Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Happy Halloween! How's Your Outline?

Happy Halloween, also known as the last day of sanity before the crazy business that is National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. I tried, and sort of completed, NaNo for the first and only time five years ago. I say sort of, because I ended up with the required 50,000 words, but they were evenly split between two projects that have never since seen the light of day.

Because five years is long enough for me to forget about the dual pains of carpal tunnel syndrome and rampant feelings of inadequacy, I've decided to try it again. I have higher hopes--and a better outline--this year. My first novel Passing Through (see the I Wrote It tab above) was published almost two years ago, so it's high time I get cracking on the sequel. I've done as much plotting as my pantser self can handle, and tomorrow I will jump in and try make sense of it all.

(Wait... Does NaNo require that things make sense? I don't think so. Whew. That's a relief.) 

In my defense, I have completed drafts of a couple of other manuscripts in the last two years, but the inescapable fact is that I am one of those slow and methodical turtle writers. I know NaNo won't cure me in the long term, but if all goes as planned, it will kick me into higher gear, at least for 30 days.

Maybe I will drop in here at the blog to update my progress, and maybe I will just let things ride until December. Good luck to all the NaNo'ers out there! I hope we all cross that 50,000 word finish line!



Wednesday, October 3, 2018

What's My Story?

(In case you missed it, here's the #WhatsYourStory post I shared on author Amy Rivers's website, Kissing Authors and Astronauts.) 

Hello everyone, and thanks for joining me for my #WhatsYourStory post. I wish I could share with you the magical formula for writing success, but my journey is more of a cautionary tale. Not in a dramatic, I-can’t-believe-I-escaped-with-my-life way, but in a jeez-I-have-made-a-whole-lot-of-mistakes way. My lifelong blessing and curse is that I have the kind of brain that loves to make up stories. On some level, I always knew I wanted to be a writer. It just took me a hella long time to figure out how to go about it.

A peek inside the way-back machine reveals that I was a shy child with an extra helping of timidity on the side. Forget wallflower; I was more like the wallpaper. Speaking to anyone outside my immediate circle of family and friends was torture—heart-pounding, face-flushing, voice-squeaking torture. As a result, I stayed pretty quiet, which gave me ample opportunity for watching and listening. I loved to read, and as I grew older, I discovered that writing words down was a whole lot more fun than saying them out loud.

Fast forward to my late-twenties. I had a job I didn’t care much about and an anthropology degree I wasn’t using. It seemed like the perfect time to “be” a writer. I had plenty of ideas, so I did what I thought a writer should do: I sat down and (metaphorically) vomited out a novel. When my sister came home to visit at Christmas, I put it in front of her travel-weary eyes and waited for the praise. (Spoiler alert: it never came.)

Undaunted, I pressed on and began sending out my uncritiqued, unedited hot mess to whoever was accepting unsolicited submissions.

Ahem. For anyone who wonders… (raises megaphone to lips) Do. Not. Do. This.

I was thrilled when I signed with an agent. It felt so validating, I didn’t care that she required money up front. (Red flag? What red flag?) When my emails to her resulted in terse, uninformative replies, I thought it was my fault for being a needy writer. Only when I saw her name show up on a list of worst agents did I start to get the message. I wasn’t an undiscovered genius. I was a sucker with a penchant for adverbs.

Around the same time, I got pregnant with my first son. The second one came along two years later. Staying home raising two young boys was wonderful and fulfilling…and completely unproductive from a writing perspective. I occasionally had the time or the energy for it, but rarely both together.

But my dream to write never died. In fact, it became more insistent. It sat quietly in the corner and give me that plaintive look. You know the one. I knew it would wait forever if it had to, but that didn’t seem quite fair to either of us. So, I started writing again. This time, it felt different, for I had realized a great truth: just because writing was easy for me didn’t mean I was good at it.

Once it sank in—a humbling moment, to be sure—I began to understand what it really means to be a writer. I went to conferences and classes, I read books and blogs. I joined a critique group of wise women writers. I made my peace with killing my darlings, as the expression goes. I kept at learning the craft, and by the time my first novel was published, I knew I had something I could be proud of. Sure, it had the gestation period of a blue whale times ten, but it was out in the world. With my name on the front.

I’m not a fast or prolific writer, but I’m still working at it. I’m still learning. And every time I sit down at the keyboard, I try to do it a little better than the time before.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

All Hail the Mother Log

A month or so ago, I had the pleasure of visiting Northern California's redwood forests for the first time. The giant trees were all I had hoped for and more. As my family and I hiked around in the cool green shade well below the canopy, I felt as if I could be in another world. It seemed impossible that wildfires raged out of control less than a hundred miles away.

