Ooh! Have you ever wanted to go to assassin school for your birthday?
Me neither. Luckily, Octavia (“V”) Ling is crazy enough to do it for you.
When Octavia “V” Ling spots the ad for The Italian School for Assassins, she figures that it sounds like a crazy workout, better than pole dancing, and exactly the kind of nuttiness she craves for a birthday that ends in a zero.
Except, when V lands in Florence, the other assassin students seem…awfully serious about this whole execution thing. As in, V’s roommate tells her, “If I catch you breaking into my locked weapons cache, I will eat you.” And she ain’t joking.
Plus the orientation consists of the students attacking each other.
So who can blame V for sneaking out for a drink with a hot young Italian guy? The only problem is, V wakes up the in morning with a teeny hangover and a huge problem: someone killed her Scary White Female roommate. And the rest of the school kind of blames V.
Sneak preview follows.
My roommate Rebecca’s alarm kept ringing.
Not just any alarm, but a recording of “Für Elise.”
Now, I like Beethoven as much as the next woman, but not at 4:30 a.m. Italian time, or any time, for that matter. I dragged my pillow over my head, rumpling my bird nest hair more than I managed to cover up my ears. It was a very thin pillow, though. Do Italians not like pillows as much as Canadians do, or is crappy bedding part of the preparation to become an assassin?
In case I forgot to mention it, I’m training to become an assassin. In Florence, Italy. For fun, not for serious.
Anyway, the bit of cotton batting hardly blocked out the tinny keyboard recording going nu-nu-Nu-nu-Nu-nu-nuuu…
I cleared my throat.
It kept playing.
“Rebecca,” I rasped. My temples ached. While everyone else had crashed last night, worn out from all the assassin drills, I’d snuck into Florence proper and discovered a bottle of red wine with my name on it.
I didn’t want to fight with my roommie. First of all, she’s tall, blonde, and fearsome, kind of like Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, only more humourless. Rebecca told me that if she caught me breaking into her locked weapons cache, she would eat me. I was like, “Um, you mean in a gay way? I don’t actually play for that team.” And then she hissed. Yes, actually hissed. From Uma to African rock python in 2.2 seconds.
I did ask Mr. Anderson if I could switch rooms, but he just stared at me with his dead grey eyes. And considering that he’s ex-IRA, ex-CIA, and ex-actly as scary as Rebecca of Murderbrook Farm, if not more so, I just chirped, “Never mind! It’s fine!” and vowed to spend as little time in my room as possible.
I don’t know what I was expecting from assassin school. I guess I had it all wrong because it was in Italy. You know, the country shaped like a boot? I thought they made everything fun here. Well, not Mussolini, but fashion, art, language, opera, and foooooooood. And wine. I can vouch for last night’s wine. Not to mention the hot young Italian dude who drank it with me.
But you know, even Elizabeth Gilbert didn’t just stay in Rome and eat for a year. She did spiritual stuff in India, and—what was she doing in Bali again? Besides humping the real-life version of Javier Bardem? Anyway, I decided I should have a mission for my fortieth birthday. Not just “Hey, let’s go downtown and pay strippers for a lap dance”—not that there’s anything wrong with that, and my best friend, Jen, did exactly that for hers—but it’s predictable, you know? Happy fortieth, do something fake naughty like ogle naked men with Day-Glo penises. Happy 18th, drink. Happy 65th, retire (or whatever it is you do when you’re 65).
So when I saw the little online ad for a school for assassins in Florence, I was like, Wassup? That sounds like a crazy workout, better than pole dancing, and exactly the kind of nuttiness I need for a birthday that ends in a zero.
So maybe it’s not so surprising that I had the teeniest bit of a hangover on Day 2. And I wasn’t exactly looking forward to the workouts, especially since Psycho Rebecca got her alarm mindlessly playing “Für Elise” over and over and over, in the middle of the night. Oh, sorry. The pre-dawn, was what she called it. “I arise at pre-dawn, in order to accomplish my exercises,” she said last night, staring down her nose at me. The woman had to be six feet tall in sneakers.
