry. The cable station ran on intern power. We provided free labor as grips, camera operators, chryon operators, and the technical directing of the live talk shows that were the staples of the studio while the few paid staffers oversaw the operation.

There were two live talk shows produced by the studio, one shot on Monday night and the other on Wednesday night. One program was a fun entertainment show highlighted by interesting local guests and a loud boisterous director that kept everyone in stitches with his jokes. All of us interns wanted to work on this show because it was fun to be on the set, but because of this, there were limited opportunities to find a crew position and to gain the hands-on experience we were all there for. I would often be told by the director that “We just don’t have room for you this week, Wendy. Maybe next time.” I suffered disappointment when I was told that, but I was determined to continue to apply for crew. My reward was that once in a while I would find a position as a cable puller or a camera operator out on the floor. The control room seemed out of my reach Wednesday nights.

The other program was a sleepy political talk show that often had problems gaining guests; the host would sometimes give historical or political lectures to fill the allotted half hour. The director of the political program had trouble finding crew since most of us had trouble staying awake during this program. I was approached personally by the director to join his crew. He played on my sympathy by telling me how short-handed he was Monday night and asked me for my help. I agreed to become a regular crewmember on Monday night.

Six months later, I had progressed from being on the camera to working as a floor manager and finally assigned to the control room. On this particular Monday, I was seated at the switcher as the technical director, feeling like Mr. Sulu from Star Trek since the blinking lights and the whirl of sound from the equipment reminded me of the command bridge of the Enterprise. I looked into the triple monitors before me. Each monitor displayed a different camera view from the television studio just beyond the heavy insulated windows at the front of the control room. Although we were recording the talk show in color, all the seven-inch monitors were black and white. The center monitor was a wide shot of the two people, the host and his guest, seated in chairs with a low table before them. This camera was locked on the tripod, unmoving once it had been set, and left unmanned. We joking referred to the camera as Larry Lockdown. The other two monitors had closer shots, one of the host and one of the guest. Occasionally, the camera operator would be asked to switch to a tighter two shot or to shoot a graphics card that would be placed on an easel by the floor manager.

To my left in the control room was the chyron, a huge metal box of circuits and wire attached to a keyboard and television monitor. The electronic words that were superimposed on our program were created there and a crew member needed to be available to bring the graphics in on the cue of the director. When we had enough crew, the chyron operator would input the information before the show and then update the graphics on the screen so that I could superimpose the name of the host or guest during the program or any information that the host or guest wished to put on the screen. We did not have a remote control for the chyron and the machine was four feet from my station, too far for me to reach. When we did not have enough crew, as was the case that day, I would input in the information before the program went live and the director would scroll to the proper graphic himself during the show and then cue me when to bring the graphic in at the switcher.

To my right was the engineering panels where the final images got color mixed and white balanced. These were the largest machines in the studio, being three feet wide and going from floor to ceiling. I was fascinated by the science behind what they did, but the complexities of engineering took more technical knowledge than I possessed at the time. Behind these large machines was a bank of VTRs, huge cassette players that used 3/4” U-Matic tapes. U-Matic was the analog standard for broadcast quality recording back then, although tape newcomers such as High-8 or Beta SP were also becoming popular and starting to see integration into our systems. The top deck recorded the live program we were producing that night and the others were player decks that we used to insert commercials and PSAs during the segment breaks. At the proper time, a tape would be inserted and cued up to 3 seconds before the start of the commercial block and then the VTR operator would wait for the director’s cue to press the start button at the proper time. Digital technology was still a fanciful rumor on the horizon during the mid-1980s and we were all quite comfortable working in analog format on equipment that by today’s standards would seem rather antique.

The host and his guest were seated on the set and the floor manager was clipping tiny lavaliere microphones to their shirts. The final sound checks were completed. I glanced up at the clock and noted that we were five minutes until the program went live to the city. My director had entered the control room and was making the final checks on the equipment. Color and white balance—Check. Chyron loaded and correct for that day’s program—Check. Commercial reels lined up on the floor before the VTR bank—Check. U-Matic tape labeled with its red record dot in place—Check. He loaded the U-Matic tape into the upper VTR and recorded thirty seconds of color bars and five seconds of black. He paused the tape. We were the only two people in the control room since our other two crew members were on the floor as camera operator and floor manager.