In the forest we also saw streams and ferns and banana slugs. And my younger son introduced me to the concept of a mother log, also known as a nurse log. (I prefer the former, so that is the term I will use.) A mother log is a fallen tree, which, through its inevitable decay, helps nurture the next generation of seedlings, as well as a whole ecosystem of plants, insects, and small animals.

The mother log collects water and provides a soft blanket of moss. It shares nutrients with new growth and, depending on where and how it fell, provides access to direct sunlight--a scarce, but necessary, commodity in a dense forest. There is also evidence that a mother log can offer resistance to pathogens. The decaying process may take hundreds of years, during which time the mother log actually contains more living matter than it did when it was alive and upright. It's such a fascinating transformation that in 2006, an artist in Seattle built a greenhouse around a rotting tree and thus turned it into an art installation. (It's called the Neukom Vivarium.)

We all have plans and ideas that fall flat. Sometimes quietly, and sometimes with a resounding crash that shakes the ground beneath us. It can be disappointing and unsettling. Even devastating. All that time and effort, all those resources, feel wasted. But what if we could look at these events not as failures but as a necessary part of the process for ensuring future growth? That brilliant endeavor which toppled so spectacularly might give rise to many more that will eventually take their place in the sun.

I have no trouble imagining potential failure. I have a harder time imagining the potential in failure. But I'm learning that even though it may be hard to see, it's still there. Just like the thousands of microbes, seeds, fungi, beetles, millipedes, and spores waiting to turn a fallen tree into a cradle full of future possibilities.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Stacking the Stones

I am certain that the first time I saw a cairn, I didn't think it was anything other than a balanced stack of rocks. Since then, I have seen them in deserts and in forests and on beaches and in gardens. I have seen them in heavily trafficked areas and in what felt like the middle of nowhere. At some point, I learned that cairns, or human-made stacks or piles of stones, began as simple structures used to mark notable spots--burials, sites of astronomical significance, caches, and trails used by game and/or humans. They can be as large as a dwelling, or less than a foot high.

Cairns, both traditional and modern, are found all over the world, often in locations that have too few, or possibly too many, landmarks. They serve as guides for a designated route, or warnings to watch out for hazards best avoided. Some cairns have religious or mythological significance. In ancient Greece, they were associated with Hermes, the god of overland travel. In Portugal, they are known as moledros, or enchanted soldiers. An ovoo is a Mongolian ceremonial cairn used in Buddhist ceremonies. In South Korea, adding another stone to an existing cairn is said to bring good luck, a tradition thought to stem from the worship of San-shin, the Mountain Spirit. In Germany, a cairn is anthropomorphized as steinmann, or stone man.

Okay, cairns are fascinating, and I could go on about their wider significance in the world. But to me, a cairn is a simple confirmation that I am on a path to somewhere. (And because I can get lost backing out of my driveway, I need all the help I can get.) If I am alone on that path, a cairn is a sign that someone has been there before me. And because I am the type of person who would never knock a cairn down, I assume that someone will come along after me and be similarly reassured. (I do know that, in recent years, overzealous cairn-builders have wreaked some havoc in natural areas, but that is perhaps a subject for another time.)

Earlier in the summer, as I embarked on my virtual road trip, I felt that I didn't have a great idea of where I should be going. Honestly, I still feel that way. But I've realized that feeling a little bit lost makes me look even harder for clues. And the harder I look, the more likely I am to see something useful. A couple of weeks ago, for example, a member of my critique group made a general suggestion that really resonated with me. So much so that upon reflection, I decided she had put a metaphorical cairn in my path, steering me in a direction I had not considered. Maybe this course adjustment will not lead where I hope it does, but it has at least given me a sense of purpose for the next leg of my trip.

Cairns appeal to me because I love stones, but your preferred road markers may be signposts or flashing neon arrows or compass roses or dancing frogs. (I really hope it's dancing frogs.) As you go about your business, keep an eye out. When you spot one, either real or metaphorical, consider whether it confirms your direction or suggests an alternate route. Both options can be valuable. Make a choice, give it a shot, and if you don't like where you're going, turn around. The way back will be marked, too.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

The Myth of the Perfect Summer


We expect so much from summer, don't we? Long, lazy, sunny days. Laid-back gatherings with family and friends. Time to both relax and check off all those items on the to-do list. Rain on our gardens but not our parades. Travel that is rejuvenating and also energizing. Music festivals and food truck festivals and Renaissance festivals and Irish festivals and wine festivals and...

