New Year’s Resolutions and The 2019 ICT Reading Challenge

Ah, yes. New Year’s Eve. The time when goblins and ghosties and . . . nope, wait, sorry, wrong Eve. Let’s start over.

New Year’s Eve. The night when we revel and ring out the old and ring in the new and make resolutions we may or may not keep. There. That’s better!

Like many, I’m also making resolutions for this year, some of them to do with my writing. But another is to do with reading. Every year, the Wichita Public Library sponsors the ICT Reading Challenge. It’s pretty simple, really – 12 books, 12 categories, 12 months. I tried it last year and got about halfway through before becoming stumped by some of the categories (for instance, I despise graphic novels and refused to read one).

But this year, I decided I’d really try to go for it. I’m planning out some of my books in advance, so I can go ahead and get started. I have a feeling some of them will come to me over the course of the year. But for now, the categories, and my tentative books, are:

  1. A book with a face on the cover.
  2. A book from a genre you don’t normally read. (I read YA, historical fiction, historical nonfiction, fantasy, romance, paranormal anything that doesn’t involve things that shift and engage in menages, books on writing, mysteries . . . what other genres ARE there?!)
  3. A book that makes you LOL. (Aha! My first! This will absolutely be the 13th entry in the Charley Davidson series by Darynda Jones.)
  4. A book set in the place you were born. (I will probably go back to Deadly Design on this one, though ‘In Cold Blood’ is a serious contender as well.)
  5. A classic, or a retelling of a classic. (I think I’m going with Juliet Immortal by Stacey Jay on this one – hoping it’s as good as it sounds! Juliet, murdered by Romeo and destined to defend lovers against him through the centuries -!)
  6. A book you have avoided or didn’t finish. (Hah! Funny story; this is actually the category I left out of the list originally! There are so many I could choose here . . . of course, the problem is, if I’ve avoided it up until now, it’s because I didn’t want to read it to begin with . . . so this one will be tricky. But I think I’ve settled on Dominion by C.J. Sansom – one I started last summer and just couldn’t make myself finish. Not because it was bad, but because it was so damn scary. For my partial review, see this post:  https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2018/05/29/beach-reads-well-maybe-not-these/)
  7. A translated book.
  8. An award-winner. (I may go back to a childhood favorite, Sinbad and Me, by Kin Platt; I absolutely adore this book and if you like middle-grade and YA mysteries, read it – though good luck finding it, as it’s been out of print for ages!)
  9. A book recommended by a child or teenager.
  10. A biography, autobiography, or memoir. (Hands down, already knew this one before the list was published, Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton. I’m so obsessed with the musical that the cats are sick of hearing me sing “You’ll Be Back.” Time will tell, you’ll remember that I served you well, you’ll be back . . .) 
  11. A book that features a character different fro you in some way.
  12. A book by an author slated to come to Kansas in 2019. (There are already two, Elizabeth Letts and B.A. Shapiro, that I’ve read before, loved, and are coming to Wichita in March, so I’ll likely choose one of their books.)

Well, not so bad:  5 of 12 so far! I think that’s a great start. Other books are going to come to light as the year progresses; the Facebook group for the Challenge is close-knit and vocal about their recommendations, so I may pick up some ideas from them as well.

If you live in Kansas and want to participate, it’s easy! You can join the ICT Reading Challenge group on Facebook, or download the list from the Wichita Public Library (link below).

For now, I’ve got some reading to do. 🙂

 

http://www.wichitalibrary.org/readict – The official ReadICT website.

https://www.barnesandnoble.com/blog/teen/16-new-upcoming-retellings-classic-plays-novels-tales/ – A list from Barnes & Noble of upcoming retellings of classic stories.

https://www.bookbub.com/blog/2016/03/23/retellings-of-classic-books – Another good list from BookBub of re-told classics.

http://www.dublinliteraryaward.ie/news/48-novels-in-translation-on-the-2018-longlist/ – The 2018 long list of Dublin Literary Award winners for translated novels.

 

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Off the Brakes – Back to Writing

I haven’t written lately, mostly because I’ve been a.) really busy with the end of the semester, b.) without any ideas of what to write, and c.) a little depressed with the coming of winter. And frankly, I’ve been putting the brakes on my writing.

