Writing Words from Neal Stephenson (Or, Hidden Treasures at the Doctor’s Office)

Last week I had a doctor’s appointment. I was in the waiting room — waiting, as you do — and spied a copy of Seattle Met magazine. The cover touted “52 amazing weekend getaways!”, or some such numbered list that always sucks me in. So I picked it up and started flipping.

Halfway through, I stumbled upon an interview with none other than Neal Stephenson — local speculative-fiction writer who’s penned approximately one zillion books. Byron loves his writing, and I very much enjoyed Snow Crash, so I stopped my page flipping to read the interview.

It was then that I noticed that this particular issue of Seattle Met was from January 2011.

Seattle Met - Interview with Neal Stephenson

January 2011. Can we just take a moment to appreciate that? Doctor’s office, you have officially outdone yourself when the magazine in your waiting room is 3 1/2 years old.

But at the end of the day, the past-due expiration date didn’t particularly matter — I still very much enjoyed Stephenson’s responses, and found them relevant to where I am as a writer.

Seattle_Met_NealStephenson_2

“Fiction is a pop culture medium.” I love this quote so hard — it describes how I currently approach my writing. Yes, fiction CAN be artful and poetic (and so much of it is) — but it doesn’t HAVE to be. There is absolutely nothing wrong with taking pleasure in a page-turner.

Seattle_Met_NealStephenson_3

Writing my first draft, some of the minor characters surprised me — they had relationships I didn’t expect, back stories that were news to me. Now that I’m working on revisions, they’re being given their due — getting fleshed out where appropriate, rearranged so they have more importance to the story. I did have an outline, and it saved me from drowning in first-draft despair — but deviating from it to follow these minor characters makes the story richer.

Seattle_Met_NealStephenson4

“I like to write” — and at the end of the day, shouldn’t that be what it’s about?

If you’d like to read the full interview, you can check it out over yonder. And next time you’re at the doctor’s office, give the old, old magazines a spin. You never know what you might find.

 

Don’t Let It Go

Last week, Lauren at I’m Better in Real Life wrote a blog post reviewing her 2014 goals, taking stock, seeing how she was doing. It’s a great post — well written, introspective, encouraging conversation — but it depressed the hell out of me. Here we are, halfway through 2014 (HOW IS IT JULY, C’MON), and my book is still unedited. I blew past my self-imposed July 1 deadline. The farthest I’ve gotten is chapter 3. It’s just sitting there on the desktop, sad and lonely, judging me in its unrevised state.

So I’ve been in a funk the past week, thinking about the book — how the task at hand feels huge, how I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to get it done, what with working a demanding 9-to-5, keeping up on house projects, and you know, just making sure the general necessities of life get accomplished. (Laundry. Is laundry a necessity? Let’s discuss.)

Last Thursday, I got off work later than usual. Tired, hungry, I went out to the elevator bank. Waiting for an elevator was one of my former creative directors, someone I used to work with a lot, but don’t get the chance to anymore. He, too, was looking a bit ragged. We nodded hello’s, waited for the elevator to arrive.

We’d gone down a floor when he said, “What’s happening with the book?”

I laughed and gave a half-shrug. “Nothing. Not really.”

“Why not? Do you not think it’s good anymore?”

Defense mechanism engaged. “No, it’s not that. I DO think it’s good. I think it could be good — I still need to edit the thing. I just haven’t been working on it, with the new job.”

He nodded. “Yeah, I know how that goes.”

We rode in silence a minute, before he said:

“Don’t let it go.”

I laughed. “Yeah, yeah, I know.”

“No, I’m serious. I’ve stopped working on projects outside of work, and I feel like my soul is corroded.”

The elevator doors dinged — we reached the lobby. As we walked out, I said, “That’s both depressing, and I totally understand.”

That’s where the conversation ended — on a totally low note. But something clicked. I walked to my bus. I got home, broke out the iPad — dinner be damned, cooking can wait — and edited for about 30 minutes.

Because look, he’s right. I’ve mentioned before that “not writing” has this effect on me — I lose my edge, I feel stagnant. And the only thing that’s going to change that is to get my ass in gear and write. Work? Work will always be there. It’ll always be hard and exhausting and challenging and an excuse. There’s never going to be a magical time in my life when all the stars align and say, “Oh hey! It looks like you’ve been needing some energy to write. Here you go!”

