One Ideal Reader

So. We’re back to the first draft. After several months of ponderings and musings and “woe-is-me”-ings, we’re back.

I’ve been editing fairly consistently for the past week or so, working from my new writing set-up (iPad + folio keyboard = mobile writer go!). I haven’t made it past the first chapter yet — but that’s mostly because the first chapter needs a lot of work. Ultimately, it needs to do some serious heavy lifting. Introducing characters, establishing a mood, setting the scene. And it’s that LAST part – the scene — that’s been a sticking point.

Re-reading my first draft, a big thing that stuck out at me was the science. Or rather, the “science” — vague, elusive and inaccurate even to my untrained eye. I started out this book with a very specific setting in mind: a futuristic desert landscape that shapes the characters and their actions. I didn’t worry (or even think about) the science behind such a setting when I wrote the first draft. The story was tied up with the setting — I couldn’t untangle the two. So I just wrote it as I felt it needed to be told.

Kids, learn from your elders — this may have been a mistake. I wrote myself into a scientific quandary: a setting that is not actually possible here on earth. Which would be fine if the book were set somewhere else! But it’s not. It’s here, it’s earth, it is what it is. And I wanted to fix this — I wanted to make it “right.” After reviewing the first draft, I was determined to make the science believable, albeit possibly a bit of a stretch.

My friend Tara offered to help. A former college roommate, Tara has been a plant nerd for as long as I’ve known her (plant nerds are the best kind of people), and now she’s turning that plant nerdery into a career as a scientist. She and her husband offered to take a look at the premise behind the book, chat about the science, and get back to me.

And chat they did — along with several of their scientist friends. General consensus? Nope. Does not compute. Science presented not possible. In any way, shape or form.

Cue the tiny violin.

Now, if that sounds defeatist — well, I was feeling a bit defeatist. But Tara and Nick were not, bless their science-y hearts. They offered up a bunch of other possible scenarios, ways the setting could be changed, ways that I could correct the science. And I listened, I took notes, I pondered… and I questioned. “Well, what if this had happened? This? Ok, not that one, how about this?” I sought the one answer that would get it “right,” when I was missing the one big, important, obvious thing: I was unwilling to alter the setting.

It sounds so childish typing that out. “I DON’T CARE IF IT’S WRONG, IT’S HOW I WANT IT.” But that’s how I felt. Changing the setting just felt wrong — a different setting wasn’t part of the story I wanted to tell — but I so desperately wanted the science to be right. I worried about getting it wrong, I worried about readers saying, “No, this isn’t possible. This could never happen.” I didn’t want readers to call me out on it.

Feeling stuck and confused, I emailed Tara more follow-up questions… and she responded with something that gave me pause:

I feel like you can say anything you want to set up a situation that works for your book. As a reader, I feel like I generally accept whatever premise the author presents. I’m reading Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal right now and there’s all kinds of ridiculous things that exist and are happening. I’m more interested in relationships than in the setting that exists behind them. — Tara, lovely scientist and friend

Hello, light bulb. It feels silly to admit it… but I had never thought of it from that angle before. Stephen King talks about figuring out who your Ideal Reader is, and writing for that person. I had been fixated on ALL THE READERS — all the people who would say I was doing it wrong. But as King writes:

You can’t please all of the readers all of the time; you can’t please even some of the readers all of the time, but you really ought to try to please at least some of the readers some of the time. — Stephen King, On Writing

Maybe the science didn’t HAVE to be 100% right. Maybe I could ask the reader to take a leap of faith with me. Yes, there will be readers who are distracted and annoyed by the lack of scientific accuracy, but… maybe at the end of the day I’m not writing for those readers (or CAN’T write for them). I have to decide what type of story I want to tell and run with it, committed and ready to roll.

So no — this book is not going to be scientifically accurate. Edits and revisions will hopefully get it closer to plausibility, but I’m not going to worry too much about getting it all “right.” The setting will work to further the overarching themes of the book — themes of survival and community and responsibility to one’s self versus the greater good. THAT’s what I want to talk about with this book. That’s what I want to focus on. So to the scientists of the world, I apologize — this book may not be for you. But I’m hoping for that one Ideal Reader, it will be.