“Cool,” I lied. What else was I going to say, even though I’d rather stay out until dawn instead of rise and shine it?
At this moment in time, I’d gotten three hours of sleep. You know what Zyang Ziyi says is the best thing for skin? Not cream that’s you couldn’t afford if you sold your left kidney. It’s sleep. And if you saw her radiant skin in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, you’d be hitting the sheets pronto.
So that was what finally made me sit up in bed. If Rebecca the Directa (I know that makes no sense. I’m out of jokes. It’s 4:39 in the morning! I’m going bananas from Beethoven!) got up to exercise before shutting off her alarm, then I’d have to do it for her.
Yep, I’m that kind of woman. Don’t mess with me.
Even in the middle of the night, thanks to the moonlight and possibly an outside porch light, I could make out the black outline lump of her blankets, and her little bedside table only had a few objects on it, one of which must be her phone or her alarm. Most people don’t use travel alarm clocks anymore, but the music was so annoying, I figured Rebecca had made an exception.
Nu nu nu Nuuuuu, nu nu nu Nuuuuu…
The wind stirred the paper-thin curtain at the window between our beds. Crickets chirped. And a train Dopplered in the distance.
Oh, for heaven’s sake. How was anyone supposed to catch Z’s around here?
And then, as the sleep seeped out of my brain, I watched the curtain stir a third time and remembered that I’d closed the window last night, when I came back from drinking. I get cold easily, even in Italy, and this is a stone building. Damp and cold are the operative words. And Rebecca had already activated the ceiling fan. So I’d figured I’d close the window but leave the fan on, risking her ire, plus I was drunk and happy from making out with the Italian guy, so I shut and locked the window.
Now the window was wide open. Or at least open enough to make the breeze blow.
My heart thudded in my chest almost as much as my brain felt like it was hammering against my temples.
Okay. It was possible, even likely, that Rebecca had woken up and opened the window again while I was passed out. But I turned to stare at the unmoving lump of blankets in Rebecca’s bed.
All we were issued was a wafer of a brown wool blanket, a white sheet, and a meagre square pillow, which was why I was wearing my trusty red fleece jacket to bed, plus full-length pyjamas.
That small amount of bedding would not account for the full-sized bump in her bed.
Rebecca was still here, either dead asleep, ignoring the siren call to exercise, or…
She was just plain dead.
I held my breath and stared at the lump. I waited for a twitch of limb or a little sniff to indicate that she was animate.
Da da da Dah, da Dah da Dah.
Right. There was no way I’d catch her clearing her throat, with all of this racket, and even with my eyes adjusting to the darkness, I’d be driven crazy donkey shapes before I figured out yes, she was alive (yay?) or no, she was dead (boo, I guess).
I’d have to turn the light on.
If she was alive and I woke her up, she would kill me. Probably with something sharp out of that weapons cache she kept locked in a steel box in our shared closet.
If she was dead, she was…dead.
Which one would be worse?
Okay. The worst was me and Beethoven, frozen in indecision forever.
I took a step toward the light.
“[S]cintillating…V has a great voice. Combined with the imaginative plot, this is a character who calls out for a series. At once Everywoman and Heroine. A woman through whom we can comfortably live adventures that enthrall, yet which [Yin] make us believe are just a little bit beyond what we ourselves might achieve with a few more trips to the gym, a few less kids, a little less attraction to the couch and the 65” TV. And though I would judge Octavia as directed more toward a feminine audience, I was quite gripped by her adventures, her wit, her insights, and of course her making out, which she carries off in grand style.” –Richard Quarry, author of Midnight Choir
Shri Yoga hosted a great seminar by Todd Norian last October, and I’d always wanted to go back. Mona, one of the owners, made several adjustments on me that I liked, even though they made me self-conscious (what? I can’t even do plank pose right?). So I thought I’d go back for my extended birthday celebration. (Note: this post written in September and not posted until now because…why blog in real time when you can blog two months later? Regardless, as my friend Amanda put it, it’s my year of parties.)
