Monday, May 16, 2016

A Brief Moment of Celebration between Showering and Scooping up Dustball Tumbleweeds

I finished writing a book this morning.

I've been working on the thing pretty much every day since September and when I haven't been working on it, it's been in my head, snippets of dialogue in the supermarket that I scratch out on the back of my grocery list, and sudden cold sweats in the middle of the night when I realize I've got a gaping plot hole, and moments of excitement when I snap together pieces that just might solve that gaping plot hole issue,

but mostly it's day after day of psychologically girding myself, gearing up to write, and fighting back the demons in my head that whisper why bother why are you doing this it's stupid and pointless and opening up my lap top and writing anyway.

You think when you come to the end of the book you've been writing for eight months, you'll want to whoop it up. Drink a bottle of champagne. Tear out of the house shouting I JUST FINISHED WRITING A BOOK!

The truth is nobody really cares.

Also, the house is a gigantic mess because you've been neglecting it for eight months and suddenly you can see the layer of dust on all of the furniture and the tumbleweed sized dog hair balls in the corners and the fact that you've been wearing the same clothes for possibly days? and when was the last time you showered?

(Don't answer that.)

So, there's tons of stuff to do and after you take a shower and put on some different clothes, it's time to get to it. Answering a bajillion emails and taking care of business-y stuff and never mind figuring out what to do with this Thing-- the inevitable revising once you get it back from your critique partners-- and Hey! It's time to query it! and what will you write next? yadda yadda ya...

One of my friends asked me the other day, when I told her I was getting closer to the end of this draft, how I was going to celebrate.

Confession: I'm not big on celebrations.

I'm not sure what it is exactly about celebrating that bugs me. The expense? The party-planning aspect? Anything to do with cake and glitter? Plus, it feels a little narcissistic to me. (See above: nobody really cares.)

I don't mind participating in other people's celebrations.

This weekend, for example, my son's graduating from college, and my husband and I are throwing him a party. A graduation is a Thing worthy of celebrating. The culmination of years of hard work and study. The marking of the movement from one life stage into another. An opportunity to hang together as a family, as friends, as a community to acknowledge the person you love who's done This Thing.

Writing a book, while it feels monumental at times, is so much more solitary. Especially when there's no guarantee that anyone will ever read it. It's like running a marathon in the dark. You don't get a certificate of completion. There's no stage to walk across. No graduation cap to throw into the air. No Congratulations to The Book Writer cards in the stationery aisle.

Ah well.

Cheers.

*throws all the glitter*




Saturday, May 7, 2016

Kill Your Carrots


Today I went into my garden and murdered a bunch of vegetables.

Tore the perky kale out by the roots. Sliced the lovely swiss chard. Ripped apart the darling purple cabbages. And I don't even want to tell you how gruesome things got in the carrot patch.

I hate this part of gardening.

Thinning, the professionals call it, which sounds so innocuous and easy. For those of you who are non-gardeners, thinning basically means pulling out seedlings so there is more space between plants. When I first started gardening I couldn't bring myself to do it.

So what if all of the radishes grew so closely together that they never actually, um...

grew radishes?

Over the years I've tried to get a handle on my thinning aversion by experimenting with different solutions:

1. I planted seeds far apart to begin with.  (Easier said than done... some of these seeds are teeny tiny! Some never grow in the first place and there's wasted space where a plant could've been.)

2. I replanted the "thinned" seedlings in different spots around the garden. (This requires lots of work-- to dig up a seedling, roots and all, and get it going again somewhere else. And honestly, how many vegetables do I really need anyway? Example: the garden two summers ago where I had 55 basil plants.)

3. I left everything as is, without thinning. (see above: radish plants that never grow radishes because they are bunched up too closely to each other.)

In the end I came around to thinning and that is why I was outside in my garden today killing my carrots.

Pre-thinning:

Thinned: 

And much better. (sigh)

Also, a million times easier than what I've been doing inside my home:

Over the past few weeks I've been finishing up work on the second draft of a novel. I started the revision back in September and I was confident, then, that I could whip the thing into shape by Thanksgiving. I mean, Christmas. I mean, February. I mean, Spring Break.

