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It’s Never too Late for Some Resolutions

I realized a few days ago that I never wrote my annual goals post for 2017. I usually do it around January 1st but that day is overflowing with resolutions and good intentions. Why not put a little of that optimism into March, which, let’s face it, is often just a long slog toward spring. For comparison’s sake, I’ve included my 2015 and 2016 goals and results in each category as well. So let’s start with:

1. Lose the weight.

2015 Goal: I’m anxious to get back to my pre-baby weight. As of this writing I’ve got 12 pounds to go. That seems pretty doable so I’ll throw in a second goal of making it back to my pre-freshman 15 and pre-lazy-mid-twenties 10 weight. That would be an extra 25 pounds to lose by the end of December.

2015 Results: Whew, boy was I ambitious with this goal. At the time I wrote the original back in March I was breast feeding and the pounds seemed to be melting off pretty quickly. I made it down to a low of 7 lbs above my pre-baby weight by the end of May. Then my metabolism and hormones went all wonky (I talked about why that happened here) and I was back up to 12 lbs by the middle of June. Things fluctuated for the next few months before topping out at 16 lbs above my pre-pregnancy weight at the beginning of November. Ouch. Currently I am 13 lbs above my pre-pregnancy weight. New Goal: Get to my pre-pregnancy weight. I have the urge to be more ambitious again with this goal but reaching that number seems elusive enough.

2016 Goal: Get to my pre-pregnancy weight. I have the urge to be more ambitious again with this goal but reaching that number seems elusive enough.

2016 Results: Fun fact, as I was aggressively trying to lose the weight in the early part of 2016, I was overdoing it in the exercise department. One day in February, after a particularly challenging workout that involved a lot of running uphill on the treadmill, my left achilles tendon was on fire. I thought it was just one of those normal aches and pains I’d get after a tough workout. So in the coming days I ran through it, and I ran through it, and I ran through it. I did that for two weeks until my right achilles began aching from compensating for the underperforming left one.

By the beginning of March I could no longer even do a simple workout without excruciating pain. So I stopped completely, and then I started to eat like crazy. FYI: that’s not a good combo.

Sloooooooowwwwwllllyyy, my heels healed. By the fall they felt pretty normal again, but I was out of the workout habit and I was still eating poorly. I had a few downward weeks on the scale during the year but overall it inched upward. I went to the doctor a couple of times to make sure my thyroid wasn’t to blame. It wasn’t it, but I was in denial.

2017 Goal: By January 4 of this year I was 20 pounds above my pre-pregnancy weight. Oy. None of my clothes fit, I felt slow and sluggish, and I didn’t like how I looked. I’d finally had enough. On that same day, January 4, I set some weight loss goals:

By 2/26, Bean’s second birthday, drop 20 pounds and get back to my pre-pregnancy weight finally.

By 6/26, my 35th birthday, drop an additional 25 pounds to reach the weight I felt happiest at. I haven’t seen that number on the scale since I was in my first year of college and that was 17 years ago!

It’s now March 16, eighteen days past my first goal and I still have 3 pounds to go before I get to my pre-preggo weight. BUT, that means I’ve lost 17 pounds since January 4. Woot! And I haven’t seen the numbers I’ve been seeing on the scale for almost three years. So, 17 down, 28 more to go. Gulp!

2. Exercise.

2015 Goal: Before Bean was born I was regularly working out three days a week. I think it might be a little optimistic to jump right back into that routine, but once I get the go ahead from the doc at my postpartum check-up, I’ll start out with a once-a-week visit to Bassline and a jog around the neighborhood. By the end of the year though I want to be back to thrice weekly visits to Bassline. I’m missing those killer workouts and how they make me feel.

2015 Results: After Bean was born I took 7.5 weeks off for recovery. I started back at Bassline on 4/19 and quickly settled into a twice a week routine for the rest of the year until this last month when I managed to bump my workouts up to three times a week (except for the week I was sick with the stomach flu – only worked out once that week). The majority of those third workouts have turned out to be three mile runs around the neighborhood. That’s good, but not great. It’s just tough with the new little one and Nora’s full-time school schedule this year. Truly, nothing beats a Bassline workout for calorie burning and muscle toning, but hey, a run’s not bad either. And if that’s what I can fit in during the week, that works for me.

2016 Goal: Continue the trend of thrice weekly workouts but try to integrate Bassline as often as possible.

2016 Results: As mentioned in the Lose the Weight section above, my workouts dramatically decreased after February of 2016.

2017 Goal: Now with my renewed focus on weight loss, I have been working out six days a week since the end of January. Because I was just getting back into a workout regimen and didn’t want to stress my achilles again, I started with Zumba – which is super fun, by the way. But around mid-February I was feeling like I needed to take it up a notch so I ordered a TaeBo DVD. No seriously, I really did. And it’s actually a great workout. I’ve been doing TaeBo four times a week and Bassline twice a week.

Once I get to my first twenty-pound weight loss goal, I’ll be scaling back my workouts to four times a week and then holding steady.

3. Complete a 10K in June.

2015 Goal: After Bun was born I ran a 10K with the hubs 4 months postpartum. I’d like to do the same this time around, and maybe even beat my previous time of 58:10. That’s a 9:23/mile pace.

2015 Results: I did the Berry Dairy Days 10K on June 20, four months postpartum, but wasn’t as successful this time around. My time was 1:01:51, a 9:57/mile pace (you can read about my thoughts on those results here). I tried again in October at the Dawg Dash 10K and ran it in 1:01:01, or a 9:51/mile pace. Better but still 28 seconds/mile off my 2011 10K pace.

2016 Goal: Set a new 10K PR by beating my 2011 time of 58:10. The key to that, my friends, is dropping the extra pounds I’ve been carrying since Bean was born.

2016 Results: No races completed due to injury.

2017 Goal: I still want to beat my 2011 PR. I think if I keep plugging away at my weight loss it might be possible. Berry Dairy Days 10K in June – I’m looking at you.

4. Start writing a new novel.

2015 Goal: I’ve got an idea of what I’d like to focus on next, I just have to carve out the time. To do that I’m planning on participating in National Novel Writing Month (a community of authors who come together and pledge to write 50,000 words in the month of November). Bean will be 8 months old by then and hopefully settled into a more predictable routine. With a little fancy scheduling I just might be able to make the time to get started on my next book.

2015 Results: So Bean, thankfully, has been a great sleeper, which makes finding the time to write easier. But I had some misgivings by the time NaNoWriMo rolled around in November. I’d just published On the Verge in mid-September and was still in the throes of marketing it when I was supposed to be starting the new one. We also had a trip planned to Hawaii in the middle of the month. But I decided to sign up for the challenge anyway and then, after writing less than a thousand words, realized I was headed down the wrong path.

2016 Goal: I think it was too soon after publishing On the Verge to commit to a writing a new novel. I wasn’t ready. I’d depleted all my creative reserves getting that story ready to see the light of day and it showed. I do want to start writing a new book this year, but I want to promise myself I won’t do it until I feel ready. That might be March or October or some other time. But it will be this year.

2016 Results: I did start to write a novel in 2016. It was going to be a romance. Unfortunately, it didn’t get past the first few pages. But, first of all, I’ve come to realize that romance doesn’t come naturally to me (sorry, Hubs), and, second, a child’s second year of life is just a big shitstorm and I don’t seem to weather it very well as far as my creativity is concerned. Good thing their second year of life also coincides with them being absolutely adorable when they aren’t being insane.

2017 Goal: Anyway, not having written anything resembling a novel in 2016 is somewhat depressing, BUT novel writing is going on in 2017!

Since March 1 I have written the first chapter and a half of a new fantasy. It’s a slow process because I only write a page or two a night, but it is happening! By September of this year I’d like to have a solid draft ready to submit to agents. Becoming a traditionally published author is still my ultimate goal.

5. Keep freelancing.

2015 Goal: I took some time away from freelance writing while I finished On the Verge, but I already have my first new assignment. I’m going to focus on getting at least 12 articles published by the New Year.

2015 Results: Again, I was a little ambitious with this one. I managed to write four articles for North End Metro magazine this year. I have two more coming up for them in 2016 and a third for Northwest Travel & Life.

2016 Goal: I love writing for NEM and I’m super excited to break into a new market with Northwest Travel & Life. I want to put more of a focus on freelancing in 2016. That means sending pitches to new magazines and doing a great job on the assignments I already have. The plan is to send a pitch to one new magazine a month. In the meantime I’ll continue to do my best work for NEM and Northwest Travel & Life.

2016 Results: Oh, boy. Well similar to the novel writing hiatus I was on for most of 2016, I also went into a freelancing dry spell. I did pitch one new magazine and heard zip from them. I continued to write for NEM until the end of the year when the assignments evaporated because the magazine went out of business!

2017 Goal: I’d still like to keep a foot in the freelancing door so I can return to it in a more robust way when Rosie goes off to preschool next year. Instead of setting a certain number of pitches, I’m going to commit to publishing a minimum of five pieces this year.

6. Keep reading.

2015 Goal: Finding time to read is difficult with two kiddos, but I’ve come to realize that it is a really important part of who I am. I just don’t feel like myself unless I find some time during the week to read. I won’t set myself a specific number of books, but I will commit to reading for at least two hours a week initially and hopefully more as things settle down (i.e. Bean sleeps through the night). Total books read: 24

2016 Goal: This year I’d like to take the time to read even more, and instead of focusing on nonfiction, I want to read more widely in fantasy and horror, the genres I write in, at least two books a month. Total books read: 21

2017 Goal: As in 2016 I would like to continue to read more books in my genre. Total books I’d like to read: 15.

Backburner Goals.

These are always in the back of my mind. I don’t want to commit to accomplishing them this year, but I don’t want to completely write them off either:

Learn to draw.

Learn French.

Sew a custom dress.

Bonus Goal. Keep writing for my blog.

2015 Goal: I’ve been making weekly blog posts to Scriven by Garen for 9 straight weeks now. My goal when I started was to make it a full year. 9 down, 43 more to go.

2016 Goal: 49 straight blog posts for Scriven by Garen. Three more posts to go.

2017 Goal: I did make my goal of 52 weeks of posts with the last one published on January 22 of 2016. But after that my posts trickled off. Notice I didn’t set myself a new goal for 2016, and, without something to strive for, I wrote only six from February to December. However I do like writing my blog when the mood strikes me instead of on a set schedule. This will be my third post this year. I’ll aim for one a month or so, for a total of 12, but I’m not going to be rigid about it.

Ready, set, go!

 

Photo credit: Jeffry via Flickr cc

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I’m always super grateful when people ask me how my writing is going. And that’s not just a hollow platitude. I seriously do appreciate it. Here’s why:

  1. It’s nice to know people care, that they remember I’m a writer.
  2. It gives me motivation to actually have something to tell people when they ask

But for the last four months I haven’t had anything good to say when friends and family asked about my writing. I’ve been on hiatus. No blog posts, no flash fiction, no magazine articles, no novels. Nothing. To tell you the truth I was feeling a little burned out and discouraged. Here’s why:

  1. The magazine that I had been consistently submitting articles to for the last several years closed up shop without notice, and I didn’t have the energy to muster the time and resources it takes to query other editors.
  2. I was rejected for several grants and short story contests. I was anticipating the no-thank-yous but it’s hard to soldier on when they come all at once.
  3. Sales for On the Verge have come to a standstill and then I found out that it didn’t make it past the quarter-finals of Publishers Weekly’s BookLife Prize in Fiction. (But that still put it in the top 72 books out of more than 750 entries so my spirits weren’t totally crushed). If you want to see the other books still in the running for the prize, which will be awarded shortly, you can click here.
  4. The end-of-the-year holiday bonanza sucked up any remaining time and creativity from my already depleted brain.
  5. I have a toddler that is wonderful and beautiful, but also a complete dynamo with the kind of disposition that will serve her well when she’s the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, but is…challenging…when you’re attempting to parent her in the here-and-now.

Lately, though, I’ve been getting that itch again. Words are bubbling and brewing and they are about to spill over. I’ve got to get stuff on the page. Hence this blog post. The first since, gulp, September 9 of last year. And there’s also this story floating around in my mind. It’s not quite solid yet but it’s getting easier to see.

I think it’s time to write another novel.

And because I work well with deadlines, I’d like to have a solid outline for it complete by the end of this month, a first for me in the writing world (I usually eschew the whole outline thing, but I learned my lesson last time around).

So please, keep asking me how my writing is going. Now I’m going to have an answer for you and you can help hold me accountable. Thanks in advance.

Wish me luck!

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Toddlers Be Crazy

She is screeching. Again.

We’re in a quiet bookstore on a weekday afternoon. There’s no other family in sight, even in the children’s section. The place is full of careworn bookworms or hip Millenials.

And all of them seem to be glowering at me.

I can about guess what’s running through their heads:

“Why can’t you get your kid under control, lady?”

“Why would you bring a toddler to a bookstore? You should stay home. Forever.”

“Your small velociraptor is ruining my day.”

I can read their minds because I was once them. An unapologetic baby hater. Okay, maybe hater is too strong a word, but I didn’t care for kids. The closer they were to diapers the worse my opinion of them was.

I had zero time for clumsy toddlers and their seemingly random fits of derangement. I had no time for babies and their strange caterwauling. I had just a tiny bit of time for kids older than three and only if they were exceptionally well-behaved and didn’t bother me too much.

I didn’t understand why parents would subject the rest of humanity to their offspring. There were no children in my life and from my detached vantage point they seemed like a loud, sticky mess of boogers and juice boxes that just didn’t jibe with my sensitive nervous system and desire not to be around velociraptors.

I would mutter and glare at the children and parents I found offensive, which was most. I’m not proud of it, but I did.

My past self would look at my present self and not understand the crazy, toy-strewn house or the car that currently gives off a whiff of spoiled milk and is littered with water bottles and Cheerios.

But at the end of my now kid-centric day, I like this self a whole lot better. This Garen is much more understanding, more patient, more aware of the challenges involved with caring for a child and thus more tolerant. Basically having children melted my Grinchy heart.

But the Universe has brought things back full circle.

Karma, man. Karma blessed me with Bean. Beautiful, ebullient, Bean. Smart as a whip and in constant motion. A small being that packs a big punch. She knows what she wants. And she wants it now. Better yet, yesterday.

Taking her out is like trying to get a velociraptor to behave in polite society. Everything’s a mangled mess afterward, including me. Everything but that tiny, wily dino, cute as a button despite all that chaos creation.

That day in the bookstore she was in rare form: screaming, crying, pulling books off the bottom shelves as I frantically tried to rearrange them behind her. She was running away from me, tripping up strangers, attempting to climb up the beautifully arranged displays. When I finally caught hold of her she screeched and threw herself backward. I tucked her under one arm like a squealing pig and did my best to ignore the exasperated looks from patrons and employees as I paid for my other, quieter daughter’s book and made for the door trailing goldfish crackers as we went – a peace offering gone wrong.

I could almost hear Karma laughing, that crazed, thrown-back-head laugh that villains do in cartoons.

“You were such a stuck-up bitch, and now look at you!” the Universe cackles.

“I’m the bitch? No Karma, you’re the bitch. I understand that’s your job, but still. I got it. I’m a better person now. I’ve learned my lesson. Honestly. And all I wanted to do was come to the freaking bookstore and enjoy some quiet time with my daughters and all I get is this ridiculous shit storm. I’m about ready to break!”

I imagine I see the delight fade out of Karma’s eyes a bit then. She knows I’m telling the truth. Plus, I’m on the verge of tears so maybe I get some sympathy points.

“Fine. That’s enough, I guess…for today,” Karma says.

And suddenly Bean calms down. I set her on the sidewalk outside the bookstore and she walks peacefully along, pointing at birds and planes in the sky, oohing and awwing over a planter full of flowers. She gets a bit too far ahead and I call her back to me.

She comes running at a full toddler sprint and wraps her arms around my legs, all signs of dino-ness gone.

“Mama,” she says.

“Always,” I say, “no matter what.”

And there are tears in my eyes again, but now for a different reason. Through the blurriness, I’m pretty sure I see Karma smile.

 

Image credit: Tomi Lattu via Flickr cc

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Fantasy Favo(u)rites Read-a-Thon

It’s been 10(!) weeks since I last posted on Scriven by Garen. It’s been 2.5 months of conferences, colds, graduations, vacations, deadlines, weddings, and a multitude of other daily tasks that have kept me from my blog baby.

But it’s July now and things have settled down just a teensy bit as we hit mid-summer, and I’m ready to reinvigorate the blog with a fun project that’s being put on by a fabulous trio of book bloggers: Olivia from Olivia’s Catastrophe and Inge and Aly from Of Wonderland.

It’s the Fantasy Favo(u)rites* Read-a-Thon taking place July 10-18!

via GIPHY

What does that entail exactly?

  1. Clear out some reading room in the sched. (10pm – 12am, I’m looking at you).
  2. Choose one of the following super popular fantasy series to read:
    The Grisha trilogy by Leigh Bardugo.
    The Percy Jackson and the Olympians series by Rick Riordan
    The Throne of Glass series by Sarah J Maas
  3. Follow along as Olivia, Inge, and Aly post fun activities and challenges about these books.
  4. Blog about those activities.
  5. Feel happy that you are part of a warm and fuzzy reading community.

via GIPHY

Yay!

So I chose The Throne of Glass series by Sarah J. Maas.

ThroneofGlassSet

Why because it’s got a kickass female assassin, a bit of a murder mystery, killer world building, great writing, and no less than an absolutely staggering 224,550 ratings on Goodreads with an equally staggering 4.24/5 star rating even after all those thousands of people have weighed in.

By contrast, my novel, On the Verge, has 18 ratings (and 4.22 average stars, in case you were wondering).

via GIPHY

Excuse my while I compose myself.

<tears, tears, more tears>

okay.

After realizing how hard it is to get people to read and then rate books, this series has to be something pretty special. I gotta see what the fuss is all about!

So yeah, here goes something I’ve never tried before.

Bring on the Read-a-Thon!

via GIPHY

*I’m conflicted about whether I should include the “u” in the word favorites. The Read-a-Thon ladies are writing out of England/the Netherlands and are using the British English spelling, but as a ‘Merican does it make me seem pretentious to use it too? I dunno. Thus, the parentheses.

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The Wishing Tree. Some Flash Fiction Therapy.

Sometimes I get in a mood that only fiction can help. When writing’s the only remedy, there’s always the comfort of a little fictional revenge.

The Wishing Tree

She wiped the blood from her cheek and trudged on. The tree wasn’t far.

Each step she took reverberated in the silent forest. It was the kind of silence that held secrets. A sacred silence.

With twisted trunks sprouting from a pine needle-strewn floor, the forest itself was straight out of a fairy tale. The old kind. The real kind. The kind without happy endings.

That was fine. She wasn’t after happy endings. She was after revenge.

In a wood like this, with the late afternoon mist obscuring her feet and the sun’s last rays lighting up the tops of the trees, it was easy to forget the time, the place. It was easy to believe the old stories about spirits in trees.

When she was little and her Nana told her the tales, she’d shiver in delight hoping that the spirits were kind and friendly to small children, knowing in her bones they weren’t. The spirits weren’t kind. But they were just. And that’s what she needed now.

Up a little incline and around a bend and there it was. The tree. The Wishing Tree.

In the little clearing amid the tall pines the Wishing Tree’s black branches traced a lacy pattern against the dusky sky. Its trunk strained against gravity, twisted with the weight of a hundred centuries and the hopes and dreams of a thousand souls.

A shifting of the clouds and the trunk flashed tarnished gold against slick black. She reached a hand up. Hesitated. Then she saw the rusty rivulets of dried blood. Fear evaporated and all she felt was the searing anger that had been fueling her march for the past hour.

Her fingers bumped against the copper and gold coins driven into the bark. Some were so old she didn’t recognize their markings and others, older still, had been almost entirely swallowed by the tree’s malignant growth.

They were scales with their outer edges bent at right angles, roundness disfigured by the violence of their introduction.

Scales or armour. A vengeful serpent or righteous crusader. It mattered little to her what form the spirit of the Wishing Tree took so long as justice was served.

She fingered the perfect coin in her pocket and a tiny smile lifted the corners of her mouth before the pain of her bruises turned her face grim once more. She tightened her grip and drew the coin out. Stepping forward her foot brushed against a stone. It was the same size and shape as a brick, its color dull and grey. But it called to her. She picked it up and felt the indentations, the pockmarks of wish makers before her. This would be her tool.

A sliver of black bark caught her eye and she put the slim edge of the coin to it. Her arm trembled as she brought the grey stone back, but when she launched the stone forward her blow was true. The coin lodged in the wood but it wasn’t enough. Three times. Three times her Nana had always said.

Her second blow was sharper. There was anger in it. The coin bent, folding under her force.

But it was the third that drove the coin irrevocably into the trunk. It was the third that shook her soul. It was the third that made no sound in that silent forest, just a subaudible hum carried on the aether, a barely felt vibration. It filled her head, reverberated against all the rage, gaining speed, gathering strength.

A sharp intake of breath and a darkening of her eyes. That’s all it was.

She barely remembered the journey back home. Just that the path flew under her feet, the cold of the forest at night matching her thoughts.

People think that the spirits serve us, her Nana had said. But the truth is we serve the spirits. We do their bidding. We mete out their justice. We make our wishes, our pleas at the root of their ancient homes, and they answer. Mostly with silence, but sometimes with an echo of what we already know is in us.

Outside her door. She climbed the steps, opened the door, stepped down the hall, crossed the threshold of the old man’s bedroom. He lay there. His breath fouling the air. In her hand was the grey stone. In her heart was her wish, black and twisted like the tree.

She came near the slumbering form. She raised her arm. Three times her Nana had always said.

Three times to make your wish come true.

 

Image via: A Patch of Shade blog

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A Writing Experiment in which Garen Attempts Poetry

So I’ve been wanting to write a poem for a while now. It’s one form of the written word that I haven’t attempted since probably junior high English. Today, I decided, was going to be the day I sat down and tried my hand at a few stanzas. Just as an experiment, if nothing else.

I’ve been feeling a little, for lack of a better word, blocked lately. I don’t necessarily believe in actual factual Writer’s Block, but I do think that sometimes you need to shake things up. Try something new. And most of all, keep writing.

After working on this short piece, I can say that, while I’m no Shakespeare, writing in this form was fun, therapeutic even. Some poetry follows rules. I didn’t want to mess with that. So this is just some abstract, free form, see-what-happens stuff. Have you ever written poetry? Do you write it now? I’d love to know.

 

Some days. Someday.

 

There is a woman.

Large.

A little fat.

Some days she feels ugly.

Someday she will eat right.

Grinning as she chews her kale.

Smiling as she disappears.

 

There is a boy.

Small.

A little scrawny.

Some days he feels weak when they push him in the hall.

Someday he will be so strong.

He’ll have arms like ropes.

No one will touch him.

 

There is a girl.

Smart.

A little bossy.

Some days the kids tell her to shut up.

Someday she will quiet down and her new friends will say they like her.

So much that she’ll blend right in.

 

There is a man.

Rich.

A little vain.

Some days he still feels low-rent.

Someday he will have everything he desires.

He’ll look at himself in his gilt mirror.

Run a finger over his silk tie.

And sigh.

 

 

Some days, they know, you are just not enough.

Maybe every day.

Someday that will change.

Someday they will get what they want and they’ll feel better.

Happy.

Real happy.

Real.

Someday will be the best day ever.

And they will finally be the best

At whatever it is they need to be the best at.

It will be perfect.

Absolutely perfect.

And then they’ll be happy.

Someday.

 

Image credit: favim.com

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To My Daughter on Her First Birthday

Dear Bean,

There are certain things I know to be true. Among them are standard measurements of time. There are 24 hours in a day. There are 365 days in a year. And we are only given so many days on Earth.

But babies, they bend the rules of time.

Perhaps it’s because they are so close to where we come from, that great, unknowable place beyond time.

Perhaps it’s the way all babies crackle and hum with vitality. We’re drawn to them, feel blessed with their smiles, because it feels like life itself is grinning at us.

Perhaps it’s the way they remind us that this life, all life, is fragile, a gift.

Whatever the reason, babies do not follow the rules of time. And you, my sweet Bean, are no different.

You have blossomed from a tiny, helpless lump of clay, to a bright spark of energy that walks, nearly runs, and delights in the world. This happened, I swear, in an instant. Yet I feel each of the days that led up to this one. Those endless minutes when I could not calm your screaming, those breathtaking moments when you put your head on my shoulder and I knew you loved me and it seemed like time stopped.

I look at you and already feel an almost unbearable nostalgia for the past, for the tiny baby I could cradle so easily in the crook of my arm. And I feel a surge of hope and joy for the future, for all those big days to come and the small, but important, days in between.

You make me feel my mortality. You are a new generation and you will live long after I am gone. But in you will live a part of me, little spirals of DNA that make us smile the same smile, little spirals that will live on. And in this way I feel eternal.

You do not follow time’s rules, yet still it marches on, oblivious to your magic. And in that steady forward march you will grow up. As you grow up you will inevitably grow away, away from me to walk your own path. One day you will go down that path and not return, at least you will not return as a child, but as a woman with her own life to lead. That day is far in the future and yet so close it will be here in the blink of an eye.

When that moment comes I will have already picked you up and set you down for the last time, and you will stand on your own two feet. You will have already felt the way the world is sometimes cruel, and sometimes wonderful, and very often some mixture of the two. I will have done my best to protect you, to show you what I know. And you will be ready. And you will fly away.

But still the rules of time will not hold us. You will know that I have loved you since the minute I heard your heart beating, and I will love you until the day mine stops. Even then, if I’ve done my job right, you will still know my love for you, you will carry it with you, and you will pass it on.

For now, on this first of many birthdays to come, I will hold you close, kiss your soft hair, and time will give us a gift, the gift of the moment, a moment that will last forever, if only in our hearts.

Love, always,

Mama

 

Image credit: michibanban via Flickr cc

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Flash Fiction Friday: Flesh and Blood

It’s only been two weeks since I said I was taking a break from Scriven by Garen but I can’t stay away for long. Plus it’s Flash Fiction Friday and I’m in the mood to write. So I present to you for your reading pleasure Flesh and Blood. It’s a little dark, a little tongue-in-cheek. I’d love to know what you think.

 

Flesh and Blood

They met reaching for the same bag of chips. One of them was hungry. The other was just pretending to be.

It was one in the morning. The clerk behind the counter at the convenience store was high. He smirked at the pretender, his heavy-lidded eyes lingering over her chest. She slapped the money down on the counter, made a mental note to come back and teach the clerk some manners, and  grabbed the hungry guy’s hand, pulling him out the door.

“C’mon,” she said, “we can share.”

The guy, not much more than a kid really, hesitated.

“You aren’t scared, are you?”

He was. She could see the fear in his eyes. Smell it on him. She smiled.

“Nah, I’m not scared. I mean, I just met you. What do you want to do?”

“I don’t know. Do we need a plan? Let’s just go.”