I’ve talked about this before, but to me, writing is like driving. You’re not great at it when you start. I remember the first time my mom let me drive our old 1985 Mazda stick shift. I made it to the end of our dirt road just fine, put the car back in first, and when Mom said turn right, I did. Right into the ditch. She never told me to stop turning, after all! But with practice, we all get better. Every single thing we learn is a new skill. Some of us prefer automatics; others stick shifts. Some of us have both. Some of us like convertibles, others minivans, others sports cars. Some of us never get away from driving in the 3 and 9 positions; others drive with our knees while we do ‘YMCA’ with our hands. (Not that I do that or anything.)

About a month ago I gave my friend a copy of my work in progress. It’s definitely not his genre – his favorite book is The Godfather, and I think his second favorite is basically anything by or about Theodore Roosevelt, so an urban fantasy about ghosts was, I knew, going to be a stretch for him – but I trust his judgement. Plus, he’s well-read, so I knew that where I was most struggling with this book – the plot structure – was where he could really zoom in and help me.

Then, over the last week, I started having doubts. Not about giving him the book – about the book itself. Again. This is what I always do – I run through the things that might or might not be true, might or might not be wrong, and I freak out. Put the brakes on the whole thing. Go back through. Rip it all up and burn it down and start over. And in the end, I think for a while it’s better – but then, the cycle starts over and I’m right back where I started.

In fact, it’s been so bad lately that I haven’t even been able to write on the sequel – I know more or less what revisions I want to make and I was able to work on it a little last week and felt pretty good about that, but since then, nope. Again, the doubts come running in and the brakes get put on. It’s sort of like driving a Formula One car, I imagine – you have to drive fast, you have to be 100% committed to putting balls to the wall, but going 200 mph is so freaking scary, and when you add in another 15 or 20 cars and put them on the same track – well, you can either put your foot on the gas or the brakes. Brakes are bad in a Formula One race. Brakes are bad in writing, too.

And I’ve put the brakes on lately.

In fact, last night I called him and said, “It’s all just a waste of time. It took me ten years to put that piece of crap in your hands!”

“It hasn’t been a waste of time,” he said. “You’ve been doing something you love, and you’ve been getting better.”

It took a little while, but he convinced me to not give up quite yet. Admitted it’s not his genre, but that so far he’s not finding anything glaring. For now, at least, it’s enough to get me back to the coffee shop, with the Hamilton soundtrack on my earbuds (my new obsession!), and back to writing.

Foot off the brake. Back on the track.

 

Deadly Perfection – Why It Kills Writers (and our novels!)

“A poem is never finished – only abandoned.” – Paul Valery

Have you ever been frog-marched to a particular session at a writing conference because your writing friends are absolutely convinced you HAVE to be at that session?

OH. Good. I’m not alone! 🙂

Last Saturday, I attended the Nimrod Writer’s Conference at the University of Tulsa on Saturday with a group of fellow writer friends. One of the sessions was cleverly titled, “How do I Know When I’m  Done? Strategies for Revision.” That’s the one I was forced to attend. Seriously. You’d think I had a problem with finishing novels or something . . .

This was a panel session, meaning that four authors held a discussion with the audience about their revision strategies and – yes – knowing when you’re done. Three were fiction writers; one was a poet, so they had varying points of view about this issue!

For me – as for many, many, many writers, maybe even you! – perfection is the siren call. We know it’s a siren call. We know that by following it, we are abandoning all else. We know that by trying to find it, we’re risking running ashore, having our novels crash and burn, having ourselves crash and burn. That’s what sirens do. They make you destroy yourself. Perfection is a Siren. She’s insidious and seductive, and she makes you think one more draft, one more set of rewrites, moving this scene here and tightening this, creating a better motive for this character . . . ad infinitum . . . and then it will be done because it will be Perfect. 

I am a perfectionist. I know whereof I speak. I also know that perfection is not achievable. So did the panelists. But for them as well, it’s a siren song that’s hard to resist. So how do they do it? Well, as one put it, “Perfection is the enemy of the paycheck.” When you’re a published author and on a deadline, you just don’t have time for perfection! It has to get as close as you can get it by the deadline, and then you have to let it go. (Though at least one admitted that when your intuition tells you the novel isn’t right, you should listen to your intuition . . . because otherwise, your lovely, sweet, supportive editor will call you and in the nicest voice possible, say, “Oh, honey . . . NO.”)

However, for poet Patricia Smith, it’s a little different. She has more time to work on her poems. She performs her poetry live, and so she gets feedback on it constantly. Or, as she said, “Perfection is fluid, it changes from audience to audience. Perfection is a shifting thing, depending on the needs of the people I’m writing for.”

