Thursday, October 10, 2019

Autumnal Mood

I feel melancholic in autumn.

I always have.

And I love it.

In college, a small, wooded area stretched beside the field between the sophomore and senior dorms.  I'd escape into a copse of trees, sit against a trunk, and cry into the rain.  

Autumn is a time of beginnings: new school years, my birthday, a reprieve from stifling summer heat. 

It’s also a time of endings as the leaves wither and fall, I grow another year older, and the calendar year wanes. 

I love the scent of rain, the threat of an impending storm, the invigorating tempest, the soothing pattern of a drizzle. But I hate the humid aftermath. 

The muggy wake of a storm front feels like my head after crying--after the dam has burst and the excitement has past. I’m dehydrated and yet swollen. Puffy eyes, mucous breath. 


So too the air seems after the rain passes, and I’m left wondering: what’s next to look forward to?

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Improving Craft--and Acumen

I started what would become my first full-length novel during NaNoWriMo in 2007, almost twelve years ago.  At the time, I had a preschooler and an infant.  I'd just stopped working (in health sciences publishing) to stay home with the girls.

I still love the idea of that book, Seek Ye First.  It's a scavenger-hunt mystery set partially around St. Louis and partially in an online gaming world called Poirot.  But the writing wasn't great.  I had a literature degree!  I read a lot.  At the time, I kept a daily blog.  I should have been able to write, right?  But no.  What all that knowledge and experience enabled me to do was to recognize (eventually) that my writing wasn't great.

My POV was too distant, my verbs too weak, my stakes too low. (I created these awesome characters and didn't want to hurt them.)  Tell, not show--I had a great fondness for summarizing scenes.

To be honest, I haven't perfected my writing.  But, it's significantly better in 2019 than it was in 2007.  In the intervening years, I've written four additional novels that will live in the box under my desk until our leaky roof destroys them.

I've also written two novels that I am proud of.  Finally!  And I'm very excited by the novel I'm writing now.  And the one I'm outlining to write next.

In addition to reading and writing books, over the past twelve years, I've taken writing classes (online and on campus).  I've participated in several critique groups.  I've read a lot of industry blogs.  I joined local/national writers' groups.  I've found beta readers and entered contests.  In short, I went from being an aspiring writer to treating my writing as a profession.

Maybe I waited longer than I needed to start sending my work to agents.  I thought I was ready twelve years ago.  I wasn't.  I'm ready now.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Publishing that First Book

J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was rejected by twelve publishers, the story goes.

Ouch. How wrong they were, we think.

But were they?

Common publishing practice recommends querying agents and editors by sending a 250-word letter introducing the novel (like back cover copy--the intent is to entice, not to give away the ending) and the first chapter.  I have no idea what Rowling's query letter looked like.  Writing engaging query letters is a different skill from writing good novels.

The world Rowling built in the Harry Potter books is wonderful, amazing, magical.  That's really hard to demonstrate in 250 words.  And that first chapter . . .

#

My eldest daughter is 14 years old.  She has Down syndrome and isn't an especially strong reader.  As we're heading to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter later this summer, Ellie is reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone aloud to me.  This is a laborious process for both of us.  We stop after every paragraph to discuss and make sure she's "getting" it.

I've read Chapter One at least four times before, but never like this.  And I've gotta be honest--it breaks all the rules.  It's sloooooooow.  It's really more of a prologue than a first chapter.  We start with a not-very-interesting minor character (Vernon Dursley) and follow him through an entire day.  I get why Rowling starts this way.  She's introducing the world of magic through the eyes of someone very much outside that world.

 For a fast reader, someone already invested in the story, or someone willing to give a book longer than one chapter to get interesting, this works great.  But let's be honest.  Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone really picks up in Diagon Alley.  That's Chapter 5.

So if publishers were wrong to reject Harry Potter (and financially, obviously, they were) it's perhaps because of the early decision model as much as any individual business decision.  It's a tricky thing to allow for a potential break-out success that breaks the rules.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Following Through

These days, authors often talk about how fun writing is.  I read dust jackets and learn that, for many authors, writing is about spending time with their imaginary friends, more like play than work.  After reading quite a few authors talk about their processes in this way, I began to despair.  Writing is hard, sometimes tedious work for me; does this mean that I am not real writer? A few years ago, I stumbled upon Nick Hornby's description of his frustrating writing process.  For him writing can be horrible, irritating, grim, and dull.  Relief!

Today I stumbled upon another writing process gem.  I'm reading Lessons from the Life of Alice Herz-Sommer, the World's Oldest Living Holocaust Survivor: A century of wisdom by Caroline Stoessinger.  As a child, Alice was friends with Franz Kafka.  "Alice would beg him to tell her the stories over and over again.  But she always wanted to know the ending - and that he could not answer.  He simply could not complete his work.  Later on, he would write, 'I am familiar with indecision, there's nothing I know so well, but whenever something summons me, I fall flat, worn out by half-hearted inclinations and hesitations over a thousand earlier trivialities.'"