They stood in the parking lot. A car passed by on the main road, its headlights lighting up the wall of towering pines across the street and the little one-lane drive that cut a narrow swath through the thick undergrowth.

“This town’s dead,” she said.

“It’s late. This is a suburb, you know with lots of kids and families. They’re all asleep.”

“Why aren’t you?”

He looked sheepish. “Can’t.”

“Insomnia, huh?”

“Something like that,” he said.

“Let’s go for a walk. It’ll help.”

“Now? In the dark?”

“The moon’s out. We’ll be fine. I’ve heard the seminary’s a good place.”

The seminary had been around for nearly a century. It stood on a wide grassy clearing at the top of a tall bluff surrounded by trees. The priests had moved on years ago. No one went to divinity school anymore. But the building remained, full of ghosts the local kids said. It was at the end of the one-lane drive.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” he said, eyeing the dark trees across the street. “There’s probably coyotes and god knows what else in there. And I’ve heard that squatters have taken it over. Doesn’t seem really safe.”

“It’s not,” she said. “But safe is boring. Let’s go.”

She crossed the parking lot in four strides, then turned to look over her shoulder. He still stood where she’d left him, uncertainty telegraphed by his hunched shoulders and wary eyes. A brisk little breeze blew, carrying the fresh scent of fear to where she was downwind. She traced her tongue over her lips and breathed deep. Then she turned toward the woods and the road and started off. He’d follow. They always did.

She was most of the way to the trees when she heard him running to catch up.

“It’s dark as hell out here, even with the moon,” he said, as he pulled the collar of his jacket up against the cold.

“I know the way by heart,” she said and took his hand.

They followed the twists and turns of the drive until the trees gradually gave way to the grassy field where the seminary sat, its great brick walls and hundred black windows frosted silver in the moonlight.

He was staring up at it when she kissed him, full and hard on the mouth. He was surprised for a moment, and then he kissed her back.

She moved to his neck, ran her hands down his shirt.

“What are you?” he whispered.

She stopped for just a beat before she continued exploring his body with her hands and mouth.

He put his fingers on her chin and drew her face up level with his own.

“What are you?” This time he said it with conviction.

She paused. Took a deep breath. The smell of fear was still there, but it was different now. She smelled fear and something else. Something she didn’t like.

Hunger. The kind of hunger that isn’t satisfied by a bag of chips.

“I didn’t want to come here,” he said. “I was afraid. I didn’t want to hurt you, but look at you, I had to come. I thought I could hold out, but the moon…”

He trailed off and in the pale light that turned everything black and white she saw him change. Just a slight shift, but it was enough. Eyes too bright, teeth too long.

“You’re not human are you?” he asked. “Your different, I can tell.” His voice had grown husky.

“Does it matter?”

“I won’t feel so bad when this is over if you’re just a fairy tale like me.”

He was young, inexperienced. It was the only reason she hadn’t realized it right away. He was still trying to fight against his nature. It’d only take him a few kills to get over that. Too bad he wouldn’t get the chance.

“Fairy tale,” she said. “No, I’m no fairy tale. I’m flesh and bone just like you. I think that makes us scarier, don’t you?”

She pressed herself against him.

“I think it’s sweet you were afraid of hurting me,” she said. “But it never works to fight against who you truly are.”

She laid a hand on his chest and it vibrated with a deep growl. His eyes filled with the cold white fire of the moon and he threw his head back and howled. The sound filled the grassy field and reverberated off the seminary.

Until it was cut short by the flash of a blade. Blood poured from the slash in his throat and he crumpled to the ground. The fire in his eyes gone.

She wiped the blade off on his shirt then used it to slice open the potato chip bag before she set about harvesting her ingredients.

She took another bite as she carved away and the chip crunched in her perfect mouth. Flesh and blood. It’s what she’d come for and it’s what she got. Every time.

 

Image credit: Modified from an image by Forsaken Fotos via Flickr cc

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Done and done.

This is it. Number 52 of 52 in my year-long quest to write a post every week for Scriven by Garen. I did it, and to my mind at least, I did it well. I’m proud of what I’ve written. Proud that I persevered through the late stages of pregnancy, the early stages of a new baby and the current stage of an active almost-toddler and rambunctious preschooler. I fought through fatigue and all kinds of sickness and days when I really just wanted to skip a post because at the time it didn’t seem to matter.

But my posts did, and do, matter, damn it.

It mattered a lot to me to finish this project. I was proving to myself that I could do hard things. It also had other awesome side effects.

  • This blog has helped restore my confidence.
  • It has helped improve my writing.
  • It has demonstrated to me the benefits of being authentic and putting myself out there.

Writers write. That’s obvious, of course. But sometimes the obvious isn’t always easy. Sometimes it’s a lot of hard work, a lot of determination.

Hard work. Determination.

It’s a mantra the Hubs and I recite.

Do the work that matters. Do it well. Stay focused. Always be moving towards your goals in whatever capacity the day allows. And Scriven by Garen played a pivotal role in furthering those writerly aspirations.

But now it’s time to step back. This project has been a stepping stone, a staging area. I’m ready to try new media, new means of putting work out into the world.

My focus in 2016 is getting my writing published via magazines, websites, and maybe even another book. So I won’t be posting here as often, but I won’t be giving it up entirely either. I’ll still write the occasional post, maybe some flash fiction or a writing update from time to time. I can’t help myself. I’ve gotten quite attached to Scriven.

Lastly, before I close out this project, I just want to say thank you. Thank you for reading my blog. Seriously. It’s one of the best things ever to be read and appreciated. I am very grateful for every kind word and every Facebook or Twitter like. Readers are a writer’s lifeblood.

Now, wish me luck.

2016 is bound to hold a lot of frustration and rejection. The more you submit for publication, the more often you’ll be told no. But if you don’t do the work, if you don’t submit, if you don’t get those no’s, you’ll never get to yes either.

Hard work. Determination.

Write. Write well. Write often. Another mantra for the coming months.

Cheers to a productive, and meaningful, year.

 

Image credit: The Missouri Review

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A crazy little story for Micro Flash Fiction Friday

It has been a crazy week and a crazy week deserves a crazy story. A few months ago, I asked people for words I could use as inspiration for my flash fiction stories. Carrie gave me the word agateophobia, the fear of insanity. I couldn’t let such a good word go to waste. So without further ado I present:

As Crazy Does

The man stared at him. Dead eyes, sallow skin, hair hanging in greasy hanks.

It was freaking him out. Someone with a face like that needed help. He shifted his weight nervously, shoes squeaking on the linoleum.

He hated crazy. Always had.

Crazy people were dangerous. They belonged in an asylum. Not in a place like this.

Who had let that psycho in here? Whoever it was must be nuts too. The world was going to hell, all these mental patients just walking around.

Maybe he should go into the straight jacket business. Seemed like the kind of thing that more and more people needed these days.

He glanced up again and the weirdo was still looking at him.

It was damn creepy. Him with his blood shot eyes. He was probably high on something too. High and crazy. Just his luck.

He finished washing his hands.

The crazy guy was looking nervous now. Edgy.  What was his problem?

God, he hated crazy.

He could feel his muscles tighten.

It was scary having these bastards on the streets.

His fingers curled into fists.

Still the man stared at him, seemed to mock him.

Sneering freak. I’ll knock some sense into your deranged skull.

His fist flew through the air and cracked the mirror in front of the sink.

The man in front of him shattered into a million fractured faces.

 

Image credit: sarcaser via Flickr cc

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Some monks are making me agitated! Okay, not actual monks, but a story about them that I can’t seem to get out of my head. Ironically, they are the key players in a parable I read on another blog about the benefits of letting go à la Elsa. The story goes something like this:

Once upon a time there were two monks on a hike in the forest. I don’t know where they were going or why. Pilgrimage? Penitence? Cardio? At any rate, they were walking along doing their monkly thing when they came to a river that was not super impassable for them, but apparently impassable for the old lady that was standing at the edge of its bank. She was weeping.

“Why are you crying?” the older monk asked to elderly woman.

“Because I am old and weary and I cannot cross this river. My son is getting married this evening and it is my heart’s desire to see his nuptials.”

“I wish we could help you,” the younger monk said, “but we have taken strict vows never to touch a woman. Your best bet is to turn back around and go home. It will be dark soon.”

I imagine he said this in a very supercilious voice. (Personal note: Yes, Hubs, supercilious is a big word. Get a dictionary.)

“That is also why I am crying,” she said. “My home is too far away. It will be nightfall before I get back and there are beasts in this wood that would have me for supper.”

The young monk paused. They hadn’t covered this kind of situation in his young monk training course. Seeing no other option he blessed her, wished her well, and made to ford the rushing river.

“I will carry you.”

It was the older monk.

“What?!” exclaimed the young monk. “But our vows! How could you even consider such a thing.”

“Climb on my back, and I will carry you across,” the old monk said, ignoring the  young monk.

The woman gave a rather (Hubs, do you have your dictionary ready?) indecorous shout and then clambered on the older monk’s back. He took her across the river on sure, steady legs, while the young monk huffed and puffed behind him, as much from the exertion of staying upright in the fast-flowing water as from his indignation.

When they had made it safely across, the older monk set the lady down gently. She thanked him profusely and then hobbled away as quick as her feeble legs could carry her to see her only son’s wedding.

The monks headed in the opposite direction. They walked in silence for a while and then, unable to hold his anger back any longer, the young monk suddenly turned to the older monk and said “You have broken our sacred vows! It’s-it’s a disgrace! How will you answer for what you have done?”

Here comes the punchline of the parable. Are you ready?

“Young Monk,” the older monk said, because I guess that’s really what his name was, “it’s true that I picked that woman up. But then I set her down some time ago. You still seem to be carrying her.”

Get it? The old monk is basically telling the young monk to get over it.

Moral is: Don’t let something that makes you unhappy be a burden. Let it go. Let it gooooooooo! I’m one with the wind and skyyyy-iii-yyy! Oops, sorry, Frozen took over my brain for a sec.

The end.

I liked that ending for a minute. I was satisfied with it for a short time until I started to think about it more carefully. Why do I think about these things? Aren’t the Kardashians doing something that can take my mind off of these deep thoughts?

Young Monk was obviously pissed. And I kind of think he had a right to be. Do I think he should have left that old lady by the side of river to fend for herself? No. But I do think that he and Older Monk should have had a talk. I don’t think the story should have ended that way.

After all, Young Monk has a point. They took solemn vows and he is rightfully confused by Older Monk’s actions and I think Older Monk owes him an explanation. Young Monk is just a young monk with a lot of monk learning left to do.

True, Young Monk comes across as a stringent rule-follower. A man of principle perhaps, but a man so principled that he is blind to the exceptions to the rules. Even so, I don’t think it was wrong for him to voice his concern, and Older Monk just shuts him down with all that ‘your still carrying her’ smart-assness.

I guess the reason the story bothered me is this: Was it wrong for Young Monk to stand up for what he believes in? When do your deeply held, core beliefs need to take a backseat?

I hope Older Monk, and presumably wiser monk, had that conversation with him while they finished their hike. But because we weren’t privy to it, here are my thoughts:

Your deeply held, core beliefs need to be set aside in a situation where practicing them would cause someone to come to harm, as in this parable.

Your deeply held, core beliefs, are a good guide for living your (emphasis on your) life, but they must always be reevaluated and there must be room for change.

Truth is I’m still mulling this one over. There is more to think about, more to consider. Which, my friends, is the sign of a good story. What do you think? Was the Young Monk wrong to question Older Monk’s actions? Was Older Monk wrong when he broke his solemn vows? Should I stop with all this nonsense and just find out what the Kardashians are doing today?

I’d love to know what you think.

Image credit: Betakit

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Goals Redux

It’s the time of the year for goal-making, and it’s the time of the year for reflection. Back in March I made a list of ten things I wanted to accomplish in the rest of 2015. Nine months, ten big goals, one brand new baby, one crazy-active preschooler. Yeah, I might have been a little optimistic, and I might not have accomplished everything on my list. But 2015 was a banner year.

Bean, our beautiful and long-awaited baby girl, arrived at the end of February, and in September I published my book baby, On the Verge. The former made my heart swell with love, the latter with pride, and both made my year.

But beyond those two major milestones what else did I accomplish in 2015? Let’s revisit my goals and set some new ones.

Note: The original goals listed below come from my blog post on March 26.

1. Exercise.

Original Goal: Before Bean was born I was regularly working out three days a week. I think it might be a little optimistic to jump right back into that routine, but once I get the go ahead from the doc at my postpartum check-up, I’ll start out with a once-a-week visit to Bassline and a jog around the neighborhood. By the end of the year though I want to be back to thrice weekly visits to Bassline. I’m missing those killer workouts and how they make me feel.

Results: After Bean was born I took 7.5 weeks off for recovery. I started back at Bassline on 4/19 and quickly settled into a twice a week routine for the rest of the year until this last month when I managed to bump my workouts up to three times a week (except for the week I was sick with the stomach flu – only worked out once that week). The majority of those third workouts have turned out to be three mile runs around the neighborhood. That’s good, but not great. It’s just tough with the new little one and Nora’s full-time school schedule this year. Truly, nothing beats a Bassline workout for calorie burning and muscle toning, but hey, a run’s not bad either. And if that’s what I can fit in during the week, that works for me.

New Goal: Continue the trend of thrice weekly workouts but try to integrate Bassline as often as possible.

2. Complete a 10K in June.

Original Goal: After Bun was born I ran a 10K with the hubs 4 months postpartum. I’d like to do the same this time around, and maybe even beat my previous time of 58:10. That’s a 9:23/mile pace.

Results: I did the Berry Dairy Days 10K on June 20, four months postpartum, but wasn’t as successful this time around. My time was 1:01:51, a 9:57/mile pace (you can read about my thoughts on those results here). I tried again in October at the Dawg Dash 10K and ran it in 1:01:01, or a 9:51/mile pace. Better but still 28 seconds/mile off my 2011 10K pace.

New Goal: Set a new 10K PR by beating my 2011 time of 58:10. The key to that, my friends, is dropping the extra pounds I’ve been carrying since Bean was born. Which leads me to my next goal…

3. Lose the weight.

Original Goal: On a related note to exercise and running, I’m anxious to get back to my pre-baby weight. As of this writing I’ve got 12 pounds to go. That seems pretty doable so I’ll throw in a second goal of making it back to my pre-freshman 15 and pre-lazy-mid-twenties 10 weight. That would be an extra 25 pounds to lose by the end of December.

Results: Whew, boy was I ambitious with this goal. At the time I wrote the original back in March I was breast feeding and the pounds seemed to be melting off pretty quickly. I made it down to a low of 7 lbs above my pre-baby weight by the end of May. Then my metabolism and hormones went all wonky (I talked about why that happened here) and I was back up to 12 lbs by the middle of June. Things fluctuated for the next few months before topping out at 16 lbs above my pre-pregnancy weight at the beginning of November. Ouch. Currently I am 13 lbs above my pre-pregnancy weight.

New Goal: Get to my pre-pregnancy weight. I have the urge to be more ambitious again with this goal but reaching that number seems elusive enough.

4. Get an agent, find a publisher, or self-publish.

Original Goal: I’d like my book to eventually see the light of day. I wrote about this in my last post, so suffice it to say here that by the time the end of the year rolls around I’ll have found a home for On the Verge.

Results: I self-published On the Verge and it is currently on Amazon! It has reviews! And a sales ranking! All very exciting. It’s a major personal accomplishment that I worked towards for nearly two years.

New Goal: I’ve gone back and forth on this one quite a bit. Continue writing about the Verge and turn it into a series or start a brand new story. You can read about my internal struggle on that here, but ultimately I’ve decided to strike out in a new direction with my sights on landing the ultimate prize of an agent and traditional publishing contract. Writing a new novel with a new story is the first step in making that happen. Which brings me to…

5. Start writing a new novel.

Original Goal: I’ve got an idea of what I’d like to focus on next, I just have to carve out the time. To do that I’m planning on participating in National Novel Writing Month (a community of authors who come together and pledge to write 50,000 words in the month of November). Bean will be 8 months old by then and hopefully settled into a more predictable routine. With a little fancy scheduling I just might be able to make the time to get started on my next book.

Results: So Bean, thankfully, has been a great sleeper, which makes finding the time to write easier. But I had some misgivings by the time NaNoWriMo rolled around in November. I’d just published On the Verge in mid-September and was still in the throes of marketing it when I was supposed to be starting the new one. We also had a trip planned to Hawaii in the middle of the month. But I decided to sign up for the challenge anyway and then, after writing less than a thousand words, realized I was headed down the wrong path.

New Goal: I think it was too soon after publishing On the Verge to commit to a writing a new novel. I wasn’t ready. I’d depleted all my creative reserves getting that story ready to see the light of day and it showed. I do want to start writing a new book this year, but I want to promise myself I won’t do it until I feel ready. That might be March or October or some other time. But it will be this year.

6. Keep freelancing.

Original Goal: I took some time away from freelance writing while I finished On the Verge, but I already have my first new assignment. I’m going to focus on getting at least 12 articles published by the New Year.

Results: Again, I was a little ambitious with this one. I managed to write four articles for North End Metro magazine this year. I have two more coming up for them in 2016 and a third for Northwest Travel & Life.

New Goal: I love writing for NEM and I’m super excited to break into a new market with Northwest Travel & Life. I want to put more of a focus on freelancing in 2016. That means sending pitches to new magazines and doing a great job on the assignments I already have. The plan is to send a pitch to one new magazine a month. In the meantime I’ll continue to do my best work for NEM and Northwest Travel & Life.

7. Learn to draw.

Original Goal: I’ve always loved to draw, but I’ve never been especially good at it. I have a set of brand new colored pencils that have been languishing on my desk for many months alongside the highly recommended book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain: The Definitive, 4th Edition. I want to work through the exercises in that book, and maybe learn how to draw a bit better.

Results: Well, I did crack open those colored pencils for an adult coloring book experiment, but I never did get around to working through Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.

New Goal: I’d like to commit two days a week in February to drawing. I’m not saying that I’ll learn how to draw better in a month, but I’d at least like to get through the book and see where that gets me. If it seems like something I’d like to continue to work on, I might designate some time once a week to keep practicing.

8. Learn French.

Original Goal: Similarly I have had the complete Rosetta Stone series for French on my laptop for more than a year. I want to take a half hour once or twice a week and get back to learning the language. Hopefully I can finish the Rosetta Stone lessons over the next 9 months.

Results: This did not happen, unfortunately, and it still bothers me. I really want to complete that Rosetta Stone series. Learning French and using it in France is on my bucket list.

New Goal: I’m designating Wednesday nap times as my time for French lessons. Again, I’m not saying once a week is going to be enough to get me fluent but it’s a start.

9. Sew a custom dress.

Original Goal: I learned how to sew a couple of years ago, but recently my sewing machine has lain dormant downstairs. It keeps calling my name. I think it’s time I answered.

Results: I have yet to answer the call. Are you sensing a theme with the last couple of goals on this list? At least you can’t accuse me of lacking enthusiasm for goal setting.

New Goal: By this time, even the basics I learned a few years ago are getting a bit rusty. It’s time to get back in the swing of things. March is the month I’ll commit to one day a week of sewing with the goal of completing some cool project.

10. Keep reading.

Original Goal: Finding time to read is difficult with two kiddos, but I’ve come to realize that it is a really important part of who I am. I just don’t feel like myself unless I find some time during the week to read. I won’t set myself a specific number of books, but I will commit to reading for at least two hours a week initially and hopefully more as things settle down (i.e. Bean sleeps through the night).

Results: I did okay with this goal. Here are the books I read this year:

Lifestyle: The Sweet Life in Paris, Happiness in the Pursuit, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, Essentialism (audiobook)

Publishing: Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World, Sell Your Book Like Wildfire, APE: How to Publish a Book, The Essential Guide to Getting Yourself Published

Creativity: Manage Your Day-to-Day, Show Your Work, Steal Like an Artist, The Freaks Shall Inherit the Earth, Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Creativity, Inc. (audiobook)

Self-Help: 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do, The Power of Habit (audiobook)

Parenting: The Highly Sensitive Child

Fiction: The Rosie Project, Sacre Bleu, Heart-Shaped Box, The Halloween Tree, The BFG, The Phantom Tollbooth

New Goal: This year I’d like to take the time to read even more, and instead of focusing on nonfiction, I want to read more widely in fantasy and horror, the genres I write in, at least two books a month.

Bonus. Keep writing for my blog weekly.

Original Goal: I’ve been making weekly blog posts to Scriven by Garen for 9 straight weeks now. My goal when I started was to make it a full year. 9 down, 43 more to go.

Results: This is my 49th straight blog post for Scriven by Garen.

New Goal: Three more posts to go. I might just make it.

Wish me luck!

Image credit: Blog Pelatelli

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Tis the Season for a Little Krampus Flash Fiction

My Christmas gift to you: some flash fiction with a dark, yuletide theme. Krampus is a creature that’s gotten a lot of buzz lately and for good reason. He’s an odd sort of demon with German origins (no surprise there) that was used to frighten ill-mannered children into behaving. Because, really, what good is the threat of a stocking full of coal when you have a monster with a whip and chain ready to haul you away for some good old Christmas Eve torture? Anyway, I just couldn’t resist writing a short story with this demon as the star. So curl up by the fire and take a minute to read Nothing to Dread, and be thankful you’ve been a good little boy or girl this year. Right?

 

Nothing to Dread

Once upon a time there was a boy named Cole. Cole was tall and wide, with small eyes, a square jaw, and a constellation of freckles on his cheek in the shape of Missouri. Boys like to cause mischief they say, but Cole was beyond mischievous. The neighborhood children ran when they saw his hulking form at the end of the street. The last kid he’d caught spent a night in the hospital. Animals that knew him cowered in fear, and those that didn’t paid the price. He sneered at authority, scoffed at rules, and shrugged his shoulders no matter the punishment.

Cole had a long-suffering sister named Paige. She was his opposite in every way: small, slim, with an angelic face and a heart to match. Cole loved to torment her all the more for her beauty and compassion. He would punch her when their parents weren’t looking, in the ribs or the stomach so it would be hard to see the bruise. He’d sling mud on her as they went to school, and rip up her carefully completed homework. He called her every name in the book, and even some that weren’t.

One day, with aching ribs, she asked her brother why he treated her so badly. It was a slate gray day in late December. A fine mist hung in the air, and the ground where she lay was cold and damp.

He bent low, his ugly face mere inches from hers, and whispered, “Because I’m heartless, dear sister.” And he tilted his head back and howled with laughter before he spat in her face and lumbered away to ruin someone else’s day.

Paige only smiled. The spit was just what she needed. In her pocket was a little black figure. She pulled it out and used it to rub away her brother’s saliva from her cheek. As she did, the figure’s eyes glowed red, so quickly that it might have been a trick of the light, but she had seen it.

Paige spent a lot of time at the library. It was her refuge, the one place where she knew her brother would never venture. The books were her friends, the stacks her buttresses against the cruelty of her flesh and blood. She spent most of her time in the myths and legends section. And in a small, red book, on a dusty top shelf, she had learned about Krampus, the devil of Christmas.

She had learned what he did to naughty children, and, most importantly, she had learned how to summon him. Because while Santa made it a point to visit all those who believed in him, Krampus couldn’t be bothered with just any naughty child. He only showed up for the truly wicked.

The little figure Paige had made was his test and judging by the glowing eyes, Cole had passed with flying, fiendish colors.

Krampus would come, and come tonight. For tonight was Christmas Eve.

In the evening, she waited until the sounds of the house had quieted. She crept past her brother’s door and out to the living room. She was familiar with all of the hiding places in the house having used them many times as a means of escape. There was a favorite of hers in the corner, a triangular shaped space behind a chair that she slid into now and lay down, curling herself into a ball. She pressed her head against the cool floorboards so that she could see the bottom part of the fireplace. Then she waited.

At three o’clock sharp her eyes snapped open. There were noises coming from the chimney. A few pieces of soot wafted down from the flue. Paige blinked and looked again and there, in the black hole of the fireplace, two red eyes stared back at her.

She thought about screaming but held her breath instead, her heart pounding in her ears.

Two hands, covered in fur and with nails sharp and shiny appeared on either side of the hearth. Then a cloven hoof escaped the pitch black and then another, little puffs of ash lifting into the air as they settled onto the floor. Finally the rest of Krampus’s frightful body slid from the shadows of the fireplace.

Paige looked up at the creature in terror. It was at least seven feet tall. Muscles bulged around its neck and rippled down its back. Long, shaggy hair hung from its shoulders in great hanks. It had a tail and horns and carried a black sack that moved and pulsed as though things were trying to escape from its smooth, leathery confines.

The creature held her gaze for a moment more and then was off, fast and silent, around the corner and up the stairs to her brother’s room.

There was a thump, a small, muffled wail, and then silence.

Paige shuffled out from behind the chair on her hands and knees and was just about to stand when her hand brushed against something round and hard.

A hoof.

She looked up, and there was Krampus, red eyes burning. It was dark but it wasn’t hard for Paige to see the creature’s grin. Shining rows of sharp teeth glinted in the wan light from the streetlight outside. The creature brought a single finger to its lips and then was gone like a flash up the chimney, but not before Paige caught a glimpse of the pack flung across his shoulder. It was just a bit bigger than it was when he arrived.

She ran to Cole’s room. The sheets were rumpled. He was nowhere to be found.

Paige went to the window and watched as a single shadow slid over the moon. After that she could see no more but the night sky and the silver stars. She couldn’t see Krampus flying, landing amid snow drifts in the far north, couldn’t see the the creature disappear into dark cellar doors just below the cheerful glow of a fairytale workshop window.

She wasn’t there when the creature descended the steps to a subterranean chamber, and emptied its pack, the blubbering bodies of so many vicious and vile children rolling across the rocky floor.

She wasn’t able to see Krampus get to work, his real work.

You see Krampus is a bit of a miner, a prospector you might say. And Cole was wrong. He wasn’t heartless. There beneath the bone and sinew of his chest lay a heart, shiny and black. This is what Krampus was after, and the demon harvested it with a precision that only comes from years of practice, adding it to the cart on the track nearby. When the creature had taken the last desiccated organ from its Christmas haul, it pushed the cart to the furnace at the end of the cave and dumped the load into the flames so that it became not just a fire but an inferno.

That great fire swept up the flues and chimneys of the fairytale place in the far north.

Santa, just returned from his busiest night of the year, warmed his feet by the blaze in his room, then slowly drifted off to sleep as the last of the embers died away.

The smoke curled up and out onto the frigid wind, but died away long before it ever reached the tiny, beautiful face of Paige, eyes shining by the light of the Christmas moon.

 

Image credit: Brom, who, by the way, is an incredible storyteller AND artist (some people are born with all the talent). His book, Krampus: The Yule Lord, is amazing, as are all his others.

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Jumping on the Adult Coloring Book Bandwagon

I had to give it a try. This coloring books for adults phenomenon. I mean it’s become so popular they even had a ginormous stack of them in Costco just in time for the holidays.