The clock moved to one minute before 7pm. The director and I put our bulky earphone and mic headsets on and I heard the orders both behind me and in the earphones. “Standby to cue talent. Standby to take fade up on camera two.” Our director was not in his chair in the center of the room but stood beside the VTR rack. From there he would switch on the cablecast so that our program would go live.
“Three.” The director started the recording VTR and stepped forward in front of the button that would cablecast the program live on the cable system to thousands of potential viewers in the city.

“Two.” I heard the soft click of the button. On the machines to my right, lights came on to indicate that the program was now being cablecast. My director continued forward and stood behind me at the center of the control room. I always felt nervous at this moment in the count-down. If something went wrong, it would be seen by the entire city.

“One. Fade up to camera two.” I pressed the camera two button to let the switcher know where to go and used the bar to fade up from black into the image on my middle monitor. My movement was sure and steady, something that I had practiced so that my fades would have the proper timing. “Take graphic.” I pressed the proper button and the name of the program superimposed over the wide shot. “Lose graphic.” The graphic faded away at the press of another button. I heard the director go over to the chyron machine and he advanced to the next page. The name of our host was displayed.

“Standby to cue talent. Standby to dissolve to camera one.” I pressed the button that let the switcher know which camera to take at my command. On the other side of the window, our floor manager was giving hand cues to the host. “Cue talent and dissolve to one.” I pulled the bar down in a smooth and steady motion and the program dissolved between the two images.

In the studio, our host gave the usual scholarly greeting that he did at the start of every program. While we did have the program on in the control room, we kept the volume low so that it would not interfere with our work. I never listened to the program other to make sure that there was audio being recorded.

“Standby to show tag. Tag him.”

I pressed the button to bring in the chyron and the name of our host displayed on the lower third of the screen. “Lose tag.”

I heard the chyron advance as the director pressed a few of the keys. “Standby to take three.” I waited for the verbal-cue, this time not bothering to set up the switcher’s board since it was not necessary for a cut between two shots. “Take three.”

The guest of the program was in a medium shot. “Tag him.” I once again pressed the chyron button and the guest’s name appeared in the lower third of the screen. “Lose tag.”

My director moved back to the center of the room, but this time he took his chair a foot or two behind mine. The busywork was completed. For the next eight minutes, things would be simple. We would do cuts between the host and guest and the director would monitor the audio on the board to my right. Since there were only two people talking on the program, once we set the general levels, there was no additional work to be done. We got by without an engineer to handle the audio board on a regular basis. There would be three segments to the program, each one eight minutes long with two commercial breaks between them.

The program had progressed to its middle segment when both the director and I noticed an odor. Since the program was live, I did not look away from the monitors, but I heard the director shift in his chair.

“Is that smoke?”

I sniffed. A faint smell like burning rubber was in the air. “I smell smoke too.”

The director stood. “There is no one else in the building but us. I better check this out. Wendy, take over.” Those final three words echoed in my brain as I froze in my chair and stared at the three monitors before me in utter shock.

I was now the director of this live television program with no preparation other than the months I had spent as a technical director. I was completely alone in the control room. It was a good thing that the air conditioning was on because I’m sure that I would have broken into a sweat otherwise. Don’t panic, I told myself. You can do this. I took a deep breath and concentrated on the program. When the host asked a question of his guest, I pressed the proper buttons, moved the transition bar, and kept the proper camera on the action. I forgot the voice protocols the first few times, but I recovered my senses within the first few switches on the board and started to give my camera operator and floor manager the cues they needed to do their job on the set. Within a few minutes—that seemed like hours—I began to breathe again. I was directing! And as far as the world outside was concerned, everything looked normal on the air.

There was one problem. At the end of the program segment, I would need to fade to black and then take the commercial reel that was at the back of the control room. The VTR decks were too far away in the room for me to cue up the tapes and punch them in while still working the switcher. I started to go over scenarios as to how I was going to be able to throw to the reel, but nothing came to me. I continued to direct the television program, not knowing what I was going to do when the time came to end the segment.