I mean, two weeks from now.

One of the things that has tripped me up was holding onto my first draft.

As often happens with second drafts, this book has morphed into something different from what I originally thought it was. (better, I hope!) The story tightens up. The characters come into focus. The plot crystallizes and smaller sub plots fall away. Things I thought were important in the first draft don't make sense any more. Strands. Minor characters. Dialogue I love--funny bits, heartbreaking interchanges between people I've grown to believe are real.

Entire scenes. The first fifty pages. The last. The title.

All of it-- this stuff that once worked but no longer does-- has got to go.

Oh! I do NOT want to do this!

I fight to hold onto it every step of the way. Maybe I can shoehorn in this perfectly crafted sentence Here? Maybe there's a place for this scene--at least half of it-- the one I enjoyed writing so much the first time around?

And inevitably, after much hopeful fiddling, I give up, resigned. And Snip.  

Poof.

Gone.

Now I don't even miss it. Now I can't even remember what was so great about that bit in the first place.




"In writing, you must kill your darlings," William Faulkner once said.

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Whatever, Bill. I know.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Fun Times with Dying Bunnies. With Dying Hamsters. With Dying Mice.

Last week I discovered a nest of bunnies in my herb garden.

Cute squirmy little bodies under a thatch of grass, and to be honest, my first reaction was annoyance. My husband had recently repaired the fence around my garden and my lettuce and spinach were coming up and now here I had these bunnies, trapped inside with a food source-- MY GARDEN!

There didn't seem to be much I could do about it though. My husband and I got the bright idea that we could feed the bunnies ourselves-- maybe sprinkle store bought lettuce and shredded carrots around the nest for the mother to use so she wouldn't need to raid my garden...

So off we went to the grocery store.

When we returned, we found that our dog Zooey had discovered the nest and the cute little squirmy bunny bodies were scattered all over the place and I surprised my husband (and myself) by basically having a sobbing breakdown.

Is this about the hamsters? my husband asked me later, because he knew I had a history of small dying animals in my life.

Let me tell you The Story of How I Got Two Hamsters For My Birthday and Seven Died.

Once upon a time my boyfriend gave me two hamsters for my 15th birthday. Two boy hamsters, allegedly. But the first night, the fatter hamster attacked the smaller hamster and I woke to the smaller one screaming (and dying), and I was horrified and mad at the fatter hamster until I saw that she had given birth to five tiny squirmy hamster babies in the corner of the cage.

I called some Animal Hotline place and they told me to do nothing. Let the mother hamster take care of the little ones. And I was happy to do that.

Too bad for me that the next day the mother died.

Back to the Animal Hotline, where the kind Animal Hotline Expert told me calmly that I could feed the babies with an eyedropper filled with a mixture of raw egg and milk. So I did that.

And one by one the tiny little babies died. One died slowly in the palm of my hand.

The end.

I made a funny story out of it though. And told it to other people in a jokey way. I even used the incident in a writing workshop in college, calling the story The Dead Hamster Theory.

It's hit me over the years that I can use material from my own life in the stories I tell at parties, in the stories and novels I write, manipulating the true stuff with made-up stuff, finding the humor in the sad and horrifying because I know that is a way that I can examine and understand the sad and horrifying and because I know humor can make dark stuff more palatable to readers.

At the moment I am writing a novel where the main character IS this type of person--one who uses humor to deflect, as a form of self-protection, as a way to create some distance between herself and truly horrifying things that have happened to her in the past. I've never written a purposefully funny book before and I'm enjoying it, while at the same time wondering if I'm getting the humor right, if this book will be funny to anyone but myself, and if the darkness at the core of the story possibly might be too dark.

I'm not sure.

Maybe some things just aren't funny.

But back to my dying bunnies.

I told my daughter who is away at college and she immediately sent me a funny song she made.

video

I needed this funny song because after my husband, at my tearful urging, placed all of the stunned potentially dying bunnies carefully back into the nest, over the next few days, when I checked on them, they began to die, one by one.

We are now down to three, and this morning I am afraid to peek in on them to see if they have made it through another night huddled together in the oregano.

Confession: I didn't have a breakdown over bunnies because of what happened with my dying hamsters.