I arrived barely in time to pay and set up my mat. Someone pointed out the gorgeous bouquet of pink flowers on the counter, and Mona said, “It was my birthday yesterday.” Then she said the theme for the class was backbends.
No way. It was her birthday, too. And we were doing backbends. Nice.
I had trouble getting all the Anusara yoga corrections straight (e.g. Thighs and shins rotated in, arms up to the ears, but shoulders down…), but I liked it. Near the end of class, she told us to roll up a blanket and place it against the wall for Urdhva Dhanurasana.
OMG. Birthday wheel.
I’d been practicing with my triangle pillow, but I went along with it, palms on the ground near my head, feet planted, hips and back off the ground, but resting my head on the ground.
Mona rushed over to me and said, “Michelle, push up!”
It was the third time she’d called me Michelle. The first time, I let it pass. The second time, I said, “My name is Melissa, but that’s okay.”
This time, I said, “My name—is—MELISSA!” and pushed up into Urdhva Dhanurasana.
Mona apologized profusely, but I didn’t care. I just did wheel pose with a blanket and a wall. I went from doing bridge poses for years to doing Urdhva on my head for years. And now, in just two weeks of refining my practice, I was @#%@#%@#ing doing Urdhva Dhanurasana.
I did it again. Feeling strong. Feeling good.
The third time, I was tired and not feeling it, but I left the class on a high.
Standard disclaimer: obviously, I’m not counseling beginners to jump into advanced poses. I’m a doctor, but I’m not your doctor. I’ve been doing yoga, on and off, for 18 years (geez). But I still stopped myself on handstand, headstand, crow, and wheel all this time.
So much of yoga is in your head. I could have been doing Urdhva Dhanurasana for years, probably, even with my irregular practice. If I’d just dedicated myself to it. If I’d believed in myself.
My friend Genevieve wrote to me, when we first met, “Your many accomplishments me realize that I too can do anything I set my my mind to. That I have stopped myself from doing things for fear of not doing well.”
That’s what I was doing to myself with wheel. Now I don’t have to.
Best birthday present ever.
Illustration copyright 2012 by Craftyjoe/freedigitalphotos.net
I know. That’s a terrible yoga title. I should be more compassionate, more talking about modifications and opening your body, and less about judging.
And yoga has helped me so much with self-judgement and self-criticism.
But if you want to get the job done, if you’re tired of doing Bridge pose while everyone else la-la-la opens up into full wheel, if you don’t have any injuries and just don’t know why you can’t do it, I’ve got a few tips.
She says something like, “There are some students who have the flexibility and strength to stay in the pose, but not enough strength to get off the ground.” So she sets up two bolsters on the floor and two blocks on the ground.
That’s me, I thought. But I don’t have any props.
So I pulled out my triangle pillow as a substitute.
And, with my arms shaking, I pushed up into urdhva for the first time in my life.
I felt miraculous and badass. And also a little nauseous.
So I came back down, like, two seconds later, panting but proud.
First of all, I hate picking favourite stories. I have lots of favourites.
Secondly, if I had to pick a story, really, I’d pick one of my own books, because if I didn’t like my own writing, I wouldn’t bother to do it. But that would come off pretty conceited, and even then, I have trouble choosing. It’s like picking your favourite child—why bother? They’re all terrific in their own way.
Thirdly, like Heraclitus said, you can never step in the same river twice. You can never read the same book twice. You grow up. Fashions change. What seemed so mind-blowing at five years old doesn’t seem so relevant now.
So I’m going super-simple on this one.
Once, many moons ago, when my father was tucking me into bed, I asked him, “If a vampire broke into the house, what would you do?”
I waited for him to tell me, “There’s no such thing as a vampire.” Or “Don’t be silly.” Or “Go to sleep.”What he said was, without hesitation, “I’d fight him.”
That brought me so much comfort. That he listened to me, and that he’d fight for me. I thought of it many times, over many years.
He died from brain cancer five years ago, but that’s one thing I’ll take with me.