Byron asked what he could do to help, and I said, “Honestly? Just tell me to write.” The past couple days, I’ve gotten more editing done than I have in the past month. Granted, it’s all still in chapter 1 — but it’s good progress. I finally feel things coming together. (Largely thanks to the wonderful Wonderbook — but more on that later.)

This is my mid-year kick in the pants. I’ve assessed my 2014 goals, and found the progress lacking. I can remedy that. It’s in my control. Consider this the antithesis to the Disney anthem — no letting go here. I’m sinking in the talons.

Writing Process Blog Tour

A little back story: I met Margaret on the second night of AWP, in the Sheraton hotel bar in downtown Seattle. The entire bar was filled to the brim with writers and other literary-minded folks — a surreal yet dazzling experience. I “knew” Margaret through our mutual friend Lauren (via the internetz, naturally), and we spent a fun hour or so drinking and talking about writerly things (two activities that go together so well).

Last week, Margaret emailed and asked if I’d like to participate in a “Writing Process Blog Tour” — a set of questions that have been making the blog rounds. The idea is this: a writer gets “tagged,” and then “tags” other writers to answer the questions in turn. At the end of the day, we’re all talking about the creative process in one nerdy gabfest. Um, SIGN ME UP.

Margaret’s responses can be found over here (her talk about “non-process” is wonderfully honest). And mine? Well…

1) What are you working on?

In theory? Edits to my book (I finished the first draft in December). In reality? I haven’t touched it in several weeks. I’m rapidly realizing I’m not going to hit my self-imposed July 1 deadline, and that is… a bummer. BUT. I’m trying not to be too hard on myself. I got a new job a few months back, and it’s taken a lot of time and energy to get up to speed. Which means other things fall by the wayside. Including, in this case, book edits.

That isn’t to say I haven’t been writing — I just haven’t had the energy for that particular project. I wrapped up a short story a few weeks back, a wild little romp set in backwoods Louisiana. Short stories aren’t typically my forte, but I’m feeling good about this one. Besides, it’s good to write in different formats from time to time — strengthen ye ol’ writing muscles.

2) How does you work differ from others of its genre?

Oh boy. That’s a tough question, isn’t it? First I’d have to figure out what my “genre” is. Lately, I’ve been drawn to speculative fiction (I don’t really count my writing as science fiction, because the science is… well, nebulous at best). In the past, I’ve written historical fiction and dabbled in literary fiction (a genre I don’t think I’m particularly good at, and have since largely abandoned).

How does my work differ? Well, this is the obvious and cliché answer, but I’d like to think my voice. Every writer has a distinct, evolving voice, and I’m growing into mine. I also hope that my stories are easily accessible — you don’t need to be a speculative fiction fan to pick them up and enjoy them. But I guess that largely remains to be seen.

3) Why do you write what you do?

Because it’s fun! Because I enjoy the stories I tell. Look, most of us are NOT doing this for fortune and fame, so we should damn well enjoy the writing itself.

Another way of saying it — these are the stories I have to tell, the ones that bore into my brain and refuse to move. When you have a story like that,  you can’t ignore it. Try if you want, but years later it’ll still be there, waiting to be put to paper.

4) How does your writing process work?

If I’m good about it (aka, consistently producing work), I have a strict writing schedule. When I was finishing up the first draft of my book, I got up at 5:30am every weekday morning to get in an hour+ of writing before work. For me, a set schedule is the only way to add up that word count.

Other than that — my process is not really all that consistent. A lot of times I prefer writing first drafts by hand; for me, handwriting unlocks different parts of my brain. Of course, this doesn’t work as well with longer pieces. For writing large chunks or revisions, I work on either my iPad or desktop (everything syncs up to Dropbox, so the files are always updated no matter which device I’m on). When I sit down to write, there’s a good 10-15 minute window where I sort of dawdle, re-read what I did the day before, get my brain back into the game. But once I’m in, I’m in. Poor Byron knows this well — it’s hard to get my attention once I’m in the middle of writing.

That’s a wrap! And now that my questions are answered, it’s my turn to play tag… and the torch is going to Tayler of The Awkward Olive. Tayler and I were in the same creative writing program in college, and I was lucky enough to go on two study-abroad trips with her (one where we studied expatriate writers, and the other where… well, essentially we wrote in pubs. It was glorious.). Tayler currently lives in Oregon, eating delectable local food and working in her envy-worthy garden. At her blog, she writes honestly and eloquently about everyday life — look for her answers to the Writing Process Blog Tour soon!