I had a fresh set of colored pencils ready to go.

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I’ve probably had these Faber-Castells for a year and had yet to take the shrink wrap off. (Nothing better than fresh colored pencils!)

I had the book.

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Enchanted Forest. A book of richly illustrated pictures by Johanna Basford, that seem straight out of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale.

All they’re missing is the color.

There’s lots of evidence, actually, that coloring is healthy for adults. Something about mindfulness and meditation. Seriously. Google it. And I’ve always enjoyed coloring with Bun. But it took a bout of the stomach flu to get me to try it on my own.

After the initial abject horribleness of the first 48 hours had passed, I was left with a somewhat settled stomach, an empty house, and nothing to do.

Time to color.

I started with this:

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No problem, I thought. I can tackle that in an hour or two. Wrong.

Once this borderline OCD girl got caught up with all those swirls and loop-de-loops I managed to finish one half of that full page spread.

Behold my masterpiece of adult coloring:

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Final verdict: It’s fun. Maybe not as fun as when I was a kid. But that could have been the lingering nausea.   Did I achieve a near-meditative state of clarity as the Internet claimed? No. But I did end up with a dent near the tip of my ring finger that I haven’t seen since the frantic scribbling of my college blue book days (do they still have those?). And it took my mind off my tummy for awhile. So I’ll call it a win.

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There’s a yellow notebook upstairs sitting on my nightstand. It has a bunch of scribbles in it, the beginnings of an outline for the follow-up to On the Verge. For the most part, I like those scribbles. It seems to me they have potential, but there’s just one problem. The notes end several pages in without finishing the storyline.

I keep hoping some helpful little house elf (Dobby? Elf on the Shelf?) will come during the night and fill in the blanks for me, but no such luck. I haven’t cracked that notebook open in days, and the more time that goes by the more quickly it’s turning into a kind of relic, an artifact of, dare I say it, writer’s block.

I actually came to terms long ago with writer’s block. It doesn’t scare me anymore because I know it’s just a symptom of a simple, albeit discouraging, problem: I’ve gone down the wrong path; the idea I’m pursuing’s no good or at least isn’t the right fit right now.

It’s an intuitive thing. There’s nothing categorically wrong with my outline as it stands, and someday I might be able to pick it up again and finish the story arc no problem. But that time is not now.

Now my thoughts keep wandering to new characters, new worlds, and if I’m totally honest, new chances at getting discovered. I love On the Verge, I put my heart and soul into every piece of it, and I learned so much from my first foray into storytelling. My beloved Verge will be there when I’m ready to return. But I think I want to start over with a fresh concept because, while I’m proud to be an indie author, it’s also hard.

Hard to write when it feels like no one is really listening, like no one really cares about the story, at least not yet (Note: this excludes all my wonderful friends and family who read On the Verge and actually liked it (at least that’s what they told me)). And I think that’s driving some of my writer’s block as well. It’s difficult to get excited about the continuation of an idea when the reception from the world at large is mostly radio silence.

Which brings me to my next point: reviews are the way to break that dreaded silence. They’re tremendously important to authors, especially indie authors, and one of the most effective ways of marketing unknown books by unknown authors to the masses on Amazon. So if you’ve read my novel and written a review thank you, thank you, thank you. Seriously. I appreciate it so much. And if you’ve read it (and didn’t hate it) but haven’t posted a review to Amazon yet I would be super grateful if you would.

And even if only a few people are noticing, I still wholeheartedly believe in the story I’ve told in On the Verge. I believe its time and its audience will come.

Meanwhile, I’ll go find that yellow notebook, dust it off, and start jotting down some new ideas and see where they take me. Who knows? One of them might be my big break.

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For the last few weeks I have felt generally happy and energetic. This is my baseline. My norm. But for the last four and a half years I’ve struggled to maintain this sense of overall well-being, and it’s all because of a little gland located at the base of my neck.

My thyroid is failing. My immune system is attacking it. I have a disease called Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis and no one is certain what causes it. The general consensus is you need to be genetically predisposed to the condition and environmental factors often play a part in bringing it on. In my case it was most likely pregnancy that made my immune system go haywire.

The thyroid is a small but super important part of your body. It plays a critical role in regulating the hormones that control your metabolism, the system that essentially keeps your body running. Well-intentioned plasma cells send antibodies to attack my healthy thyroid which then leaks the precious thyroid hormones my metabolism needs in order to function correctly. Hashimoto’s thus causes hypothyroidism, a condition where the thyroid gland can no longer produce enough thyroid hormones to control the body’s metabolism efficiently.

Pregnancy puts an extra strain on the thyroid and it may be this added stress that triggers the problematic immune response. Babies in utero rely on their mother’s thyroid hormones for healthy development. If they receive too little of the hormones, which can happen if the mother has hypothyroidism, they may suffer impaired brain development and a host of other nasty complications. This can all be avoided with medication. Pop a tiny pill of Synthroid every morning before breakfast and you’re good to go. But it remains very important for women to have their thyroid levels monitored throughout their pregnancy and beyond.

And beyond.

Yeah, so turns out it takes several months postnatal for your hormone levels to balance out to their prenatal levels. If you have a thyroid condition during pregnancy it’s even important to continue taking the medication. My doctor diagnosed me with hypothyroidism early on in my pregnancy with Bun and I took it faithfully. Thankfully, she was born perfect in every way. I assumed then that I was in the clear and stopped taking my Synthroid prescription.

Big mistake. Hypothyroidism makes you feel (pardon my French) really shitty. Here are just a few of the laundry list of symptoms it causes: fatigue, depression, weight gain, a puffy face, pale skin, wonky periods, muscle aches, joint aches, and my personal favorite, constipation.

Real pleasant stuff. It took me a while to understand that a lot of the issues I was having after Bun’s birth were related to my thyroid condition, that giving birth to her hadn’t made it go away. In fact it had made it worse and it was also affecting my ability to get pregnant again (see wonky periods in the list above).

After several years (!) and several doctors I was finally diagnosed with Hashimoto’s disease and got my prescription ironed out. Not surprisingly I felt better than I had in a long while. And, with all my systems a go, I was able to get pregnant. This time around I was more informed. I told my new OB/GYN right away about my condition and we managed it extremely well throughout my pregnancy.

And this time I was more careful with the “and beyond.” I was diligent about taking my daily dose of Synthroid and I felt fine. At my six week exam, though, my thyroid levels had actually dropped too low, so low that I now had borderline hyperthyroidism which is a separate condition with symptoms opposite of hypothyroidism. They lowered my dose of Synthroid and sent me out into the world.

All was well. Until it wasn’t.

My hormones must have still been in postnatal shock because a few months later I started to have all the same symptoms: feeling extremely tired (somewhat difficult to diagnose with a newborn keeping me awake but Bean was actually a pretty good sleeper), feeling overwhelming waves of sadness (I wrote a sad little blog post around this time. You can read it here if you want a good helping of mopiness and a dash of angsty determination.), and my old friend weight gain (I was training for a 10k and eating well but I gained five pounds seemingly overnight).

I went to my doctor and sure enough my levels were the highest, a.k.a. the worst, they had ever been. Up went my dose again and things have slowly evened out until now, nine months after Bean’s birth, I am finally back to my prenatal thyroid levels.

I feel strange saying I have an autoimmune disease. It doesn’t go with my self-image as a strong and capable woman. And I hate having my well-being in many ways tied to a pill. I’ve considered stockpiling it in the event of a zombie apocalypse as cardio is going to be important and I don’t want my hypothyroidism to slow me down or make me so weepy about the end of the world that I can’t hightail it to the nearest underground bunker.

And eventually, as my doctor likes to remind me in an overly nonchalant manner, my thyroid will fail completely and then my life will truly depend on a tiny little pill.

My doc thinks it’s no big deal. Fourteen million people in the USA alone have Hashimoto’s and there are even more with other thyroid disorders. Most of those people are women, by the way. But just because it’s common doesn’t make me feel much better about it.

One pill, every morning, for the rest of my life. It’s no hardship and it could be much worse, but it’s a daily reminder of the fragility of the human body.

I’m slowly coming to terms with it though, because in reminding me of my body’s weakness it also reminds me of its great strength. No body is perfect. Luckily, a perfect body isn’t required to enjoy life, to live it fully, to walk, run, dance, sing, laugh, cry, hug, pause, and repeat.

So I’ll keep swallowing my daily dose, thankful for each new morning that comes my way.

PS: If you have any of the symptoms I’ve described or if you are planning to become pregnant I urge you to get your thyroid levels tested. It’s a simple blood test that any doctor can order. When it comes to something as important as your thyroid, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

 

Image credit: Beatrice the Biologist

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Sitting with Sadness. Lessons from Inside Out.

On Thanksgiving Eve the Hubs and I sat down and watched Inside Out for the first time, and while Up still wins for most sob-induing moments caused by a cute animated movie, Inside Out is a close second.  Somehow those master storytellers at Pixar manage to get me almost every time.

That particular combination of loving a fun movie while at the same time being deeply affected by its poignant parts is actually an apt description of Inside Out’s message.

Riley, a girl on the verge of her teenage years, is uprooted from her childhood home in Minnesota and transplanted into the eclectic urban jungle of San Francisco. Her dad is stressed over his new job, her mom is stressed about tracking down the moving van carrying the family’s worldly possessions, and Riley is struggling with adjusting to a new place. The family’s big move happens to coincide with, and helps bring on, a major shift in Riley’s personality and way of thinking. The audience is given a front row seat to this monumental change when we’re transported inside Riley’s mind to meet her emotions: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust.

It becomes immediately apparent that Joy has been the one in charge of Riley’s experience of the world, ensuring that each memory she makes is filled with happiness. Brightly colored balls that correspond to the colors of the emotions roll down a chute each time Riley makes a memory and they’re almost all yellow, Joy’s color.  When Riley creates a happy memory it comes down the chute as a brightly colored yellow marble, and Joy works hard to ensure that most of Riley’s memories from her childhood are the sunny shade, especially the core memories, the ones that help shape who Riley is as a person.

But then Riley moves away from her childhood home (and, in a sense, her childhood as a whole) and a funny thing happens. Sadness starts coloring Riley’s experience of the world. Joy freaks out and, anxious to maintain control of Riley’s emotions, ends up accidentally getting sucked into long term memory along with Sadness. Now Joy has to find a way back to Headquarters before Riley’s personality is fundamentally changed for good.

That’s the basic set up of the story. Of course, as with any Pixar movie, there are many subtleties and clever plot elements that are impossible to do justice to in a short blog post, but none of the plot elements I’ve described sounds particularly tear-inducing. And on the surface it’s not a sad movie. Bun loves it, Joy is her favorite character, and she definitely doesn’t cry over it. But that’s because she’s approaching it from a child’s perspective, and as the movie points out, that’s a perspective dominated by Joy.

It’s a beautiful perspective, but untenable. As we get older, our black and white (or should I say yellow and blue) world of Joy versus Sadness, becomes tinged with nuance. Memories make us feel both happy because they happened and sad because they’re over, and that is in fact what happens to Riley’s memories at the end of the movie: they become lovely marbles of multicolored emotions, but not before Joy learns to work together with Sadness to make it back to Headquarters.

For most of the movie, Joy regards Sadness as a largely unnecessary nuisance. But there’s a turning point when Sadness comforts Riley’s old imaginary friend, Bing Bong, that she and Joy meet in long term memory. Joy tries to distract him from his pain and it does no good. That’s when we realize that there is a place for Sadness, a need for Sadness, actually. Without sadness, without knowing what it feels like to grieve, it’s impossible to feel empathy. And a world without empathy would be a scary, scary place. Bing Bong sits with Sadness and is comforted, and we realize that sometimes we sit with sadness and are comforted too.

But to reach that realization, Joy must take a backseat and there is great sadness in that as well. It’s that loss of innocence in any coming of age tale that plucks at our universal heartstrings. Growing up is, in a way, the process of letting go of joy so that our other emotions have room at the table, and indeed by the end of the movie Riley’s one seat command center, where only one emotion could be in control at a time, becomes a multi-seat console where all of her emotions are given equal weight.

All of this would be enough to make the movie a worthwhile view, but Riley’s interaction with her parents takes it into five star territory. They are used to seeing Riley as a fun-loving, goofball with Joy in command, and they ask that of her, expect that of her, even in the face of a monumental change. They are not bad parents. They’re actually really great, but Riley’s growing sense of sadness isn’t acknowledged, it’s denied, and it isn’t until they realize that they haven’t given her room to feel more, or be more than a child, that Riley comes to terms with what’s happening, inside and out.

So at this point I am of course crying happy-sad tears. I am sitting with my sadness, empathizing, and it feels good and bad and wonderfully human and it’s a reminder to me that all emotions are valid. My daughters experience a world filtered through joy, and that is something to be cherished. But it’s not everything.

As hard as the grown-up world is sometimes it’s a palette of many colors, some dark and some light, their contrast making our experience vivid, real. That’s a gift we cannot deny our children (or ourselves), the gift of experiences that will color their world and make them artists that paint with a sophisticated, and empathetic, brush.

 

Image credit: Empathy by Design

 

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100 Things That Fuel My Creativity

This has been a weird week. I’ve got a serious case of back-from-vacation blues and a minor case of food poisoning. There was a major windstorm with a power outage. A sick baby. A sensitive kid. And a few other things that shouldn’t have bothered me but really got under my skin. So when it came time to sit down and write my weekly post I had nothing. Zero. Nothing was inspiring me to put my fingers on the keys and the words on the screen. So I decided to make a list of things that fuel my creativity as a way of snapping out of my funk and reminding myself of things I can do, experience, or remember that get my imagination fired up. Results below.

My Creativity Triggers (in no particular order, not comprehensive)

  1. Reading things that smart people wrote
  2. Project Runway
  3. InStyle magazine
  4. The music of Glass Animals
  5. The music of Sia
  6. The music of Lo Fang
  7. The music of Rupa and the April Fishes
  8. The music of Lana del Rey
  9. Beyoncé’s Haunted music video
  10. Dia de los Muertos
  11. Traveling
  12. My daughter’s classroom
  13. My Twitter feed
  14. My multi-talented friends
  15. Exercise
  16. Running
  17. Singing
  18. Goth culture
  19. My box of colored pencils
  20. Symbolist art
  21. The Frye art museum
  22. People watching
  23. New York City
  24. Paris
  25. The Scottish Highlands
  26. Dancing
  27. A clean house
  28. A quiet house
  29. Third Place Books
  30. A long bath
  31. Woody Allen movies
  32. Danny Boyle movies
  33. Halloween
  34. Disneyland
  35. Pixar movies
  36. The Solstice Parade
  37. Neil Gaiman everything
  38. Amanda Palmer Facebook posts
  39. Thick forests
  40. The open road
  41. Grains of sand
  42. The stars
  43. The night
  44. Rain
  45. Neil deGrasse Tyson speaking
  46. Brené Brown books
  47. Sharpened pencils
  48. My favorite pens
  49. Farmers markets
  50. Grimm
  51. Boden catalogs
  52. Sacré Couer
  53. Pinterest
  54. Taking pictures
  55. French
  56. Spanish
  57. University campuses
  58. Art studios
  59. Office supplies
  60. Weddings
  61. Lakes
  62. Rugged coastline
  63. Sunsets
  64. Tigers in the wild
  65. Galloping horses
  66. Craft shows
  67. Land of Nod
  68. Libraries
  69. Coffee
  70. Coffee shops
  71. Candy stores
  72. Big ideas
  73. Rodin Museum
  74. Maryhill Museum
  75. Entrepreneurs
  76. Color
  77. The Devil Wears Prada
  78. Musicals
  79. Smash
  80. The song Broadway Here I Come
  81. So You Think You Can Dance
  82. Books about writing
  83. Niche online literary magazines
  84. Alexander McQueen
  85. The Met Ball
  86. The Met
  87. MoMA
  88. Journals
  89. Bookmarks
  90. The music of Fall Out Boy
  91. The music of Panic! At the Disco
  92. Harry Potter
  93. Beautifully illustrated children’s books
  94. Melancholy
  95. Nostalgia
  96. The old seminary at St. Edwards
  97. Lincoln Park
  98. Autumn
  99. Fairy tales
  100. Cabaret
  101. Austin Kleon
  102. Coloring

Okay, that’s actually 102 things, but who cares? I feel better! The rusty cogs of my imagination are starting to turn again.

What makes you feel creative? I’d love to know.

 

Image credit: mckinney75402 via CC

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A Writer in Paradise

These are the first words I’ve written in days. There is something called NaNoWriMo happening right now. I think I’m supposed to be writing a novel or outlining one at least. I have a list of publications to check out and query for my freelance business. I haven’t looked into a single one.

I was feeling a little guilty about slacking. Then I remembered writing’s my job. And I’m on freaking vacation. It’s okay to take a break.

I think a lot people still have this romantic notion of writing. That putting words down is akin to communing with the muses in some kind of mystical séance. Great ideas present themselves out of the ether and the writer uses her finely tuned creative sensibilities to forge the perfect combination of words to express those ideas in such a way that is not only crystal clear but poetic and beautiful.

I really wish that were the case. But for me, writing is work.

I like the way George R.R. Martin of Game of Thrones fame boils it down:

I don’t like to write, but I like having written. 

This is not always true, of course. Some days the writing just flows, effortless and easy. There’s no struggle. It’s like I’m a stenographer to that muse I mentioned, just taking down her testimony. Those days I like to write. But there are other days, the majority I would say, where the muse peaces out to go inspire some other lucky dope with a laptop and I’m left slogging through the mire. Those days putting together a coherent paragraph, let alone a beautiful one, is torture.

The process is not always pretty, that’s for sure. But the product. The product is something I love. That’s what keeps me going on those difficult days: the thrill of a finished story, the shine of a polished article. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished. I’m proud of the work.

But I’m on vacation, the first one in a while, and I’m taking a break from the work.

Um, no, I hear you say. Real writers write, come hell or high water, every damn day.

I don’t. I know you’re supposed to. All the great writers say you need to write and write often. Writing is a muscle. If you don’t use your words they’ll atrophy and the part of your brain responsible for your literary creativity might as well be amputated. Avoid this fate worse than death, the great ones say, by writing every day for at least a few hours. It’s kind of like a writerly commandment sealed with the blood, sweat, and tears of any author worth their salt throughout the centuries.

Well, I needed a break, okay? And I took it, and it’s been fantastic. I mean, you saw the view right? How am I supposed to write about demons and darkness when I’m looking at that sparkling ocean all day? The truth is I can’t and I haven’t. I’ve been having a fabulous time with my family in the sun and sand from the plumeria-scented morning till the painted-sky sunset. There will be time for lifestyle articles and nightmare creatures when we’re back in drizzly, cold Seattle.

For now, I’m playing, if only for one more day. I’m playing and I’m reading.

Oh, yeah. Did I forget to mention that? I’m doing the other thing that all great writers implore the wannabes like me to do. Read. It’s the other commandment, carved just as deeply into that sacred stone. Write a lot. Read a lot.

So maybe I’m not totally slacking after all. Or maybe I am. Either way I’m cool with it.

*Closes laptop. Sips mai tai. Takes a dip. Relaxes in beach chair. Flips to the right page. Starts the next chapter.*

 

Image credit: Have Children Will Travel

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Some Excuses for Not Writing

As promised, this week’s blog post is brief. The end of week one of NaNoWriMo is drawing near and I am behind schedule. I had hoped to write at least a little every day, but that hasn’t happened for a number of reasons. The primary one is that after putting the first 800 or so words down on paper, I realized that I was about to make the same mistake I made with On the Verge: writing without a plan.

I won’t even say I need a detailed outline or (shudder) character studies. I just really need to have a rough trajectory down on paper before I commit to anymore words. I was reading On Writing by Stephen King last week and he said his stories, with very few exceptions, are never outlined. He just starts with a situation and writes his characters out of it. Perfect, I thought. If Stephen does it, I can too. But there are some notable differences between him and me, not the least of which is that he is a genius of pop fiction.

And I am not. And that’s okay.

I think I’m a decent writer. A decent writer working all the time on getting better. One of those ways that I’m getting better is by beginning with a plan.

So I gave myself a stern reprimand and started planning. It’s been surprisingly hard. Last time, I just kind of set the words down on the page and did the hard work of actually crafting a story out of them later. This caused me to rip great clumps of hair out of my head and gain at least 5 pounds through stress eating. The reason I’m having a difficult time now is that I’m doing all that hard work upfront.

It’s also been slow going because I haven’t been as successful lately at keeping life at bay.

I have all these things I need to do. It’s gotten to the point where my days have become a check list, and there is no surer way to sap your creativity than to fill your life with tasks. There has to be room for experiences, room for quiet, room for just doing what feels good at the moment without feeling guilty about not accomplishing something. But however menial the tasks on my list may be, they’re important and they need to get done.

So I’ve been carving out time in even tinier bits and pieces than usual, and slowly, slowly, I’m making progress on my plan for On the Verge’s sequel. I’m exercising patience. It’s not a virtue I possess in abundance, but I’m recognizing its merits more and more. Sometimes jumping in head first is a good idea, and other times it’s foolhardy. But believe me, as soon as I feel ready I’m putting fingers to keys and getting the story down.

Will I make it to 50,000 words by November 30? Probably not. But I truly believe my writing will be better for the wait.

So excuse me, I have a novel to plan.

 

Image credit: Wise, Ink Blog

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Another November, Another Novel

Each year a growing number of writerly weirdos decides to attempt 50,000 words in 30 days. That’s about 1,666 words a day. In 2013, the last time I did NaNoWriMo, I completed just under half that amount (24,014 words) and felt pretty darn good about it. Little did I know at the time that the vast majority of those hard won words would be cut from the final version of On the Verge. I was blissfully unaware of how much those first pages sucked, but they did serve an important function: they got me writing.

I’ve mentioned several times on this blog now how I owe the existence of my novel to (among other things, like a supportive family) NaNo. This time two years ago I saw a poster for the event at Third Place Books, my fav indie bookstore, and thought “why not, nothing to lose.” On November 1st, 2013, I started writing longhand in the chair at the salon while my hair processed. It was fun. So I decided to do it the next day, and the next. By the end of the month I was pretty excited. I was actually writing a freaking novel, something I’d always wanted to do, and I had a not-insignificant amount of words under my belt come November 30th.

In the following months (and years) I got much more serious about the story, and when I published On the Verge this past September it was the culmination of a ton of really hard work. But at the core of it, the writing came down to one simple thing: showing up every day and getting words down. After all, as some smart person said (either Nora Roberts or Jodi Picoult, according to Google), you can’t edit a blank page, and NaNo was the beginning of that realization. Show up, sit down, write, repeat.

That’s what I plan to do starting this Sunday.

I’m using this post to formally commit to participating in National Novel Writing Month.

And what, you may ask, will I be writing? Well, after a bit of deliberation I’ve decided to start the follow up to On the Verge! The story and characters are still calling my name. They have more to say it seems, and I am ready to put it down in writing for them.

Freya will still be the heroine of the sequel but the story will focus on her interactions with Dakryma as he tries to rid of himself of his magical servitude to Baba Yaga. I’ll also be introducing another creature of the Verge that will play a major role in the story. No give aways yet but she’s female and her intentions are unclear, and she may or may not have her eye on Rusty. Oh, and a mermaid and a sasquatch might make an appearance.

I’m super excited to get started. Dakryma and Baba Yaga are among my favorite characters and this time I’m beginning with an rough idea of where I want the story to go (unlike last time when I flew by the seat of my pants and hoped for the best). I’m also more aware of my strengths and weaknesses as a writer. One thing that has come up time and again from early reviews of On the Verge is the amount of description and the big words I use. Some people love the description. Others think it bogs down the story. The response seems to be about 50/50, and as Stephen King says in his book On Writing, in regards to critiques a tie goes to the writer. So I’ll still have my descriptions, but I’ll try toning it down a bit. And I’ll definitely put the kibosh on the big words. Wait is kibosh a big word? Okay, maybe not all the big words. Sometimes it’s okay to crack open a dictionary if you don’t know what a word means. Just sayin’.

And while I’m super excited, I’m also a little nervous. There’s always that fear at the beginning of any new project, but especially a creative one, where you have that sense of foreboding: will I be able to do it again? What if it isn’t as good as the last time? The simple answer is there are no guarantees. Just a belief in your abilities, faith in your creativity, and a steady supply of bribes for the muse in the form of coffee and chocolate.

PS: My November blog posts will be brief missives from the writing battlefield. I’ll have to focus most of my time on the new WIP (work-in-progress). Wish me luck!

 

Image credit: NaNoWriMo

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Cheers to Nine Years: Celebrating with a Story

On October 21st the Hubs and I celebrated our ninth wedding anniversary. The date happened to fall on a Wednesday this year so we spent the evening working out at our normal Bassline class. It was actually a fitting way to honor our relationship. We’re both trying to get and keep in shape so we were there together, pushing each other through a difficult workout, respecting our goals.

Respect is integral to us as a couple. Most of you know that the Hubs and I met in high school and started dating each other at the tender age of 18. We basically became adults together, and we’ve matured a lot over the last 15 years. One thing that has become abundantly clear about our relationship in that time is the need for respect in every sense of the word: appreciation, recognition, dignity, and esteem. Add in love and laughter and you’ve got the bedrock of our marriage.

To celebrate that strong foundation and the respect the Hubs has for my writerly dreams, here is a story (based on a true story, by the way) about us and Paris. I wrote it a few years ago and then tucked it away, but it seems like a good thing to return to now. We visited the City of Light on our honeymoon so it holds a special place in our hearts and memories, but this particular tale happened a few years later when we traveled to Paris a second time.

Marrying Paris

I pressed my cheek against Igor’s as his finger clicked the button. Nearly a decade ago now, it was one of our first selfies. We were capturing a moment in Paris. Our newly minted marriage seemed at home here in this enchanted Belle Epoque metropolis. A million loves had blossomed here before us and a million more were still to come. It was just the two of us in that photo on the long green of the Champ de Mars but there were three spirits filling the lens: a young couple, faces shining with hope and expectations, and the City of Light itself represented by that spectacular tower that Eiffel built.

As I study the photo now, I can’t help but smile. I remember the warm light of the early autumn sun, the crisp brightness of the air. The atmosphere of that Paris snapshot is the same one that permeates our wedding album. Yellow leaves twisting in the breeze, golden light on white silk. It was that secret fall magic that I wanted for our wedding day: a special time to speak hollowed words, clasp hands, exchange rings.

I knew the harvest season was the right time for us to come to that romantic city on the Seine too. Everyone clamors about Paris in the springtime, but Paris in the fall is when the bewitching truly happens. The city beckons any time of the year, enticing you with promises and mysteries, but this vitality matures as the sumptuous languor of summer recedes and wise autumn arrives to the wide boulevards. October in Paris is careworn and creased perhaps, but also lively, sly and just a little dangerous.