Written for the iversity course “The Future of Storytelling.”
I did a WritersFest workshop on writing mysteries. That was the idea, anyway. Actually, most people wanted to talk indie publishing and making money. It wasn’t until I checked my notepad later that I found some mystery craft questions, which I will answer here.
I also randomly picked a winner for the book draw. But because it was a mystery workshop, and I’m a pain the bum, I’ll announce the winner at the end of the post.
Question 1. How do you keep the protagonist hidden until mid-point?
I don’t. I like to have the protagonist, the main character, front and centre. In general, I don’t recommend hiding anything in a mystery.
Mystery readers are smart. They like to piece clues together. If you just hide information, they’ll throw your book across the room. So give them the information they need, but distract them while you’re doing this. It’s like the author’s a magician, saying, “Look at the hand, look at the hand,” and the audience is hypnotized by the bunny he pulled out of the hat and completely misses the knife he’s carrying in his left hand. Kris Rusch said that Ellery Queen is the best at this.
Or, to put it another way, check out this Daniel Simons’s awareness test video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJG698U2Mvo). The clues are always there. But the reader has to piece them together.
I’ve got to work on this myself.
Question 2 & 3. How do you plot your mysteries? How do you effectively incorporate plot twists into your book?
I like to write by the seat of my pants, surprising myself, and then I go backwards and try to braid it all together. Fun but inefficient.
If you’re more organized, I highly recommend Camille Laguire’s blog. This is my favourite post, about how to turn a missed phone call into a plot device. Brilliant: http://daringnovelist.blogspot.ca/2012/12/writing-cozy-mystery-twisting-your.html. She outlines plot here (http://daringnovelist.blogspot.ca/2013/06/plotting-game-movie-of-week-plot.html), comparing it to a movie of the week.
And now, moving on, since people may be tired of hearing about me (another secret of writing–don’t bore the reader):
Thanks to Jodi White for trekking all the way from Toronto to join in WritersFest, after I asked Kobo to participate. (How many corporations would do this, and donate five Kobos to give away? And did you know that for every e-book you buy on that Kobo, a portion of the sale will go to the local Coles bookstore in Cornwall, because they support indie booksellers?)
I also learned from Jodi that the best way to link to your book is through the ISBN, and that Kobo now has a separate children’s section, which just might help spike children’s book sales. They’ll also start a reader loyalty program next year.
Thanks to everyone who came to WritersFest. Time is valuable when you’re pursuing the writing dream. I especially thank those of you who spent your hard-earned money on my books (and in Linda’s case, at least three times). I really appreciate it. Thank you.
Finally, I just have to give a shout out to Joseline Beaulieu, a multi-talented tour de force who not only expertly teaches me yoga at Sunset Yoga, but also belly dances with sabres, has a degree in marine biology, and raises money for the Madagascar School Project. She came to the workshop and brought me a card, an armload of flowers, and a squash. A squash! How could you not love this woman? You’d be hard-pressed to create a character this unique!
So now that I’ve kept you in suspense long enough, who won the book draw, based on a randomly selected number?
Congratulations, Judy S!
1. New books, just in time for WritersFest!
Terminally Ill, the third Hope Sze medical mystery, will debut February first, 2014, in print and e-book. You can pre-order at Kobo or for Nook, iPad, iPhone, Sony and other formats, which would give you a bazillion supercool points.
In the meantime, feast your eyes on these, which are available right now:
2. The Cornwall Public Library is hosting Writersfest October 20-27th. It’s fun! It’s free! It’s chock-full of authors and book-loving people. I gotta say, my bio seems succinct (curt?) compared to everyone else’s, and I swear my picture got distorted in the program, but I’ll still be there on Saturday, October 26th, at 9:30 a.m., talking about “The Mystery of Writing Mysteries.”
I’ll discuss whatever people want to talk about: inspiration, writing, publishing, marketing, promotion via Kobo. It won’t just be me shilling my books. And then you can talk to Kobo yourself, with Jodi White!
I’m looking forward to dressing mysteriously. I plan to wear my black and white cloche hat.