So perfection isn’t a realistic goal. So . . . you’re off the hook, right?! No edits! No rewrites! One draft and you’re done! Right?

WRONG.

Perfection may not be achievable. But in today’s world of publishing, we have to get as freaking close to it as we possible can. Your first draft, as my friend and novelist Debra Dockter says, is a sandbox; you put up railroad ties and pour in the sand, and then you get to play in it. Revisions. Revisions are where we pull out ideas of theme, deepen character motivation, establish settings. Or, as one panelist put it,

“Revision is where the magic is.” 

But. How long those revisions take is another matter entirely. If you’re on deadline – well, in the words of one panelist, “Deadlines are a great way of knowing when you’re done.” You might get a small grace period, but you’ll be overnighting that thing to New York in the morning for sure.

pointing+hand+vintage+image+graphicsfairy2What resonated with me, though, was the comment made by one author on the panel. She said the danger of taking years to write a novel is that we grow, change, learn. We’re not stagnant. 

This one made me sit up and take note. That’s why I put my handy-dandy nota bene icon next to it. I know this. I know this firsthand. I’ve seen my writing grow and change over the years – yes, since I’ve been working on this series! I’ve gotten older. My perceptions have changed. The core of who I am hasn’t – but my writing style, my world-building, my word choices, have all changed. And my characters have, I hoped, kept pace a little. Grown and deepened as well.

But that’s the problem. Every time we evolve, we look at the novel with a slightly different outlook. And that outlook makes us go back to revisions. Some are good. Some are redundant, unnecessary. Who can say if taking nine years to write a novel is good or not? Maybe it takes that long for some writers to mature into their voices, to develop the skills to pull off a novel. As Patricia Smith put it, “Sometimes things don’t work because they’re asking for something we don’t know how to do at the time.” We mature as writers. We figure out solutions to things that were unsolvable a year ago, two years ago.

And at the same time, we run the risk of putting off the inevitable.

So I’ve made a commitment to myself. And now I’m putting that on paper. My novels will not be perfect. That’s a hard, bitter thing to accept, but I guess I can work up to that. What I HAVE to do, though, for myself and my characters, is get the damn thing done. Finish this last round of edits, and take a deep breath, and send it out into the world, knowing it won’t be perfect. Knowing there will be rejections, and maybe an offer, and if there are offers, there will be more rewrites, more edits.

If we ever want to be published, we have to accept the sad fact:  our novels are never finished, only abandoned. And although I known this blog post isn’t perfect, I’m publishing it anyway!

(And just so you know we’re not alone, here’s a few links to other articles on overcoming perfectionism in writing!)

https://thewritepractice.com/writing-perfectionism/

https://www.craftyourcontent.com/writers-perfectionism/

https://mandywallace.com/writing-perfectionist/

Log Lines and Story Flaws – Kristin Lamb

I don’t do this often, but this amazing blog post by Kristin Lamb about log lines and how they can help you not only figure out the gist of your story and it’s major conflicts, but also help you stay on track as you write it, is just amazing! Check it out:

https://authorkristenlamb.com/2018/09/fatal-flaws-story-structure/

Novels: Putting the Puzzle Together

Everyone has metaphors for the writing process. Myself, I’ve already written about how writing a book is like restoring an old car (https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2014/07/26/is-your-novel-a-rust-bucket-mine-is/), and this week, I came up with another metaphor for my young adult novel.

What I’ve got is a Ziploc bag full of puzzle pieces. I don’t know what the puzzle should look like. I don’t even know if all the pieces I have are from the same puzzle! One thing I’m sure of:  I do not have a complete puzzle.

So how do you put together a puzzle with no picture and no guidelines?

Good question. But this is how I often write novels. I get scenes in my head. Snippets of dialogue. A character doing something. They come to me, often as ephemeral and insistent as a wisp of smoke. Forcing me to notice them. (And sneeze.) And from there, the scene evolves. It may be a page or two. It might be twenty pages. Either way, it’s a scene. I don’t know exactly what happened to get us there, and I may not be sure what comes after. But I’ve got a scene in my head, and I write it Then And There, before it evaporates. Because once it evaporates, it’s gone and it will never come back.

soapboxNota Bene:  If a scene comes to you don’t think you’ll remember it later – you won’t!!!!! You won’t remember the exact dialogue, the exact sequence of events, and you’ll lose the magic of that moment. Just drop whatever you’re doing and go write it. Then. And. There.