This was the rarefied atmosphere that surrounded us on our way to the Tower. With our bellies full of fresh croissants and rich café au lait from a spot on the Rue Cler, we meandered our way, arm-in-arm, along the cobblestone streets. Our destination was the Eiffel Tower, but we were in no hurry as we dodged elegant matrons and beautiful ingénues, prissy poodles and their stately owners. It was a scene straight out of A Moveable Feast and my eyes and heart drank it in.

Igor pulled me a little tighter when the Tower came into view. The iron latticework and soaring height made the spire appear to defy the enormous weight of its materials. It shot upward from its terrestrial foundation, straining toward the heavens. I looked forward to our ascent up its curving lines to stand giddy at the top, the climax of Paris.

We quickened our pace along the straight gravel path of the Champ toward the tower, laughing and sighing at our great luck to be here together at the most perfect time of year in the most perfect place for young love.

Lost in this revelry neither one of us noticed the small, dark woman who approached from our right. Dressed in full skirts of burgundy and ochre she could easily have been a spirit of autumn. The brilliant red scarf she wore artfully over her black and silver hair enhanced this fleeting fancy. It wasn’t until you stopped to look at her that she became fully part of reality. A ring of mud caked the hem of her multicolored petticoats and years of exposure to the elements had written deep lines across the apples of her cheeks.

She locked eyes with me and I could see there that spark, the gleam of autumn in Paris, fascinating and mercurial. “You dropped this,” she said in heavily accented English. In her hand was a small, golden ring. I stared at it mesmerized until Igor reached out and grabbed it, slipping it on his pinky.

“Is it yours?” he asked.

The little gilt circle tinkled musically against the wide band of his wedding ring. Seeing it there was startling. I whisked it quickly from his finger and back into the coarse hands of the woman.

“Never seen it before,” I said.

The woman stood there for a moment, appraisingly. Her dark eyes flashed, whether with amusement or warning it was hard to tell. A brisk wind blew through the disappearing leaves on the trees.

Igor grabbed my hand and we continued along the path, both feeling a slight unease. When I glanced back the woman was gone.

It was an odd encounter, a chance meeting with one of the city’s many bohemians we supposed when we talked about it later in a picturesque café at the bottom of Montmartre. Shrugs were exchanged, and the conversation turned back to our plans for the rest of the trip. But the occasion felt significant somehow. In my mind it was a spontaneous ceremony presided over by quicksilver autumn and attended by a vernal couple and a venerable monument.

At home I tucked the photo Igor had taken of us into the back of our wedding album, and I return to it every once in awhile, drawn to it as if by some kind of charm. It’s an appropriate place for that particular picture, a memento of romance, magic and the City of Light.

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Book Update: One Month In

It’s been exactly one month since On the Verge went live on Amazon. Sales started off well (thanks, friends and family!), and then steadily tapered off, at which point I was cruising along at 1-2 sales per day. But I have recently hit a long dry spell. No sales for more than a week. Ouch.

This puts me in a melancholy mood for obvious reasons. Of course it would be amazing to see sales skyrocket or if not skyrocket than at least truck along at a decent clip. Hell, I’d go for lazy meandering at this point. Alas, even traditionally published books have trouble finding an audience. And, as is abundantly clear, and what every nay-sayer loves to reiterate, the trouble of finding engaged readers is compounded for indie authors. And when I say compounded, I actually mean multiplied by 1503300098888565: the number of self-published books released this year (give or take 450699908590602 or so).

How do you get your book noticed in this vast sea of stories? That’s one question. The other one, which I don’t like to think about as much, is: What should you do if your novel never manages to make a ripple?

The answer to the latter, at least for me, is to keep writing. It’s a pursuit I believe in. It brings me happiness, as trite as that may sound. Without paying readers, writing fiction becomes more like a hobby, but that’s okay. And there are things I’m doing in the meantime to drum up business.

Which brings me back to how do I get On the Verge noticed. Well, I’ve done a few things so far with my shoestring marketing budget financed by consignment sales of my kiddos old things. Here’s what I’ve done:

Advertised on Amazon: Display ads on detail pages. Total impressions in a month: 7,560. Total clicks: 28. CTR: .37% Estimated sales: 0.

Advertised on Goodreads: Display ads on genre and author targeted pages. Total impressions in a month: 46,404. Total clicks: 8. CTR: .02%. Estimated sales: 0. Estimated adds to To Read List: 1.

Bargain Booksy Promo: Included On the Verge in an email sent to readers interested in fantasy novels. Estimated sales: 2

Indie Author News Promo: Featured on site and tweets to followers. Ongoing. Estimated sales: 2-3.

Summary: Pretty slim pickings and definitely no return on my investment.

Upcoming:

Kindle Nation Daily Sponsorship (dedicated email blast, and book feature with excerpt)

Virtual Book Tour  (10-12 “stops” on book blogs that will feature On the Verge through reviews, book spotlights, guest posts and/or interviews)

These last two are the most promising, but I think to take full advantage of them I need to do one more thing:

Reduce the price of On the Verge.

It’s already a bargain, I feel, at $2.99. Unfortunately, that’s not how the vast majority of eBook readers feel. That price may work for a midlist author with a solid following, but not for an unknown like me. For a book like On the Verge those readers are expecting .99 or FREE. Is that crazy? A little bit. But I think that’s the only way my novel is going to find some traction.

So the plan is this: List On the Verge for .99 beginning 10/17 (a book has to be listed at the same price for 30 days before it can go on promotion if you are enrolled in the KDP Select program on Amazon, which I am). Then hope that the Kindle Nation Daily sponsorship and blog tour generate some interest. At this point, I’m not so much interested in turning a profit as I am getting people reading On the Verge and liking it enough to post positive reviews. Because reviews, at the end of the day, are the best way to sell books online.

Reviews and BookBub.

What is BookBub you say? It is, apparently, the great golden gorilla of book promotion tools with tales of authors featured in their daily promotional emails going from zero to hero overnight. But there’s a catch. Not only is BookBub super pricey it is also super choosy. You can’t just buy your way in. Your book needs to have reviews, good ones and lots of them, to be considered. From what I can see, 40 4-5 star reviews seems to be a minimum. If you get on BookBub your book has to be on discount and it can’t have been listed for a lower price within the last 90 days. My grand plan is to amass good reviews (hopefully), submit On the Verge for a Featured Deal, get accepted, and then list it for FREE.

According to the stats they have on their page, On the Verge as a BookBub featured deal would go out to 1.5 million readers who have opted into their fantasy genre email. On average, fantasy novels listed for free on BookBub get 21,700 downloads. Even if only a fraction of those go on to post a review that’s still a lot of exposure.

Step Two in my Grand Plan, which will occur with or without BookBub, is to write a second book for the series, sooner rather than later, and keep On the Verge with its respectable amount of positive reviews (again, hopefully) perma-free as a way of enticing readers to the series. Then I can maybe think of offering the new one for $2.99, okay maybe $1.99, with occasional promotions to .99.

Of course deciding when to delve into the writing of a second book is a whole other kettle of fish-eating goblins. National Novel Writing Month begins November 1st and I originally thought that would be a fun way to kick off my second book. It’s the way On the Verge began two years ago and participating in NaNoWriMo is fun. What’s not to like about a big group of like-minded nerds coming together virtually to do something they love?

BUT, I have some things on my to-do list that would have to go by the wayside to make NaNoWriMo happen including important stuff like studying up on my craft and spending time with my family without the specter of unwritten words looming over me (NaNoWriMo participants are encouraged to write 50,000 words during November. That’s about 1,666 words a day). Plus, I’ll be on vacation for a chunk of the month which makes setting aside time to write regularly a challenge. Oh, and did I mention that I’m also trying to grow my freelance writing business. You know, the kind of writing I actually get paid for?

All that being said, I’m afraid if I don’t get started soon I’ll lose my hard-won novel-writing momentum, and getting back to my earlier point, I kinda just love to write and I would do it for free. So I think the answer is this: keep writing, no expectations just fun, do NaNo but don’t kill myself over the word count goals, and keep plugging away at my marketing plan.

As a final note to this long post I am reading Austin Kleon’s second book Show Your Work: 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered. I find his advice incredibly inspiring and he always includes these great quotes. One of them was from Honoré de Balzac a French novelist who worked during the first half of the 19th century. He said:

For artists, the great problem to solve is how to get oneself noticed.”

This is from a writer working almost 200 years ago! So finding readers and getting exposure is not just a modern day problem, it’s a perennial problem and it comes with the creative territory. No one said this writing thing would be easy. But it’s one glorious bumpy ride.

 

Image credit: Peanuts via Writing Memes Tumblr

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Last Minute Flash Fiction

I’ve been feeling under the weather all week. Being sick always makes me extra cranky because I hate slowing down. I’ve got things to do and stories to write. But occasionally life forces you to take a break. So I’d been taking it easy. That’s how I found myself on the couch Thursday night tired and ready for bed when I realized I hadn’t written my blog post. Damn. So I gave myself an hour, a limit of 325 words, and randomly selected a word from the list that friends contributed to on Facebook a few weeks ago to use as inspiration. That word: cheese (thanks, Gloria). This is the result.

Dinner Date

Johann was hungry.

He looked at the pristine porcelain of his plate then at the dining table heaped with fine food. It was all arranged so elegantly; he didn’t know how to begin.

The man at the head of the table cleared his throat and swept an invisible crumb from his immaculate sleeve.

“You must be starving,” he said. “This is just for us, so take all that you like.”

The candles flickered in the heavy air, and the shadows of the uneven light made the food all the more unfamiliar.

“What about this?” said the man, his fine fingers indicating a dish that glistened in the dark.

“Sülze,” Johann said, relieved to finally recognize a country dish in this strange city.

“Around here we call it head cheese.”

Johann barely heard him as he tore into the aspic and pig’s flesh.

“This happens to be a new recipe.”

Johann was usually a careful observer, but he was so hungry. He didn’t notice the longing that played at the edges of the man’s red mouth.

“Perhaps after we’re done I’ll take you to the kitchen. Show you how it’s made.”

Johann nodded, unsure of what he was agreeing to. He was having a hard time concentrating on anything but the sülze. He closed his eyes to better appreciate the way the jelly melted in his mouth amid the salty bits of fat and brawn.

When he opened them, the man was staring at him.

Johann thought he had seen that look before in the eyes of the wolves that stalked his family’s cattle, but it disappeared from the man’s face before he could be certain.

This place was not like home, thought Johann. He’d have to keep his wits about him if he was going to make it back in one piece.

Then he tucked into his food once again as the man watched and the candles danced in the dark.

 

Image credit: Reddit

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The Dark, Dreams, and The BFG

Several weeks ago I wrote about The Phantom Tollbooth (you can read that here), and how Norton Juster’s kid lit masterpiece sparked a lifelong love of books and fantasy. Well, I was feeling nostalgic again, and this time as my finger bumped across the well-worn spines of my childhood favs, it came to a stop on The BFG by the wondrous Roald Dahl of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory fame.

Roald Dahl was a novelist hero of mine as a girl. His stories were fantastic and charming, but also a bit raw and raunchy, just enough so I felt a little naughty reading them and a little sophisticated too, as though Mr. Dahl appreciated kids’ savvy enough to give them a taste of the off-limits stuff of adulthood.

The BFG is book about a giant (a big, friendly one) and a little orphan girl named Sophie. On the surface it’s quite a silly story, but as with most of Mr. Dahl’s work there is more to it than just a madcap adventure. It’s a story about unlikely friendships, dreams, and trust, bravery, the triumph of the underdog, and a good dose of justice.

All of these things along with the way the BFG speaks, with made up words and mixed up phrases, appealed to me as a girl.

Strangely enough however, those weren’t what I remembered best from The BFG. The thing I recall most vividly from this long ago childhood treasure is that it was the first time I learned about the witching hour. The book’s first chapter is actually titled The Witching Hour, and Mr. Dahl describes is thus:

The witching hour…was a special moment in the middle of the night when every child and every grown-up was in a deep, deep sleep, and all the dark things came out from hiding and had the world to themselves.

Just that sentence, that idea of the witching hour, seemed to describe so well the experience I had as a child of being awake in a silent house, when it seemed like all the rest of the world was faraway and fast asleep, and wondering what was waiting in the shadows.

For Sophie it turns out to be the BFG and he is obviously nothing to be frightened of, but Mr. Dahl’s hint was all I needed to confirm that my deep-seated suspicion of the dark was well-founded. Here an adult was being honest with me. The night was unknowable. Dark things lived there. And they weren’t all as friendly as the BFG.

Indeed the whole book is about the girl Sophie and her new friend figuring out how to stop a horde of evil giants that lurk about in the dark and snatch children (and adults, too) from their beds in the middle of the night and eat them whole. Turns out they require the queen of England’s help which they procure through crafting a wildly vivid dream that spurs her to their aid.

Beyond lurking innocently in the shadows, the BFG is a dreamsmith you might say, capturing them wild, bottling them and then combining them as needed. All the while, he retains a sense of respect for the mercurial nature of dreams.

“Dreams is full of mystery and magic,” the BFG said. “Do not try to understand them.”

This is good advice and, along with a healthy respect for the dark, hits on another aspect of the book that I carried with me through childhood: the power of dreams, both the subconscious and conscious variety.

The dreams we have in the middle of the night might be the brain’s way of making our hidden thoughts and fears manifest. They might just be random imagery strung together like a scattered memory slideshow. Or maybe a big friendly giant really does gather them for us in Dream Country and blow them in through our windows at night.

Whatever their origin, the dreams playing out in our heads as we sleep are not so different from the one’s that we pursue during the day. The former is the stuff of shadows, the latter are our passions followed, but both have magic in them.

Thank you, Mr. Dahl, for reminding me of that.

 

Image credit: Comingsoon.net

Incidentally, while I was searching for an image for this post I happened to discover that Steven Spielberg is directing a movie version of The BFG due out in July of 2016.

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Micro Flash Fiction: Storm

It’s been a week since my novel debuted on Amazon, and I’ve spent the last seven days hustling, doing my best to get the word out about On the Verge. Many, many thanks to my friends and family who have read, shared, and reviewed my scrappy little novel already. I hope more of you will read it, and let me know what you think (you can check it out here). It really is a dream come true to see a book I wrote up on Amazon. I hope that with a little luck On the Verge will find some traction, and I can justify writing another one. I’d love to do a sequel.

In the meantime I’ve been in the mood to do a little flash fiction. I asked for words on Facebook that I could use as inspiration and Jayme Yahr’s suggestion, storm, was the winner. So what follows is a little micro flash fiction to the tune of 150 words (okay, 153 but who’s counting?). Consider it an amuse-bouche to On the Verge’s main course.

Stranger

“Looks like rain,” he said.

I stared up into the perfect blue sky. A bird flew low, disappearing behind the old motel across the street. A curtain fluttered in one of its windows. Above the cracked plate glass of the lobby door a sign reading ‘Vacancy’ swung, but there was no breeze.

I pushed myself into the corner of the bus stop shelter, flakes of peeling paint getting caught in my hair. I kept my eyes down only glancing up occasionally to check the horizon for the #39.

“Definitely a storm comin’.”

Crazy, I thought.

The sun slipped behind the motel’s ugly facade. The bus should be here by now.

“There’s always a moment before the first drop.” He paused, and I met his eye. “‘Round here they say that’s when the devil walks.”

Lights cut through the twilight. The 39. Finally.

As he wandered away, the rain fell, painting the sidewalk black.

 

Image credit: sf.co.ua

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Welcome to the World Book Baby

It’s been a long road. Almost two years have passed since I began On the Verge, and yesterday it became available on Amazon for the first time. And just like my two human babies, the book came early. I expected to release it on the 22nd, but the amazing team over at Polgarus Studios that did the digital formatting delivered the files early and I just couldn’t wait.

Truthfully I thought the day would be more momentous, but On the Verge’s release happened much like the rest of it, in bits and pieces of stolen time. I corrected an issue with the book’s info while I packed Bun’s lunch. I made the announcement on Facebook that it was on Amazon while I took a break from shopping for a birthday present at the mall. I tweeted about it while Bean took a nap, and I had minor panic attacks about it  just about anytime I slowed down to think about what it means to have this work that is so near and dear to my heart out there and being read.

What made those moments of terror easier to swallow was all the support I received from friends and family, many of whom have already started reading it (and one who has already finished it, thanks, Julie!). Reading a book is a commitment. It takes time. So I am truly, deeply thankful for each person who spends those hours with my story.

Writing On the Verge was a gift. Next to getting married and having the girls, it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. I am not someone that fits naturally and easily into the world. I often struggle with confidence. The 9-5 life was torture. 2011 and 2012 were particularly rough years. Several things happened that took my self-concept and smashed it to smithereens. Writing helped me slowly build it back up again. All those words have filled in the cracks and knit together the wounds made by chronic doubt.

In fact I am stronger than before. I know what I can do. I’ve found the grit and determination that I somehow lost along the way. After many years of feeling adrift, I am myself again.

With the birth of On the Verge I feel like I should rest, like I should bask in the glow of a laptop screen showing my book’s cover with my name on it on Amazon. But writing is a calling. And its siren song is strong. I can’t stay away for long. There’s a new story there in my bones.

And I will write it.

On the Verge is currently available on Amazon.

 

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To My Daughter on Her First Day of School

Dear Bun,

Four short years ago you were cozily lodged against my ribs. You would kick like mad, long pushes and short jabs, and I think I knew then that you would be a spark, a bright flame dancing through life. I should have known how fast you would dance, how quickly the years would go.

“Does she ever put her head down on your shoulder and just rest?” the doctor asked me once when you were a baby.

“No, never,” I said.

A look of mild concern flashed across her face, but I wasn’t worried. I knew you were too busy seeing the world, too busy even to sleep at night for more than a couple hours at a time.

You have always been a keen observer, a quick wit, rambunctious, insatiable. Your hungry eyes eat up the world. Your growing mind digests it. More you say.

More reading, more running, more laughing, more joking, more stomping, and gliding and leaping and dancing and singing.

More.

I can’t keep up.

You are not like me.

I am careful, deliberate, steady. Always have been. Always will be, I fear. You race along, three paces ahead. I tell you to slow down, take your time, have patience. These are important things, to be sure. They will come with time, I think. But for now you sprint through your days, and your restless nights. Quicksilver.

It’s your first day of school.

I look into your eyes, your blue-violet eyes, as you squeeze my legs. I watch as your little blonde head navigates the classroom. So strange, that hair, those eyes. The sun, the sky. So unlike my sensible brown. Some fluke of genetics. But they suit you. Light and lively.

This is a good place for you. This is a place that sees your energy, your enthusiasm, your verve, and is pleased. They will not tame it.

Never tame it. Promise me. It’s too important.

There will be people who try. They will see your spark and try to snuff it out. Don’t let them. There will be people who tell you to sit down and shut up. Don’t listen. There will be people who try to steal your joy. Hold onto it tight.

But here you are safe. It’s a good place filled with art, music, language, numbers. There is even a great wood to run through with tall trees and soft earth. Just remember to slow down every once in awhile. I know you don’t want to, but you’re so talented. Sometimes it’s okay to take your time and let your talent shine.

This is a lot to remember for a young one, but there is just one more thing, and it’s the most important.

Be kind.

Your words and actions matter.

In school you will be tested. There are tests for facts and knowledge of course, and you’ll take plenty of those. But you will be tested as a person too. Generosity, empathy, courageousness. These are big words but they are the result of small, thoughtful actions, repeated over and over. Kindness is a habit. Practice it.

You are still little, but everyday you need me less. This makes me happy and incredibly sad at the same time. I can barely lift you now. I will carry you until my arms give out, but you spend most of your time on your own two feet. Independent, confident.

Today you’ve already forgotten about me as you flit from one corner of the classroom to the other with your lilting, tiptoe walk.

I don’t cry. This is where you need to be.

Love, forever,

Mama

 

Image credit: SF Gate Blog

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Cover Story: Creating On the Verge’s Kick-Ass Cover

I am so in love with On the Verge’s cover. Every time I look at it I’m filled with warm fuzzies. The credit goes to my absolutely amazing designer Daniel Cullen. Daniel has been designing covers for 20 years and it shows. He’s been running his current studio, Page & Jacket, since 2003, and has an incredible portfolio of work. I was immediately taken by his aesthetic and knew it would be a great fit for the theme and tone of On the Verge. On top of that he’s a really cool guy and super easy to work with!

All it took to get him started was a 45 minute phone conversation and a couple of emails back and forth with the elements of the story that I wanted him to consider as he designed. Here are the major bullet points I gave him.

  1. The book takes place in Seattle and the city is almost like a character in the story. It’s in the fall so everything is damp, dreary and atmospheric.
  2.  There is a painting by Franz von Stuck titled Sin that is at the core of the story. I know that securing the rights to use that image on the cover might be tricky/expensive, but using it as inspiration might be a good alternative.
  3. While the setting is dark and dreary the story is actually about a color hunt: cobalt blue, carmine red and gamboge yellow. The main characters must source these colors from a host of fairytale creatures including goblins, Baba Yaga and  a Cambodian spirit of the dead called an ahp.
  4. The story is dark and intense. Definitely not YA.
  5. It absolutely has to look good as a thumbnail since that’s how most people will see it for the first time as they are searching for something new to read on Amazon.

About a month after our initial conversation I opened my email and near-fainted at the beauty of the cover options he sent me (not really an exaggeration). I’ve included all the runners-up below with a little explanation of why I didn’t choose them.

On the Verge_3a

On the Verge_3b

This set, one with a black and white city and one with Seattle in color, is probably my least favorite of all the options. It’s striking but doesn’t really hint at the story in any tangible sense. And the way the colors are presented reminded me of marbled paper which isn’t really the vibe I was going for.

On the Verge_5b

On the Verge_5a

This set was Daniel’s favorite, particularly the one without the city. He felt it was hypnotic and mystical, and I agree. But again, I really wanted the cover to be a frame of reference, a shorthand, for the story itself, and I didn’t think these quite did that although they make amazing thumbnails!

On the Verge_2b

On the Verge_2a

These two, but especially the one with black font and a black and white Seattle, were close contenders. I really liked the way the colors seem to be threatening the city while also being intriguing and beautiful. And the first one has that cool contrast between the dark font/city and the vibrant swirl of sky. But then I saw this next one…

On the Verge_4a

This was almost my cover. I love the simplicity. It’s clean and modern, but mysterious. And again there is this that fabulous tension between the blackest black of the background and that floating column of color. Visually I was smitten, but I kept coming back to the story, and I just couldn’t see it reflected here. So then there was…

On the Verge_1b

On the Verge_1a

These two had it all! The colors are distinct but intertwined, they are vibrant but threatening, and they hover over the city in smoky columns in a way very similar to how I describe the Verge when it appears in the story. Overall there was that dark and brooding quality, but not too much so. They looked great as thumbnails and blown-up large. Winner, winner, chicken dinner!

I thought the black and white city in first one was a bit too dark so we went with the color option, but I asked him to make Seattle a bit bigger, tweak the yellow, and fix the way the colors curled over the letters. Et voilà…

On-the-Verge_WEB

The final cover for On the Verge. I seriously couldn’t be happier. It was an absolute blast having so much say in the cover of my story. Traditionally published authors often have very little input in the design, and so for a control freak like me this has been one of the best parts of being an indie author and making my own rules.

The cover is one of the major ways books get sold. It is a crucial part of my marketing, and I wanted it to look super polished and professional (reference these self-published beauties for the opposite end of the spectrum).

As I mentioned in a previous post I can’t wait to start writing a new story for many reasons, and one of them definitely is getting to work with Daniel again on another amazing cover project.

Look him up at pageandjacket.com.

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About My Title: On the Verge

I’m in the midst of a last mad dash to clean up and polish everything I possibly can before I call it a day on this story. The book is *this close* to being ready for the digital producers to have their way with it and make it all pretty for your eReaders. In anticipation of that day when it finally goes live, I thought I would do a few posts on the book itself starting with the title.

Why On the Verge?

It helps to know a bit about the story. In case you haven’t made it over to the Novel tab on this site here’s what you might find on the back of my book if it were on the shelf at your local bookstore:

Freya is just a student at the University of Washington worried about grades and making her next tuition payment until a gorgeous succubus interrupts her post-exam latte with a proposition: come work for her boss, Seattle’s reclusive heiress and antiquities collector Imogen Beldame. Eagerly agreeing despite a nagging feeling in the pit of her stomach, Freya finds herself swept up in a deadly quest at the behest of her psychopathic new employer. Beldame has given her until Halloween to collect three magical pigments that hold the key to crafting mesmerizing portraits that can access the Verge, an undiscovered borderland on the edge of human reality, and the powerful beings that call it home.

Freya’s reluctant journey takes her to a goblin stronghold in the Cascades for the color blue, to the Seattle Underground to request the color red from Baba Yaga, and to the Fremont home of a beautifully gruesome Cambodian ahp, or spirit of the night, for the color yellow. Working together with Rusty, an enigmatically disfigured man intimately connected with the Verge, and a motley crew of mercurial demons and loyal friends, Freya must come up with a plan to stop Beldame and preserve the fragile balance between fantasy and reality that is at its most vulnerable on Halloween.

So the Verge is pretty integral to my story. It’s a place where all the creatures of myths and legends dwell. The title pays tribute to this fantastical place while also hinting at the state of things in this world. If Freya doesn’t complete her color quest Seattle is on the verge of a major demon infestation orchestrated by a mad art collector.

It’s also a subtle nod to the art historical theme that underlies the book. Many old-fashioned texts from the period when the study of art’s history became a legitimate academic pursuit have titles that simply describe what the subject of the book is, like On Art and Life by the famous critic John Ruskin. The name of my book’s a bit of a play on the titles of those dusty tomes that throughly analyzed a subject. Ruskin wrote on Art. I’m writing on the Verge.

An important place in my story, a hint at the stakes, and a nod to the discipline that inspired the story.

That’s a hardworking title.

 

Image credit: Ideal Bookshelf, Painting by Jane Mount (send her a picture of your bookshelf and she will create a one-of-a-kind painting of your favorite books – how cool!)

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What Are Your Plot Holes?

I’m in the final stretch of editing my novel. I am very happy to be typing that sentence, but at the same time I am starting to feel a bit anxious. As I scurry around the manuscript tidying things up, here and there I will run into little bits and pieces of dialogue or exposition that have filtered through the major edits without getting changed or removed. Sometimes it’s just a word or phrase. These tiny details are easy to miss; I need to be constantly vigilant as I’m reading through.

Missed details, minor inconsistencies, suspect motivations. For some readers they can ruin the whole story. I’ve never been one of those readers (or movie watchers), and maybe that’s why this part of the process is particularly nerve-wracking. I don’t tend to overanalyze details. I like the big picture, the overall effect, lessons learned, metaphors employed, overarching themes. That’s my bread and butter.

But I know there are people that love details, and I know that details matter. It can’t all be big picture. In many ways the story takes place in the small things. Most of the time its a series of little actions, thoughts, knowing looks, that drive the plot forward. So I have spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about why the characters are doing what they’re doing, fixing plot holes, and basically attempting to make the story as plausible as possible given that many of my characters are demons and fairytale creatures.