Denise Callister Neilsen, a local writer and editor, will speak tomorrow. I want to come, but will probably be still recovering from my night shift. Otherwise, I’d totally go.
3. Saturday evening, I’ll be at the Posing for Paws SPCA fundraiser after buying some last-minute Hallowe’en costumes for my kids (and for myself? You never know. Mwah ha ha). Because I love animals. And also because one of the respiratory therapists, Tracy, is working hard to get a good turnout.
TUESDAY, OCTOBER 22
I’VE WRITTEN A BOOK. NOW WHAT…?
Traditional publishing, E-Books
Presented by: DENISE NEILSON
Program Rooms 1&2
6:30 pm to 8:00 pm
SATURDAY, OCTOBER 26
THE MYSTERY OF WRITING MYSTERIES
Presented by: MELISSA YUAN-INNES
Program Rooms 1&2
9:30 am to 10:50 am
SATURDAY, OCTOBER 26
E-BOOKS & KOBO
Come find out what exist in digital publishing and what authors can do
To help increase their visibility and sales in Kobo’s digital platform.
Presented by: JODI WHITE of KOBO WRITING LIFE
Program Rooms 1&2
11:00 am to 12:30 pm
What I worry about is having a birthday party and nobody comes. It’s like I’m a kid in grade two, sitting by myself at lunch and pretending not to care.
It would be easier for me not to have a party at all.
“Shouldn’t someone else throw you a birthday party?” a friend asked.
Who’s going to do that for me? My misanthropic husband, who thinks hell is other people? No. My two-year-old? I wish. I wanted to have a group birthday party, but one of the people flew to Paris. So. Either I do it, or I have no party.
And for me, having no party is a bit like, if a you have a birthday and no celebration, did you actually have a birthday?
So I threw a party.
And nobody came, except my mother.
Let me back up. Our power cut out from 6 to 10 a.m. Then we had no water. So Matt and his father started crawling around in our basement, trying to fix it before the people with kids were supposed to arrive at 11. My mother showed up from Ottawa with some paella and some socks for my kids.
And I was silently freaking out. We had no running water to drink or boil the corn, no way to wipe down our dining room table or mop the floor, and no way to flush the toilet.
And no guests.
Even my father-in-law said, “Well, I’m going to Ottawa now.”
I considered begging him to stay, but decided that would worsen the humiliation.
I knew a few had to cancel because of illness, and I hadn’t followed up on the rest because I was sick, but…no takers?
Luckily, Julie and her two kids showed up around 12:15. Thank God. Her daughter Ashley had made me the best card, and Julie was way too generous with her gift. Ashley swung around in our indoor hammock, Ryan hung around with my son, and they all fed corn husks to our two bulls and tried our push lawn mower in the rain. They were confused by the lack of other people, but only pointed it out about five times.
Marie-Anne brought taffy and snow a few hours later.
And the rest of the grown-ups (Cynthia, Samson, Jessica, Jason, Carolyn, Steve, Denise, and their families) started pouring in around 5-ish, which I had said was cocktail hour.
I guess they all wanted cocktails instead of hanging out with screaming children, plus they had to supervise vernisagges, well-drilling, and hockey and silly things like that.
We drank cosmos, ate corn and vegetarian samosas (the best I’ve had since Mahli Sweets! Thanks, Samson!), ate the black forest cake Matt consents to make once a year,
played with Matt’s double bass,
played on the keyboard, managed to pry the boys off the Playstation, lounged on triangle pillows,
and bounced on the big ball.
I tried to make a point of speaking to each of my guests. Usually, I’m just running around like a madwoman, sometimes with a baby on my hip.
So the optimist’s view (the Facebook-friendly take) was this: I had wonderful party filled with people from different spheres of my life: the hospital, yoga, art, and my book club.
The pessimist’s view is: wow. At first, no one showed up except my mother, who was chasing the kids around, trying to make them try on socks.
Both of them are true.
That’s life. Ten thousand joys, ten thousand sorrows.