So I write these scenes, and then I get to put them into some semblance of order, and then I get to figure out where the missing pieces are. Maybe I’ve got some sky, but only a handful of leaves to tell me that a tree should be there. Or maybe there’s supposed to be a covered bridge in the picture, but all I have is the road leading to it, and a bit of the roof. But if I know what should be there, I can figure out the rest.

And that’s what I have now. Is this one book or two? I can’t even tell you that much! When I started my first urban fantasy novel, it was one novel. That was it. One very simple novel. It’s since evolved into at least a six-book series and although I know exactly what’s going to happen, getting it started has been the issue, in large part because of the way I write – in these puzzle pieces. Where does this scene go? Before or after this one? Wait – who’s this person????!!!! Why are you in my novel???!!! I did not invite you!

You have to trust the process.

A few years ago I had a character – Shannon – walk onstage and make herself at home. She was about as welcome as a cockroach in a wedding cake, but she insisted on staying, and my MC, Erin, insisted on interacting with her. Now, I cannot imagine the novels without her. She is the perfect foil for Erin, and her choices and actions make life interesting for everyone. Had I not trusted that she had a place in my novel, if I had been completely welded to an outline, I’d have jettisoned her – and my novels would have suffered as a result.

Nicky’s story has been a little different, in large part because I’m working within a historic framework. I want to keep it as close to ‘real’ as I can, which even includes using actual newspaper articles from 1924. But there are scenes that need to be there, and I have to trust that Nicky has given them to me for a reason. The question is – as I read through the entire thing – where do all the scenes go? What’s missing? What has to go in that I haven’t written yet? And . . . is this one book, or two?

I’d only ever imagined writing one book. But the more I look at what I’ve done and what I have left to do, if this is one book, then it’s going to be as long as Harry Potter #5.

Still, I have to trust that I’m doing the right thing. E.L. Doctorow is credited with one of the most famous sayings about writing:

“Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Since Nicky’s a rumrunner, this is very appropriate. 🙂 Sometimes, I feel like I’m driving like James and Richard in the Bolivia trip:  I’ve got two flashlights taped to the hood of my car! Not even headlights! Then, you just have to trust that the road is still there, even if you can’t see it very bloody well.

So if you’re not an outliner, if you can’t stand the thought of being shoehorned into a plot line, don’t feel you’re alone. Hey, at least someone didn’t just dump a bag of puzzle pieces in your lap and tell you to get to work. 🙂

Our Fairy Tales: ‘Cottage for Sale, Must be Moved’

Cottages for sale. $3,000 each. Must be moved. 

I imagine these cottages, all in a row. Waiting to be adopted. I wonder where they are.

Must be moved. I wonder how much it costs to move a building.

Thus begins one of my favorite books, my own personal fairy tale:  Cottage for Sale:  Must be Moved by Kate Whouley.

Fairy tales.

Don’t we all have our own? Whatever it is? Didn’t we all grow up with them? Cinderella. Snow White. The prince riding in on the white horse to save the day, to rescue us from the evil stepmother, or boss, or bullies. From the time we’re old enough to handle the remote – or even before – we’re raised to believe in magic and love and blah blah blah.

cottage for sale

My fairy tale is different.

See, it’s always been my fantasy to move a house. An old house. An old house that’s about to be razed, and needs saved. An old house with charm, character. An old house with stories and elaborately carved newel posts, with a huge porcelain farm sink and hardwood floors, with transom windows over the doors and a bay window and the original woodwork inside. The style of house has changed as I’ve gotten older; I used to dream only about Victorian homes – the gorgeous details, the tall ceilings, the whimsy and artistry. Now, it’s Craftsman-style houses that draw me in. The spacious floor plans and attention to detail – and the fact that while everyone wants a Victorian, almost no one seems to want my beloved Prairie Style homes.

But I thought I was totally crazy to want to do it – until I found Kate’s book.

Kate lives on Cape Cod, where houses are small, the Conservation Commission is strict (rightfully so), and space is at a premium. She loves her little corner of the Cape – the cranberry bog, the woodchuck who lives in the hill next to her house, the day lilies and daffodils and lilacs and trees and birds. But her house is tiny, and she has spent years wanting to expand, exploring every option. It seemed impossible – until she opened the Penny Saver one day, and saw the ad that changed it all.

Going mostly on faith, she embarks on a quest to purchase a cottage – the one in the very back, the one with the Mexican tiles in the kitchen and the little sliver of soap left on the sink – and move it to her property, and attach it to her house, creating a home. She has to navigate small-town bureaucracy, the logistics of actually moving a house – even a small one – dealing with plumbers, electricians, concrete guys, and others, and overcoming her own doubts and fears about the entire project along the way.