All of this concentration on the inconsistencies plaguing my characters’ lives has put me in a philosophical mood. Fictional stories have these issues because they are not real life. They come from the imperfect imaginings of the author. But real life is full of these confounding elements too.

Concealed motives, strange coincidences, unanswered questions, unexplained actions. Plot holes in your life story.

Everyone has them because no one’s life is perfect. The question becomes how you address them, how you edit them, how you go back through your experience in order to tidy things up so that the story makes sense.

There’s some actual scientific research that confirms what people who write in journals on a regular basis have always known. Writing is a powerful tool for dealing with traumas large and small. Why? Because our understanding of what happens to us largely comes down to the stories we tell ourselves. Once we get those stories straight, we can continue on with the plot, satisfied that our personal narrative makes sense even if its individual events don’t always have happy endings.

I’m trying to do right by my characters and by extension my future readers by giving them a cohesive adventure. They can’t do it for themselves. But you can.

What are your plot holes? What parts of your life need a clearer reason, a second thought, a change in perspective, a truer story?

Write. Write it out. Show it to people. Or don’t.

But connect the dots. Weave together frayed ends. Stitch together your patchwork pieces. Mend those holes.

Make yourself whole.

 

Image credit: Jonathan Kos-Read via Flickr cc

 

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Like so many things in life, introversion and extroversion are not absolutes. They exist on a spectrum, a sliding scale. Most people fall more towards one side or the other, but can identify elements of themselves that are not necessarily associated with their dominant personality trait.

In my case, however, that sliding scale is pushed far over to the introvert side. Like, really far. I’m pretty much as close to a pure introvert as you can get. And, I’m cool with that. But the bad news is the world isn’t really structured around the strengths and needs of introverts. So I’ve tried to adapt the best I can. I can get by out among the extroverts and ambiverts (those falling in the middle of the scale) for a short time. But my true nature can’t be ignored forever.

This constant struggle to be a “normally” functioning human, i.e. extroverted, creates a strange tension in my life where I sometimes feel like I’m putting on an act. It can also lead to a lot of frustration and confusion with new and old acquaintances alike. Notice I said acquaintances. The people I call friends know these things about me, and carry on being my friend anyway. Thanks, friends!

But, anyway, for those of you who want an explanation for my annoying habits, I’ve put together this handy list.

I’m an introvert, y’all. Don’t hate.

1. You just want to sit at home all day. Some people say I’m a hermit. If a hermit means I like the safe confines of my carefully curated abode where everything is just how I like it, and I don’t have to explain myself to anyone, than yes, I am most definitely a hermit.

2. You never call. I don’t really like talking on the phone. Whenever possible I will write an email or text. Don’t take it personally. I just can’t stand phone conversations unless they serve a specific purpose. If I want to catch up I’ll do it in person where I can see your face and make a personal connection, but I’ll set that meeting up via Messenger, k?

3. You’re always the first to say it’s time to go. Contrary to popular belief I do go to social functions. I even enjoy them. But I have a limited amount of energy to expend on these gatherings. Large ones exhaust me faster than smaller ones. If I’m usually the first to say I have to go, it’s not because I’m not having a good time. It’s just that I know when I need a break to recharge.

4. Being in the same room together doesn’t mean we are hanging out. One of my favorite ways to spend time with someone is just to exist in an easy quiet, where no one is expecting conversation and people are engaged in things they love to do . For me, that is one of the best ways to be with others.

5. You’re never okay with spontaneous social gatherings. “We have a couple of hours to spare. Want to go over to so-and-so’s house?” Not really. “Someone’s in the neighborhood and wants to drop by.” But I don’t have my bra on, so no. I’m not trying to be mean, I just need prep time. It’s like game day; I need to get in the right frame of mind.

6. You never want to go shopping together. I enjoy shopping, but I like to go on my own, take my time, go to the stores I want to go to, and not feel any pressure to come out of the dressing room to show people what I’ve tried on. Nor do I want to comment on how good or bad those jeans make your ass look.

7. You never initiate get-togethers. This happens for two interrelated reasons. The first is that if I have to leave the comfort of home I want it to be worth it, and I’m afraid there will be too much pressure to interact and I won’t have fun. The second is that I am afraid you feel the same way and that a get-together with me wouldn’t be worth it to you. Introverts want to be liked too. We’re not total misanthropes.

8. You never want to play a pick up game of volleyball or join a rec team. Sorry, I believe in the benefits of being physically fit, but I’ll stick with individual sports, a nice run, or a long walk. All those people counting on me to not mess up or score a point? No, thanks! I’ll just watch. Or better yet, sit on the sidelines and stare at the clouds. Daydream believer right here.

9. You’re always trying to make the conversation deep and meaningful. “Can’t we just talk about the weather, celebrity gossip, who won Dancing with the Stars?” No. I want to know what makes you tick, what your greatest desires are, what you’re passionate about. I don’t like small talk. I like big ideas, deep feelings. Tell me about yourself. No, seriously, tell me everything.

10. You make it so hard to get to know the real you. I’ll admit I’m not the most open person, but if you’re persistent I will show you what a good friend I can be. If you promise to be patient and understanding, I promise to be kind, loyal, respectful, and even fun to be around sometimes. I know, wonders never cease.

 

Image credit: Fast Company

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I’m Feeling Good: Novel Coming Soon

It’s been over two months since I last posted an update about the novel. Exciting things are happening, and I feel the need to share.

First off, no, I never heard from that I agent I was all hopeful about (you can read more about that here). I’m still bummed about it. It feels a little like going on a few dates with someone. You think it’s going okay and then suddenly you never hear from them again. Ghosted. Was it something I said?

I’ll probably never know what happened, and in a way, that’s worse than getting a flat out rejection. Without a hard no there’s still that little nagging feeling of “what if.” What if he hasn’t gotten around to reading it yet? What if my emails somehow got lost in the magical ether that is the Internet? What if he developed a strange disease that made him forget anything to do with people named Garen?

Who knows, I might still hear from him. The publishing industry, as far as I can tell, runs on a completely different timeline than the rest of the world.

But for my sanity and for the good of the book, I am moving on. And you know what. It feels good (BTW: this Lauryn Hill cover of Nina Simone’s Feeling Good is bad ass).

That agent actually did me a favor before he ghosted me. He helped me see which parts of my novel sucked. Before that I was blinded by how much work I had already put into polishing the story. I was too close to it to see its failings. So at the beginning of June I began a major revision.

This would be my second serious rewrite for On the Verge. The first one came after I finished the book knowing that the first half of the story didn’t jibe with the last half. The lesson here, folks, is to start writing with at least a rough outline; even a list of major plot points will suffice. Don’t begin your novel in the chair at the salon while your hair processes with absolutely no idea what you want to write about. I might have done that. I won’t be doing it again.

Then my great, and patient, friend, Elisha (Elisha, if you’re reading this: thank you!!!), read my story and made some wonderful suggestions, sliced and diced my absurdly long sentences, and corrected my grammar, among other things. The Hubs, also patient and wonderful, read it too, and gave me some helpful criticism.

At this point, I thought the story was looking and sounding pretty snazzy. But in truth it still had a ways to go. Enter the agent I mentioned above and major revision number two. With his suggestions in mind I cut out 10,000 words, deleted an entire supporting character, and added a chapter. This was torturous. I loved that character and those 10,000 words. But it was necessary. I pruned away a bunch of needless exposition, made all the remaining characters’ motivations more clear, and got rid of even more of my big words and complicated sentences.

There, I thought again at the end of June when I sent it to the content editor I hired, this manuscript is looking really good. His feedback in general was good, but there was still more to do. It could be better he said. And he highlighted several other issues that seemed obvious once they were pointed out to me, but that I had completely missed the first and second go-around. In particular, the manuscript had point of view (POV) issues, especially in the first few chapters. It was also missing a more well-rounded and satisfying conclusion, many commas and a few words.

I’m currently working on adding those missing elements in. This is major edit number three. I’m not done yet, but I think after this one it will be ready. Elisha is going to give it one more read through (thanks again, Elisha!), and then I am sending it on to the digital formatter and self-publishing this sucker.

This final edit is coming at the perfect time. My book takes place during autumn/Halloween, so I wanted it to roughly coincide with that time of year. It’s also the perfect time because to be honest with you, I am ready to be done with this story. I love it. There’s no doubt about that, but I am also ready to let it go and see how it does out in the world.

And, the best part about self-publishing is that I got to hire a cover designer who created a custom cover for On the Verge. Let me tell you, it surpassed my highest expectations. I might write another book just so I can use him to design the cover. Just kidding. Kind of. I’m planning on writing a post just about this topic, but if you ever find yourself in need of cover design services I highly recommend Daniel Cullen over at Page and Jacket. Expect a Facebook reveal of the cover in the near future.

Lastly, I’ve picked the date that my magnum opus will be available on Amazon: September 22nd. You’ll definitely be hearing more about my pub date plans, but in the meantime mark your calendars. This book writing business is about to get real.

 

Image credit: Oakdene Designs

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Bun has reached an age where people like to engage her in conversation by asking her questions. They ask her name, how old she is, and her favorite color. Sometimes if she is in a particularly chatty mood and giving good responses, or the adult is particularly dogged in their attempt to be friendly, they’ll continue their line of questioning until they get to the inevitable “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

“I want to be a mommy just like my mommy.”

This response usually elicits an “oh, that’s sweet,” or “you must really love your mommy.” Never, at least so far, has anyone ever said “That’s cool! You’ll make a wonderful mommy someday.”

Not even me.

And I know why. It’s not really a job title we think little girls should aspire to anymore. After all, our foremothers didn’t spend all that time demonstrating and breaking glass ceilings just so the next generation could go right back to where they started: in the home, taking care of children. Encouraging girls to be mommies seems old fashioned, even backward.

I’ll usually jump in with other options: “You can also be an astronaut or a scientist, a teacher or a doctor.” In other words: You can choose a career that society views as more significant so why don’t you say one of those when people ask? I don’t want to seem like a mom who raises her daughters to believe in outdated social mores. Make me look like a good feminist, pretty please!

But then, I am a mommy. Being her mommy is my full time job. So what does it say to Bun when I don’t embrace her future career du jour?

It’s telling her that being a mommy isn’t a valid choice. It’s telling her that I should have aimed higher, that being her mommy isn’t enough.

And I think to a certain extent I still grapple with those feelings.

It used to be that a wife and mother was all a woman could, or should, hope to be. All other pursuits were frowned upon. But now that there are so many more options, the decision to commit full-time to motherhood is the suspect occupation, almost as though it’s a fall back position for women who are too lazy or directionless to make it in the marketplace.

But being a full-time mom was a conscious decision for me. I weighed the pros and cons and thought long and hard about what was right for me and my family. I made the choice to do this job wholeheartedly. Being a mommy isn’t a passive thing that just happened to me. I actively chose the role and pursue it to the best of my abilities.

And that’s what it all comes down to for me, again. Choice.

I talked about the significance of choice in my post about going, and staying, grey here. And it becomes more apparent to me all the time that there is nothing more important than having the freedom and opportunity to make your own choices in life. It’s at the root of self-respect. Confidence, self-worth, and maturity come from the realization that your life choices are in your hands. You must make them, and you must live with the consequences.

I chose to be a full-time mom, and I am thrilled with the consequences. So why shouldn’t I encourage my own daughter to start practicing making her own decisions?

And that’s just what it is right now. Practice. It’s not a life sentence.

When I was her age I wanted to be a grocery store clerk because I liked the way the food moved down the little conveyor belt, or a florist because I thought it would be fun to be surrounded by flowers. Obviously I am neither of those now. But the point is I had room to explore, and the message I received from my parents was that the choice would eventually be mine to make.

Freedom of choice also means I don’t just have to be one thing if I don’t want to. I can be a mom and a writer. Other people can be a mom and a therapist, or an advertising executive and professional kayaker. We live in a hyphenate culture where it’s not unusual to see people who are entrepreneur-rock star-chefs, or accountant-poet-dog walkers, or whatever.

The awesome thing is your choices are only limited by your priorities.

So what I want to tell Bun from now on is that her current desire to be a mommy like me is awesome, and I fully support it. I also fully support her taking the time to explore this big world and her big options within it.

I can’t wait to see what she becomes.

 

Image credit: Hulton Archive via Pictify

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Halfway There: Forget Prayers. Give Me Caffeine.

I’m serious. Where’s my coffee?

This week’s post marks the halfway point of the year commitment I made to Scriven by Garen. I have been writing weekly blog posts for 26 straight weeks.

I’ve learned a lot so far:

1. Writing short, polished pieces each week helps keep me on point. Writing done well is a discipline. And like any discipline you need to do it on the regular. Good things happen when you keep your skills sharp by putting them into constant practice.

2. Writing without a reader is okay, but I learn and grow the most when people engage with what I put out there. I am beyond grateful for my friends that show up here each week and take time out of their busy days to read my posts. Really, thank you guys so much.

3. Twenty-six times I was afraid I wouldn’t have anything to write about and 26 times I’ve actually had plenty to say. Writing for Scriven by Garen means I need to pause for an hour or two each week and really think. Pause and reflect. It sounds simple, but it takes effort. And there is always something, some issue that starts to nag at me. It keeps pulling at the edges of my mind. I know that’s the thing I need to put down in the blog, and I always feel better for having done it. Writing is the best free therapy around.

4. Setting priorities works. So many weeks I have been tempted to skip my post. I’m tired. It’s late. So You Think You Can Dance is on. But I have my priorities in mind. Family, fitness, writing. Those are my top three, and that means they get done. Period.

5. Putting myself out there in the world, even just a small slice of the world, is scary. Writing my thoughts down for other people to read and judge makes me feel vulnerable. But it’s a fair price to pay for being known as a writer amongst my friends and acquaintances. For a long time I was too shy, scared, really, to let people know that side of me. So putting it out there feels good. I’m proud of my writing. Why not share it with others?

And there’s still a couple things I have to figure out:

1. How will I be able to generate 26 more blog posts that add value and don’t just take up space??? Panic. Slowly. Rising. Oh, wait. Let me just refer back to number three above.

2. Each week, despite mounting evidence to the contrary (see points 1-5 above), I ask myself whether this blog is just an exercise in futility. I’m beginning to realize that it’s just my inner Gollum (Garlom?), holding tightly to the ring of uncertainty and self-doubt that she loves so much. Each one of these posts is another nail in that sad creature’s coffin. Get lost, Gollum, while you still can.

The halfway point is worth marking, but not celebrating.

It’s actually a difficult place to be. The exhilaration of the beginning has faded and the sweet satisfaction of the finish line is far away. There’s just the weekly hustle left in the middle. And that’s not to mention the revelation that all the hard work that’s gone in to getting halfway has to be doubled in order to make it to the end. It’s the same for any goal, any project that takes extended effort over time.

For me, it’s easy to get overwhelmed if I think about it too hard. So I won’t.

Instead, I’m pouring myself a shot, throwing it back, and getting ready.

Hard work. Dedication.

Cheers.

 

Image credit: Mount Caramel, MV Blog

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Writers Are a Dime a Dozen. Here’s My Secret Weapon.

I’ve been feeling a bit low these past couple of days. It’s a funk I get into every now and then when things aren’t going how I thought they would. Expectations can be deadly.

For starters a flash fiction piece I entered in a writing competition didn’t make it into the top ten and so won’t appear in the upcoming prize winner print anthology. They even listed a few “close but no cigar” shout-outs on the results page and my name wasn’t among those either. The one saving grace came in the rejection letter that said they would encourage me to submit my contest piece for one of their regular issues. So, that’s definitely something, and I definitely will be submitting to them again.

But it still smarts, and to top it off I read the winning entries and they were really good. Suspenseful, intriguing, unique. I couldn’t even complain that the chosen writers were hacks, because they so obviously were not.

Then I checked the results of another competition and found out my entry wasn’t selected. Again.

What’s more, the agent that has been so helpful and gave me hope about my manuscript is MIA. Even the content editor that I am paying to read my book hasn’t contacted me yet. He estimated he would be done with his critique by the 15th. The wheels are turning now. They always seem to lock onto the worst case scenario. Is the book so bad that it is taking him an extra long time to edit it? Am I a crappy writer?

Yeah. That last sentence pretty much sums up my train of thought the last couple of days. A negative, self-pity-partying, grouchy train.

I mentioned my frustration to the Hubs. His response was “well, you know, 98% of the population can write. You’ve picked a really competitive field. It’s not like engineering. Most people don’t know how to do engineering.”

It could have been my mood, and I know he meant well, but this odd bit of motivation didn’t really help me feel better (Hubs, if you’re reading this, sorry for calling you out, but, um, try some different advice next time). On a basic level he is right of course, but I maintain there is a big difference between someone scrawling out a grocery list and someone pouring their heart and soul into a novel. Also, apparently being an engineer is where it’s at.

But his comment did get me thinking. There are thousands upon thousands of aspiring authors out there. Once you meet a certain threshold of competence, what sets you apart from the pack? This new train of thought had me poised for another steep descent without breaks into an even deeper pit of despair as I contemplated all the talented hopefuls out there peddling their life’s work day in and day out just like me. But as I lay in an unproductive heap, wrapping myself in a soggy blanket of wallowing and self-doubt, I had a little flash of insight.

I’ve never been the best or the smartest, but that’s okay because I’ve always been the most determined, the most tenacious.

That perseverance has seen me through a lot. It’s what sets me apart and what gives me an advantage. It’s trite, but if I really want something I don’t take no for an answer. I work hard. I find a way.

With that in mind my train of thought started to slowly lug its way out of the gloomy abyss, climbing bit-by-dogged-bit towards positivity and productivity.

I may not be the best. But I am determined.

I am determined to not let failure crush me.

I am determined to not let set-backs derail me.

I am determined to work hard.

I am determined to continue learning and growing.

I am determined to keep writing.

Writers may be a dime a dozen, but I’ve got a secret weapon.

I’ve got a lot of fucking grit.

 

Image credit: John Kovacich on Public Domain Pictures

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Yes, You Are Creative: The Disease of Wasted Talent

Growing up, going to school, I was content. There are many reasons that contributed to this overall feeling of happiness, but one of them is surely the enforced writing time that came through class assignments and culminated in my senior year with AP English and the amazing Mr. Arkle (whom I credit with teaching me the fundamentals of writing well).

Then I went to college and majored in business, a good, practical degree. I wrote less and less. When I did it was for dry and boring accounting or marketing assignments for which I produced dry and boring writing. I wasn’t unhappy, but I felt aimless. I lacked purpose. After school I got a job at an advertising agency and quit writing altogether. I was miserable. I decided to go back to school, but this time I went to get my degree in art history. I wrote all the time then about things that really interested me and were challenging and made me think. I loved it. I thought I loved art, and I did and still do, but the real love, always, was for the writing.

Then I had a baby. I stopped writing again. I slipped into undiagnosed postpartum depression or anxiety, I’m not sure. Whatever it was it sucked to feel that way especially with a precious new baby that needed me at my best. I hadn’t written a word for six months when suddenly, after a particularly bad day, I opened my laptop and poured my heart and soul onto the screen. It was a turning point. I didn’t instantly feel better, but I did improve significantly over the next several weeks until I finally felt like myself.

I wish I could say I learned my lesson then, but I didn’t. I stopped writing again until another crisis involving my abrupt departure from a teaching job left me broken and directionless. I knew something had to change, I just wasn’t sure what it was. I started to do a lot of thinking and reading about happiness and careers. I made lists, took personality tests, researched different options, and thought long and hard about what gave me a sense of accomplishment, what excited me, what made me feel like my best self, what made me feel like I was contributing, like the world was full of opportunities.

It came down to writing. So I started doing it on the regular. That was over two years ago now, and I haven’t looked back.

The fact is being creative saved me from the black hole of meaninglessness that seemed all-consuming at times. For me, the creative act of writing equals happiness. It just took me a while to figure that out.

There is a quote I absolutely love from George Bernard Shaw. He said:

“Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.”

Finding yourself implies there is some fully formed you already out there in the metaphysical ether that you only need to locate in order to be fully self-actualized.  Finding yourself is passive. Finding yourself is hoping that someone else will do the hard work for you and then you can swoop in and take advantage of it like finding buried treasure or a leprechaun’s pot of gold. Finding means hoping, wishing, waiting.

But what happens when your waiting doesn’t yield results. You get bored. You do things to fill the void, consuming other people’s creativity, with the hope of siphoning off some. The longer you wait, the more bitter you become, and eventually, if it continues on too long you stop waiting to find yourself and you start searching for things that will confirm what you already believe to be true: the world sucks, life is a sham, and successful, happy people are either lying or delusional. It becomes your mission to take them down (see Internet trolls for examples of just this sort of pathetic creature).

Dr. Seuss in his near-perfect book Oh, The Places You’ll Go has a whole two-page spread devoted to waiters. And after his rhyming list of people waiting for their lives to happen he implores his reader to take action with a fervent: “NO! That’s not for you!”

And he’s right. Waiting’s not for you.

Don’t wait. Create.

You might think you’re not creative. You are.

Creativity has many meanings and complex associations. But to be creative you don’t need to be an artist, a writer, a dancer, a musician, or an actor, although all those things are wonderfully creative. You don’t need to be in the arts or even interested in them necessarily. In its most basic form creating is taking things and combining them so that they become something new.

An artist does this with paint and canvas.

A writer does this with words.

A cook does this meat, vegetables, and spices.

A coder does this with ones and zeroes.

An athlete does this with their body.

A scientist does this with chemicals.

An accountant does this with numbers.

A therapist does this with feelings.

A teacher does this with information.

You get the idea.

To be happy, to have purpose, you must create. What should you create? Some of you know already. That is a gift. Some of you might not. In that case, my suggestion to you is to live life. Do lots of things. Pause and reflect on the way you feel. Which things make you forget about time passing? Which things fill you with a sense of purpose, with a sense of gratitude for your talents and abilities? Do more of those things.

But don’t wait.

The world needs your creativity.

 

Image credit: Live Alive Coaching

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Flash Fiction: The Homunculus

This past week I finished up the major set of edits to my book that a potential agent suggested I make. I’ve followed up with him regarding his thoughts on the first fifty pages and whether he wants to see more, but I have not heard a peep from him in over a week which is a bit unusual. He’s been pretty good about answering emails up to this point. Of course this sets off a whole cycle of worry and wondering. Does the radio silence mean he isn’t interested? Busy? On vacation? (Actually I know the last one isn’t true because I follow him on Twitter – lol). Whatever it is I’ll give him another couple of days and then nudge him again.

In the meantime I am still excited because I’m actually really happy with the edits and the shape the book is in now. It is 11,000 words slimmer, and I completely cut out two characters. I try not to think too hard about how long it took me to write those 11,000 words and how much effort I already put into polishing them up before I eventually cut them out. Suffice it to say it was hard to say good-bye at first, but I’m really glad I did now that I see how much better the manuscript reads.

And, I am also excited because I sent the newly revamped MS off to this awesome content editor on Monday. Content editors are different from copy editors. Copy editors search out errors in grammar and syntax. Content editors are more like writing coaches, delving into the plot and characters of your work and whipping them into shape. It’s the kind of thing an editor at a publishing house would do if I was doing this the traditional way. But as this does not seem to be working out for me (see above), I decided to go ahead and get some constructive criticism anyway to make sure my book is the best that it can be before it sees the light of day through self-publishing. He’s worked with one of my favorite authors, has glowing reviews, and used to be a creative writing professor at a university with a prestigious writing program for many years. So I know he’s got the chops and that specific kind of expertise that comes from working with students of writing in a collegiate setting.

While I’m waiting to receive his comments I decided to do some more flash fiction. It’s been awhile since my last attempt, but it’s hard for me to jump to writing a different piece of fiction, even if it’s small, when I’m working on my book. Now that my manuscript’s off to the editor though I’m ready for a little bit of new work. And when I say little bit, I mean it. This one is going to be submitted to the Ad Hoc Fiction Contest. It’s a weekly contest in which a one-word prompt is given that entries must use as inspiration. The word count can be no more than 150 words. The winner is determined by a public vote and gets free entry into the bigger Bath Flash Fiction Contest. This week’s prompt word is feather. Here’s my entry:

The Homunculus

The tower was his retreat, the night his refuge.

During the day he was the subject of ridicule. The children stared. The old women whispered, shaking their heads as he passed by.

He would curse his withered leg, his bent back, his twisted visage.

The day was harsh.

But the night was his.

By candlelight he shaped a crude little figure out of the red clay he gathered from the countryside. He thrust two arched sticks into the little man’s back and to these he carefully attached feathers. Albatross, gull, and osprey.

His ancient books kept him company, and they had taught him the right words. He whispered them now.

The ersatz wings beat once, twice, and then it was gone, flying away from the tower, out over the ocean, to soar under the moonlight until the cruel sun cracked the clay, wilted the wings and stole the magic away.

 

Image credit: The Refined Investor

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On Running and Birthdays

Back in March I set some goals for myself for the rest of the year (you can read them here). One of those was to run a 10K in June. Last Saturday I convinced the hubs to go with me to Burlington, over an hour north from where we live, to run the Berry Dairy Days race. It was a fun and humbling experience. Kind of like my feelings on birthdays these days.

First let me explain. There is a reason why I dragged us all the way out to Burlington when there are a bajillion other closer races. In 1999 when I was a fresh-faced, soon-to-be-senior in high school I ran the same race. At the time I was doing cross country, and I was in good running shape. I chose the course because I didn’t think many people would do it, and I wanted to get a ribbon in my age group. That might not be the most noble of reasons but, hey, I was a teenager, and well, I wanted a ribbon, dammit.

But the cool thing is that it turned out to be really fun. The race was only a couple of days before my birthday and my parents and grandparents came with me to cheer me on. My grandpa, who I was particularly close to, brought along a ribbon that said “happy birthday” on it just in case I didn’t get the race ribbon I had my eye on. But it turned out that wasn’t necessary. We celebrated by having some strawberry shortcake and watching the cute little Berry Dairy Days parade that followed the race. All around it was just one of those days that lives on in your memory as a bright point, one you think about and smile.

I’ve been feeling particularly nostalgic about that memory recently. It’s been a year, almost to the day, that my grandmother passed away and my grandfather went several years before her. My parents are older. I am older. Sixteen years have passed in the blink of an eye, and I wanted to capture a bit of that memory in the present.

Beyond that, the timing of the race was perfect. Like I talked about in my goals blog, I ran a 10k race four months after Bun was born and I wanted to do the same with Bean. June marked the four month mark this time around so the Berry Dairy Days race seemed meant to be.

I had high expectations. I wanted to beat my previous time of 58:10, a 9:23 mile, even though last time around Igor and I did a running club for several months to train. This time I was relying on the running I did during workouts at Bassline and a few runs I squeezed in here and there on no particular schedule, none of which were more than three miles.

