Review: Finishing School

I’ll admit it.  I haven’t touched my manuscript in months.  All my New Year’s resolutions quickly fell by the wayside as I kept telling myself that I would start working on it again when I got back to school.  Then when I got better after being sick.  Then when I was finally in one place again for a while.

All of these were lies.  And the longer I went without even opening the document on my laptop or putting pen to paper, the worse I felt about the project – and the more I wanted to avoid it.

This is why, on my trip to Boulder, I picked up Finishing School: The Happy Ending to That Writing Project You Can’t Seem to Get Done.  A joint effort by Cary Tennis, creator of the Finishing School method, and Danelle Morton, one of his students, this book first tackles what Cary and Danelle call the Six Emotional Pitfalls.  (Spoiler: I was stuck in the shame pitfall.)  Then it describes Tennis’s method: basically, instead of reading each other’s writing and giving feedback, Finishing School focuses solely on the performance of work, any work, that moves the writer forward.  The group meets and discusses that week’s successes and failures, but the members are simply sharing whether or not they adhered to their (realistic, planned) schedule.

Tennis and Morton delve deeper into why Finishing School works, detailing the emotional responses people tend to have when they shift their focus from some huge project to the one-foot-in-front-of-the-other approach.  As someone who tends to get caught up in the planning phases, I appreciate that Finishing School does emphasize the act of Doing the Work.  You’re allowed to come up with a schedule, you can even color code it if you want, but then you must Do the Work when the appointed time comes.  (There’s even a chapter dedicated to “My Fake Schedule,” a phenomenon I’m all too familiar with.)

This is one of those writing guides that may not fit everyone, depending on where they’re at in the writing process, but for me, it was exactly what I needed at this point.

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Review(ish): L.M. Montgomery as Unexpected Mentor

I’m not really sure how to categorize this post, because the extent to which I identified with Lucy Maud Montgomery throughout the first volume of her selected journals had an enormous impact on my impression of that collection. From her opening entry declaring that she had burned all of her childhood diaries (I have more than a few I would like to shred) to her descriptions of the “melancholy” that seized her when she was older (and sounded hauntingly like my experiences with depression), I felt like this woman was my “kindred spirit,” as her most famous character would say.

Anyone who loved Anne of Green Gables will essentially find bonus material in this collection of the beloved author’s journals from 1889 to 1910.  It’s easy to find the places where Montgomery drew on her personal experiences to create Anne’s world, using her own memories and sometimes brutally honest depictions of her own feelings to remember what the emotional turmoil of childhood really feels like.  It’s also easy to see her writing style as it grew into the L.M. Montgomery we know and love.  I could recognize phrases she used directly or in altered form in the Anne books, as well as general sentiments that Anne would later echo.

I could also recognize myself in Montgomery’s inner life, as I said before.

It wasn’t just the melancholia that gripped her in the winter, leaving her without the motivation even to get off couch, as the worst of my own depression has done to me.  It wasn’t just the way she felt about books as friends, the way my own bookshelves act as a comfort when I feel lonely.  It was little things, little dislikes for irritating classmates and frustrations with unseen obstacles to her dreams.  Reading her journals even went so far as to comfort me for my own sporadic entries (I cannot seem to maintain a daily habit no matter how good it is for me).

Maybe I just connected to her as a fellow woman writer.  Maybe this is just one of those things among writers, to seek out a mentor version of yourself in the ranks of those who have gone before.  Maybe it’s just a more generic writer thing (it’s well known, for instance, that many writers have struggled with depression).  Maybe I just felt close to this real person who had created one of my favorite childhood characters.

Whatever the reason, I was not expecting such a personal level of connection when I picked up these journals on a whim at Half Price Books – but I’m glad I did.

Review: People of the Book

This is a book-lover’s book.

The Commodore gave me this book for my birthday/Christmas (the pain of not seeing each other for months now that she lives in another state slightly assuaged by meeting up for a day of gift exchanging and talking and coffee) because she read it and thought I’d like it.  It’s a biography of a book, an illuminated haggadah found in Sarajevo, that the (initial) narrator, Hanna, is hired to examine and preserve.  The tiny clues she finds in the book’s binding and on its pages, like a wine stain (that also turns out to hold some blood) and a cat hair, send the reader into flashbacks showing the book’s history.

Anyone who enjoys that old book smell will love living vicariously through Hanna’s examination of the book, and anyone who enjoys picking up used books with mysterious inscriptions in the flyleaf and marginal notes from previous readers will certainly get a sense of delicious satisfaction from knowing the full story behind the haggadah.  Honestly, the worst part of the story was knowing that Hanna didn’t learn everything the reader did.  Knowing where the blood came from, where the silver clasps had disappeared to, I felt bad for Hanna’s frustration.