The Anchor

The past couple months have been slightly odd ones for me. In December, I finished up the first step of a huge project. I took January “off”, watched a lot of good-bad TV, traveled to the other side of the world. In February, I jumped back in – re-reading through the first draft, attending the AWP Conference. All busy, all good, all worthwhile pursuits.

March, though? March, for the most part, has felt stagnant. I’ve been restless. Ennui-y (new word, claiming it, trademarked). Ambitious and eager and yet at the same time — nowhere to go. Frustrated and somehow stuck, or perhaps rather “unstuck,” a la Billy Pilgrim, just sort of floating along as the weeks pass by. A helium balloon cast adrift.

Then this past week, I realized – I haven’t been writing.

That is not to say I haven’t been working. I’ve been puzzling out kinks in the first draft, asking questions, receiving answers (more on that process next week). But I haven’t been looking at the project straight on. I’ve been giving it the side eye, circling it, trying to come at old problems from new angles lest I scare them back into hiding.

I’ve been working, but I haven’t been writing. And I realized, that’s what’s been missing. That’s why I’ve felt afloat, adrift. Without a consistent writing schedule in my life, I flounder — at work, at home, in relationships. For better or worse, writing is what anchors me — the act of transcribing imagination tethers me to reality.

A creative friend mentioned the other day how nice it would be to NOT have the creative drive — to be content to go to work, come home, make dinner and watch a couple TV shows. How nice it’d be to have that be enough. But for so many people (I’d argue most people), it’s not. We crave something more, and often times you don’t realize what that something is until it’s gone. Cliche, but true. Although I never truly forgot, I guess I needed a several-month hiatus to remember how important writing is to me; it affects my well-being.

Writing in many ways makes my life harder — it means getting up earlier, working later, trying to eek together any spare bits of the day in order to get shit done. But in the end, it’s worth it — and I can say that without a publishing contract, without ever having been paid for my creative work. In the end, the writing itself is worth it.

So I’m setting a new goal for myself — a new deadline. I am going to have the second draft of my book done by July 1. That’s three months. Totally doable. Writers gonna write — and I’m ready.

New Coat of Paint

There are some house projects that you think are going to be awful and turn out to be not-so-bad. Some house projects you think will be easy breezy and turn out being stab-yourself-in-the-eye terrible. And then… there’s painting.

I actually don’t mind painting. I love the immediate, dramatic change. I love how it alters the character of a room. Yes, it can be a total pain in the ass (see kitchen cabinets), but the end result is always worth it to me.

Back in my dormitory and apartment-renting days, I always swore that when I finally had a place of my own, I’d paint it with COLOR! Bold, bright, lots of color. Every apartment manager known to man seems to use the same drab beige. You get so tired of it. I dreamt of the day I could choose my OWN hues.

Well, it turns out there’s a reason every single apartment is painted that same drab beige. It’s easy, it’s neutral, and OMFG CHOOSING A PAINT COLOR IS HARD.

Benjamin Moore Paints

I couldn’t even tell you the names of all of these at this point. All Benjamin Moore.

Poor Byron. Over the course of several months, I bought and brought home no less than 6 paint samples and slapped them on the walls. Our living and dining room don’t get a ton of direct light, so it tends to feel a bit cold in there. I initially thought I wanted to go BOLD yet warm, like a nice flax or goldenrod. But once I got that up on the walls, I realized that a) color looks a lot bolder when it’s IN YOUR HOUSE, and b) our house is small. Even in just a tiny section, bold color seemed to swallow up the room.

So I switched courses, seeking something lighter, a nice neutral that would work as a background for art. Grey is super popular right now, but you guys, we live in Seattle. There is already too much grey for my liking. Long story short (a story that takes us through beige and grey and greige and something with a weird pink undertone), I finally landed here.

Benjamin Moore Light Breeze 512 Benjamin Moore Light Breeze. Not too dark, not too light, not too boring — a nice golden hue with the tiniest hint of green that immediately warmed up the room. Finally, the search was over! Success! After some procrastination, I slapped it up in the dining room.