On the day of the race we started out fast, too fast, even though I specifically planned not to do that. I felt good though, and one mile in, two miles in, three miles in, I was on target to match or better my previous time (Note: by previous time I am referring to the race I did four years ago not the one I did in 1999. I was much, much faster then.).

Then at about 3.5 miles I hit some kind of wall and slowed down significantly. I told the hubs to go on ahead as he was looking strong, and I slogged through the remaining three miles, struggling the entire time to keep my head in the race and keep going. Several times I thought about quitting especially as a lingering foot injury I have cropped up added shooting pain to the list of reasons I didn’t want to keep going.

But I did. I didn’t set any PRs. I ran it in 1:01:51, a 9:57/mile pace. Not fast. But in this small race of 92 people it was fast enough to get me ninth place in my age group. It was also fast enough to make me feel like I had been hit by a train, a train with a particular vendetta against quads and knees apparently.

But I was glad I did it.

Glad I finished even if it wasn’t pretty. Glad I ran it with the hubs and glad I could come home to my girls, none of whom were part of my life sixteen years ago. Glad that my protesting body carried me through and recovered enough to do a tough workout three days later. Glad the sun was shining and that in some small way I honored the memory of my grandparents. Glad that six days before my 33rd birthday I did something that reminded me of my youth and showed me that there is still a lot of life to live.

The run was humbling. I wasn’t as fast as I was when I was a teenager. I wasn’t even as fast as four years ago. But I was fast enough.

Birthdays are humbling for me now too. You always know you won’t live forever, but somehow with the birth of children to take your place, and the passing of the years, the feeling becomes, at least for me, more palpable, more real, more possible, I guess. A birthday now makes me take stock in a more serious way. My youth is over. I’m not like I was at seventeen. I’m not even like the me of four years ago. I am me now, at 33. And that’s enough.

 

Image credit: Aih. via Flickr cc

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10 Things I’m Giving Myself Permission to Do

I’m inspired this week by a great post on Linked In which I found via Susan Cain’s Facebook page (if you are an introvert or the spouse/friend/parent/lover/teacher/fill-in-the-blank of an introvert you should definitely check out her site The Quiet Revolution and her exceptional book Quiet. Anyway the post (read it here) is by James Altucher, entrepreneur, author, and all-around influencer of people.

Basically he says that we need to worry less about the outward image we present to people and worry more about taking care of the stuff that really matters to us. We don’t need to ask for permission to do that although sometimes we convince ourselves that we do. Sometimes it’s a convenient excuse to put off making hard choices, and sometimes we’re just afraid. In either case giving yourself permission means growing up and getting on with the business of doing our thing to the best of our abilities. So without further ado here are 10 things that I am personally giving myself permission to do:

1. Write

Some days, okay most days, like today for instance, writing seems like a waste of time. There are other seemingly more important things to do like the dishes or the laundry. But I love it. And it’s good for me. So I make the time even when it’s not the practical thing to do.

2. Call Myself Creative

I have a hard time calling myself creative. I think I’m afraid of the implications. Like if I give myself that title someone will call me out as a fraud. But I am creative. Actually I think we all are, every single one of us. But that’s a story for another blog post.

3. Say No to Things I Don’t Want to Do

I don’t have to accept every last invitation that comes my way. Lately I have been super choosy with what I do and who I do it with. Just because I say no sometimes doesn’t mean people will stop liking me or stop being my friend. Actually I think when I show up completely committed to a play date or party or whatever, I am a much more happy, engaging person and therefore much more likable.

4. Not Enjoy Every Minute I’m with My Kids

The people that give you that advice are well-meaning. They are usually older with kids who are grown, and I think the tough times have faded while the golden moments of being a parent linger in their memories. But when you are in the trenches of caring for children, especially the littler ones, it just isn’t reasonable to enjoy every moment. What you can do is accept things for what they are, good or bad, keep perspective, try your best, and practice gratitude.

5. Express My Opinions, Even if They’re Unpopular

There was a time not so long ago when I would just suck it up when someone pissed me off. Those times are over. For more on that see my Hulk Smash post from a few weeks ago.

6. Give Myself Space

I am 100% introverted. That doesn’t mean I hate people. I actually love hanging out with family and my close-knit circle of friends. But it takes a lot of my energy. So what being introverted does mean is that I need ample amounts of quiet and solitude to feel recharged. Usually it’s at night, when everyone is in bed and the house is silent. I used to think it was indulgent, but now I know it’s a necessity.

7. Relax

I have a lot of things I want to accomplish, and not a lot of time to accomplish them. Whenever I have a free moment, and I don’t take advantage of it by checking another thing off my list I feel guilty. But the more I concentrate on just the doing of things the less meaningful they become and the less meaningful the result. So sometimes it’s okay to chill and not think of the to-do list. This is a really hard one for me. Definitely a work in progress.

8. Feel Good About My Body

This is another hard one. At four months postpartum I had expected to be closer to my pre-pregnancy weight. It’s difficult not to look in the mirror and sigh. There are a lot of things I criticize about my appearance, but there are also a lot of things I like. And I remind myself that my body grew two human beings, and pushed those babies out (one without an epidural, I might add). My body propels me through difficult workouts and takes me amazing places and lets me hug those dearest to me. So when I start to get all depressed about it I try to feel grateful for my health and for my body and how it allows me to fully experience life. With or without a few extra pounds.

9. Be Silly

I’m kind of a weirdo. I admit it. I sometimes make silly noises or do funny dances for no other reason than because it feels good and right. I also find lots of things funny. It doesn’t take much to make me laugh. Some people think that’s annoying or that I’m being disingenuous. But I’m just being me. There’s too much to be serious about in this world as it is. A dash of silly can be just what the doctor ordered.

10. Cry

I have a really strong sense of empathy. Usually it serves me well, but occasionally, when I find myself crying at a commercial or something I read on Facebook I wonder if I’m a bit too sensitive. But just like there is too much seriousness in the world, there is too much callousness as well. Kindness, sensitivity, and vulnerability are not weaknesses, and neither is crying when something moves your heart or soul. Rather, it’s my belief that making those deep connections to others takes a certain kind of inner strength.

So that’s my permission slip, checked over and signed off.

Now it’s your turn. What should you give yourself permission to do?

 

Image credit: Eddie Colla

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The Wisdom of Ratatouille

I almost didn’t write a post this week. My manuscript needs my attention now, and it’s hard to find time to write. When I do scrounge together a few minutes my scrappy little novel calls my name. I significantly revised the first fifty pages and resubmitted them to the potential agent (for a recap of why see this post). I’m actually really happy with what I did in those edits, and even if the agent still doesn’t decide to take the leap and read the rest of my novel I think he did me a great service by pointing out what could be changed to make my story more intriguing and readable from the get go.

But…making those major changes caused reverberations throughout the rest of the book, and I now have some pretty substantial editing that I need to do so that the beginning of the story jives with the end. I want to get the work done fairly quickly because 1) I don’t want to check in with the agent and have him request the rest of the manuscript and not have it ready to go, and 2) in all honesty I have been working on this book for more than a year and a half. I’m ready for a new story, but I can’t let this one go until it’s ready to see print whether that be through an agent or through self-publishing. So I am working diligently on these edits, doing the best I can to do right by my manuscript.

Yet, throughout this whole book-writing process there has been a voice in the back of my head telling me that all the time and effort I’ve expended on the book isn’t worth it. It’s been especially loud these last few weeks since I felt like my book was in a good place and now it’s under major renovation again. The dreaded voice has been getting louder. It tells me to just shelve the project and move on. But I won’t. No way. I am getting this sucker done, and I am doing it to the best of my abilities.

So I told my inner critic to go watch Ratatouille. You know that Disney movie about the rat that becomes a world class chef in Paris? Why? Because not only is it about following your dreams against major odds (and it takes place in one of my favorite cities in the world), but it also has a great message about the role of the critic when it comes to pursuing creative endeavors. That message is eloquently summarized by the pretentious restaurant critic Anton Ego in a monologue toward the end of the movie. Anton says many insightful things, but the thing that sticks with me is this: “The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends.” And the first friend it needs, as far as I can tell, is the creator herself.

So I’m telling my inner critic to shut it and let me get on with my story. While I get to work I’ll leave you with the simple, brilliant words of Mr. Ego below.

In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends.

Last night, I experienced something new, an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source. To say that both the meal and its maker have challenged my preconceptions about fine cooking is a gross understatement. They have rocked me to my core. In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau’s famous motto: Anyone can cook. But I realize only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere. It is difficult to imagine more humble origins than those of the genius now cooking at Gusteau’s, who is, in this critic’s opinion, nothing less than the finest chef in France. I will be returning to Gusteau’s soon, hungry for more.

 

Image credit: NotTelevision

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Grey Hair Don’t Care

I got my first grey hair when I was twenty-four. I remember it well because I was getting my hair done for my wedding and they needed to put a little mascara on it to cover it up. After that the silver strands came at an exponential rate. By the time I was twenty-nine I had a sizable patch on the crown of my head. Fast forward four years and two kids and the patch is still there accompanied by a generous sprinkling across the rest of my head.

Distressed, at first, by this obvious sign of aging I colored my hair for several years. Then I got pregnant with Bean and decided to forego the every-couple-of-months cover-up. (PS: this is a completely personal decision. Most doctors will tell you to perhaps skip it the first trimester, but others will give you the go ahead from the get go). After missing my first few appointments I came to terms with the obvious silvers among the my dark brown, and I stopped noticing it as much. However this did not apply to other people and about four months into the dye moratorium the comments started coming.

“Oh my god, you have so much grey hair!”

I found this a difficult statement to respond to. Usually I acknowledged my preponderance of grey and made a joke along the lines of “yep, chasing after a preschooler all day will do that to you.” But I have to say these comments bothered me. Not so much because they called out the problematic strands, because, hey, it’s true, I do have a lot of grey hair, but because they seemed to imply another question: “Why aren’t you doing something about it?”

And here in lies the reason for this post.

As a writer and a stay-at-home mom, my appearance has never been the focal point of my chosen vocations. I can, and do, get away with wearing yoga pants and sweatshirts on a near-daily basis. It’s partly practical because it’s hard to clean spit-up and finger paint out of cashmere, and it takes a fraction of my precious time and brainpower to throw on my tried-and-true “mama” uniform as compared to forming a put-together ensemble from the scant choices available in the rest of my closet. And it’s partly financial. I’ve saved a ton of money by cutting out clothes shopping from the monthly budget.

This was not always the case. I used to spend a lot more time getting ready and spend a lot more on buying clothes and accessories to make that time more worthwhile. But over the years my priorities have changed.

And I’m a bit tortured about it.

The hard truth is that appearances matter. Snap judgments are made based on the way you dress, the way you style your hair, how well you take care of your body, and, for us ladies, how well you apply your make-up. And beyond dealing with the preconceptions of others, there is a definite correlation between taking care of yourself and your self-worth.

But just how much of your self-worth should be tied to your appearance? That’s where things get murky. It’s a thin line. Spend too much time on your exterior and people begin to question the interior. I feel the excrutiating thinness of this line now with two young daughters that will be looking to me for guidance as they begin to craft their self-image. I want them to take pride in their appearance. But not too much. And these grey hairs of mine are at the forefront of this inner conflict.

As an inveterate non-conformist, my first reaction is to say screw the misogynistic, death-phobic, beauty standards that dictate a perfect, youthful appearance. Take those pricey brands, ridiculous neurotoxin injections, $250 highlights, and paleo diets and shove ’em. But I’m not really ready to go full-on off the grid, pioneer woman mode. And actually I kinda like some of those expensive clothes, and sometimes I wear make-up and I like it, damn it. And maybe I’m fine with my grey hair now, but what if I want to color it purple someday or just plain dark brown? Does that make me a hypocrite? Will I be showing my daughters that even though I tell them they are pretty enough without eyeliner and lip gloss, their momma doesn’t think she is?

The way I have reconciled it with myself is that it is all about choices. If they want to wear make-up because it’s a fun and relatively inexpensive way to play with your look and feel a bit fancy that’s fine by me. If they would rather skip it all together, more power to them. I just don’t want them feeling pressured to do something they don’t want to do because somebody else says they should, and that applies to so many areas of their lives. For me, self-respect and strength of character, the things you need to be a powerful, independent woman, come, in part, from making thoughtful choices about your mind, body and appearance. Right now, I have mindfully chosen to have my greys, to wear my yoga pants, and to take a break from make-up. Some people might think that I’m being lazy, but laziness implies apathy, it implies a lack of priorities, it implies thoughtlessness. That’s not me. I made the choice today to look this way. Sleep and breakfast took precedence over make-up and the flat iron. Tomorrow that might not be the case. Tomorrow may be another story, and its one that I will write of my own accord. And that is what I want my daughters to do too: set priorities and live their lives accordingly, without apologies.

So sorry, not sorry about the grey. Just call me the silver fox.

 

Image credit: Going Gray Beauty Guide

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A Glimmer of Hope on the Agent Horizon

This is going to be a short post. The reason: I have a lot of work to do.

Why do I have a lot of work to do? Let me explain.

I read this amazing article on Medium yesterday and it inspired me. It’s called Submit Like a Man: How Women Writers Can Become More Successful by Kelli Russell Agodon (and yes, she does make fun of people Googling “submit like a man” and being disappointed when her article pops up).

In it she talks about her time as an editor at a press and the difference between the way men and women submit their work for publication. The main difference, she says, is how they react to receiving a rejection note back that says something like the following: “This was close, but not quite what we are looking for. We’d like to see more of your work.”

Men, she says, would send them more work within a month or even within days. Women, on the other hand, might send in another submission in a half a year, sometimes longer, sometimes never. Men, she says, see that comment and take it at face value: They like my work, therefore I will send them more. Women tend to overthink and overanalyze. The inner monologue that Agodon uses to illustrate this overthinking has run through my own mind millions of times when faced with a similar situation:

“When would be the best time to resubmit? I don’t want to seem pushy, but I do want to get them my work. Maybe I should wait a few months so I don’t seem desperate or so I don’t irritate them by submitting so fast. Do they really want to see more work, or were they just being nice? I’m sure they want to see more work, but I should probably wait a few months, I wouldn’t want to be an imposition and it would be better manners and more respectful to wait a bit. Or should I? Yes, I’ll play it cool and wait a few months. I wouldn’t want to impose.”

So much noise. No action.

She admits that she’s making broad generalizations, but I think there is a lot of truth to this particular stereotype. The reasons for its existence are another story, but the important take away from Algodon’s experience is that this internal agonizing is a colossal waste of time. The presses or agents or whoever you are submitting to are not just being nice. They truly do want to see more of your writing. Or else, Algodon reminds us, they’d be creating a lot of extra work for themselves.

When I don’t hear back from people that I’ve submitted work to, Algodon’s script, or something very near to it, starts running through my head. The hubs is always encouraging me to reach out to the agents and presses and ask. The worst that will happen, he says, is that you’ll be received with silence. You might get a flat out rejection, but at least you’ll know. Alternatively, you might be pleasantly surprised.

So, I took his advice and contacted an agent that had requested a partial manuscript from me. I had already checked in with him once and didn’t want to be seen as a bother, but I realized that was the script talking.

I emailed him again.

He wrote back saying he saw a lot of promise in the first part of my pages, but the next part, and he was much kinder than this, basically sucked. However he was so impressed by the beginning he was willing to give me another chance. Revise the first fifty and resubmit to him.

So you better believe I will be working extra hard to make those pages shine, and I will be resubmitting to him as soon as I think the work is ready. No demurring, no second guessing. No thinking, as Algodon says she once did, that an almost is better than a flat out no.

Just taking him at his word, making the pages better, and hoping for the best.

 

Image credit: UC Davis Humanities Institute

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Hulk Smash or Hulk Maybe Write Blog Post

A week ago I got really angry. Seven days later and every time I think about it I start to get angry all over again. So I am going to write about it. Why? Because writing is cheap therapy and it almost always makes me feel better.

The incident occurred in a Starbucks parking lot.

I have a thing about parking lots in general. I don’t like the ones with tiny parking spaces, and I really don’t like it when people wait for a spot when there are a bazillion other ones to choose from. So, knowing this about myself, I usually park far away from the store entrance and save myself some frustration and maybe get a bit of exercise.

However on this particular day it was sprinkling and threatening to rain harder. I had both girls with me which meant I would need to get the stroller out of the back, put Bean into it, and get Bun out of the car, currently shoeless and sockless, all without letting either get too close to the cars speeding by on their way to the drive through. Thus, while there were a few spots farther away, I decided to take the one that happened to be right in front of the door thinking I could make a mad dash for cover if the skies opened up.

A little voice in the back of my head piped up telling me that parking in such a spot was a bad idea, but I ignored it. Never ignore that voice, folks.

As I pulled into the aforementioned spot, the nice little, unassuming car next to me left, and in its place a giant H2 Hummer with a cracked windshield pulled up haphazardly.

The little voice in my head spoke to me again. It said to turn the car back on and repark. No, no, I convinced myself. That would be a waste of time, and who knows how long we would have before Bean woke up.

I got out and was just putting Bean into the stroller when the back passenger door of the beige behemoth swung open and smashed into my car. A girl, about 10 or 11, hopped out.

“Hey,” I said, “watch the car.”

“Sorry,” she said sheepishly and then ran into the Starbucks where her mom and sister were waiting.

Told you so, said that annoyingly prescient voice.

I took a look at my car. There was now a dent in my door along with a couple of scratches. I could feel my anger building, but I took a deep breath. Hey, she was just a kid. It happens, but her dad was still in the car and had said nothing.

I knocked on his window and he rolled it down reluctantly.

“Your daughter just put a dent in my car,” I said. “You might want to tell her to be a little more careful next time.”

“Why don’t you go in there and slap her for me,” was his reply.

I was speechless. I thought he was serious for a moment, and then I realized he was being sarcastic (at least I hope he was). He rolled up the window. That was it. No apology. No remorse. Nothing. I was pissed.

I knocked on his window again. He rolled it down even more begrudgingly this time.

“I’m going to take down your license plate number,” I said.

“Go ahead,” was his reply, “but I hope you can spell. It has three letters in it.”

What. The. Eff.

Now he was insulting my intelligence on top of everything else. That is one surefire way to make me see red.

“I can most definitely spell, and I’m taking your license plate number down.”

He rolled up his window without further comment.

I took a picture of his license plate, got Bun out of the car and went inside glaring at him the entire time. My hands were shaking. My blood was boiling. I wanted to punch him. I wanted to tell him off. I wanted to tell him that I knew how to spell very well. Let me demonstrate my superior spelling ability: J-A-C-K-A-S-S.

I didn’t do those things.

Bun was watching.

“Why were you talking to that man?” she asked.

“I was telling him that his daughter hurt our car.”

“Oh, did he say sorry?”

“Nope.”

“That’s not very nice,” she said.

See even a four-year-old knows when an apology is in order.

Fuming, I was reminded of an article I had ripped out of an issue of Psychology Today called Beyond Happiness: The Upside of Feeling Down by Matthew Hutson. It talks about how negative emotions actually are very important, that they’re signals to help us enact useful change in our lives. Anger, the article says, “results when we feel undervalued. It prompts us to reassert the importance of our welfare by threatening to harm others or withhold benefits if others don’t recalibrate our worth.”

I often think about that now when I start to feel my ire rise. There have been many times in my life when I felt angry, but I ignored it. I tacitly accepted being easygoing for fear of being disliked or thought of as  too aggressive or bitchy. But constantly playing cool even when you don’t feel that way isn’t healthy, and it’s no fun being a doormat. So I’m over that now. If you make me mad, I’ll let you know. And you know what? People respect that. And as mad as I felt at Mr. Hummer, I would have felt even angrier at myself if I hadn’t spoken up.

So in the end my inner Hulk didn’t actually smash anything (although she really wanted to). Instead that big, green monster let me stand up for myself and the things I believe in, like respectfulness, responsibility for one’s actions, and the simple power of an earnest apology.

Whew! That does feel better.

 

Image credit: King & McGaw

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I read an NPR Books article yesterday on Nancy Reisman’s novel Trompe L’Oeil. I was initially drawn to the review because the book’s title is an art term, and I’m a sucker for stories about art. But while there are apparently sections of the novel that describe and interpret various artworks, it turns out the story is mostly a sad tale of a daughter’s death and the way the family mourns her loss over the years. What struck me most, however, is that I suddenly realized the reviewer, Michael Schaub, could have been critiquing my writing instead of Reisman’s. And, guess what? He wasn’t all that impressed.

Schaub says that Reisman is a talented writer. In the best parts of the book he admits that Reisman writes beautiful descriptions of the family’s grief. Unfortunately, he finds that overall Reisman’s “ponderous prose” gets in the way of any real emotional connection. He explains: “Reisman is an excellent sentence-level writer — for the most part — but frequently the writing gets the better of her, as if she can’t find her way out of her own descriptions.” He goes on, calling her work “overwritten,” “self-conscious,” and “heavy-handed,” so that her story becomes more of a “philosophical reflection” than an absorbing journey through deep sadness. Schaub recognizes Reisman is a gifted writer, but, at least for him, her story comes across as too mannered, perhaps even too pretentious, to be truly moving.

I am guilty of this kind of writing as well. Technically correct, well-written, but too overwrought to be vulnerable, to make that connection with the reader. What can I say? I have a tendency toward the complex and the ornate. Simplicity just isn’t really my style, but I understand it’s benefits. It offers an immediacy, an accessibility to the story and its characters that fosters connection. Elaborate sentences with exotic words may be beautifully composed, but they often don’t have the impact of a succinct phrase with just the necessary essentials.

To borrow an example from architecture, it’s the difference between a Rococo palace with it’s intricate filigreed gold leaf and lavish excess, and the clean lines, geometric purity, and clarity of purpose of a modern skyscraper. The former feels contrived. There is no way to feel quite at home in a Rococo interior. The latter eschews fancy for functionality and the result soars.

And yet, I feel like I have to hide a bit of myself when I tone down my wordiness. Does it make me a better writer to stay true to myself and my love of big words and complicated sentences, or is all that really just a hindrance, a kind of screen that shields the emotion and character of my writing from my readers? I love my thesaurus too much to give up on elaborate wordsmithing completely. I think it adds interest to my writing, but I know there are many people that view it as literally showmanship.

All things considered, I think it could be worse. An inordinate love of words and the intricacies of language doesn’t necessarily take you out of the game. It’s far easier to scale back florid turns of phrase than it is to scale up anemic writing. Besides, writing is a practice, a discipline. There is no end to learning how to write, there’s always more you can do to make your words ring true. It’s a lifelong process, and my words and I are in it for the long haul.

 

Image credit: Lu Hersey’s Twitter Post

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The Phantom Tollbooth: The Book that Started it All

I was reflecting on my bookshelf the other night, a little Zen moment in the midst of an over-tired preschooler and a colicky newborn (stereo-screaming = fun times!). Up near the top are the books that have followed me since childhood. They’re my own personal classics, and I’ve loved them enough to lug them around with me from house to house over the years. Their spines, arranged in a neat row like literary sentinels, are a rainbow of memories. But there is one in particular, a blue one with pink borders and clean capital letters, that has been my favorite almost since I could read.

The Phantom Tollbooth.

It’s really the book that started it all: my love of fantastical places, my obsession with words, my passion for reading. The sight of it stirs something deep in my memory, and I can recall for just a moment that particular wonder exclusive to children. It’s bittersweet, just an echo of a world that I can now only observe through my own daughters, but a beautiful one nonetheless.

I took it off the shelf. I hadn’t read it in years, but I felt like I needed to revisit its familiar pages, run my eyes and my mind over the words that had made such an impression on me growing up. I wondered if the story would still resonate with me, or if like many things that hold you rapt as a child, it wouldn’t stand the test of time.

I cannot remember exactly what drew me to it all those years ago. I suspect it was the way I related to the main character Milo’s all-encompassing boredom, a facet of childhood that I recall quite clearly, especially on endless summer days when time seemed interminable. I also have a hunch it was the wondrous adventure he undertakes and the cast of intriguing characters he meets along the way.

And then there’s the word play. Norton Juster, the book’s author, is a master of it, and I loved the way he made those funny expressions adults used literal and comical. There is a watchdog that actually has a watch for a body, and an island called Conclusions that one must jump to in order to visit.

But what I think I understood only superficially when I was younger, is that the book is really a meditation on the value of learning.

For those of you unfamiliar with The Phantom Tollbooth you would do your grown-up self a favor by reading it and your kids an even greater service by sharing it with them. In a nutshell, Milo is a boy troubled by a deep-seated ennui. He sees nothing interesting about his world. He is surrounded by toys and games but none of them engage him. He sees nothing valuable about school.

Then one day a mysterious gift arrives, a cardboard tollbooth that takes him to a remarkable land dominated by the city of Dictionopolis in the south and the city of Digitopolis in the north. In between are places like the Doldrums, the Forest of Sight and the Valley of Sound. As he sets out to explore this new world he becomes involved in a quest to rescue the lost princesses, Rhyme and Reason, who have been locked away in the Castle in the Air by their brothers the kings of Dictionopolis and Digitopolis. Since their incarceration the land has suffered, for while the people all know many things their knowledge means nothing without the guiding influence of Rhyme and Reason.

Unfortunately, the castle in the air is located high up in the Mountains of Ignorance where innumerable demons stand in Milo’s path. There’s The Horrible Hopping Hindsight, the Overbearing Know-it-all, the Gross Exaggeration, and the Gelatinous Giant who hates change and new ideas. My favorite is the Terrible Trivium, the demon of worthless tasks and wasted effort. Milo asks him why he should only want to do unimportant things. And he responds in a way that reminds me very much about my rant on not having time:

“If you only do the easy and useless jobs, you’ll never have to worry about the important ones which are so difficult. You just won’t have the time. For there’s always something to do to keep you from what you really should be doing.”

In the end all the demons of Ignorance attempt to foil Milo’s rescue plan, but are thwarted by the combined forces of the land of knowledge.

Admittedly the metaphor is not very subtle but the lesson is just as important now as it was then. Embrace learning, keep the evils of ignorance at bay, engage your senses, be open to new experiences, the world is an amazing place. Indeed, the book is chock full of truth bombs.

An example can be found in my favorite quote which comes when one of Milo’s sidekicks, the Humbug, is talking with the Mathemagician, the ruler of Digitopolis, about how he was able to multiply himself into seven distinct Mathemagicians using his magic staff (which looks suspiciously like a writing instrument):

“But it’s only a big pencil,” the Humbug objected tapping at it with his cane.

“True enough,” agreed the Mathemagician; “but once you learn to use it, there’s no end to what you can do with it.”

That idea, that the pencil is a mighty source of magic, is incredibly powerful.

Near the end of the book when Rhyme and Reason have been safely returned, Milo feels bad that it took him so long to rescue them, lamenting that the number of mistakes he made along the way added time to the trip. Reason reassures him with the following:

“You must never feel badly about making mistakes,” explained Reason quietly, “as long as you take the trouble to learn from them. For you often learn more by being wrong for the right reasons than you do by being right for the wrong reasons.”