With the haggadah as the sort-of protagonist, the surrounding characters need only be developed enough to explain what they do or don’t do to the haggadah.  This meant it was easier to connect with some characters than others, and while sometimes I wondered why particular events were necessary to include, for the most part I enjoyed each piece of the haggadah’s history.

Overall, a well-written, enjoyable read.

4/5 stars on Goodreads.


What book do you wish had a biography? 

Review: Grimm’s Last Fairytale

I’ve always liked the darker versions of beloved fairytales.  There’s something fun about knowing the grisly details behind the glitter and glamour, perhaps because it makes sense to me that the malevolent beings in these stories should be harder to silence, harder to kill.

When I picked up Grimm’s Last Fairytale, I thought it was biographical, something about the Brothers Grimm and their fantastical collection of dark tales.  But when it turned out to be a historical novel, I was pleasantly surprised.  Middleton takes three storylines and braids them together like Rapunzel’s hair: the present, where Auguste accompanies her aging uncle Jacob Grimm around the German countryside of his youth, hoping to discuss family history he will not share; the past, where Jacob and Willi grow up together from happy boys to the family’s sole breadwinners to political activists; and some other realm, where a boy is sent by his mother to find a princess in the Rose King’s abandoned court.

Grimm himself is the common denominator throughout the book, slipping in and out of dreams that just might be the boy’s journey to the briar-bordered, sleeping palace – just might be, mind you, because here, reality is uncertain.  But the relationships between the major characters prevent the book from being too abstract.  Auguste’s hero-worship of her enigmatic uncle, the mutual devotion of the Grimm brothers, the boy’s unwavering loyalty to his mother, and even the manservant Kummel’s struggle to remain indifferent to his eccentric employers deepen the reader’s interest in the already engrossing plot.

There’s a lot of meat to this story: a man growing old, a lifetime of responsibilities piled up behind him; a woman whose life is on pause until she gathers the courage to ask the question burning a hole in her mind; the backstory of a well-known childhood tale.  And that’s not even counting the historical context that pokes through in parts of Grimm’s life, particularly as his deeply held belief in the unification of Germany’s many little kingdoms conflicts with the world events around him.  Then there’s Middleton’s gorgeous, expressive writing to carry it all.

While this type of dark, multiple-storyline book isn’t for everyone, I found it highly enjoyable and gave it 4 out of 5 stars on Goodreads.


What’s your favorite fairytale?  Would you want to know the dark version behind it?

Words That Haunt Me

I have a little notebook with a cover like the Penguin Books version of Orwell’s 1984, two orange stripes framing the title spelled out in the center and the classic penguin eyeing me from between the words “complete” and “unabridged.”  I regularly lose and rediscover this notebook over the course of the year.  When I know where it is, I use it to record my favorite quotes, snippets of poetry, or bits of dialogue from various sources.  Whenever I lose it and find it again, I reread the whole thing, reminding myself of what was important to me when I wrote down that batch of quotes, that particular conversation from the TV show Bones, this epigraph from a novel I’ve otherwise forgotten.

A little while ago, I read this wonderful post from Cats and Chocolate, and it made me reach for the little Penguin notebook because I, too, wanted to share the words that haunt me.

So here they are:

The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow sharp as swords.

In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of the traveller who would report them.

And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gate should be shut and the keys be lost.

-JRR Tolkien

prayer-of-the-woodsFor the longest way round is the shortest way home. ~Mere Christianity, CS Lewis

Snatching the eternal out of the desperately fleeting is the great magic trick of human existence. ~Tennessee Williams

The words we take into ourselves help to shape us…They build and stretch and build again the chambers of our imagination. ~The Child That Books Built, Francis Spufford

Give away love like you’re made of the stuff; we’re rehearsing to spend eternity together. ~Bob Groff
Sometimes it’s the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine. ~The Imitation Game

Let us not take it for granted that life exists more fully in what is commonly thought big than in what is commonly thought small. ~Virginia Woolf

 

Some days I am not sure if my faith is riddled with doubt or whether, graciously, my doubt is riddled with faith.  And yet I continue to live in a world the way a religious person lives in the world; I keep living in a world that I know to be enchanted, and not left alone.  I doubt; I am uncertain; I am restless, prone to wander.  And yet glimmers of holy keep interrupting my gaze.

~Still, Lauren Winner

 

ancestors
The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night
Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,
Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom
The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.
The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.
And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself
Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.
~”The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm,” Wallace Stevens
People need stories more than bread itself.  They tell us how to live and why.
~The Storyteller, Arabian Nights

NaNoWriMo Declaration

Today is the first day of National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo.

For the past few years, I have promised myself I will “win” NaNoWriMo by meeting the goal of finishing a 50,000+ word manuscript.  The idea is not to edit, not to get a book published, but simply to write down the whole damn thing and get that first draft to exist at all.  The new year is the time for revising and querying.  November is for writing furiously, frantically, every single day, in an effort to get that draft done.