Benjamin Moore Light Breeze - Before

The “sort of before” picture, since I forgot to snap one before I started painting.

Benjamin Moore Light Breeze - After

And after, before I’d managed to clean up the mess.

Except… You guys. I’m driving myself crazy. Now that it’s up, I keep staring at it and thinking, “Is it too yellow? It seems so yellow. Or maybe too dark? Does it clash with the art? Should I have gone with an off-white? There are a lot of off-whites… OMG there are a LOT OF OFF-WHITES and I don’t want anything too boring, but is THIS THE RIGHT ONE?”

I explained these thoughts to Byron, and he gave me a weird look and said, “Your brain sounds like a terrible place to be.” Thanks, babe.

Last night, I looked at the walls and said, ok, enough is enough. This is the paint color I have chosen. If only for the fact that I bought a frickin’ gallon of it. It’s going up on the walls.

Benjamin Moore Light Breeze in Dining Room.

Evening light a few days after painting, with small wheagle dog.

I keep telling myself that with time, I’ll get used to it and come to love it. Byron likes it. Everyone who’s seen it says they like it (UNLESS THEY’RE LYING). I’ll paint the hallway and living room, and then everything with look cohesive. Clean and warm. I will accept this, and move on.

And then I’ll have to choose paint colors for the bedrooms. What have I gotten myself into….

Crossing Off the Learning List

Yesterday at work we got to attend a talk by Arianna Huffington of… well, yeah, you know where she’s from. At the moment she’s promoting her new book “Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder” (HOLY INSANITY, sub-title!), which seems to essentially be about finding work/life balance. I have many thoughts about Ms. Huffington (one of which is she should PAY WRITERS), but it was a very interesting, thought-provoking talk. I’ll probably pick the book up from the library when it becomes available.

One of the points she brought up was “letting go” — of guilt, of grudges, of projects. The projects one stood out to me. For her 40th birthday, she took a “life inventory” and wrote down all the projects she had dreamed of completing, but realistically knew she wasn’t going to complete. “Become a really good skier.” “Become a really good cook.” She wrote all these projects down on one big list, and then threw the list away. She let the “side” projects go — which gave her more time and energy to focus on the projects that truly mattered.

I immediately thought of my “Learning List” I posted a while back. It’s a list I circle back to with guilt because I have done literally 0 things on it. Listening to Huffington talk, I realized — that’s stupid. Why am I feeling guilty about this list? I should re-evaluate. I decided to go back through and really focus on what’s important to me, and let go of the others.

The original items are italicized — the strike-outs are the items I’m nixing.

  • Pick up the flute again. Get good again. To be honest, this is probably one I SHOULD let go… but I can’t. I played the flute for 7 years, used to love it, want to love it again. But “get good again”? That may be unrealistic. I’ll just settle for “pick up the damn flute once in a while.”
  • Learn how to draw.  Nope. I’m sorry, aspiring artist in me, but this one ain’t happening. Learning to draw takes a lot of time and effort that could be spent on other things (COUGH COUGH WRITING).
  • Go get a tarot card reading. No wait I CAN STILL DO THIS ONE! Who’s going with me?
  • Learn how to drive stick shift. This just seems like a good life skillz. Ok — this IS a life skill. It’s something I actually need to learn. Damn it.
  • Re-learn how to play the guitar. As much as it pains me… I’m crossing this one off. I will never be a guitar virtuoso. It’s not in the tarot cards.
  • Learn how to write a strong, sharp short story. This one stays. It’s a specific skill in the profession I’ve chosen. RELEVANT LIFE SKILL.
  • Get re-certified in scuba diving. Sigh… no, probably not. Time, money, priorities. Again, I hate crossing this one off… but if I enjoy snorkeling more anyway, why not just stick with that?

And the one item I’m adding to the list?

  • Fly fishing. Huffington specifically mentioned fly fishing as a form of meditation, and that meditation is important, so HA FLY FISHING IT IS!

There. Re-prioritized.

So do I feel relieved, having “let go” of these things? Not yet. Mostly right now I feel kind of bummed out. But that’s reality, isn’t it? We can’t do it all – if only for the fact that as each day clicks by, that’s one less day to Get Shit Done. The Shit that really matters to you. And I’m going to focus on the ones that really matter to me.