One minute to the end of the segment, I gave the one minute cue to the floor manager. The host was flagged with a hand signal and a cue card on the set. I switched to the host’s camera as he began to do his segment wrap up. What was I going to do about the reel? All I did was stare at the monitors and work the switcher. My mind was a blank.

“Commercial reel is cued. On your mark.” It was the voice of the director. I was surprised that he did not take over the program. Instead, he stood by the VTR decks waiting for my command as if he were simply the VTR operator. I had no idea when he had entered the control room or how long he had been standing behind me. I issued the commands to the crew as needed to wrap up the segment, cued the proper moment for the reel to play and then faded the program to black before cutting in the reel. It was over. I had done it! I swiveled in my chair to look at the director, free for the three minutes of the reel before the next segment would begin. In television time, three minutes is close to an eternity.

The director smiled at me. “You did a good job there, Wendy. Maybe next week I’ll have you direct another segment of the show?”

“I’d like that.” My own face had an answering grin. “So what caused the smoke?”

“Oh, someone had left the coffee pot burners on and one of them had caught on fire.” My director grimaced. “We are all alone here at night. It could have burned the building down! I’ll have to talk to maintenance about it tomorrow.” The company coffee pot was just around the corner from the studio, tucked away in a passage between two empty corridors where it was easy to miss.

The commercial break was nearing its end and we needed to get back to putting our live television program on the air. The director took over the program at that point and, to my relief, I was simply the technical director once more.

True to his word, the next week I was allowed to direct a full segment of the political show, but under the director’s supervision. The week after that, the director of the fun entertainment show stopped me in the hall. “Why don’t we have you come and direct a segment on my show next week?” I was stunned. I remembered all the times when I was either turned down to crew or only offered a simple position on the set. I tried not to stammer as I accepted the opportunity, but I suppose that I must have looked rather foolish because the director just grinned at me. The following week I directed the entertainment program, again under the supervision of an experienced director. I was the envy of the rest of the interns.

I did not consider myself a director at that point. I was merely an intern gaining my degree in Radio/Television/Film and still had plenty to learn. Eventually, the cable station would hire me and this would become my first paid job in the industry. I was hired as a commercial insertion editor—not as a director, however. That title would come to me years later through much hard work and patience.

It is funny how this event has stuck in my mind the way that it has, over the hundreds of other directing gigs that I performed over the next two decades. I was the director of the talk show for around six minutes, but in my memory, it seems like hours. It must be true that you don’t forget your first time. I will never forget my baptism by fire into the career of directing live television.


“Baptism by Fire” first published in the literary magazine “Shadows Express” during the Winter of 2012. It was the first short story that I had published and is a true story.

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Lit Up OC: Author Open Mic

Kean Coffee Tustin 2
Kean Coffee in Tustin, CA

I drove down the country road with anticipation, a small box of my books in the trunk of my vehicle and wearing comfortable, but nice clothing. I did my best to quell my nerves and remind myself that I’ve done this before, but it had been almost a year since I last performed an author reading in public. I felt that I might be rusty. This was no ordinary author series either. It was Lit Up OC, the series attached to my local writing guild and most of my writer friends attend it. Would I lose my voice? Would I blank out when my friends grilled me with writing questions that would go far beyond a typical layperson? Of the three authors reading, which one would I be? First? Last? I wasn’t sure.

What is Lit Up OC

I stumbled upon Lit Up OC around two years ago. It is a monthly reading series in Southern California located at Keans Coffee in Tustin. Local writers hang out with their coffee and tea while three authors read excerpts from their novels or a short story. Represented genre include mysteries, thrillers, science fiction, fantasy, literary, memoir, you name it. You never know what is coming next. There are many events like this in nearby Los Angeles, but Lit Up OC is the only reading series I know of in Orange County. Our host, Madeline Tighe Margarita is the creator and organizer of the event. She handles the author introductions. Asks questions of the audience afterward about what they heard and what their impressions were in critique style. Then moderates a general question and answer session between the author and audience.