Summer brings all those wonderful things, and more. But summer is nobody's patsy, and she has some tricks up her sleeve to make sure we don't get too comfortable. Mosquitoes, ticks, snakes, hailstorms, raucous neighbors, egg-frying heat, allergies, sunburns, houseguests that linger, and weeds. Oh, my heavens, the weeds. On a larger scale, many parts of the world are prone to extreme summer weather events that can be physically, emotionally, and financially exhausting.

Working parents must make arrangements to keep their school-aged children safe and supervised over summer break. Their stay-at-home counterparts feel obligated to fill the days with fun, enriching activities. Then there are the social media factors--Instagram and Facebook photos of exotic vacations, fabulous meals, and frosty cocktails that can make friends and followers feel as if they somehow missed the pleasure cruise. And let's not even get into the abominable concept of the "beach body."

See the source image

Creatively, summer can be hit-and-miss. I have writer friends who are quite productive during the warmer months, but many of us who have extra writing time on our hands sit and watch those very same hands struggle to produce...something. Anything.

If you sometimes feel that you're off your game during the summer, you're not alone. Summer Onset Seasonal Affective Disorder (also known as SO SAD, Reverse Seasonal Affective Disorder, or Summer Depression) is a real thing. Some psychologists suggest a biological influence, with an excess of melatonin causing a decrease in serotonin. Others researchers point to a myriad of stressors that are magnified during the summer months: disrupted sleep, exercise, and diet; financial pressure; body image issues; and heat intolerance, to name a few.

Even though I don't have SO SAD (SO GROUCHY, maybe), I was relieved to read about it, because the middle of August and the impending back-to-school season is the time when I usually start kicking myself for all things I didn't accomplish. But this year, I'm going to give myself permission to accept that summer isn't perfect. And neither am I.

If you're north of the equator, how is your summer going?

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

See You in August!

I have such a hard time being productive in late July that I decided to just go with it and take the last week of the month off. I will see you again in August and wish you all health and happiness until then!


Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Ditching the Hitchhiker

See the source imageGreetings from my writer's virtual road trip! I'm pleased to report that I reached my first stop, which was to complete the first draft of a speculative fiction manuscript I've had knocking about in my head for a very long time. I'm a slow and not very prolific writer, so managing to accumulate nearly 80,000 words of what my critique group has promised me is not total garbage feels like a big deal. So I spent a day or two congratulating myself.

Then the hitchhiker showed up. It played out something like this:
(twenty-something female wearing white t-shirt and jean cutoffs slides into passenger seat)
Hitchhiker: Hey, you mind if I ride along?
Me: (by nature, almost pathologically polite) Sure, if you want to. There's room.
HH: Where are we going?
Me: I'm figuring that out. I just finished the first draft of a manuscript--
HH: Cool! Tell me about it.
Me: (suddenly self-conscious) Uh, it's a sequel to a novel I wrote a while back. It takes place in a near-future Earth setting, after fires...burned...a bunch of stuff. (shuts mouth before rambling nonsensically about aliens and/or unicorns, neither of which appear in said manuscript)
HH: (brushes neon-pink bangs out of eyes) Okaaay... So, is the first book published?
Me: No.
HH: (raises pierced eyebrow) You spent months of your life writing a sequel to a book that's not even published yet?
Me: (dabs sweat from upper lip) I guess so.
HH: Why?
Me: I wanted to see if I could do the story justice.
HH: (takes a long drink of her Mountain Dew Big Gulp) So, writing is a hobby for you?
Me: Not exactly. I mean, I'd like for it to be more than that. But it's a tough business. And a lot of us who write fiction accept that we don't it for the money.
HH: Pffft. Tell that to Stephen King.
Me: (forces a smile) He's kind of a special case.
HH: And JK Rowling. And James Patterson. And Jodi--
Me: I get it. And I do have a published novel. I'm just not very good at selling books.
HH: You have a kid in college, right? And another one soon to be?
Me: (not at all surprised that she somehow knows this) Yes.
HH: Don't you think it's time to give up this writing thing and get a real job?
Me: Maybe. (bumps head on steering wheel while trying to curl up in fetal position)

This is the mental space I've been in for a week or so. Fun stuff, right? The good news is, now that I'm older and hopefully wiser, it's slightly easier for me to shrug off the negativity and see the situation with a less critical eye. Gaining perspective is helpful, too. Have you ever looked out the rear window during a road trip--after a long, gradual incline, for example--and been amazed at how far you've come without even realizing it?

Image result for straight road
Even with perspective, I haven't been able to completely ditch the hitchhiker. But now at least she's taking a nap in the back seat, giving me some peace and quiet for figuring out my route ahead.