3 Writing Tips I Learned from Editing College Essays

I’m working my way through Austin Kleon’s new book (Show Your Work — highly recommended so far), and this quote jumped out at me:

I had a professor in college who returned our graded essays, walked up to the chalkboard, and wrote in huge letters: “SO WHAT?” She threw the piece of chalk down and said, “Ask yourself that every time you turn in a piece of writing.” It’s a lesson I never forgot. — Austin Kleon, Show Your Work

Now, that professor’s method may seem harsh to some — but it’s great advice, and similar to advice I received while working at Linfield College’s Writing Center. It’s advice that’s stuck with me over the years and continues to inform my writing to this day.

As a college-level writing consultant, you see a lot of 5-paragraph essays — the classic format of many an English class. In case you aren’t familiar with it, the 5-paragraph essay is a format used to teach students how to write persuasive and argumentative essays. As you evolve as a writer, the nuances of it change, but the basics stay the same: 1 introductory paragraph, 3 body paragraphs, 1 conclusion paragraph. For new students, it’s often broken down even further: each body paragraph has 3 sentences, 1 of which contains your “evidence.” It’s a simple and somewhat limited format, but when you’re learning how to craft a persuasive argument, it’s a good tool.

Now, in theory, students learn this structure in high school. In reality? Many college students still struggle with it — their papers may follow the basic format, but their arguments are unclear. Because of this, we consultants were taught to ask each student three questions about their essay:

  1. What is it you want to say?
  2. How do you know it’s true?
  3. Why does it matter?

Let’s break those three down:

What is it you want to say? This seems like it should be obvious — you’re writing a whole paper, for Pete’s sake — but so often it’s not. I think a lot of people believe they need to present their ideas in grandiose ways, throwing in complex sentence structures and big words to make them seem smarter. So not true. You need to clearly state what it is you want your readers to glean from your writing. Say I was writing an essay about pink elephants and their song preferences: “Pink elephants prefer singing under pale moonlight.” There — succinct and clear. The reader knows what I’ll be arguing in favor of.

How do you know it’s true? In your classic 5-paragraph essay, this is where the “experts” come in — where you quote your sources. “Christoph Christopherson studied pink elephants for 5 years. After analyzing recordings of their songs, he observed distinct variations when they sang under pale moonlight.” There — the expert backed you up. Sometimes, though, we’re writing from our own experience. That’s fine, too — but you still have to back up your claim. “When traveling through the jungles of Tanzania, I heard the pink elephants sing on both cloudy and moonlit nights. The notes were most pristine and the harmonies most melodious when pale moonlight shone down on the elephants.” It’s anecdotal, yes, but it does tell how I personally know my first statement to be true.

Why does it matter? This is the kicker — the one that almost everyone forgets. You’ve told me what you’re saying — you’ve told me why it’s true — now why should I care? Why am I taking the time to read this? This is where your analysis comes in — your own spin. No one else can tell the reader why this matters to you — YOU have to tell them. “In order to secure funding to save the pink elephants of Tanzania, we should encourage prospective donors to tour the elephant colonies on cloudless moonlit nights.”

Right now, some of you may be saying, “Ok, great — but why should I care? I’ve been out of school for 50 years, I have no need for 5-paragraph essays.” Well, that’s true — I have no need for 5-paragraph essays anymore either. But there’s a reason why they’re taught in school: they teach us to write clearly, no matter the subject matter, no matter the audience. Whenever I write a blog post, I try to ask myself those same three questions. For my professional writing? I definitely ask myself those three questions: what am I saying, how can I assure the customer it’s true, why should the customer care? Going to pitch your entrepreneurial business idea to some finance mucky mucks? Ask yourself: what am I telling them, how can I convince them it’s true, and why should they care enough to support me?

If you can answer all three questions — you’re golden. Brevity and clarity will win the day. Of course, it won’t make you a perfect writer — nothing can do that — but it’ll help. And at the end of the day, that’s all we can strive for — to write better than the day before.