Kate’s is a story that resonates with me on several levels. Obviously, the entire house-moving idea appeals to me. If she can do it, so can I . . . someday. But it’s more than that. Her observations of the people around her, her interactions with them, are so warm and appealing that you really do want to move to the Cape just to be near them all. She is incredibly aware of her own motivations and fears, and has no hesitancy in putting them on the page. Her love for the land she owns, and the animals she shares it with (especially Egypt, the Cat-in-Charge), comes through loud and clear. Her writing style is a little different – it’s present tense, which I tend not to like, but in this case it works well.

I love this book. I read it at least once a year. When I start to feel down, when I lose yet another house to the bulldozer, when I look at my bank accounts and realize there’s nothing there . . . I go back to this book. Kate’s faith in the project is the only thing that carries her through it. Faith that the Conservation Commission will approve her requests – because she has to buy the cottage before she gets their approval. Faith that the cottage will fit on her property; faith that it can actually be put there. Faith that she can afford it, even though she’s self-employed and doesn’t precisely have a steady income. Faith that the project will come together, even when it seems things are at a standstill. Faith that it will all come together, just as she envisions it, even when no one else seems to think so:

“It isn’t hard for me to envision what the house will look like when it is finished, but as I receive visitors I realize that most of them do not see what I see. I give them the tour, tell them what wall will come down, what doors will be replaced, what the roof will look like . . . At some point, they invariably say to me, “What a lot of work!” . . . And these echoes of my neighbor’s remark tell me I am communicating process well enough, but I am not able to share the visuals that I carry with me in my mind’s eye. It is a lot of work, sure, but what I can already see motivates me, propels me forward.” (p. 161) 

Yes. My personal fairy tale. No matter what, Kate is determined to move this house in order to change her life for the better. And that really is what it’s all about, in the end – changing her life for the better. Creating space for more work, more family, maybe even someday a partner. Creating a home in which she can be who and what she is.

Creating a life.

Maybe that’s why this book resonates with me so much. It’s not about moving a house. It really is about creating a life for yourself, despite the naysayers, despite the difficulties.

A lesson that some of us probably need from time to time.

And that, really, is my personal fairy tale.

 

Rescuing Kites

Gosh, I can’t believe it’s been six weeks since my last blog post! OMG.

In my defense, I was working on rewrites to two novels, classes started two weeks ago, and I’ve been taking care of various sick kitties and family members. (I prefer the kitties.)

I also rescued this:

kite 3

Last Saturday, I went to my favorite haunt, College Hill Coffee, to write for a couple of hours. As I walked outside, I saw a bird standing in the next street. He was small – I thought at first maybe a pigeon or a collared dove. But his long tail told me he wasn’t either of those things.

As I approached, he watched me, but other than moving a few steps away, didn’t offer much in the way of fear or even wariness. Which worried me, of course. I didn’t see any obvious injuries, but he also wasn’t flying away. And he was in the middle of a rather busy street. So I grabbed a towel from my car (yes, I keep towels in my car for emergencies EXACTLY like this!), draped it over him, and VERY carefully, wrapped him up. (I’ve done this before, yes – cover the eyes, and they are less likely to struggle or be afraid.)

Not a cheep. Not a struggle. Nothing. I called my vet. He answered. I explained the situation – at the time, I thought what I had was a young hawk. YES, he could meet me at the clinic – was 15 minutes too soon? Nope! Not at all. I think I may have gotten him out of something he didn’t want to be doing, to be honest . . . so, Birdie and I got in the car and took off. I was glad no one stopped me. I don’t know how I would have explained that I had a wild bird wrapped up in a towel on my lap. I mean, it sounds totally logical to me, but I’m not sure how logical it would seem to anyone else.

Now, we know that Buckbeak is a Mississippi Kite. They are among the smallest of the raptors, and Buckbeak is a juvenile, probably less than 8 weeks old, because at 8 weeks, they begin to change color and go grey. He was very weak and dehydrated when I found him, and also had two broken bones in one wing. Everyone at the clinic has fallen in love with him; he has a large area in which to move and chase his bugs (he won’t eat anything dead, they tell me), and we are hoping he will heal well enough to be released. However, as you can tell, he’s becoming quite trusting and is a total camera hog! I am hoping that if he can’t be released, we can find him a program where he could be a a educational bird.

kite 1