And if you are a nerd like me and really enjoy reading about writing processes… might I recommend some other folk who have played the game?

  • Lauren (yes, the Lauren who introduced me and Margaret) answered in regards to writing both creatively and professionally.
  • Brian Benson, who I do not know personally or even via the internetz, but I found his answer to the “How does your work differ” question quite intriguing (and now I totally want to pick up his book).

When the internet connects diverse and widely spread groups of people over one common interest — well, that’s clearly why it was invented, right? (I mean, aside from cat gifs. Obviously.)

Spring Book Reviews: Part 2

OH HAI! This is a tad bit late. Part 1 went up two weeks ago, and I meant to have Part 2 done the following week… but, well, the last book took longer to finish than anticipated. That’s one downside to the Kindle — even with that little percentage bar, it’s harder to judge your reading progress than it is with an actual, physical book staring you in the face.

But! Without further ado. The rest of the books I read this spring…

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

The Age of Miracles

Honestly, I’d never heard of this book and never would have picked it up if it weren’t for Lauren’s Better In Real Life Reading List. She asked people to participate in book reviews/discussions, and The Age of Miracles was my assigned book (just like school! But without the tests and drama). I’m definitely glad I read it — it was thought provoking and fairly well-written. But let me warn you, this book put me in a DEEP FUNK. If I may quote myself… (Is it weird if I quote myself? Whatever.)

It’s fitting that the book brings up those uncomfortable middle-school feelings, because they tie in well with the main theme: the haunting passage of time. How quickly it goes by, how cruel and unrelenting it is. Time spares no one and nothing and makes you realize that, ultimately, you are alone in the world. If that all sounds depressing… well, yeah actually, this book was a bit depressing. I kept waiting for the uplifting twist, the silver-lining ending… and it never really arrived. This book has loneliness and fatalism at its core.

Seriously, NO SILVER LINING here. You’ve been warned. If you’d like to read ALL MY THOUGHTS on this book, pop on over to Better In Real Life to see the full discussion.

The Once and Future King by T.H. White

The Once and Future King

You guys… I feel so much guilt over this one. I seriously considered not including it here, because I’m ashamed by what I’m about to say.

This book is a titan — a classic of the genre. It’s influenced so, so many writers, and many consider it to be the best fantasy novel ever written. I use the title to make puns all the time — “Oh yes, that’s our Once and Future Garage” — but my dirty little secret? I’d never actually read it. So I figured, you know, if I’m invoking this book to make bad jokes, I should actually read the thing.

And I… didn’t like it. I tried, really I did — I went well past Nancy Pearl’s 50-page rule — but I kept running into 2 problems: 1) I couldn’t get the Disney version of The Sword in the Stone out of my head, and 2) I don’t really like White’s writing style. He goes on for ten pages about the rules and techniques of jousting, and all I could think was Oh my god I don’t care about jousting I don’t care about this stupid knight please get to the stupid story.

But I wanted to stick it out. I figured if I could just get through Part One, maybe it would pick up, maybe I’d get into it… but I finally had to give up. I was skimming entire sections just to try and get to “the good part.” Eventually, I realized that “the good part” would never come for me — The Once and Future King and I were not meant to be. Pour one out, move on. (I still reserve the right to reference the title in my bad puns, though.)

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

The Windup Girl

A while back, a coworker and I were exchanging book recommendations. MaddAddam had just come out, so I enthusiastically recommended that series. With equal fervor, my coworker recommended this book (while also suggesting a nerdy-girls book club at work — YES, PLEASE).

And now I’ve finally gotten around to reading it! And general consensus — definitely glad I did. The Windup Girl is set in Bangkok, in a future world where horrible blights and crazy pesticide-resistant beetles have destroyed global agriculture. Most countries have fallen into chaos and famine, but the Thai Kingdom remains, self-sufficient and sealed off from the outside world. The book follows a cast of characters — some intent on Thailand’s continued independence, some who would like Thailand to open up trade with the outside world. Conflict ensues.

