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This is Not a Fail

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Editors look at my book and say nice things. They say lukewarm things, too. And they say no.

The subbing process can be full of no’s or versions thereof, found in forwards from your agent where it was “so close” or “Ugh!”

When you spend years on a book, you might start to think a pile of no’s during the sub process equals failure.

No. This is a not a fail.

A fail is envy.

That person with publishing success? On his own path, on her own journey. They don’t write what you write, they don’t do what you do, even if the genre is identical and even if their age seems particularly close. Or unfair. Yes, those people who get on the path early and seem (operative word, seem) to have the way cracked wide open for them…that may seem wrong but who made you judge? Jealousy, the kind you nurture unabashedly: that’s a fail.

A fail is using your mean words on social media.

Do better, authors. We ought to know how words are weaponized.

A fail is expecting the world to hand you success and fame and fortune.

No one owes us anything.

A fail is defining your art by revenue alone.

A fail is giving it away for free all the time.

A fail is believing your work will never, ever get better.

A fail is blaming others for being in your way.

A fail is focusing on the moment and what’s not right and then sitting back, paralyzed.

When you feel that bad, grabbing your dragging heart off the floor and pinning it back on is all you can do.

Or in Hamilton terms:

Rise up!
When you’re living on your knees, you rise up
Tell your brother that he’s gotta rise up
Tell your sister that she’s gotta rise up

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Setting for a Reason

 

I believe everything happens for a reason. So I like to keep my eyes and ears open for signs that help my novel, especially when that novel feels “meant to be.” Everyday life gives me so many gifts of inspiration.

 

 

Example: a conversation at work this week about whether the location for a problem-based learning scenario (PBL) could be changed, in an educational program for gifted kids: that inspired me to better set the stage in my novel.

 

I’m lucky enough to work in a place where we get to have discussions about best practices in education, one of which is using the power of narrative to reinforce and explore concepts. Our debate was whether we could make the setting of the problem in a small town that would get quite hyped by a minor incident. You know, the way small towns do.

 

Setting is its own character. I’ve said this to myself a whole bunch, but I don’t always practice this in my writing.

 

Setting breathes and pounds like a beating heart around and within characters of your novel.

 

Setting is a vehicle to carry larger truths.

 

 

You can be explicit in descriptions, symbolic and weighty as I was with Wendy Redbird Dancing in my novel How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought. Burdened by trauma, walking her neighborhood, here’s what she thinks:

 

When I disembark from the EZ Rider bus, the air is thick as water and I part it with my body, heaving against it. I pass a dull procession of dying trees lining Oak Street from downtown Millboro toward the Passive Solar, hung with a green, bright, and curly killer, kudzu that suffocates the pine, birch, and oak beneath. Lumpy, monster trees trapped by cancerous masses. Wouldn’t it be nice if a big net of suffocating vines would o’ertake me and let me sleep awhile.

 

Kudzu’s always freaked me out a little, especially as a teen when I moved here from California. I’d seen ivy but never enough that it appeared to be taking over a small country. Driving by kudzu on the way to work, I saw it as something Wendy would definitely notice as she navigates a very painful existence, one where she feels trapped like a mummy in a perpetrator’s web.

 

Some writers don’t want that deep a connection, and worry, rightfully so, about pathetic fallacy. My description doesn’t tread there but it’s symbol writ large.

 

 

Or you can just set up the facts of the location with plans for those rich details to matter later. (Hopefully, the reader will make those connections, not us.) The conversation at work had me thinking about the four-week span of a story for our program’s PBL scenarios, and how breaking news featured each week is a pacing strategy we use to engage student interest. In the same way, a setting as its own person can not only keep my readers with me but also set things up for later drama.

 

In my novel in progress, NO SMALL THING, I’m working to develop a setting of extreme fandom and loyalty to the boys’ high school basketball team. Here’s a first draft (first!) of a setting nugget I inserted in a dialogue between Audrey, aspiring sportscaster, and her mother, not a basketball fan. Mom is lecturing her about choosing education as a career instead.

 

She sighs. “We’ve talked about this. Entertainment is nice, but—”

She’s interrupted by blaring horns and hollers as a huge caravan of pickup trucks pass us on the main drag, festooned with black and yellow streamers. Kids are standing, shaking posters while horns blare, and people on sidewalks salute with brown bags since everyone started drinking early tonight—the kind of pregaming the whole town does when the season starts. THREEPEAT and ALL THE WAY TO STATES pass us by, and then GOT RABIES? with the Farrington Wolverines mascot, and CALL ANIMAL CONTROL RABID WOLVERINES.

Mom shakes her head. “So not safe. Who’s driving?”

 

This type of fandom will not just be an annoyance to Mom later—it’ll be a real threat to Audrey.

 

Or there’s the fact that it’s October in North Carolina, 37 degrees one moment, and 77 the other. This is not the norm. Audrey’s mom uses it as a part of her pitch to Audrey (propaganda, really) to become a teacher:

 

We get in the car before we turn to icicles. A big mosquito buzzes around the dash and bangs against the windshield, half-hearted and sad.

“Lovely,” Mom says. “Thirty-seven degrees tonight and mosquitos are bopping around. See, another reason to get into the classroom and teach these kids science.”

 

This writing strategy is true for creative nonfiction as well. Writers exploring their memoirs are often faced with the question of whether to recall certain setting elements (and also the moral dilemma of did I really smell that rose and was I really tasting peanut butter so fully when I was four?).