The Lie of Spring

March is the month of expectation,
The things we do not know,
The Persons of prognostication
Are coming now.
We try to sham becoming firmness,
But pompous joy
Betrays us, as his first betrothal
Betrays a boy.
- Emily Dickinson

This past weekend I went out into the garden and pruned my three small but mighty rose bushes. You’re not supposed to give roses their spring pruning until the last chance of frost has passed, and I’m usually pretty conservative about this. But on Saturday, it was 60 degrees. The daffodils had popped. The hyacinths are showing their weird alien heads. I went out into the garden in short sleeves and inspected each rose branch, each node, taking my time and enjoying the sunshine on bare skin.

daffodil

We haven’t had a particularly trying winter around here (sorry, Polar Vortex!), but the arrival of spring excites me all the same. Every spring, I get antsy and ambitious. I make Big Plans, I make Big Lists. There’s a reason they call it “spring fever” — you definitely get the urge to throw open the windows and dust the darkest nooks and de-clutter the deepest crannies. After stagnant winter, anything feels possible. You will reenergize your life, you will re-invent, you will be the organized, inspiring and inspired person you always knew you could be.

But the weeks move on, and nothing on that list has been checked off. In fact, things keep piling up. Spring is chirping outside every window — but has the cleaning started? Have the Grand Plans been hatched? Somehow every year I forget one essential truth: the coming of spring does not halt the rest of life. Our obligations, our daily responsibilities, they march on.

And you think, well ok, next weekend. Next weekend I’ll get that pruning done. Next weekend I’ll tackle that file cabinet. But in the back of your head lurks the voice that never leaves, the one who hisses, “You should be editing. You should be plotting revisions. You should be doing research and rewriting sentences and brainstorming titles.

You realize you can’t do it all. Some things have to fall by the wayside — you’ll have to prioritize. But prioritize what? Obviously, The Book should get ALL your attention — except the sun! The sun is out there, it has arrived, it’s warming the hard earth that you’ve been staring at all winter, the earth that you’ve been dreaming of digging and planting and making beautiful. The sun is there, begging for windows to be thrown open, for dust to be shaken out, for the doldrums of life to step aside so SPRING can have your full and undivided attention.

Spring lures you in with a sense of purpose, a sense of resolve — and then you realize, spring is no different from all the others. The first daffodil doesn’t magically halt time, allowing you to get everything done. The passage of time moves on — it was that passing that brought spring in the first place. After spring comes summer, and summer comes fall. And then we’re back at winter again, waiting with bated breath for that first daffodil.

I should bolt the windows, lock the doors, ignore spring’s arrival. I should put my nose in my book and focus all my concentration there. But then the whiff of hyacinth will come in through my front door, and the promise of spring will fool me once again.

3 Things I Learned at the AWP Conference

This past week, the AWP Conference descended upon Seattle. Like a swarm of locusts, 14,000 writers passed through the city, buzzing and pen-scratching and drinking all the alcohol in their path. And I? I was one of them.

I hadn’t heard of AWP (the Association of Writers and Writing Programs) before they decided to hold their annual conference in my fair city. But all the writers I talked to said that this would be a Big Deal — that the AWP Conference was one of THE biggest writing gatherings out there, which meant there would be a ton of people, great talks, etc etc. I figured, hey, it’s in Seattle, I have nothing to lose. (Except, you know, the registration fee. Which to AWP’s credit was actually pretty reasonable if you signed up early.)

So last Thursday I trekked off to the Convention Center for Day 1 of the conference… and on Friday I trekked off for Day 2…. and Saturday I trekked off for Day 3 before finally having an introvert meltdown and running home to hide in bed with hot cocoa (no joke, that literally happened).

And now that I’m processing the whole experience, the one word that keeps springing to mind to describe it? Weird. Decidedly not what I expected. But there were some insights gleaned…

1. Academia is no longer for me. It’s been a long time since I’ve been in school. Ok, not THAT long. I graduated from Linfield College with an undergraduate degree in 2007. But that’s long enough to forget the in’s and out’s of academia. Long enough that I am no longer accustomed to its language. And yes, academia DOES have its own language. Sitting in on the first couple panels, I had to do a mental shift to even understand what people were saying. My brain hurt. Honestly, I felt kind of dumb for not being able to follow along better.