Boom. Maybe I should just have Norton Juster write my posts from now on.

In the end when Milo returns to this world his eyes are opened to the many possibilities it holds.

“Outside the window, there was so much to see, and hear, and touch – walks to take, hills to climb, caterpillars to watch as they strolled through the garden. There were voices to hear and conversations to listen to in wonder, and the special smell of each day. And, in the very room in which he sat, there were books that could take you anywhere, and things to invent, and make, and build, and break, and all the puzzle and excitement of everything he didn’t know – music to play, songs to sing, and worlds to imagine and then someday make real.”

What book from your childhood inspired you?

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For this week’s post I decided to try my hand again at flash fiction. This time around I tailored my writing for a flash fiction contest I want to enter put on by Molotov Literary Magazine. Entries must be less than 1,000 words and include “some moment of unleashed aggression” (for the full details check out the contest page here). I decided to do a little reimagining of Cinderella, because you know I have a thing for fairytales. Specifically it’s the moment, in the Disney movie anyway, where she’s in her pretty ballgown the mice and birds made for her and her step-sisters fly into a fit of jealously and rip it to shreds. I never liked how Cinderella just sucks up that abuse and runs out of the room. This is what would happen if I were in charge of her story. As always, please let me know what you think and if you have any suggestions on how it might be improved.

Out of the Ashes

She stood there at the bottom of the grand staircase, the one she had spent all day polishing on her hands and knees. One of the turquoise beads from her necklace shone brightly against the spotless marble. She concentrated on it. The other blue-green baubles bounced away in all directions.

Her step-sisters were attacking her again. She closed her eyes and wished for a fairy godmother to save her like she had done countless times before. But no avenging pixie ever came to her rescue. She’d had to develop other coping mechanisms. She was good at staying in control.

Indeed, she usually let her anger towards her step-sisters dissipate. Like those other beads it would spring up high at first, and then quietly wane in ever-shallower arcs until she found her equilibrium again, calm but scattered.

This time, though, she saw that lone bead by the toe of her silk slipper, and she could sense its echo inside of her, a single point of white-hot rage, steady and constant.

Distantly, she felt hard fingers tear at her dress. She saw the blush-pink sash that encircled her waist float sinuously through the air to the ground, its slow, graceful descent a stark counterpoint to the raptor -like frenzy of her attackers. Their garish red nails, painted talons, sought inelegantly to rip and destroy. Not satisfied with their work thus far, they tore out the tortoiseshell comb from her hair, taking some of her gossamer strands with it. They scratched at her pale cheeks and left bruises on her arms.

And all the while she stared at the bead.

They thought they had broken her, mistook her stillness for acquiescence. The step-sisters howled and gritted their teeth through vile, vermillion lips. Beads of sweat dripped down the large one’s chest into the crevice of her cleavage. She heaved and shook, a hulking scow riding waves of jealousy. The lean one, with preying mantis arms, reached out in staccato bursts, ripping, ripping, ripping, delighting in the shreds and tatters she created with vicious precision.

And all the while the girl stared at the bead.

When they had finally finished this latest act of humiliation they waited for their favorite part, the part when she bit back hot tears and fled. They would laugh, then, at their latest triumph, secure in their renewed sense of dominion over their hapless step-sister. This was the moment that most pleased their mother too, who took a sadistic joy in observing her daughters degrade her late husband’s beautiful child.

The sisters were bad, but the mother was hellish. For while the daughters, thin and fat, could maim and taunt, it was the cunning mother who was at the rotten heart of their machinations. Hers was a more insidious form of degradation aimed not at damaging the flesh but at eating away the soul.

As the last of the beads rolled to a stop, the clock struck seven. The sisters finished their assault. The mother stood behind them, silently expectant. They waited for the girl to crumple, to turn and rush off. It was taking a beat longer than usual. They wanted their perverse reward for the hard work of envy unleashed, but if they didn’t leave soon the ball would start without them.

Shreds of dress shifted listlessly on the floor of the drafty manor. A drop of blood slid from a scratch on the beautiful girl’s arm and oozed down between her fingers. Still she did not move.

Heedless and dim-witted the sisters were merely annoyed by this delay, but the mother sensed something was different. Her eye twitched. The seconds ticked by.

Still the girl did not move.

The beautiful girl in the rags that were mere moments before a ballgown had been staring at the single turquoise bead on the floor for so long now it seemed to vibrate. A million agitated oscillations against the marble floor made it appear to grow in size as her vision had trouble picking up on precisely where its curved surface ended and began.

In the pit of her stomach a twin tremor grew in intensity, radiating from her core to the tips of her fine fingers so that to her step-family she appeared to be suffering from a particularly ferocious chill. This was enough to get her step-sisters’ attention, and they wondered, briefly and with joy, if this might be some kind of new nervous symptom that they’d engendered in their long-suffering sibling.

The thought had barely had a chance to percolate through their thick skulls before the first sister felt hers crack against the marble floor, and the second reeled from a ferocious jab to the jaw.

The girl stepped over their motionless bodies. She couldn’t feel the pain in her hand from where her knuckles had connected with the bone beneath her sister’s jowls. Nor did she hear the sickening crack of her wasp-waisted sister’s head on the tile when she threw her bodily to the ground with a strength that seemed impossible given her slight form.

All she knew was the anger, keen and hot, holding her, gripping her, shaking her so that her trembling harmonized with a power that had long lain dormant.

She fixed her eyes on her step-mother. In three short steps she was on her with dainty hands exerting brute pressure around the cords and sinews in the old woman’s neck.

When the step-mother collapsed the girl’s rage slowly subsided.The reverberations that had wracked her moments before reconciled into a single body. She returned to the staircase to retrieve the turquoise bead, holding it up to the light so that its pearlescent surface gleamed.

She smiled.

Rage was better than any fairy godmother.

 

Image credit: Djof via flickr CC

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This post was going to be about my travel wish list, and then I had this reality check moment where I realized such a post was better saved for later. There are many wonderful things about having a young family, but the difficulty of traveling down the street, let alone across the country or around the world is not one of them. While contemplating this post I calculated how long it has been since I traveled abroad (Mexico and Canada excluded). In September it will be six years and unfortunately, with the little Bean just born, it looks like it will be another year at least before we travel overseas again.

That being said, the reason I wanted to write about travel is that being stuck in Bothell reminds me of how important it is to leave your comfort zone on a regular basis, to see new places and try new things away from the nice and friendly confines of hearth and home. Otherwise things start to stagnate and stagnation kills creativity.

Getting out of town means getting out of my routine. Getting out of my routine means I can’t just operate by habit. Instead I have to be present. My brain has to be on. As a result new connections form almost of their own accord. Synapses fire and ideas, long isolated in some unvisited corner, suddenly have superhighways connecting them to other ideas, sometimes by the unlikeliest of routes. When you travel and leave the well worn paths of your day-to-day, inspiration and insight are among the many rewards.

But what’s a girl to do when she’s got responsibilities that keep her at home for the foreseeable future? Well, I’ve decided to kill two birds with one stone. My novel, ON THE VERGE, takes place in Seattle and includes many quintessential Emerald City spots. But, and this is a secret between you and me, the places that form the backdrop for many of the most important scenes in my novel I have never actually visited in person. Shh!

I know, I know, how can you write a scene convincingly without having experienced the place firsthand? Well, I used a little tool called Google Images to do virtual tours of the places I wanted to use in my book. Honestly, though, the fact that I haven’t actually set foot in these locales has always bothered me. So I am about to rectify that situation AND get out of my neighborhood and explore the city a bit. Sure, Seattle isn’t exactly Europe, but on a smaller scale it can be a similar creative catalyst.

So where exactly am I going to go? I’m so glad you asked.

Seattle Underground, Pioneer Square: Yes, I realize this is a tourist trap, but it’s a trap that I have never actually seen even though I used to work in an office right next to the tour entrance. People have told me that the underground remains of Seattle’s nineteenth-century Skid Row sound better than they really are, but I have to say I am interested. It seems like it could be old, and dark, and spooky. That’s right up my alley. Only a small portion of the Seattle Underground has been made accessible to the public. The unexplored, inaccessible part, complete with a fictitious swamp, is where I put the home of the Slavic witch Baba Yaga in my novel. I think it’s only fair that I go down and take a look around her witchedly abode, and make sure I did it justice.

Lake View Cemetery, Capitol Hill: This is the burial ground just north of Volunteer Park on Capitol Hill where Bruce Lee, Brandon Lee, and a bunch of Seattle’s founding families have their final resting places. I’ve always had a thing for old, ornate cemeteries. There’s something about that combination of beautiful and spooky that really speaks to me. My incubus-cum-Lucifer, Lior Dakryma, has a couple of scenes set in Lake View, so a melancholy stroll through the tombstones seems appropriate.

Marijuana dispensary, Fremont: One of my book’s more intense action scenes takes place, believe it or not, in the courtyard of a fictional marijuana dispensary in Fremont. I’ve been to what is arguably Seattle’s most colorful neighborhood several times for its annual Solstice Parade, a crazy event perhaps best summed up by the painted, naked bicyclists that open the festivities. But I’ve never been there just to saunter through the quirky environs, let alone to investigate the several weed shops in the vicinity. From a quick Google search it looks like there are at least five stores to choose from. I’m leaning towards the Dockside Co-Op. Of course I’m just going for research purposes, not to actually partake in the wares (I promise, Mom!).

Cle Elum, Cascades: So this little town is actually about an hour and a half outside of Seattle in the foot hills of the Cascades. My main character Freya has her first interaction with the Verge (a borderland on the edge of human reality where the creatures of myth and folklore reside) in a cabin near the base of a mountainous outcropping. It’s also where she meets the enigmatic Rusty, her future love interest, so a lot happens just outside of town. I did my best to recreate the setting using Google Maps and images of Cle Elum’s main street and surrounding back country, but a little day trip to ensure accuracy would be helpful. Let’s just hope it’s clean air and sunshine that I discover and not goblins like my courageous heroine.

Frye Art Museum, Capitol Hill: Full disclosure, I have been to the Frye several times, but so much of my novel takes place in this jewel of a museum that it doesn’t hurt to visit it again. As an art history major I am so thankful that Charles and Emma Frye gifted their massive art collection to the people of Seattle in perpetuity. It’s FREE to visit, which is a major bonus. Plus their intimate, daring, and unusual exhibitions, in my opinion, blow the glitzy, big-draw shows over at the Seattle Art Museum out of the water. And it was a Franz von Stuck show at the Frye that inspired ON THE VERGE in the first place. I’ll make any excuse to get back there. It’s a place that never fails to inspire.

 

I’ve got my list. Now, it’s time to get out of the house and explore.

 

Image credit: Michael Tompsett

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The Personal Values of a Part-Time Writer

I’ve never been a very good employee. Oh sure, I am conscientious, and I get my work done on time and to the best of my abilities. I can make spreadsheets and presentations, and I’ve generally received positive feedback from my former bosses. But I have a problem. I’ve never been truly happy at a job. It took me several years and a few tragic career missteps before I decided that I needed to sit down and really think about why. As always I turned to books to help me out.

The Pathfinder: How to Choose or Change Your Career for a Lifetime of Satisfaction and Success (Touchstone Books) is an excellent resource for those of you trying to make sense of your career trajectory. As is Do What You Are: Discover the Perfect Career for You Through the Secrets of Personality Type which looks in-depth at personality types and suggests career paths based on innate strengths and weaknesses. The most important thing I discovered from my research is that my values drive me and if the majority of them aren’t satisfied I won’t be either.

My top ten values in order are:

1. Independence, autonomy, self-reliance

2. Authenticity

3. Empathy/compassion

4. Loyalty

5. Integrity

6. Creativity/self-expression

7. Learning, personal development

8. Achievement, accomplishment, respect

9. Stability, security

10. New experiences/playfulness/excitement

What does this mean for me career-wise? Well after reading these books cover-to-cover, doing some soul-searching, and taking stock of my natural talents and inclinations I came to these conclusions:

1. The work has to be personally fulfilling for me. Basically I have to truly give a damn about it. Working on anything less leaves me feeling drained and anxious after awhile. Boredom and apathy set in and nothing good happens as a result.

2. I enjoy sharing my work with others, but I like to spend the majority of my time working independently. I need lots of space and the freedom to set my own schedule and do things my own way.

3. Along with personal space, I need some room to be creative. Working a job that is all numbers and analysis all the time is definitely not for me (as I have learned the hard way). Along the same lines it really helps if there are new experiences built in. Doing the same thing day after day is no fun. Stagnancy kills creativity and takes away the possibility of learning and growing by being challenged.

4. My career will probably never make me rich. That’s okay with me. Being wealthy isn’t necessarily something that I aspire to. While I agree that you need money to survive, I’m perfectly fine with being, as value #9 above states, stable and secure. One caveat: I am speaking from a position of privilege because our family is able to thrive on my husband’s salary alone. I know this is not the case for everyone. That being said, I’ve never truly been motivated by money. I like to have enough to be comfortable and have reasonable options as far as entertainment and travel are concerned, but beyond that becoming a millionaire isn’t really on my bucket list.

5. And the most important one: my kids are my priority. Any job that I have will always come second. In fact, being a homemaker actually satisfies me in ways that no other job ever has. In some ways I feel like my house is an entrepreneurial service business. I get to run it my way, I can be creative in how I parent, there are always new challenges and problems to address, I am always learning and growing, and there is definitely no doubt that I care deeply about what I’m doing.

But besides being a homemaker where does all this leave me when, in the not too distant future, the kids aren’t demanding my attention 24/7 and I actually have time to think about my career?

The truth is, I fear, the job that I’m best suited for isn’t a traditional one. Being a writer is the only other thing besides taking care of my kids that has made me feel like I’m contributing in a way that isn’t compromising my values. Writing feels natural, good, never forced. I’m at peace with myself when I take the time to write because I know it’s not a waste. I’ve never been able to say that about any other career choice I’ve made.

Being a writer isn’t an easy road, but it’s one I’m willing to take. There are no guarantees. I just keep plugging away at it, doing my best with each article, story and blog post with the belief that it will all eventually pay off.

In the meantime, I’ll be content with reminding myself that happiness lies in holding true to my values. With that in mind, the writing path doesn’t get less difficult, it’s still a long and winding road, but it sure is a lot easier to find my way.

Image credit: Bluebird Chic

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Thinking Inside the Box: The Power of Constraints

Think outside the box. It’s a platitude that’s meant to stir the creative mind. Don’t give in to convention, step outside the everyday, be true to yourself, not the crowd. It’s good advice, really, and let me tell you, as a staunch non-conformist I try to live it everyday.

But while all that fighting against the norm can be liberating, it can also be overwhelming. The very idea of unlimited options can be paralyzing. Case in point: the menu at The Cheesecake Factory. I mean, do we really need a freaking book of dining options? But seriously, absolute freedom can, ironically, be a kind of stealthy hindrance and, for me anyway, lead to an interesting form of writer’s block. It’s not a lack of ideas, its the profusion of possibilities that stymies me.

I’ve referenced Austin Kleon before when I talked about originality, and I’m going to reference him here again (his slim book, Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative is seriously good). He says that “nothing is more paralyzing than the idea of limitless possibilities.” For Kleon, the way to get over a creative block “is simply to place some constraints on yourself.”

I initially balked at this suggestion as it seemed antithetical to pretty much everything I’ve ever heard about creativity, but you know what, it works. I gave it a try last week with my first attempt at flash fiction.

I’d been feeling that itch, like I needed to write something fictional and just for fun, but I also wasn’t sure what that would entail. Fun and fictional are not exactly concrete guideposts. I had an idea that had been rolling around in my brain for awhile and had never found a home. It wasn’t necessarily a big enough idea for a novel, but I thought it could work for a short story. I’d run across this new format for fiction on Twitter called flash fiction. It’s basically the short story medium taken to the extreme. Stories can be no longer than 2,000 words, sometimes no more than a thousand. Props are given to writers who can convey the most engaging plot lines and characters in the shortest number of words.

I was intrigued so I tried it out last week (you can read the result for yourself here). Not only was it a challenge, but it offered me something concrete to work towards, a measurable goal for my writing. I had the opportunity to work within creative constraints, and I found that rather than stifling my flow it inspired me.

Skeptical at first, I have to say that I am looking forward to doing it again. Twitter is a veritable treasure trove of flash fiction magazines and contests that are constantly on the lookout for new material. Many of these simply have word count criteria, but others give you further constraints by stipulating not only the length, but the theme as well.

I’m currently looking into the Bath Flash Fiction Award contest which has a rolling deadline and a 300 (!) word limit, and the Flash Fury Contest over at The Molotov Cocktail which gives a word limit (750-1000) and a theme (some moment of unleashed aggression must take place).

I’m also thinking about how I can apply creative constraints to other areas of my writing. Word count is generally a good place for me to start as I have a proclivity for adjectives and run on sentences. Besides my foray into flash fiction I’ve also refined the pitch for my novel down to a 35 word nugget of the absolute essentials (no easy feat) in preparation for a contest that could put my work in front of potential agents. I’m also working (somewhat successfully) within the all too numerous constraints of writing at home with a crazy-active preschooler and a brand new baby. It would be super easy to call it a day on my writing given the demands of my offspring, but I’m clinging to it with a death grip as my lifeline to maintaining my sanity and a sense of self.

As Kleon says “don’t make excuses for not working – make things with the time, space, and materials you have, right now.” With that in mind constraints become less like restrictions and more like motivation.

I’ve decided to embrace the box. I’m envisioning mine as a shipping container. It isn’t meant to hold me back or keep me in, but rather act as a vehicle for reaching new destinations. Climb in, send it off, and see where my creative constraints take me.

Image credit: Technology Created

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Flash Fiction: Dead Man’s Bells

It has been awhile since I’ve written any fiction so I thought I would do something a little different with my blog this week and make my first attempt at writing flash fiction. Flash fiction basically challenges you to tell a story in 2000 words or less. I had a lot of fun with this, and I’ll discuss it a bit more next time. But for now, take a look at my preliminary attempt at this condensed form and let me know what you think. Warning: It’s a bit…dark.

Dead Man’s Bells 

He was writhing on the floor again. The whites of his eyes looked liked slivers of almond on top of the toffee their momma made on special occasions. His brother’s fit wasn’t anything special though. Jacob had seen it many times before. He knew the routine. Momma would run to the little wooden cabinet set into the wall of their small cottage. There, in a tiny vial, were the drops she would administer to his brother once the convulsions died down.

The sight of that little brown bottle stirred a loathing within Jacob that simmered deep within him. He hated it almost more than he hated his brother, but really the two were so intertwined in his mind it was difficult to know which one garnered more of his ire. That afternoon the sight of the vial in his momma’s hands was more upsetting to Jacob than usual. It was nearly empty. There was only enough of the precious liquid it contained to treat his brother’s current fit and then it would be gone, and he would be called upon again to make the dangerous journey to the clearing.

He understood why the job had always fallen to him. He he knew his way around the Folk, and that certainly helped. In fact in their small village it was whispered that he was marked by the fairies of the clearing, the only one of momma’s eight children with red hair and almost translucent blue eyes. But he also understood that he was expendable. Momma had six daughters to tend the cottage for her and to care for her when she grew old. A few of the older ones were already married to the large, capable men the rugged land seemed to produce by the dozen, and they helped Momma do the chores that tradition dictated belonged in men’s hands.

Jacob and his twin were Momma’s youngest, and although they had shared space in her womb they seemed to share very little else. His brother was very clearly Momma’s favorite. His resemblance to their late father was repeated often by the villagers, and his gentle nature and frequent illnesses made him fragile yet beautiful, a butterfly among beetles. Jacob on the other hand was plain and neither big enough to contribute to the cottage in any meaningful way, nor smart enough, his Momma insisted, to rise above their current station and earn money for the family as a solicitor or banker.

Thus it fell to him to make the journey to the clearing. Once a year he went to that place where the purple foxgloves grew. And although the trek was long, and in some places wolves and other creatures threatened him from the shadows, it was the clearing itself that made Jacob shiver.

Each year when he left to fill the wicker basket his momma gave him with the foxglove flowers, he was certain it would be the last time he would hear the creak of the cottage’s old floorboards, the last time he would hear the rhythmic thump of his momma at the spinning wheel, the last time he would look at his twin brother’s face, distorted and ghostly, as he watched Jacob leave through the thick glass of the cottage’s tiny attic window.

He thought many times about simply leaving, of striking out on his own and never returning. But without the medicine their momma made from the foxglove his brother would almost surely die, and as much as he resented him, the blood that ran through his veins ran through Jacob’s own. Their destinies were tied together from birth, and the weight of family and fate is difficult to shirk.

So it was with trepidation that he stood at the edge of the familiar clearing and stared into its sea of foxglove flowers. They were quite beautiful if you didn’t know any better. The cylindrical flowers in shades of amethyst, violet and magenta arrayed themselves in overlapping bounty along their thick green stems. They swayed heavily in the slight breeze, brandishing their pointy blooms in the hazy morning air like graceful heliotrope sentinels.

The were called foxgloves now, but long ago they were known as folks’ gloves. The Folk being the common name for the fairies that were said to build their homes in and around the dense foliage of the flowers and who, on occasion, appropriated the tubular blossoms for use as hats and gauntlets. Jacob lived in a time that was swiftly forgetting the Folk. Science and industry were replacing the lore of the village, but he had seen them, quick glimpses on the edge of his vision, and he knew they were real.

He also knew that their was another name for the foxglove flowers, and it hinted at something much more dangerous than the small imps that flittered just out of sight. The lovely blooms were also called deadman’s bells. Most of the people in his village surmised that the chilling moniker was a result of the foxglove’s tendency to kill people who weren’t careful with their medicinal dosages. The entire plant was extremely poisonous and an overdose could cause all kinds of unsettling symptoms and, for an unlucky few, even send them to an early grave.

But Jacob had been to the clearing. He had heard the unearthly chiming. He had seen, out of the corner of his eye, the way the Folk vanished into the surrounding wood as the blossoms seemed to toll out their warning. He new once it started that his time was limited, that he must gather the blooms as swiftly as possible and leave the clearing as quickly as he could. Run, run, run the tinkling bells seemed to say. He had never stayed to see what would happen once the chiming stopped. He always heeding the bells’ advice and ran from the clearing as soon as he had gathered enough of the foxgloves. He never looked back.

Today though something shifted inside him as he placed his first tentative footstep into the clearing. Today he thought he would fight against his instinct and wait. He would find out what came when the chiming stopped. He was nearly a man now after all. It was time that he face his fears.

He strode deeper into the mass of flowers, the late afternoon light casting long shadows across the purple pikes of the foxglove, and he set to work. Carefully he snipped the plants near their bases with the scissors he pulled from the leather sheath on his belt, and placed them with great care into the basket.

A sudden stirring near his hand made him jump and he could just make out the tiny form of a fairy disappearing into the thick leaves of the plants headed, it seemed, to the clearing’s border and the forest beyond. A few more minutes and it appeared as though a breeze had kicked up, bending the blooms back and forth, but the weather was calm. Instead, Jacob realized, it was the Folk leaving en masse, their fleeing forms setting the shafts of the foxgloves swaying.

Then it started. Gently at first and then with greater insistency. The chiming. Despite his newfound resolve, Jacob faltered. His hands began to shake as he placed the last of the foxglove into the basket. Run, run, run, the chiming bells clamored. Run, run, run. Jacob hurried toward the edge of the clearing, but stopped short of leaving its bounds. He turned slowly, both feet still firmly planted among the flowers. He waited.

The chiming grew in volume until Jacob thought his head might split open from the cacophony, and then suddenly it stopped. The silence was absolute, the kind of quiet that can drive people mad. He waited a moment, and then a moment more, the insidious stillness working on his nerves. He was about to turn toward home thinking that perhaps the silence was all that haunted the clearing, ready to laugh at himself for being so frightened of a bit of quiet all these years. It was then that the figure appeared before him.

It was tall and wore a loose cloak of ragged black cloth that seemed to stir in a breeze that touched no other part of the clearing. Its visage was long and sharp, nearly human, but not quite, too angular and wolfish to be of this world. It was the creature’s eyes, though, that stirred a sense of abject terror deep within Jacob. They were purple, just like the foxglove flowers, with tiny jet black pupils set deep within their centers. But the thing that made Jacob run was what he saw reflected in those amaranthine pools.

He was certain he had just looked death in the eye.

He sprinted away from the clearing clutching the basket of foxglove to his chest as he ran. He didn’t stop, didn’t dare look back until his lungs were burning and his feet bleeding from the uneven ground.

The creature was still there, just a bit behind him, a little closer than before. This time it smiled at him, a mirthless grin remorseless in its mockery of Jacob’s escape. Jacob turned and ran on certain that at any moment a bony hand would stop him in his tracks. He ran until his whole body was numb with pain and fatigue, and the journey that normally took the better part of an afternoon he covered in less than an hour.

He realized his mistake as soon as he turned down the short dirt path at the edge of the village that led back to his home. He heard the keening wails of his mother, and he knew what he would find before the cottage was even in view.

In the doorway his momma cradled Jacob’s twin brother in her arms, grief distorting her familiar features into a tortured mask. His sisters scurried here and there caught up in various moments of futile rescue or equally fruitless solace. The creature that had followed him stood just before the cottage on the winding stone path that led to the door, but nobody else seemed to notice its sinister presence.

Jacob collapsed to his knees. In a sickening wave he understood what he had done, why the chiming bells of the flowers had always told him to run. Death had been waiting for his brother, lurking always just beyond the healing power of the blooms that now lay, useless, at the bottom of the basket.

Jacob put his hands to the ground to steady his whirling mind before bringing them to his ears to drown out his momma’s heartsick cries. When he looked up the creature was still there, smiling its awful smile. It nodded to him once and then disappeared.

Jacob’s hands sunk slowly back to the ground. He thought he had heard something small and soft amid the anguished sounds of mourning from his momma and sisters. Listening hard, he heard it again. A gentle chiming ringing out from the blooms that were quickly withering in his basket.

Gone, the bells rang, low and slow.

Gone, gone, gone.

It was the sound of deadman’s bells.

Image credit: Wallpaprz

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The List: 10 Goals for the Rest of the Year

It’s already been a month since Bean was born. March is usually a slow moving time for me, the last long slog toward spring, but this year the month flew by and the cherry blossoms and daffodils seemed to come a little earlier than usual.

Life with a newborn and a preschooler is vastly different from life with just a tiny one to care for. It’s hard, but I find that Bun keeps me grounded in reality. When my first was a baby it was easy to hunker down and forget about the outside world. This, I think, is actually rather debilitating. Getting out and doing our usual things has made me mentally and physically healthier this time around. There’s no way a (very) active almost-four-year-old is going to let you sit around all day and bask (and sometimes wallow) in new motherhood. Bun has been my link to getting back to myself.