Let me tell you another story:

When I was eight years old, my new stepfather took me to a farm he had recently inherited. In the back of the property was an old barn filled with farm equipment and furniture and junky odds and ends and my stepfather wanted to see if there was anything salvageable in the place, and I was happy and curious. My father had died a year before and I was happy and curious about having a stepfather.

I found an antique roll top desk with lots of small drawers and compartments and I slid one of the drawers open and was delighted to see a nest of small squirmy bodies inside. Teeny tiny baby mice that made me think of little fairies.

Oh look! I said to my new stepfather.

And he grabbed the little squirmy mice out of the drawer with one fist and hurled them at the barn wall.

The end.

There are some things that are not funny.









Monday, April 25, 2016

Day by Day, good Day

Nearly five years ago I'd hit something of a low point in my writing life. My manuscript Thin Space had been floating around the publishing world for a year and a half. "Floating," for the record, in publishing terms, is actually a nice way of saying "Sitting unread in multiple editors' inboxes."

Then my agent quit the business. 

During that floating time, I'd written a sequel to Thin Space. Also, two other novels, companion books of sorts, set in the same dark weirdo mythological world. I started a third that winter.

The book was about a boy who wanted SO MUCH to have the powers and talent and special gift that his family members and friends had. But, alas, it wasn't happening for him. Still, he refused to quit. Consumed by the quest to transform himself, he set about trying to MAKE THIS THING HAPPEN by logically approaching the problem-- devising a plan  and checking off items on his checklist. Practicing. Exercising. Stubbornly refusing to stop despite every setback. 

He was a trooper that little guy.  

The parallel to my own situation was pretty clear to me and somewhere over the months of writing I could see that the book had morphed from 

Boy Makes Dream Come True Out of Sheer Willpower 

into 

Writer Comes to Terms with a Failed Dream. 

By the time summer rolled around (and my agent quit) I was torturing the poor boy. But for whatever reason, every day, despite the growing futility of the endeavor, I parked my butt in the chair and wrote the latest installment of this idiot kid as he pursued the dream we both could see was never going to come true.

30,000 words. 40,000 words. I was writing the Five Stages of Death and Dying. Accept it, I wanted to tell the boy. Get a grip. Move the F on. 

50,000 words. 60,000. I kept writing. What else was I going to do with my time? 

70,000 words. 80,000. 90,000... The plot, if there had ever been one, had long since fallen apart. The story was meandery and repetitive and pointless. I kept writing it. 

I think it was the end of August when it hit me. Something was happening to this kid. All of his work and crazy determination had gotten him somewhere. Strangely, it was not the place that he'd been striving toward. 

He was no longer afraid. No longer consumed by his quest. He was not the same boy he'd been at the beginning. Somewhere along the way, he had been transformed after all.

I finished the book and never looked at it again. 

A few weeks later my second agent told me that there was serious interest in Thin Space and if I could hold on for a bit longer, I might have a book deal. (spoiler alert: it took 6 more months before that happened). In the mean time, while I was almost manic with anxiety and frustration and worry, I did the only thing I knew how to do. 

I wrote another book. 

Last week I went to the Columbus Museum of Art. On a wall in one of the galleries there was a row of pictures, what looked like the same empty glass. The artist is a German man named Peter Dreher. Apparently, those paintings are the representatives of over 5,000 that Dreher calls his magnum opus, Tag um Tag guter Tag (Day by Day good Day). 

Every day since 1974 Dreher has painted the same empty water glass. Basically, it's the guy's practice. Wake up, paint a painting of the same glass. He's done it at least 2,500 times during the day. He's also created 2,500 paintings of the same glass at night-- because hey, why the hell not? 

In case you're wondering, he does other things besides paint the same glass. 

Over the next few weeks I am finishing up a revision of my tenth book. I haven't sold my two weirdo mythological world books. Or the sequel to Thin Space. I still have never opened the 100,000-word first draft of the Boy Who Refused to Quit story. 

Oh, I also no longer have an agent. 

When I finish my revision I will query it, which may or may not snag an agent's attention. If I do snag an agent's attention, he or she may or may not be able to snag the attention of an editor. 