What I Read

Murder They Wrote Book Cover (blog)In December of 2017, I had a story included in a horror anthology called “Murder They Wrote” put out by Serial Sikk Publishing. The theme of the collection was speculative fiction that included a murder. My story, “We Can Rebuild Him” began as a writing prompt from an online science fiction writing club. The prompt was to write a story about a cyborg. I combined the prompt with the feelings I felt when watching the Kevin Bacon movie “Taking Chance”. It features an American escort officer returning the body of a soldier to his family. I combined this with ideas about cyborgs that I had gleaned from panels at science fiction conventions. The result was psychologically dark and although it was not technically about murder, it fits with the bloody theme of the anthology.

I read the entire story to the audience. My goal was not to sell books per se, it was for me to get out and perform a reading for the first time in almost a year. I practiced all week. Developing different inflections for the characters. Where to put in pauses for emphasis. Making sure that all technical terms flowed with proper pronunciations. Everything that I could do to make a good first impression of my writing to my peers.

What Questions Were Asked

Wendy Reads at Lit Up OC - Jan 2018
Wendy Van Camp Reads at Lit Up OC

After the reading, Maddie conducts a question and answer session. The first part of the session she asks the audience about what they heard during the reading and their thoughts about it. Considering most of the audience are authors, some with multiple books, the comments can be extremely technical and difficult to answer on the fly. I prepared to answer typical questions at the reading. The inspiration for the story. My writing voice. Experiences on the science fiction convention circuit. What national author guilds I belong to and why. The audience asked all that and more.

I’m told that I appeared articulate and that my reading was entertaining, even with the dark subject matter. Many were surprised that I had written a story in the horror genre.

I feel that “We Can Rebuild Him” is a good story to perform and I plan on using it as my main piece at the various readings I will do at conventions this year. While I don’t write dark, horror pieces as a general rule, it still showcases my current skill level as an author. If you are planning on attending WorldCon, you will hear me read this story at the Broad Universe Rapid Fire Reading.

Kean Coffee Reading Audience 2
Lit Up OC Audience

Why Do Readings?

Many writers are introverts who feel anxiety standing up in front of people. I can sympathize with that. When I was a beginning teacher, standing in front of 30 teenagers and trying to convey English, History or Math to them, I felt challenged. Over time, I learned to be more comfortable in front of a classroom and to speak in a manner that is engaging enough to hold the attention of teenagers. If you can do that, you can speak to anyone! An easier way to learn this skill is to join the Toastmasters in your local area. There will be fewer spitballs on your back that way!

As an author, I like to find opportunities to be in front of potential readers and give them a sample of my work. This is why I attend book fairs, do readings at science fiction conventions, and read at local salons. When you get a chance to meet readers in person, you learn things about your own work or help you match the expectations of your target audience. While these events provide me with a place to do sales of my books, that is not my main focus. I am there to make an impression on readers in the hope that they will remember me later when looking for a new author to read. Not to mention, have a good time.

Final Word

Wendy Van Camp and Maddie at Lit Up OC
Host Maddie Margarita and Author Wendy Van Camp

Being the first to read, I was able to relax and enjoy the other two writers that night.  Both were accomplished authors and I enjoyed hearing their work. Afterward, I met people that came to hear me and to purchase signed books. I’m glad that I finally gave in to Maddie’s offer to read at Lit Up OC. It was a great experience and I hope to be back again once I complete my science fiction novel. However, I will be grateful that the next time I’m at the event, I will be in the audience posing “difficult” questions to the next set of authors!

Beach Party Author Write-in

newport beach pedestrian walkNewport Beach in California is a well-known tourist attraction to most of the United States. People come here to enjoy the sparkling white beach, the cold waves of azure water, and the beach community that hugs it. There are over ten miles of beaches in the public park system in the city, including the Balboa Peninsula where my writing group decided to hold a Saturday write-in, complete with a bonfire, hot dogs to roast for dinner and inspiration to write. I do not go to the beach often, even though I live a scant forty minutes away, and I felt enthusiastic about the write-in because I had intended to visit the beach at least once this summer, but had not gotten around to it.