The world building drew me into this book — Bacigalupi does a fantastic job painting this futuristic society, where calories are currency and an ice cube is considered a huge waste of energy — but the characters didn’t quite do it for me. Each chapter is told from a different point of view (there are, if memory serves, five rotating narrators), and this switching made it a harder for me to get into the story. And our titular character, Emiko the Windup Girl… well, I had issues. She’s “New People”, a humanoid sex slave designed to serve without question. And that ingrained desire to serve makes for a weird main character. She remains passive as horrible, terrible things happen to her, and when she DOES act, she regrets it afterwards and constantly apologizes for her actions. I wanted her to stand up for herself, take charge, leave all the assholes behind who kept hurting her — but that wasn’t the character. Which annoyed me, because I wanted her to be that way. At the end of the day, I did enjoy the book — but I felt like I could have enjoyed it more. Which is an odd experience.

That’s a wrap for spring! And next we have summer… oh, summer reading. The most wonderful reading season there is (why else would everyone and their mom put out summer reading lists?). What will you be reading in a sunny hammock, while sipping on a beer and kicking off your sandals? I haven’t quite decided on my list yet, so I’m quite eager for suggestions.

Sharing Inspiration

Last week, I attended a workshop about staying creatively inspired when you do the same type of work over and over again, day in and day out (whether that be writing, design, architecture, whatever). If you work in a creative field, it’s a subject that pops up frequently — the relationship between inspiration and creativity, those two nebulous forces fated to be entwined. Inspiration is viewed as the force that drives creativity, something vague and elusive that can’t really be pinned down. When we say that “inspiration strikes,” it implies that it comes out of the blue, when we’re least expecting it.

Over the workshop, two themes emerged: in order to find inspiration and be our most creative, we must 1) seek out inspiration, and 2) create. Both are important (particularly #2, I’d argue — you literally can’t be creative if you don’t create), but #1 has been consuming more of my thoughts. People think that inspiration finds you – that the muse lands on your shoulder and sparks the next idea. That’s wrong. At its core, inspiration is pretty lazy; it’s not going to come and find you, you have to find it. You have to actively work to be inspired — you have to seek it out.

In Show Your Work!, Austin Kleon talks about sharing your inspirations, so that other people can also discover the awesomeness and be inspired. So I’m giving it a shot, this whole sharing thing. What’s been inspiring me this past week? A whole lot of random, including…

John Cleese quote via Austin Kleon and 99U

    • The words of Maya Angelou. Lots of people have been sharing her words this past week, which is rad (when was the last time you can think of a poet’s work being widely shared?). The poem particularly resonating with me? “Still I Rise“:

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

  • This old New York Times article about Police Officer Frank Chiafari, the officer who responded to the 911 phone call about a horrific chimp mauling. (Warning: this is a graphic and incredibly sad story. Highly likely to be upsetting.) Seem an odd thing to inspire creativity? Yeah, I agree, it IS totally weird. But — I just finished writing a short story, and this article was swirling around my head the whole time I worked on it. You never know where inspiration will come from.
  • This random quote from musician Kathleen Hanna, via Austin Kleon’s tumblr.

Beyoncé isn’t Beyoncé because she reads comments on the Internet. Beyoncé is in Ibiza, wearing a stomach necklace, walking hand in hand with her hot boyfriend. She’s going on the yacht and having a mimosa. She’s not reading shitty comments about herself on the Internet, and we shouldn’t either. I just think, Would Beyoncé be reading this? No, she would just delete it or somebody would delete it for her. What I really need to do is close the computer and then talk back to that voice and say, Fuck you. I don’t give a shit what you think. I’m Beyoncé. I’m going to Ibiza with Jay-Z now, fuck off. Being criticized is part of the job, but seeking it out isn’t. That’s our piece to let go.

(“Would Beyoncé be reading this?” should become my new life mantra.)

What’s been inspiring you this week? Any goodies to share?

 

Spring Book Reviews: Part 1

IT IS TIME! For a recap of the books I read this spring. I normally try to do a seasonal recap all in one post, but as I was writing this one, I realized it was getting looooong. I don’t feel like I did a ton of reading this past spring, but maybe I did? Or maybe I just have more thoughts than usual. Whatever the reason — here is Part 1. Part 2 shall be revealed next week.

Lost Cat: A True Story of Love, Desperation, and GPS Technology by Caroline Paul and Wendy MacNaughton

Lost Cat

As I read this book, one word kept popping into my head: charming. Which, I have to say, doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement for a book, but in this case it is. This book follows the exploits of Tibia and Fibula, brother and sister cats living with their humans in San Francisco. At the story’s start, Caroline Paul crashes an experimental plane, an accident that results in a lot of broken bones and time spent at home with the cats. And then one day during her recovery… Tibby disappears.