So, all of that is up in the air. 

But here is what is NOT up in the air: 

as this tenth book floats around in the publishing world, I know with absolute certainty what I will be doing. 

I will be writing. 

each day
every day 

good day  





Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Haunting. Part Two...

From the outside it looks like an ordinary house. Inside, it is charming.

Comfy furniture, artwork on the walls. Cutsy knick-knacks. Flowers and candles. Bible verses written in calligraphy... The perfect place for a writers' retreat, and you and your friend drop your bags, ooh-ing and aah-ing--

--up the steep, narrow stairs to the bedrooms, and for some reason, your skin prickles and you chide yourself because what is so scary about steep narrow stairs? and at the top of the stairs, two bedrooms, one with a twin bed and a door that opens into an--okay, you have to admit it--a creepy attic space. You close the door fast and leave the room and find your friend.

I want to stay in this room, you say, pointing at the bigger room with the bigger bed. You are halfway embarrassed to say this, but whatever.

Your friend says, Oh, well, okay, I'll sleep downstairs on the couch.

And you say, um, no, let's both sleep in this room. Because you can't imagine sleeping upstairs alone and you're a little mortified about saying this too, but you don't care.

You have been in the house for fifteen minutes, but it's time to leave. You explore the charming town, snapping a picture of the barn across the street, the one with the human skulls in the windows. You drop inside an antique store. You buy a funny postcard.

You walk with your friend across a long bridge. The day is lovely and sunny and warm.

It's after ten that night when you come back to the house. It's strange because every light is on and the TV is on with a fuzzy blue screen and you don't remember leaving the lights on, and maybe someone is home? Maybe this isn't the house? But no, there are your things, your sneakers kicked off and your laptops.

That night you settle into the bigger bed, a little embarrassed, next to your friend. It's so cold in the room and then it's so unbearably hot, but eventually, you fall asleep. You sleep like the dead.

In the morning you wake up early. You walk down the steep narrow stairs. You don't realize you are walking sideways. Just a silly thing. You want to make sure your back's not turned, that's all. Silly.

Your friend sleeps like the dead until nearly noon. When she wakes up, she's bleary-eyed. It was so hot last night, she says. I couldn't sleep. I had to keep messing with the heat and every time I did, the temperature was higher.

Huh. You don't remember that.

You leave the house together, exploring the town again. Driving this time, across the long bridge. You leave the car in a parking lot and go out with people you know from the town. It's late when one of the people offers to drive you and your friend to the house. Good idea, you say.

We'll go back for the car in the morning.


Your friend wants to stay up and write but you're so tired, you can hardly think. Still, you sit for a while in the living room. You don't want to walk up the steep narrow stairs alone. But this is silly. You go up the stairs sideways. You go to sleep--

And then it's 3:00 in the morning and your friend is shaking you awake. I'm so sorry, she says. Her voice is panicky, and you instantly sit up.

Something is happening in the house, she says. And just like that you hear it. Rattling and clanging and banging. It's coming from the basement, she says. Do you hear it?

Well, of course you hear it. It's freaking loud. Water running through pipes?

But we aren't using the water, your friend says.

Steam banging in the radiators?

But the house doesn't have radiators.

You walk down the stairs sideways, so scared now that you don't notice that your friend is also walking does the stairs sideways. The noise is coming from the basement. The door to the basement is locked.

Well, whatever, you're not going down there anyway.

Let's get out of here, your friend says, and you realize that she has her sneakers on and her coat on over her pajamas and her purse draped over her arm.

Hell, yeah, you think, as the noise clanks louder up from the basement vents and you are trying to think logically but it's 3 o'clock in the morning and maybe something is going to happen, bad, like the furnace will explode. This happened in your town last year, so it's not an insane possibility, and now, you've got your shoes on and your coat on and your purse in your hand, and the noise is growing louder and who the hell knows, maybe someone has broken into the basement, a homeless person, knocking and banging around.

Forget this! You're going to a hotel. You'll come back for your things in the morning.

Your friend is digging for her keys, and then it hits you:

the car is on the other side of town,

in a parking lot. On the other side of the long bridge. It begins to storm.