I did not want to bring my laptop or Alphasmart Neo to the beach. The idea of sand blowing into the keyboards of either of my machines worried me. Instead, I pulled out my composition notebook and loaded up my leather pen case with a fountain pen and a Coleteo multi-pen. As a backup, I brought two Pilot G-2 pens, one in black and the other in red that I popped into my flashlight’s case. I have a rubberized lapboard that I like to use when I’m going to be balancing my writing on a chair and I thought that it would provide a good writing surface at the beach. It took time to figure out how to carry it. I ended up stuffing it in my lime green, soft-cooler bag.

I arrived at the Balboa Peninsula in the late afternoon. I drove through the parking lots that were near the pier, but there was not a single space to be had. It was late June and a Saturday, so the beach was packed with tourists and locals out to enjoy the coolness of the day. After driving around the parking lot for forty minutes, I gave up and headed toward the residential area a good mile distant from where my friends gathered. I found a free parking spot in front of a house with a ceramic plate featuring hot chile peppers. I unloaded my vehicle, holding the two tote style bags in one hand and putting the straps of the encased folding chair and umbrella over my other shoulder.

California in the summertime is often called paradise. The sun caresses you while the salt laden wind cool your skin. Overhead, palm trees rustle in the sea breeze and the scent of BBQ combined with spice competes with sour stench of seaweed and salt. As I wandered down a pedestrian and bike path along a row of beach front homes, I was striding by private rose gardens full of delicate pink blooms, beige stucco walls covered with magenta bougainvillea and picket fences of wind distressed grey wood. I smiled to see a tiny hummingbird dancing in among the flowers, drinking in the nectar while it defied the brisk seawind. On the other side of the path were the azure waves of the Pacific and the white sand that the city of Newport Beach is famous for.

A long mile of walking brought me to lifeguard station B and a mass of fire pits already ablaze with wood provided by old cargo pallets or supermarket purchased bundles of split wood. Many grills were cooking dinners, scattered out on the sandy beach or on the grassy lawn of the park. My writing buddies were in the center of this sand filled chaos and gave me a hearty wave as I came around the bend on the cement pathway. They were a band of women dressed in cotton clothing, sunhats and sandals, arranged in a circle facing each other, but without a fire in the center. As I set up my folding chair and umbrella, I wondered what had happened to the promised bonfire.

“The school next to us took three of the fire pits for their kids.” The young, dark-haired woman that had organized our event gave me a sheepish expression. She had worked hard to gain us a fire pit, but in the end she was unsuccessful. Looking around our small patch of sand, I noticed that we were indeed surrounded by large numbers of frolicking teenagers in various states of undress. They were all part of the large school group that were having an outing that day.

As I pulled a cold drink from my cooler, I seated myself in my umbrella shaded chair to relax after my long walk. This was the beach after all, a natural place for young people to come and play. No one was bothering our group of eight writers and while a bonfire would be wonderful, we could improvise. I dug my bare feet into the warm, white sand and felt any remaining tension from the walk melt away.

photo by Jennifer Levine
Authors DeAnna Cameron and Rebekah Webb write in their notebooks
“So how long did it take you all to figure out what to write with tonight?” asked the author next to me in the circle. She was a woman of middle years, with two tween-aged children, and a strong personality. “I was at it for hours and couldn’t decide what to bring. ”She held up a notebook into the air. “I went with this.”

Everyone at the write-in was armed with a bound notebook and pen, except for the new writer who had arrived on a motorcycle and seemed prepared to take on the world. She had her hair pulled back in a ponytail and had a black backpack that reminded one of Mary Poppin’s carpet bag; Endless items seemed to emerge from that bag. She wrote on her laptop under a blanket to block out the sun and sand.

I extracted my lapboard, fountain pen and composition book from my bag, but discovered that I had neglected to double check the ink in my pen. It was empty. I was forced to pull out my backup Pilot G-2 pens instead. I was not planning on working on a draft that night, I wanted to brainstorm new ideas to use for future flash fiction projects. I had written down a pair of writing prompts and was going to let the beach inspire me.