He comes back. And I’m not ruining anything by telling you that! The book follows Caroline’s exploits as she tries to figure out where Tibby went to, and more importantly (to her) why he would even leave in the first place.

This is definitely a book that requires a hard copy. MacNaughton‘s illustrations add SO MUCH wimsy and delight to the story – I’d go so far as to say the story isn’t complete without them. Seriously, don’t even THINK about buying an e-ink version.

Now, it goes without saying that this book is pretty much only for crazy cat people (like myself). BUT. I would also say that it’s a good read for someone who loves a crazy cat person and wants to understand the depth of the crazy. It’s a really loving portrayal of the relationships we form with our pets and the value of animal companionship.

I’m Starved for You and Choke Collar by Margaret Atwood

ImStarvedforYOu ChokeCollar

So… you all know I love me some Margaret Atwood. When I found out she was writing a Kindle Singles series? SIGN ME UP. The series is called Positron, and it’s set in a seemingly lovely but actually horrifying dystopian future (so, you know, par the course for her). I eagerly read the first installment, “I’m Starved for You”… and wasn’t completely hooked. But I was intrigued enough to pick up the second, “Choke Collar.” And after that… I felt done. No need to pick up the third.

I think part of my problem with these is the format itself: serials. I’m slowly learning that it may not be the story format for me. Once I get into a story, I want to dive in — the inherent breaks that come with serials stall me. I had the same issue with Chuck Wendig’s “The Forever Endeavor” (found in the lovely Fireside magazine). Loved the premise, was super intrigued — but couldn’t keep up the momentum. If it’s ever collected into one volume that I can read in one chunk, sign me up.

Show Your Work! by Austin Kleon

Show Your Work by Austin Kleon

You’ve probably heard of Austin Kleon — he’s a bit of a golden boy these says. Rightly so, I’d argue. I was a big fan of his first book, Steal Like an Artist, so was super eager to pick this one up. Show Your Work! completes the cycle set forth in Steal Like an Artist — you’re influenced by others, you “steal” from them, and in turn you should share your work and your influences so others can discover and steal, too.

For me, personally, Steal Like an Artist was the more valuable book — it had more insights that seemed directly applicable to me. But I’d definitely recommend this new one, too. The thing that struck me most about it is how it advocates for generosity — not something often talked about in creative circles. No one is an island (despite the prevalent myth of the lone creative genius), so we might as well play nice and share our enthusiasm with one another.

The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell

The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell

When I traveled to Stockholm and Copenhagen with my friend Hen, she raved about this book. She said I had to read it, especially after traveling to Viking lands. It took me a couple months after our trip to pick it up, but I finally did.

Considering that I was a history minor in college, I’m kind of surprised I don’t read more historical fiction. That may change after reading this book. It’s set in England, during the Viking raids of 800’s, and follows the story of an English boy who’s taken in by Vikings. I really enjoyed learning more about this time period (which I previously knew very little about), and it encouraged me to do my own research outside of the book itself. And I have to say — Cornwell did his homework. The book has just enough detail to make you really feel this time period. (One reoccurring thought: SO DIRTY.)

All that said — I felt like the book was a bit bloated. By the last 100 pages, I was just ready to be done with it (never a good sign). And the main character Uhtred didn’t totally do it for me. He wasn’t a Mary Sue… but at times he felt dangerously close. The Last Kingdom is the first book in a seven-book series, and I’m still undecided if I’ll pick up the rest.

That’s a wrap for Part 1! As I work on getting Part 2 together… Have you read any of these? Your thoughts? What have you been reading lately? My reading list needs an injection of fresh material, so I’m eager for recommendations.

Trying New Things: Tarot Card Reading

Let this be a lesson: if you put something out in the universe enough, sometimes the universe will respond by tossing it in your lap.

In this particular instance, the universe took the form of good friends: Jenny and Adam. These two have heard me yammering on and on about how much I want to do a tarot card reading that they decided to do something about it. For my birthday, they got me a session with a local tarot card reader. Rad friends — I got ‘em.

Now, I know that astrology, tarot cards, palm reading… some people argue that all of these things can be wrapped up under the umbrella of “a bunch of horse shit.” People argue that it’s a fraud, that astrologers and palm readers and tarot card readers are just attune to people’s emotions and mental state, and use that to give an “accurate” reading. Which… yeah, I mean, I get that. Maybe it’s true. But that doesn’t mean it’s not fun. And besides, I tend to be a bit hippy-dippy myself. So I went into the reading with an open mind, not knowing what to expect but eager to see what this whole tarot card thing was about.