You and your friend huddle together on the couch, the TV on, every damn light in the house on, listening, hyper-alert-ly to the banging and metal scratching, and now improbably, the walls have started to make noise too, something that sounds like knocking, and your friend says, Rodents? and you nod, but you know that rodents don't have fists.

Or knuckles.

You grab your friend's arm and you lean against each other on the couch. You have never been this scared in your entire life. No. This is a lie. You have been this scared. You were scared your entire childhood. Of the dark. Of going to sleep. Of waking up. Of people dying. Of people creeping into your bedroom in the middle of the night. And you remember the terror of your childhood self as you hold your friend's hand, telling yourself that all of this is in the past and you are an adult and you have escaped and you are safe now and this, this, THIS, whatever this is, has a logical explanation even if you can't think of what it might be at the moment.

Morning.

The house is quiet. You wake next to your friend on the couch and you are both crazed and wrung out, packing your things quickly, and walking sideways up and down the steep narrow stairs for one final time.

You cross the bridge together, nearly sprinting for the car. You return to the house. You have to go to the bathroom, but f that. You'll go pee at a McDonalds. You gather your stuff and flee the charming lovely house. You get into the car and shudder out relieved sighs.

You start to drive away and you both gasp at the same moment.

What is THAT? your friend says.

And there, directly behind the house where you stayed, is another house. It's gray and weathered and collapsing in on itself. It's a stereotypical horror show, so stereotypically horrifying, that you both laugh hysterically and your friend presses her foot on the gas and says, let's get the hell out of here.

That night, when you are safely at home, you try to explain all of this to your husband, but you know none of it makes sense. Why would you be afraid of steep narrow stairs? Lights coming on. Heat. Noise. Rodents in the walls. It's all so silly.

But look at THIS, you say to your husband.

You pull up Google Earth as you tell him about the unbelievable freak show of a house that was looming up directly behind the one where you stayed. This is something you have got to see, you say.

You find the charming house on Google Earth easily. You zoom in. You zoom around. You zoom above. You zoom to the sides. This can't be right, you tell your husband.

There is no house behind yours.

(no lie. THIS is the lot behind the house where you stayed.)




Thursday, April 7, 2016

Passive Aggressive Postcards from the Edge. (The Haunting. Part One)

A few weeks ago I went on a writing retreat with my writing friend Natalie D. Richards (not her real name) because "Natalie" wanted to get new author photos done and her cousin owns a studio in Marietta, Ohio, and so we decided to turn the photo shoot into a longer weekend of writing.

This will be fun, we said. Relaxing and inspiring and productive, like previous roadtrips and writing retreats we've gone on together...

but little did we know that we would soon embark upon a nightmarish horror journey that we are still trying to make sense of to this very day.

Cue: Scream

We found a darling little house to rent (which turned out to be haunted, but we didn't know that yet) and we set our suitcases and laptops and bags of fun food and wine treats down, and because it was a lovely, uncharacteristically sunny day, we left the house to explore the town.

For reasons that aren't quite clear to me now, we thought that the rustic looking barn across the street from the darling little house-- the one with the human skulls propped in the windows-- was funny.

(funny? Or, creepy as HELL. I'll let you be the judge)

Further down the street, we came upon something else that caught our eye, an antique shop with all sorts of fascinating objects outside in the adjacent courtyard. Objects such as a ladder and bicycle sculpture hanging from the trees, and an old wheelchair, and 

an animal skull jutting out of the wall.



Also, a little boy statue standing in front of a washtub.



"Hey! Let's go inside this place!" we said. Because we are stupid.

The store sold old furniture and old photos of people, mostly babies, the kind of old photos where you just know that now all of those people are dead.

We were the only customers.

I gravitated toward a wall of old postcards and found one that I thought was hilarious. It was a postcard with a picture of a crying baby that said "WHY DON'T YOU WRITE?"


"What a perfect motto for our writing retreat!" I said to "Natalie." And I bought it and took a picture of it and tweeted about it, something clever, I thought, about how this postcard made me think of the beginning of a Supernatural episode, and one of my Twitter friends immediately tweeted back, something like GET RID OF THAT POSTCARD NOW! and I thought that was funny too.