I have no actual statistics to back this up, but I felt like the vast majority of people attending the conference were either university professors, MFA graduates or current MFA students. (One panelist joked, “If you’re not in academic jobs, you might ask yourself, ‘What am I even doing at AWP’?”) I have never attended an MFA program — which did make me feel rather left out at the conference, like I wasn’t one of the “cool kids.” I had to consistently step back and remind myself that I chose the non-MFA path for myself, for a number of reasons. And you know? I’m happy with the path I chose. I think it’s allowed my voice to grow and develop in ways it otherwise wouldn’t have.

I should say at this point — I LOVED my undergrad college experience. I was lucky to have engaging (and engaged) professors, interesting classes, talented peers. But the AWP Conference reaffirmed that, for me, undergrad was enough academia for me.

2. Genre not welcome here. Ok, this may be an overstatement, but it was something I acutely felt at the conference. Academics tend to… well, they tend to only want to write about Big Important Topics. Which is great! I love a LOT of those books. But, on the flip-side, they tend to look down on any type of “genre” fiction — science fiction, fantasy, pulp, crime. Stephen King talks about his own experience with this during his MFA program in On Writing:

I brought poems of my own to class, but back in my dorm room was my dirty little secret: the half-completed manuscript of a novel about a teenage gang’s plan to start a race-riot …. This novel, Sword in the Darkness, seemed very tawdry to me when compared to what my fellow students were trying to achieve; which is why, I suppose, I never brought any of it to class for a critique. The fact that it was also the better and somehow truer than all my poems about sexual yearning and post-adolescent angst only made things worse.

I think it comes down to this: we’re told to write the stories we want to read. But sometimes in a formal academic setting, it feels like certain stories aren’t “right” — that they’re not worthy of our precious writing time. This was something I definitely felt at the conference. For example, I attended a panel about “science in fiction” — which sounded right up my alley! I am writing fiction, and it involves science! Well, as soon as the panel started, the moderator gave this disclaimer: “I just want to make sure that everyone here knows that this is about science IN fiction — not science fiction.” As if there’s some concrete line separating the two. It ended up being a fairly interesting panel, but that start left a bad taste in my mouth.

On another occasion, a panelist kept talking about the “integrity of the writer” — someone would ask her a question, and she would say, “Well, yes, but it all depends on the integrity of the writer.” At first I could NOT figure out what she was talking about. And then I realized — by “integrity”, she meant “real writers.” AKA, not “sell-out” writers. Blech, lady. Get off that high horse and then we can talk. Why must we separate “academic” from “non-academic” writing, “real” books from “popular” books? If it’s well-written, let’s just all enjoy it for what it is.

3. I still have a lot to learn. At first, I came away from the AWP Conference rather unhappy — confused, cynical, and not-too-sure of my place in the writing world. But then on Monday I flipped back through my notes from the conference — and damn, but there are a lot of goodies in there. Amidst all the confusion (and honestly, some really bad panels), there were some great moments in there, too. I got to hear Chuck Palahniuk and Monica Drake talk about their writing group, and how they edit one another’s work. I got to see my co-worker — who it turns out is an award-winning poet — present an absolutely amazing Powerpoint poem (yes, you read that right). I got to have drinks at the Sheraton with writers from all over the country, and look around the room and realize that holy shit this bar is literally filled with writers.

But the one note that really stood out? A short little quote from Calvert Morgan, the long-time editor of novelist Jess Walter:

What do you want your greatest book to be? – Calvert Morgan

He said this is a question he always asks writers he works with — and that it’s an aspiration that should constantly evolve with your career. And it got me thinking — what do I want MY greatest book to be? I don’t have an answer to that, but it does encourage me to aspire higher, to work harder, to try and write the best book I can even if it isn’t about Big Important Things.

Would I attend the AWP Conference again? No, probably not. I think there are other conferences out there that would be a better fit for me. But I am glad I went. It was a weird, eye-opening experience. And at the end of the day, I got to hang out with 14,000 writers — so that in itself is alright.