About 10 seconds after meeting me, the reader said, “Happy birthday! I do some astrology stuff, too, and since your birthday just happened, I’m guessing last month was a really hard month for you.” Which YES, YES IT WAS. Last month saw the introduction of a new job, new responsibilities, a new jam-packed work schedule — all in all, a trying month. But more than that, it’s had me wondering how I can possibly find time to write and edit a book  when life is so damn busy. When other obligations are so demanding, when I need to step up to the plate in other arenas. How can I do all that, and still have the energy to focus on my own pursuits?

The tarot card reader and I settled in. She sprinkled some salt (I’m not too sure what this was for? But I love salt, so I was down), she arranged a white napkin on the ground, and then she had me shuffle the tarot card deck. I drew My Cards. And then we started flippin’.

Six of Wands Tarot Card

What quickly became apparent — a WHOLE lot of fire and water was goin’ on in these here cards.

Tarot Card Reading

Tarot Card Reading

In fact, it was ALL fire and water cards — the Suit of Wands and the Suit of Cups. The Wands are apparently all about “movement, action and initiatives and the launching of new ideas”, while ye ol’ Cups deal with “displays of emotion, expression of feelings and the role of emotions in relation to others”, as well as being linked to “creativity, romanticism, fantasy and imagination” (according to the first website I found, Biddy Tarot). 

That dude on the far right? He represents the big ol’ grand vision — my future self, where this is all leading. He’s the Knight of Cups, with a sweet white horse and winged feet and a “cloak covered with images of fish, the symbol of the spirit, consciousness and creativity.” And what does this knight in shining armor instruct you to do?

Be open to exploring your passions and your grand ideas at this time. You may find that you have been drawn to a particular passion or hobby and now is the time to start turning into ‘something’. You do not need to go at a cracking pace but it is important to balance your ideas with action and ensure that you are taking proactive steps to achieve your goals and ambitions. — Biddy Tarot

You can probably tell where I’m going with this. How have I interpreted my tarot card reading? That I need to get cracking. That I need to get down to business, and stop with the excuses. Write, edit, create. Life has been crazy for the past month — but that doesn’t matter. Work will always be there — crazy life obligations will always be there. In five years, I’m not going to regret an hour less sleep every night. I’m going to regret the stories I didn’t finish, the publications I didn’t submit to, the runs I didn’t run to get my creative juices flowing. I’m not going to regret the minutes of hard work — I’m going to regret the words not written.

Sometimes we need an outside source to refocus and get our rears back in gear. Maybe tarot card reading is all baloney — maybe it’s not. At any rate, I’ve gotten what I needed out of it.

 

The Evolving Backyard

At this point, we’ve been in The Rambler for about a year and a half. We’ve made quite a bit of progress, but none quite so dramatic as the backyard. When we moved it, it was a crazed weed-land jungle:

Backyard_Before

We worked on clearing it out and made some progress… until we chopped down an 80 foot Douglas fir.

I call this one "Northwest palm tree."

Residential backyard with slash piles.

It looked like an ogre had stampeded through the yard, pulling out trees and throwing the limbs around wily nily. Not a pretty sight — and NOT a fun place to hang out.

Well, in September, we opened up a can of whoop-ass. We threw all those tree limbs in a wood chipper (not Fargo style), hauled in three yards of compost, and tried to tame the wild beast that is the Backyard.

And now — nine months later — we have this:

Backyard_Lawn

WOULD YOU LOOK AT THAT?? It’s a lawn! A real, green, plush Eco-Lawn, with little plantings around it, and a bed off to the side with hostas and a baby maple tree! And adirondack chairs, and a small dog tied to a horseshoe stake because we still haven’t managed to complete the fencing!

(It should be noted that two days after this picture was taken, a mole came and erupted three large holes smack dab in the middle of the baby lawn. Thanks, reality, for the check.)

Working in the backyard now, it feels like a place you’d want to hang out. That trio of fir trees behind the adirondacks? That’s where the hammock colony lives. And off to the side — there’s the barbecue that Byron will be manning, next to the table and chair set we purchased last summer and haven’t had any opportunity to use. Maybe we’ll actually use that horseshoe stake for horseshoes. Once it finally gets dark out (at 9:30pm, because we live in the Northwest and Northwest summers are the best), the fire pit is ready to be pulled out for toasting s’mores.