I am going to skip over the rest of the weekend--the photo shoot at the Hot Tomato studio and the burlesque show that "Natalie" and I found ourselves going to, dressed in our Hot Tomato costumes and teetery high heeled shoes, and the fun dinners we had and the walks back and forth across the river on a lovely bridge and our talks about writing and major breakthroughs in our respective writing projects, and also, the hellish two nights we spent in the HAUNTED HOUSE,

and return to talking about the postcard.

It was a real postcard, sent on July 28, 1911 in Zanesville from a woman named Mildred to a man named Moody, and on the postcard, Mildred wrote, passive-aggressively:

Hello. Why didn't you write to me? 

I don't know if Moody ever wrote back to Mildred. Or why Moody kept the postcard from Mildred. Or how the postcard ended up, eventually, in the antique shop with the animal skull and freaky child doll in the courtyard. Or, most importantly, why I bought the postcard and carried it around in my purse for three days.

What I DO know is that I got home from my haunted weekend, anxious and exhausted and freaked out, and that night, after telling my husband the entire story, I remembered the silly tweet about the Supernatural episode,

and I put the postcard in the fireplace and set it on fire.


The End.

Or is it?

[tune in next week for The Haunting. Part Two.]






Thursday, March 31, 2016

April. Otherwise Known As the Month In Which Martha Presses Her Table Linens and I Scoop Monkey Balls out of My Yard

I didn't know until the April issue of Martha Stewart Living magazine came in the mail that Martha Stewart and I have a lot in common. 

Side note: I am not typically a Martha Stewart Living magazine reader, but a few months ago my husband got an email from our credit card company announcing that if we didn't use a bunch of accumulated points, we would lose them forever, and the only thing that we seemed to be able to use the points for was ordering magazines, and so now we are receiving Martha, Self, Dwell, and Us Weekly in the mail. Side note two: My husband threatened to order more magazines but I told him that four is plenty (see: my recent de-hoarding obsession), and he was forced to order Cigar Aficionado, Wine Enthusiast, and Guns & Garden for our friends, possibly now our enemies. 

But back to Martha. I was joking before when I said we have a lot in common.   

And nowhere is this more starkly clear to me than on page 2 of the April issue which has a feature called Martha's Month: Gentle reminders, helpful tips, and important dates.

Martha's Month

I read this page with interest, thinking that maybe I should put together a calendar page for myself too, and write out my own gentle reminders. I have that vague naggy feeling that April will be a busy one, a mish mash of the writing project that I'm slowly picking my way through, a handful of writing workshops to plan, organizational stuff for my new SCBWI Regional Advisor position, and all of that sandwiched around general housekeeping and yardwork that must be taken care of, ASAP, most importantly, my vegetable garden.

But before I can even begin work on my vegetable garden, my husband and I have to deal with the mud bath that is our backyard. 

(Our backyard, last year, after a rainstorm. This was the
day that my husband and I crafted a shark fin
out of cardboard and set it afloat upon the surface of
our new mudpond, which just goes to show how
artsy-craftsy we can be. Take that, Martha.)

Over the past few weekends, dealing with the mud bath that is our backyard has involved digging a fifteen-foot long ditch and lining it with stones so as to create our own dry creek bed for excess water collection. 

Next up on the To-do list: scooping up piles of dog poop left behind now that the snows and waters have receded. 

And collecting the monkey balls that dot our muddy lawn like landmines. 

Monkey balls, as I am sure you know, are the sharp edged fruits that drop from the monkey ball tree. (I just looked this up for my own edification and because I was wondering if they are really called "monkey balls." Weirdly, the answer is yes. Officially, the tree is the American Sweetgum and the fruit, in addition to being fondly referred to as monkey balls, is also known as "bommyknockers" "sticker balls" and "gum balls."

Whatever you want to call them, I highly recommend that you do not step on them with bare feet.) 

Anyway, what I am trying to say is that, according to our calendars, while I am "picking up monkey balls" and "navigating piles of dog poop," Martha will be "making fresh ricotta" and "going for horseback rides" and "baking homemade treats for the dogs" and "visiting Maine for the weekend."

It should be a fun month for both of us. 

three fewer bommyknockers to pick up