Although we did not have a bonfire of our own, the third fire that the school group had built was unused by the kids, and was next to our circle. The kids preferred to cluster around the other two bonfires. We were close enough to the third fire that we stayed warm as night descended on the beach. I used my small pen light to continue writing in the dark. Later, a larger flashlight was stuck in my beach umbrella and pointed up at the material to bounce a soft white light for the rest of the party.

Super Moon at Balboa Beach - photo by Jill Carpenter
Super Moon at Balboa Beach
As the moon rose from the horizon, the two photographers in our group pulled out their cameras. One had a professional looking Nikon DSLR with a lens longer than my hand and a metallic red body and the other woman, a tiny point and shoot Canon. The two ladies razzed each other in a friendly way about the brand of camera they used and why their brand was the better one.

Both of our self appointed photographers took shots of of the “super moon” that was upon us that evening. While I do keep up with astronomical terms, I was unfamiliar with what a “super moon” was. As it turned out, it is a layman’s term for when the moon was at perigee, when a full moon is at its closest point in its orbit to the Earth that year. Near the ocean, the city lights are dim and you can see the stars and moon clearly. Our super moon was very bright, but not large as a harvest moon may appear.

As the darkness enclosed us, one of our party suggested that we ask to borrow the third, unused fire to cook our dinner. We sent our representative teenage writer over to use her sad smile and winsome ways on the school party. It did not take her long to gain us access to the bonfire. Our write-in coordinator strode to her car and returned with a large wheeled cooler. She was trailed by her Mom who had been sitting out in their car, preferring to take an on-line school course on her iPad instead of being out on the sand. However, dinner drew her out to join us authors at last.

The hot dogs were roasted. S’mores were distributed. The women writers fought playfully over a bag of carrots. As the night wore on, we all departed from the beach one by one. I was grateful to be offered a ride back to my SUV, sparing me the long walk back to my car with all my gear.

It was the first time our group had gathered for a write-in at the beach, but I think that it will not be the last time we do this. While most of us did not do a great deal of writing, the camaraderie and the relaxation was well worth the day.

photos by Jill Carpenter and Jennifer Levine

A Day at the Los Angeles Times Book Festival

Poet Jevon Johnson - LA Times Book Festival
Poet Jevon Johnson – Spoken Word Performance
The Los Angeles Times Book Festival is the largest book event in California. It is speculated that 150,000 people come to the festival, located on the campus of USC, to partake of poetry, music, authors and celebrities. The event is a maze of author panels, book signings, book sellers, poetry readings and music that it would be easy to become lost in the sea of people and books, like drifting flotsam.

Although I’ve been a bibliophile most of my life, I have never attended a book festival before. When my writing friends spoke of forming a carpool to the event, I felt intrigued and eager to attend. There were four of us hearty souls on a journey of discovery, all piled into our friend’s comfortable van. On the way to Los Angeles, we spoke about tickets to the many events, which booths we wanted to visit and where we would meet up at the end of the day.

The weather was warm and sunny, but not with the bite of heat that Southern California is known for. I had armed myself with a wide brimmed sun-hat, plenty of sunscreen, and a backpack filled with granola bars and bottles of water. My day began at one of the ticket booths, gathering the needed print-outs to the panels I had selected to attend. Many had been marked as sold out on-line before the event, but I discovered that not only were the tickets free on walk up, but all the events that I thought I could not attend were now available. With undisguised greed, I accepted the free tickets before my friend and I rushed off to our first event.

As we hiked across the campus, I was reminded of my first days as a college freshman, my nose tucked in a map and a confused, lost expression on my face. My friend and I became misplaced near the poetry stage, where performance poets were reading for a small morning crowd and then wandered to a nearby book signing booth where volunteers were stacking novels in preparation of the first signings of the day. Books by Carol Burnett, the famous comedienne and actress were everywhere in the booth. At this point, we realized that we had gone the wrong way.