Sometimes life can feel like one long slog, one long day of hard work after the next — but then sometimes, you actually see the payoff of that hard work, RIGHT THERE! Right there in front of you. I’ve been feeling down about my writing as of late, down about the book… but looking at the backyard, I remind myself that hard work can pay off. It’s not a guarantee, of course — but it’s the only way to get any sort of results. You gotta put in your time if you want to enjoy the hammock colony.

How I Moved Away from Literary Fiction & Found My Writing Voice

I was digging through some old notebooks last week, trying to find a scene I KNOW I wrote in SOME notebook SOMEwhere (argh). But instead of finding that, I stumbled upon an old college notebook. I flipped through, marveling at the story starts, the character sketches. And then on one random page, this note:

BW_College_Notebook

And I had to laugh, because a) OMG, how college emo is that?, and b) That is so not me anymore. You want a glimpse at your past self? Look through an old journal. Time travel exists; it’s called writing.

It’s a long road as a writer, trying to find your “voice,” that elusive, mysterious quality that somehow makes your writing yours and no one else’s. I’m not there yet, but I’m a hell of a lot closer than I was back in my college days, hoping I’d be the next Hemingway or Faulkner or Fitzgerald. How did I get to this point, from wanting to write the Great American Novel to realizing that nope, I may be more of a genre writer?

The short story: I wrote, and I read.

The long story: When I was a kid, I read a lot of fantasy and adventure books. The Redwall series, Harry Potter, Richard Adams, Goosebumps — I devoured them all. And it showed in my writing, too. The first short story that I remember being truly proud of was about a mailman in a surreal land where nursery rhymes come to life.

But once you hit a certain grade level, that changes — especially in a college-level writing program. You read Big Serious Books that deal with Big Serious Themes. Munro, Plath, Chopin, Orwell. Which, I can’t really argue with — these people are all seriously good writers, and if you’re learning to write, learn from the masters.

But this leads to one downfall: writing programs heavily favor literary fiction. As a student, you eat, breath, and sleep literary fiction (maybe with some poetry and creative nonfiction thrown in for good measure). After a while, the idea creeps into your brain that these are the books that are worthwhile, that the other genres of the literary world — romance, fantasy, science fiction, horror, pulp, mystery, adventure — are essentially junk food. Delicious, yes, but so lacking in substance that you don’t admit to consuming them.

If you’re in this type of environment, where literary fiction is placed on a pedestal (whether intentionally or unintentionally) — you begin to emulate it. Every kid in a writing program wants to be the next Hemingway — myself included. I tried to write Serious Books. I tried to write Serious Stories. And honestly? Most of them sucked. Some of that comes down to the fact that I was a very young writer, but a lot of it is because these were not my stories.

Lurking in the back of my mind were OTHER stories… stories that didn’t seem worthy of development, but stories that wouldn’t leave me alone. Stories set just past the veil of reality, in shadowy worlds with danger and intrigue waiting to be uncovered.

For a long time after college, I didn’t write much of anything at all. For several years I puttered away at stories that didn’t go anywhere. And then one November, I wrote a novella about a man traveling through space. And it seemed… better. Not great, not quite there, but better than anything I had written in a long time.

So one day I said “Screw it,” and put one of the lurking stories down on paper. And that story? That’s the book I’m working on now. Not to toot my own horn (because that horn ain’t very big), but it’s one of the better stories I’ve written — and one I’m genuinely excited to improve and share with others. The difference? It’s closer to the types of books I like to read — the books I read as a kid. It’s closer to that first true story I wrote, the one set in a land of nursery rhymes, the one that I didn’t know better not to write.

I do feel like I should make a caveat at this point: I LOVED my undergrad creative writing program and wouldn’t trade it in for anything. I had amazing, supportive professors, a whole slew of talented peers (many of whom I’m still friends with, and some of whom are in my current writing group). It is through no fault of theirs that academia turned me towards the path of literary fiction — as I found at the AWP conference, that just seems to be the nature of the beast. But it took me a while to figure out that that path is perhaps not for me.

At the end of the day, we need to stop placing one genre above all others. We need to teach writers that it’s ok to write the stories you want to write — no matter what section of the bookstore they end up in. We don’t do this for fame, and we sure as hell don’t do it for money — so we might as well try and actually enjoy this crazy pursuit called writing.

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.