 

I celebrate that kind of sensory exploration as we dive into setting our life stages in memoir because these are necessary vehicles to grounding our readers in our reality. Whether I really tasted PB & J just that way back in 1970-something isn’t so much the issue as a) I did get PB & J sandwiches for lunch and b) I was a kid of age four who probably fixated on how PB does stick to the roof of your mouth and I would probably talk to my mom about it. And the kitchen was probably yellow and brown in that seventies goodness way of decor. That truth of setting is worth sharing.

 

 

All this to say that I wouldn’t have had this epiphany if I didn’t have the day job I have, the conversations we have there. Sometimes, I let negative thinking distract me from my true writer’s purpose. I somehow think I should be working faster, writing better, and doing this whole thing PERFECT.

 

Crazy talk. Everything is perfect in its time when it comes to artistic process. Things must flower and unfurl…and yes, maybe they’d unfurl faster if I were listening a little harder.

 

That’s my plan for next week. Listen, ask, discuss. And keep jotting down those fleeting ideas with strings attached

 

(Note: right now, I’m in an AWESOME writing zone but back in the spring, I felt exactly the opposite than this post. So if you’re having a crappy time with getting pages together, I feel your pain. Sometimes it’s hard to listen to the world around us when we feel our well’s run dry or we can’t generate anything better than the basics.)

 

How about you? Are things happening for a reason in your writing process? Is real life triggering your story elements?

 

 

 

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A Writer’s Time…

 

…is precious. Watch it get stolen daily. Three questions to help you keep it safe:

  • What’s your freshest hour–or hours–of the day? Find them, use them, guard them. For me, it’s before 11 AM.
  • What device and which space will let you hunker down? I have to turn off Messages, Chrome, and Mail in order to write. My office is the best place, and I need wordless music or music that gets me in a trance. Oh how I adore the Hamilton soundtrack but the rich language distracts me.
  • What guilt do you need to shelve? Name the people, places, and things: For me: my cat, my messy house, and dishes/laundry/daily grind.

How do you protect your time?

 

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What’s in Your Writer’s Shrine?

Welcome to my writer’s shrine.

We all need hope, faith, and love as writers. We all need to believe in the power of our words, even if everything else in our life is telling us “nah.”

Talismans, symbols, icons, saints.

Gifts from friends who love us well.

From the ether and in the electricity of the unseen, the great Cloud of thoughts, something’s got to manifest.

I cling to these somethings.

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Are You My Mother?

“While I don’t believe in heaven, I do believe in energy, which is neither created nor destroyed. My mom’s molecules still vibrate in this present universe, dissipating into the soil as we speak; still swirling are also her breaths. And it probably doesn’t hurt that Erin Connelly Christopoulos was a force of nature; the universe doesn’t just forget someone like that.”

— Minerva, in How Minerva Mae Set the Record Straight

Today, Mother’s Day, I’m thinking of all those who miss their mothers very much.

Minerva, the 13 year-old protagonist of my current novel, lost her mother at age 10. Through my writing, I’ve tried to imagine what this is like. Today, in my forties, I still get unconditional love and support from my wonderful mom. So not having the personal experience, I’ve witnessed the bravery of friends and tried to walk in their shoes, to try to begin to understand what this must be like.

I’m blessed to know several strong women who’ve lost their mothers and who navigate health, child-rearing, marriage, and work challenges without motherly advice. They press on without the counsel of someone who’s seen you at your best and worst, who can remind you that this moment you’re suffering doesn’t have to define everything past, present, or future. Mama and Me

When Minerva’s best friend chooses new friends and leaves her alone to navigate the first days of high school, Minerva turns to nature. She hikes up a trail behind her house, seeking the trees and plants her mother once loved. Minerva’s more of an indoor girl, but she knows if she’s going to find any peace, she needs to head outside. She’s on a mission to commune with nature’s energy where she believes her mother still resides.

Out of nowhere, Minerva hears guidance in the breeze. She hears the words of someone else’s voice, but she can’t interpret the message. It won’t be till she suffers some misadventures at the hands of her own hubris that she can interpret what her intuition (or is it her mother’s spirit) tried to tell her. Those words will suddenly make all kinds of sense.

I have a delightful friend who lost her mother very young and still embraces this world and all its crazy with resilience and joy. In fact, she jokes about her “Mom complex” and how it drives her to seek advice from certain grumpy old ladies, ones who makes it their mission to put people in their place. There’s something comforting about being told where to go and what to do by someone with lots of surety. Moms know, and they know best. Whether you lost her young or old, it fits you would seek her again and again, wherever you might find her, and that you’d be drawn to those teachers, coaches, colleagues, supervisors, and other female authorities who can set you straight on the rules of life. Thanks to my mom’s gracious and wise guidance, I know I gather around me those who remind me of her energy and presence, who give you that peace of being known in a particular way.

This same friend is like several others I know who are mothers of a different sort–the mentors, the aunts, the teachers, the friends, the principals, the supervisors, and the neighbors who help raise other people’s children.

I am also thinking today of those who grieve the mother who never was and yet who carry love and light to the world despite the lack.

By a certain age, we all become parents to this world, like it or not. We are all keepers of the village. I lift up those who share their best selves in the face of great loss and who still help mother this fragile place.

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