Making a quick course correction, we managed to slip into the back seats of our selected panel, Fiction: Setting and Story. The panelists were Jami Attenberg, Kevin P. Keating, Michael Lavigne and Maggie Shipstead. They spoke about how they developed the ideas for the settings of their novels and answered a few questions of the 200 or so attendees of their panel. It was not a writing workshop, more of an expression of what they did as authors and details about their books. Afterward, they were ushered by handlers to their book signing booth where I’m sure they sold many copies of their books to the audience.

I had a little time before the next panel started, so I stopped for lunch at the row of food trucks that had come to the campus that day. There was a wide selection of choices from burgers to pita sandwiches and salads. My friend and I managed to find a shady table in the pavilion set up on the campus track to enjoy our lunch. The springy feel of the track under my feet made me feel as if I could propel myself into flight; Only the best running surfaces for team USC.

I noticed there was a police presence assembling near the food trucks, mainly officers on horseback. Four of them had pulled up their horses in a row and were allowing two children to pet the horse’s noses. As I made a point to pass by in front of the horses, knowing better than to walk behind a horse’s rump, I noticed that in addition to the usual firearms, each officer had what appeared to be a sword near the pommel of their saddle. On closer inspection it proved to be a long ivory hued club with a carved hilt. Most curious. I had comic visions of LAPD officers, as samurai warriors, chasing evil doers at the festival with their wooden swords. Yet, I was also comforted by the officers presence due to the recent bombing at the Boston Marathon. This was a large public event and it could be a terrorist target.

The next panel I attended proved to be my favorite of the day. It was entitled Fiction from the 22nd Century and featured science fiction authors: Austin Grossman, Scott Hutchins, Lydia Netzer and Robin Sloan. Again, this was not a writing workshop, but authors speaking about a topic as it pertained to their own writing. The topic was about how speculative fiction has changed from the golden age of science fiction to today, where authors do not attempt to predict what is to come, but instead explain the ramifications of science in our current lives. Being a science fiction writer, I found the topic to be quite applicable to my own writing and found myself eager to take notes with my fountain pen.

The next event was to hear author Orson Scott Card interviewed by Aaron Johnston. Two of Mr. Card’s novels are on my favorite list: Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead. I ended up being disappointed by this interview because the author was extremely focused on the filming of his novel, Ender’s Game, and his day of playing a bit role in the movie instead of speaking about writing. Still, I was able to get a sense of the man’s personality and a few thoughts about how he viewed his writing and his career. I noticed that the authors that he listed as his greatest inspiration were the same as my own.

I caught the tail-end of the word stylings by Javon Johnson, two-time National Poetry Slam champion and USC Professor, who was performing his poetry on the main stage and getting the crowd involved with his act. The cadence of his words were comical and yet thought provoking.

There were an astounding number of book vendors selling every sort of book you could imagine on the pedestrian walkway under the shade trees. Booths that specialized in indie authors were the most numerous. There were also several writer’s groups that offered book signings by their members; Murder, We Wrote and the Independent Writers of Southern California were the two that caught my eye. Both are local writer’s groups in the Los Angeles area. The most attractive booth was the Jane Austen Society of North America who were selling fanfiction Austen titles and promoting their local chapter in Pasadena. Inside the booth were hung Regency style costumes and the tables were draped with lace. You could almost believe that Jane herself was about to appear for a book signing of Pride and Prejudice.

Authors DeAnna Cameron and Greta Boris
Authors DeAnna Cameron and Greta Boris
I ended my day at the booth of Red Phoenix Books. My friends Greta Boris and DeAnna Cameron were both holding book signings there. Greta writes non-fiction about fitness and DeAnna is a steampunk and historical fiction novelist. Both reported a busy day and plenty of visitors.

Red Phoenix Books is owned by Claudia Alexander, a scientist who publishes not only a range of science books aimed at children, but also several steampunk novels. I was pleased to have a chance to chat with Claudia about steam engines and how to better understand this technology when writing Steampunk fiction. There is nothing like having a JPL scientist to ask a few questions of.

By this time, the festival was winding to its close. One by one, our foursome met up at the Red Phoenix Booth. We returned to the valet parking station to retrieve our vehicle. Once more we journeyed on, out of the city and back home, each recounting different tales of our day at the Los Angeles Times Book Festival.