Aha!  Another glimpse of my truth.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Hope

“All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you." - Ira Glass


"I love this quote. In fact, I've shared it on social media before. The idea of the gap is really helpful because it's hopeful. It tells you that you have good taste--which is a prerequisite for making good art. Thus, the very fact you're making crap art but you know it's crap gives you a hint that you can someday make good art. I love that. Usually, this time is really frustrating for a young artist, because all she makes is crap. And, of course, we've all seen artists who don't have good taste; they believe everything they make is wonderful, and that poorly trained taste keeps them from improving past a certain point. I was lucky to get early encouragement, where other people thought what I was doing was better than I thought it was. I also was lucky to hunt down some people who made a living writing who told me frankly, Kid, you can do this." - Brent Weeks

Oh, hello, hope. It's lovely to see you 'round these parts again. Lovely. 

Friday, February 28, 2014

Three Is Greater Than Two

"Three is greater than two," I say apologetically when people ask me about my writing.  In other words: I'm not writing.  I . . . underestimated . . . the difference it would make in my life to move to three children from two.  Misunderestimated.  I love being a mom and I am besotted with these unique, amazing little (not so little!) people I'm getting to raise.  But I've yet to find space for myself in all the physical, temporal, and mental chaos of my life, so I'm not writing.

That's true and also incomplete.  I can write anecdotes and passionate arguments on Facebook all day.  But I'm not writing creatively.  The difference between a Facebook post and a blog post highlights the other reason I'm not writing.  The Big reason.  The Real Reason.  A Facebook update can be quick, funny, incomplete, utterly lacking in context.  It can simply be a picture.  It can be a short conversation.  It's a snapshot of a moment.  The way I blog, on the other hand, tends to be to collect anecdotes for a few hours or days or weeks or years, then assemble them into something that makes a sort of narrative or point, even if it's a very short or simple one.  Blogging - let alone writing memoir or fiction - requires perspective for me.

Perspective and some sort of connection to emotion.  But emotion is painful, y'all.  I feel like I barely get through my days doing the things that I need to do.  Children dressed and off to their appropriate places with their appropriate things (snacks, water bottles, lunches, signed permission forms, money for this that and everything else, dance gear, gymnastics apparal, instruments, music, themed hats).  Weekly schedules created and maintained.  Meals planned, shopped for, and prepared.  I've given up on cleaning up altogether.  Committees worked.  Summers planned down to the minute.  These classes, these camps, these vacations, these meals, these structured free times.  We don't do so well with unstructured time.

And as for me, I find a sense of accomplishment in managing and balancing all of this.  I call it My Life.  I also have something to pour into the space where I used to keep writing and dealing with emotions and exercising and tidying my house and whatnot.  That something is food.  I look forward to what I get to eat next.  Predictable results, etc.  But doing My Life and then eating and reading or watching TV or playing Nintendo or whatever else I do after the children are in bed and before I turn into a pumpkin (more committees) - in the space I used to use for writing or running or both (in addition to reading - there's always reading, for better and for worse) all of that allows me to mute my feelings.

And muting my feelings is a relief.  As a teenager I felt so much, so acutely, it was unbearable.  I filled notebooks with scrawls of rage and pain, pages warped by tears.  Becoming an adult - and this happened gradually in my early-to-mid-twenties - was a relief.  I could feel it happening.  I sought it out.  I called it perspective, I called it a mature ability to organize my thoughts logically, to present arguments rationally, to exist in a world with lots of pointy edges.

When I'm feeling a lot of pain, I can distract myself with TV or books or games or busyness and try to think about the pain as little as possible until a skin forms over the gaping wound, until I can examine it from afar without pressing too hard on the tender spot.  This is a coping mechanism, and it works - to an extent - but it's not conducive to good writing because to write, I have to feel.  I'm not sure I even remember how to turn that back on, anymore.

It's not that anything so bad has ever happened to me.  I've lived a pretty charmed life.  But it's cumulative, you know?  I was a kid, and I was hurt by things I'd shrug off, now.  I've had friend drama (and loss), relationship drama (and loss), family drama (and loss).  I have a child with disabilities.  She's great, but it's a lot to manage, sometimes.  I have children, and that really is sort of like letting your heart walk around out in the world unprotected.  I lost my dad too soon.  It's easier to just . . . mute that a little.  Let the skin grow closed, just a thin layer, so that light gets through but not too much.  A manageable amount.  That's how I'm living my life these days: in manageable amounts.  Later, I'm sure, there will be more writing.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Radio Silence

Hello, fellow readers!  I blogged regularly from 2004 to 2011 (here and elsewhere) and then sporadically for another year or so after that.  But lately . . . not so much.  I'm still reading and writing, but I've fallen out of the habit of blogging-for-fun.  I post my book reviews at Goodreads and my cute kid anecdotes on Facebook.  I imagine that I'll be back here regularly again someday, perhaps when Child #3 starts preschool in the fall and I free up a bit more creative bandwidth from endlessly hilarious games of make believe.  Until then, thanks for stopping by and happy reading!