So in the spirit of returning to the wide world and all its possibilities I am putting together a list of things I’d like to do in the remaining three-quarters of the year. I was reluctant to make any New Year’s resolutions back in January because I wasn’t sure how things would play out with the new baby, but now, with a month under my belt as a mama of two, I am going to be audacious enough to set some goals, things that will make me happier, more focused, and better equipped to be there for my family. Feel free to ask me how the list-conquering is going. Accountability is a powerful motivator.

1. Exercise. Before Bean was born I was regularly working out three days a week. I think it might be a little optimistic to jump right back into that routine, but once I get the go ahead from the doc at my postpartum check-up, I’ll start out with a once-a-week visit to Bassline and a jog around the neighborhood. By the end of the year though I want to be back to thrice weekly visits to Bassline. I’m missing those killer workouts and how they make me feel.

2. Complete a 10K in June. After Bun was born I ran a 10K with the hubs 4 months postpartum. I’d like to do the same this time around, and maybe even beat my previous time of 58:10. That’s a 9:23/mile pace.

3. Lose the weight. On a related note to exercise and running, I’m anxious to get back to my pre-baby weight. As of this writing I’ve got 12 pounds to go. That seems pretty doable so I’ll throw in a second goal of making it back to my pre-freshman 15 and pre-lazy-mid-twenties 10 weight. That would be an extra 25 pounds to lose by the end of December.

4. Get an agent, find a publisher, or self-publish. I’d like my book to eventually see the light of day. I wrote about this in my last post, so suffice it to say here that by the time the end of the year rolls around I’ll have found a home for On the Verge.

5. Start writing a new novel. I’ve got an idea of what I’d like to focus on next, I just have to carve out the time. To do that I’m planning on participating in National Novel Writing Month (a community of authors who come together and pledge to write 50,000 words in the month of November). Bean will be 8 months old by then and hopefully settled into a more predictable routine. With a little fancy scheduling I just might be able to make the time to get started on my next book.

6. Keep freelancing. I took some time away from freelance writing while I finished On the Verge, but I already have my first new assignment. I’m going to focus on getting at least 12 articles published by the New Year.

7. Learn to draw. I’ve always loved to draw, but I’ve never been especially good at it. I have a set of brand new colored pencils that have been languishing on my desk for many months alongside the highly recommended book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain: The Definitive, 4th Edition. I want to work through the exercises in that book, and maybe learn how to draw a bit better.

8. Learn French. Similarly I have had the complete Rosetta Stone series for French on my laptop for more than a year. I want to take a half hour once or twice a week and get back to learning the language. Hopefully I can finish the Rosetta Stone lessons over the next 9 months.

9. Sew a custom dress. I learned how to sew a couple of years ago, but recently my sewing machine has lain dormant downstairs. It keeps calling my name. I think it’s time I answered.

10. Keep reading. Finding time to read is difficult with two kiddos, but I’ve come to realize that it is a really important part of who I am. I just don’t feel like myself unless I find some time during the week to read. I won’t set myself a specific number of books, but I will commit to reading for at least two hours a week initially and hopefully more as things settle down (i.e. Bean sleeps through the night).

Bonus. Keep writing for my blog weekly. I’ve been making weekly blog posts to Scriven by Garen for 9 straight weeks now. My goal when I started was to make it a full year. 9 down, 43 more to go.

Wish me luck!

Image credit: Eat Pray Run DC

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Writing a Book was the Easy Part: An Update

Perhaps the most surprising thing I’ve learned about this writing a novel thing is that the actual creative act of stringing nearly 90,000 words together into a coherent story was the easy part. It was fun. Even the stuff that at the time didn’t seem so great, like when I had to rewrite the first third of the book or do extensive line edits, was, in retrospect, not so bad. I was in control, sitting at my computer and adding value to a project I deeply valued.

When I finished ON THE VERGE in late summer of last year I felt elated, accomplished. I could check off a major life goal from my list. But after the initial euphoria wore off I began to wonder what I should do with my magnum opus. It seemed rather anticlimactic to just store it away in some dusty corner of my laptop’s documents folder. I hadn’t set out to get my novel published. I didn’t even have a plot or a general outline when I first began typing. I’d seen a poster for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in my local bookstore. It’s an awesome event that happens every year in November where (slightly delusional) people sign up to write a 50,000 word novel in four weeks. I decided just based on that one poster that I was going to go for it.

A couple of days before November 1st I signed up and I started writing ON THE VERGE longhand, in a chair at my salon while I waited for my hair to process. So yeah, it wasn’t really an auspicious start, but as I began to invest more effort into the project, the more I started to want to see something come from the fruits of my labor. It took me nearly a year, not a month, but after countless hours I had what I thought was a pretty decent manuscript and absolutely no idea what to do with it.

Without really thinking much of it at first I decided I might as well try getting it published. An absolute newbie to the process it took me some time to figure out how that was supposed to be done. What I learned is that the publishing industry is crazy selective and more subjective than an Olympic figure skating competition. Everyone and their uncle has written a book it seems, and all of those people are doing the same things you’re doing. Namely, researching literary agents that might be a good match and then writing what’s called a query letter to try and entice them to read their books. Think of the query letter as a combination of a resume cover letter and the inside flap of a book jacket: part author biography and part sales pitch. Send that letter, the first chapter of your book, and sometimes a synopsis in an email, and you’ve officially queried an agent.

It turns out that agents can get several hundred of these queries per month and unless you know someone that can somehow get your query special attention, your email will end up in the agent’s dreaded slush pile where all the unsolicited manuscripts go to languish for various lengths of time. A few weeks if you’re lucky, a few months if you’re not (I’ve even heard of people getting rejections back on queries they sent a YEAR ago).

Let’s say you write a killer query letter, the agent likes your first pages and they send you a request for more. Usually they start with a partial manuscript request of something like the first 50 pages. If they like that they might ask for the whole thing. If they like THAT then they might actually take you on as a client. But here’s the kicker. That doesn’t mean you’re going to get published. It just means you’ve made it through the first set of gatekeepers. Now the agent will query publishing houses on your behalf because none of them will take manuscripts directly from authors. So the process pretty much has to start over again, and you have to wait several more months for an editor to like your stuff enough to sign you. Then you get published (maybe, there are still things that can happen after you sign your contract with the publisher that can derail your book deal, see The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How to Write It, Sell It, and Market It . . . Successfully for an extensive breakdown of how the publishing industry works).

The whole system seems quite strange and convoluted. It really hinges on whether you can grab an agent’s attention with a query letter that maybe has one or two paragraphs devoted to your story. How can you convince an agent your manuscript is worth their time in such a short space? The answer is you have to be really good at writing snazzy snippets that draw people in by piquing their curiosity. I’ve refined my letter several times, and I’ve still only succeeded in getting two agents and a digital publisher to take a look at my manuscript out of the dozens I’ve queried.

One of those agents, unfortunately, sent me a curt rejection after I submitted the first three chapters to him. It took him five weeks to send me a note that said he simply didn’t fall in love with the writing. That’s not much to go on as far as constructive criticism is concerned. Somehow that little note irked me more than the tens of other form rejections I’ve received, mostly because I had spent so much time and energy on the book, the query and everything that I had hoped for at least the courtesy of a more personalized rejection from this agent who had actually gotten my hopes up and requested more of my stuff. There was nothing in the note to indicate he had even read the three chapters I’d sent him. I have to say it stung. I followed my own advice and let myself feel crappy about it for a couple of hours and then I mentally moved on.

For something that initially started off as a bit of a whim I have now spent significant time and energy trying to get published, and I’ve even had a few leads, so for better or worse I’m taking it more seriously. I’m going to give it a few more months. I’ve queried 24 agents and 3 digital publishers since October. I know some aspiring authors query dozens, even hundreds of agents, over the course of several years in the hopes of getting published, but that path is not for me. I have a few other places I’m thinking of submitting to and if nothing comes of it after June I am giving up on the traditional route and self-publishing.

I’ve always fancied myself a bit of an entrepreneur anyway, I just never could decide what my business should be. It’s looking like it might be the business of self-publishing. In the meantime, cross your fingers for me. Maybe something will come of this crazy process after all.

Image credit: Rose Wong

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Inspiration or Theft: My Novel’s Origins

It was very late at night or, really, very early in the morning a few weeks ago, and I was on my way to bed after doing my night owl thing when I passed by my bookcase and my heart stopped. Okay, that’s a little dramatic. But still, I walked by those overburdened shelves like I do every night before bed, and I let my eye trail over the eclectic assortment of titles, old and new friends in the form of bound pages on a shelf, and suddenly it came to rest on the green-blue spine of a book by the humor and fantasy writer Christopher Moore.

It was a book I had read perhaps three or four years ago, and I hadn’t thought about it in almost as long. Sacré Bleu it’s called, a fantasy about the color blue set in fin de siècle Paris. It involves a seductive muse, a dastardly creature called The Colorman, and the most famous Impressionists and Post-Impressionists of the period. In a nutshell the muse, named Bleu, seduces artists so that they will create paintings using a special pigment, the sacred blue, that allows she and The Colorman, who supplies the pigment by harvesting it from Bleu’s body, to live forever.

In other words it shares some strikingly similar elements with my novel: the irresistible seductress preying on artists, the central role of the pigment and its strange origins, and the way paintings become mystical objects when the special color is used. There were even a few small coincidences like the briefest mention of the goddess Freya, after whom my main character is named, near the beginning of the story, and the fact that Franz von Stuck, who plays a pivotal role in my book, was an artist working in the same period (although part of a different movement) as the painters that form an integral part of Moore’s story.

I grabbed the book off the shelf and started re-reading it on the spot until I realized that I actually had to get up and function the next day. As it was, I lay awake that night in a mild state of panic. Had I inadvertently plagiarized Moore’s story? I hadn’t thought of the book in years. It never even so much as crossed my mind while I was writing On the Verge. Could my subconscious somehow have betrayed me and stored up those parts of Moore’s story I liked the best in order to regurgitate them as my own material when the time was right? Was I a fraud?

As things often do, the situation seemed better, less dire, in the morning. I spent the next few weeks re-reading Christopher Moore’s book, and I feel like I can safely say now that while there are parts of it that are similar to my story, On the Verge is a very different novel than Sacré Bleu.

But it did raise the question in my mind about originality. What makes a work of art original? When do you cross the line from using a source as inspiration to using it as a cut and paste template?

Enter Austin Kleon’s book Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative. This New York Times bestseller is a slim volume laden with incredible nuggets of wisdom for, as Kleon puts it, “anyone who’s trying to inject some creativity into their life and work.” The most important bit of creative guidance, and the namesake for the book, is to steal like an artist. By that, Kleon doesn’t mean copying other people’s work and passing it off as one’s own. The idea behind his statement is that nothing is original. “What a good artist understands,” he says, is that “all creative work builds on what came before. Nothing is completely original.”

He calls this phenomenon the genealogy of ideas. You can’t pick your family, Kleon says, but you can pick the books, music, movies and other cultural and creative inputs you consume. “You are the sum of your influences,” he writes, and your artistic ancestors form the basis, the genetic makeup so to speak, of your creativity.

The concept of the artistic ancestor is actually indirectly addressed by Moore himself in Sacré Bleu. Near the end of the story he mentions one the main characters, Toulouse Lautrec, meeting with Oscar Wilde with whom he shares the wild story of The Colorman, and the creature’s ability to keep himself young through the power of magical paintings. In Moore’s story this is where Wilde got the idea for one of his most famous works, The Picture of Dorian Gray, a novel about an aristocrat that remains forever young while a portrait of himself that he keeps locked away shows him slowly aging. Originally published in 1891, Wilde’s story of course would have been the one that influenced Moore rather than the other way around. It’s an intriguing example of the fluidity of ideas throughout time within the very book that caused me to doubt the originality of my own story.

“Art is theft” reads a Pablo Picasso quotation in Kleon’s book. The trick, it seems to me, is raising the bar on what could be a simple smash and grab crime. How do you avoid the brutal directness of plagiarism, a mugging of someone’s idea, and transform it into something more akin to the elegant elaboration of a Thomas Crown Affair-style heist? The answer lies in the execution. All ideas have lineages. It’s the responsibility of the artist to pay tribute to these, not by replicating more of the same, but by using the artistic building blocks, passed down through the generations, to fashion something new, to give birth to the next great work in a family tree of interconnected creativity.

Image credit: FRANK151

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The Great Pretender: What Makes Someone a Real Writer

Some days on this writing journey of mine (okay, most days) I feel like a bit of a faker. There are certain professions when the transition from amateur to professional is fairly clear. Usually the shift is marked by some kind of degree, a test, or a swearing-in ceremony. If you pass these hurdles you are official. You become a doctor, a lawyer, a CPA, and there is irrefutable evidence that you have arrived, that you’ve earned the title. Or maybe you get an entry level job and work your way up the ladder. Pay your dues, and after awhile your experience speaks for itself.

But what if your chosen profession is something that others might do for fun? How do you distinguish someone’s hobby from another’s career? When do you move from enthusiast to professional? When can you say you’ve made it?

These are the questions I ask myself regarding writing. When can I say, exactly, that my passion has become my profession?

Many people base it on money. Have you earned cash for things you’ve written? That might work to a certain extent, but how much merits leveling up? If you get paid a nominal amount once for your work are you a writer? Does it have to be on a consistent basis or constitute earnings over a certain amount? I’ve made a smallish sum for my published magazine articles, but it’s certainly nothing to write home about (writing about in a blog post is all good though). I haven’t made any money from my book, but I did spend the better part of a year writing it. It does actually exist.

But it doesn’t yet exist on a bookshelf. Some would say you need to be published in order to qualify as a writer. Like I mentioned in the last paragraph, I’ve made it into a few regional publications, but I haven’t managed to get my novel out into the world yet. Where does that leave me? An aspiring writer? To confuse things further there’s still a stigma against self-published authors and even against digitally published books in general. So even if you are published in this manner there are people that won’t take you seriously unless they can hold pieces of a dead tree with your name on it in their hands.

But I make an effort every day to move my manuscript out of the obscurity of my hard drive and into the hands of readers. Maybe, then, it should be more along the lines of playing the game. Are you querying agents, networking with editors, attending conferences, getting your name out in the world on social media, selling your soul to the publishing demon (just kidding on the last one…sort of)? I might do all these things, play by all the rules, and still my manuscript won’t see the light of day.

It seems that no matter what metric you use to determine your legitimacy as a writer there is ambiguity involved. So does that mean I’m doomed to be a faker forever, always unsure of my status? That’s not a sustainable position. To do my best work I need to have some sense of identity as a writer, to have confidence in my abilities enough to say, “yes, I am legit,” and believe it. Fortunately social psychologist and Harvard Business school professor Amy Cuddy has a solution that I find not only viable, but inspiring and universally applicable.

In a TEDGlobal talk that she delivered in 2012 she explains how our nonverbal actions strongly influence how we think and feel about ourselves. Essentially she demonstrates that holding a powerful pose for as little as two minutes can increase our confidence and assertiveness. It’s all very interesting with exciting implications, especially for the socially nervous (uh, me), but the part that I found most important comes towards the end. That’s when Cuddy discusses how putting on the appearance of being powerful without actually identifying with it as a defining characteristic can make people feel like frauds or imposters.

Her solution, which she says came from a beloved advisor, is to fake it.

Seriously.

The common phrase is to fake it until you make it. But Cuddy takes it a step further. “Don’t fake it till you make it,” Cuddy says, “fake it till you become it.”

So what makes a writer then? How do you avoid feeling like you don’t belong among the ranks of bona fide authors. For Cuddy it’s a matter of doing the work.

“Do it, and do it, and do it,” she says, “until you have this moment when you say, oh my gosh, I’m doing this, I have become this.”

So the secret, like so many things, turns out to be quite simple.

The definition of a real writer lies not with some subjective external assessment, but internally. It’s a function of self-discipline, determination, and the power of habit.

Write, write, write.

Write and keep writing until it becomes part of your identity.

The action, repeated and internalized over time, makes a writer.

Photo credit: Brian Clark/copyblogger

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Writing with Kids: Creativity Vampires or Miniature Muses

As of this morning I’m less than three weeks out from my due date with my second child. His or her imminent arrival fills me with a mixture of apprehension and excitement which I manage to control with a swiftly depleting reserve of patience. Of course it doesn’t help that I am also waiting to hear back from a few agents that have shown interest in my novel. My usually adequate capacity to endure periods of uncertainty is quickly diminishing.

This frustrating interim with its distracting ambiguity is intensified by another source of anxiety. Will Baby Bean make it harder to write? Will I lose my hard won momentum? Do women with children suffer setbacks in their creative output?

Even with the unknown lurking on the horizon my answer to these questions always has been and continues to be a resounding no.

It’s troubling to me that anyone would consider writing to be unsuited to motherhood, but the idea is so insidious that it even haunts those, like me, who adamantly oppose this outdated notion. There has always been a tacitly understood sliding scale of creativity that begins with single men and their married counterparts, continuing through single women somewhere near the middle, down to mothers at the tail end. It’s a disconcerting spectrum that leaves women with children seemingly unable to surmount the demands of raising a human in order to practice their craft competently.

Well-meaning author Lauren Sandler attempted to address the issue in an article in The Atlantic in which she declared that the secret to being both a successful writer and mother was limiting oneself to a single offspring. She cited the large number of famous women writers, including Susan Sontag and Joan Didion, who were mothers of only children. Her viewpoint has since been questioned and found lacking by Zadie Smith in The Telegraph and Louise Doughty in The Guardian among others.

The idea that a woman should need to subscribe to a reproductive rule in order to be a successful writer leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Is being a mom (to a single child or multiple kids) easy? No.

Does it take time and effort? Yes.

Does it make you incapable of doing anything else that might require intellectual engagement? Definitely not.

Leading up to Bun’s birth I wrote my Master’s thesis in record time and defended it days after she arrived. Being her mom has continued to make me more productive, more determined, and more thoughtful than I ever was before. The last nine months leading up to Baby Bean’s birth have also been some of the most fruitful of my writing career, driving me to finish my novel and its revision, and take the next step of finding an agent to get it out into the world.

I consider Bun and (hopefully Bean someday too) to be my inspiration for three important reasons:

She gives me purpose. She is my motivation. She forces me to have priorities, to seek out what is truly important. In other words, to cut the bullshit and live authentically. Before she was here it was easy to say “There’s time for that later.” But life with kids makes you acknowledge the moment. They don’t live in the past or the future, only the now, and that sense of presence and urgency is contagious.

She reminds me of what it’s like to live without preconceptions. To ask why constantly. To take nothing for granted. She assumes nothing because everything is an uncertainty. This is both an exhilarating and scary way to live, but looking with fresh eyes and an open mind is something we could all benefit from, especially as writers and artists.

She thinks I am capable of anything. Of course it’s naive (and a bit daunting), but it is also empowering to be invested with someone’s complete confidence. She doesn’t judge my choice to write. She doesn’t tell me I can’t do it or that being her mom makes me less of a writer. Her belief in my abilities inspires me to do my best. I won’t let her down.

Frankly, becoming a mother was the best thing that ever happened to me for a number of reasons not the least of which is that it spurred me to be a writer, to work smart, and with that certain kind of joy that comes with pursuing something you truly love.

For that I will always be grateful.

Thank you, mini muses.

Photo credit: Heather Katsoulis via Flickr cc

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If I Only Had the Time: The Phrase That Makes Me Cringe

A few well-meaning people, when I told them I was writing a novel, replied in what is decidedly one of my least favorite ways: “I would love to write a novel too, if only I had the time.”

This response raises my hackles because it implies that whatever that person does with their life is much more important than what I do with mine. Listen, we’re all busy, but busy doesn’t mean important. You can pack your waking hours from dawn ‘til dusk pushing paper, driving here and there, completing errands, doing chores, but at the end of the day what have you accomplished? Have you made progress towards any meaningful projects or goals? Maybe not, but I have, and it’s not because I have a bunch more time on my hands. It’s because I have a short list of priorities and I make sure I’m mindful of them every day.

Writing is on my short list. It might not be on yours, and that’s fine, but I guarantee you that you do have a list.

What’s important in your life? For most people work and family top their priorities, and those are very important pursuits. What happens when you aren’t earning cash or playing catch with Johnny though? What do you choose to do with your time? I tackle my other concerns: writing, working out, and reading. Some weeks these things receive less time than others, but I always try and carve out a few hours here and there.

Depending on your schedule you might be able to spare more or less time on your chosen pursuits, but most people can find at least an hour. Get up early, stay up late, take your lunch break (shocker) and devote it to one of your priorities. Ask for help from spouses, family, children, neighbors. Let them know what you are trying to do and get their support. Make the time and then guard it fiercely. And if it’s half a day on the weekend or half an hour stolen in the wee hours of the night you can make significant progress as days become weeks and weeks become months.

It might sound a bit simplistic, but in truth it isn’t that complicated to add real progress toward meaningful goals into your routine. You might not have time to write a book, but I do because I worked late and had generous family members willing to donate their time to the babysitting cause. Commit to your short list and cling to that hard won time with tenacity.

Then do the work.

If you want to write a novel you need to actually, you know, write. Not exactly an earthshattering revelation I realize, but in many ways it’s much easier said than done. You can dream of becoming a novelist, but the only way to make it happen is to turn those dreams into action. Write, write, write, and write some more.

Do the work.

Just don’t tell me you don’t have the time. You might not have the inclination, the motivation, the determination, the need, or desire, but if you do than you can find the time.

 

Inspiration for this post came from Chris Gulliebeau’s excellent book The Art of Non-Conformity: Set Your Own Rules, Live the Life You Want, and Change the World (Perigee Book.)

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Rejection: Five Ways to Make it Suck Less

“I’ve discovered that rejections are not altogether a bad thing. They teach a writer to rely on his judgment and to say in heart of hearts, ‘To hell with you.'” – Saul Bellow

Bright and early this morning I got the first rejection note from my second round of agent queries. So far I have sent my work out to eleven agents and two digital publishing houses. At last count I have received four form letter rejections which have been unfailingly polite, but which contain the same essential message: Thanks for letting me consider your work, but I’m not the right person to represent it. Sigh.

Mentally I was prepared for the negative responses. I know that securing an agent for your manuscript as a first time author requires equal amounts perseverance, talent, and luck, but still it’s hard. Every time my email buzzes these days I can’t help but get a little zing of hope. Maybe this time it’s someone who’s interested. And every time it turns out to be nothing I feel disappointed. How can you stay positive when 99 times out of 100 the interest that you’re searching for never materializes. Here are five things that help me cope:

Examine Your Motives.

If you are writing primarily to get rich or famous you might be in the wrong game. Writing is one of those things that has to be intrinsically motivated. You can’t go in with the expectation of being rewarded for the hours upon hours you will spend on your story. Writing a novel has to be more like a personal quest that gives you a built-in sense of satisfaction whether it ever sees the light of day or not.

Remain Hopeful.

There’s a big difference between expecting recognition for your writing and hoping for it. As Chris Guillebeau says “you can let go of expectations without letting go of hope.” All it takes is for one person to think your work is worth it. The trick is sorting them out from all the others that for one reason or another won’t take their chances on you.

Try, Try Again, but Make Sure You’re Moving Forward.

There’s a famous quote attributed to Albert Einstein, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Part of remaining hopeful is to continue doing your due diligence. Scour the Interwebs for new agents to query. Read everything you can on what makes for a winning query letter and keep tweaking yours until it’s perfection. Revisit your first pages and make sure they are as clean and intriguing as possible. Keep reading in your genre and studying what the market responds to. Whatever you do don’t just accept that what you have is good enough. Keep evolving.

Keep an Open Mind.

Finding an agent and getting your book traditionally published is just one option. Research alternatives. There is an increasing number of reputable digital publishers that cater to the growing eBook market, and of course it has never been easier to publish your work on your own via a service like Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing. Lots of people have found great success through these outlets.  There’s also the possibility that maybe you just need more practice. Not everyone hits it out of the park the first time around, and that’s okay. Remember point number one, your writing should be first and foremost about the sheer joy of pursuing a creative challenge. Write. Write some more. Read successful authors in your genre and learn from them. Your next manuscript might just be The One.

When All Else Fails, Commiserate and then Carry On.

Agents receive hundreds of queries a day. They pass on the vast majority of them. The plus side of this sad statistic is that when you’re rejected you are in good company. Sometimes it helps to know you aren’t the only one. It’s fine to groan and grumble a bit. Rejection sucks after all. Give yourself an hour or two to feel annoyed and angsty and then move on. You’ve got work to do.

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The Value of Mistakes

In a now famous commencement speech delivered in 2012 to the graduating class of Philadelphia’s University of the Arts my favorite author Neil Gaiman eloquently elaborated on the virtues of making mistakes.

When I read the speech later it was the first time I’d ever thought about mistakes in a positive light.

You see I’m a bit of a quiet, but dedicated, achiever. When I set my mind to something there is little that can keep me from going after my goal. I craft meticulous plans. I research and prepare. I commit time and energy. I set priorities. I stay focused. Eyes on the prize.

Most of all I try to avoid mistakes like the plague.

But here was my beloved Neil telling those hopeful grads to embrace errors. Not only that, but he said miscalculations and missteps could be useful.

“I hope you’ll make mistakes,” he said. “If you’re making mistakes, it means you are out there doing something.”

At first I recoiled from such an idea, but the more I thought about it the truer it seemed. I was afraid, though.

How can I be better, how can I compete, if I make mistakes? Wouldn’t a mistake reflect poorly on me? Wouldn’t it be a black mark on my record?

Maybe. Maybe in a world governed by rigid rules and expectations. In the world of school and the world of business people don’t ordinarily succeed by accepting their gaffes. In these traditional, competitive settings mistakes are to be eschewed at all costs, and if one does happen punishments are promised, apologies exacted. The incident itself is corrected as swiftly as possible and then swept under the proverbial rug.

The perpetrator, we imagine, feels embarrassed and ashamed. They vow never to make that mistake again. They become a little more circumspect, a bit more conservative. They stick to what they know. They play it safe.

That’s fine. I get it. I’ve lived that way most of my life. Neil, though, I think was saying that the creative life can’t be lived that way.

You want to be a writer? You want to say things that matter, that people want to read? Yes? Then you can’t live in that safe zone. It just doesn’t work. You have to be willing to put yourself on the line, to be vulnerable, and real. To try and fail maybe, but to at least try.

“Make interesting mistakes,” he said. “Make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for you being here. Make good art.”

So that is what I intend to do. No, I can’t entirely abandon my perfectionist tendencies, but I can put them in perspective. Perfection is unattainable, and it doesn’t allow for mistakes, but the perfectionist also doesn’t settle for mediocre. I can make that work.

I wrote a novel. It was my first, but hopefully not my last, and I made mistakes. I made this website and started this blog, and I made mistakes, and will make more I’m sure. I’m querying agents and publishers, and I know I’m making mistakes, but you know what?

Neil’s right.

I’m out there, and I’m doing something, and it’s awesome.

What would you do if you weren’t afraid of making a mistake? You should go do it.

Image credit: Quote of the Day on ModCloth

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