But I haven’t won.  I’ve abandoned all my past stories after a few days.  This year, though, relatively soon after NerdCon: Stories and with my PNWA and feminism publishing connections behind me, not to mention a bunch of free time on my hands, I’m swearing to at least write something every day this November.  I might not finish my manuscript.  It would be nice if I could.  But I will put words on the page once a day for this whole month.

Or at least I’ll try!

NerdCon Stories Part 3: Saturday

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I figured if there was anywhere to wear my Augustus Waters t-shirt, this was it.

Saturday morning began bright and early with a John Green Yoga Adventure hosted by YogaQuest MN.  This was basically like MadLibs with yoga poses: one of the instructors read a narrative in which the protagonists of Green’s novels found themselves outside their stories and tried to find where they belonged, while the other instructor led us through poses associated with each character name, certain nouns, and some verbs.  Whenever Hazel from The Fault in Our Stars was mentioned, for instance, we did Warrior II, because she is a strong female lead.

After yoga I ran back to the hotel for breakfast in the Executive Lounge (leftover perks from having to stay on the pullout couch in the Executive Suite!) before heading off to “Centering Women in Fiction: Removing Your Unconscious Bias.”  A panel of amazing women creators talked about internalized and learned biases that even we women have against ourselves, and how we can combat those by supporting (and even demanding) those stories when they do appear.  The girl power in the room was fantastic.  I also ran into Shayna from the feminist publishing panel the day before, so we sat together and chatted a bit.

When that panel let out, I went back to the expo hall because I wanted to try out the Depict-O-Mat.  Essentially, it’s some people in a box who interview you for a few minutes and then produce an impromptu puppet show starring you.  In mine, I was Queen of the Dragons.  Plus I got to keep the puppet!

After some lunch, it was time for our kaffeeklatsch with Saladin Ahmed.  Twelve attendees got to sit down with a featured guest at kaffeeklatsches (so called because there were coffee and tea available) for an hour and chat about creativity, process, and whatever else we wanted.  Though I didn’t actually talk, it was just nice to hang out and hear others’ thoughts on representation, writing, publishing, and reading recommendations.

From there, I dashed straight to the auditorium to get a good seat for the afternoon variety show.  This is also where I found Shayna again and she joked that I must be stalking her.

2016-10-15-16-55-45The variety show included a Q&A lightning round with a squid, a conversation between Nalo Hopkinson and Daniel Jose Older, a lip sync battle, and a talk by John Green.  All I’ll say about that talk is that 1. he made me cry again and 2. you should go read it.

After the variety show I went down to something called Story Circle, where we all literally sat in a circle and talked about nerdom.  I got to say some things about Arabian Nights and how cool it was to be at NerdCon: Stories in the first place, so that was definitely fun.

My last panel at NerdCon was “Breaking into Publishing,” which is pretty self explanatory.  I got some good notes, some good quotes (my favorite was “How did I break into publishing?  With a black ski mask at night.”), and some good motivation to actually finish my manuscript so I can start querying! (I also saw Shayna.  Again.  Really can’t blame her for thinking I was stalking her.)

And thus, knowing I had a shuttle coming at 5 am the next day, my NerdCon: Stories experience was over.

NerdCon Stories Part 2: Friday

After hanging up with Dad, I walked a few blocks to the light rail and rode it back to the airport to pick up my phone.  Fortunately I had a few hours before the first panel I really wanted to attend, so I wasn’t missing any of the convention as a result of my predicament.

Riding the light rail without my phone was surprisingly serene.  Public transportation in new cities always reminds me of taking the T on my visits to Boston and riding the Tube around London, and without any games to play or people to text, I was left to look out the window at the city around me.

Of course, once I got my phone back, I immediately began documenting the experience via Snapchat, Twitter, and texting.

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The wall of a parking lot right outside my hotel.  I wonder what melody it is.

Back at the hotel, I took one of Minneapolis’s many downtown skyways to the convention center, a convenience that made running back to my hotel room between panels much easier.  Unfortunately, I was too late to attend the Mental Health in YA Literature panel, but I was overjoyed to see that it was filled to capacity because so many people wanted to discuss that topic!  After checking in and getting my preordered t-shirt, I wandered around the expo hall a little and bought some typical convention center fare for lunch.  The tables were huge, so huge that you were almost forced to sit with strangers because it was too ridiculous to have a table for 10 all to yourself.  Thanks to this, I soon discovered one of the perks of NerdCon – social interactions aren’t as awkward because everyone is around the same level of nerdiness.  For instance, a random guy asked to sit at my table, struck up a conversation, and ended up showing me his short story.

2016-10-14-11-18-24After lunch I wound up in a panel on self-promotion, which was entertaining if not particularly enlightening.  All of the panelists claimed not to be good at self-promotion, which seemed like poor planning, but since I wasn’t terribly invested in the topic I just enjoyed the banter between the featured guests.

Then came A Brief Exploration of Feminist Publishing, in which I met several wonderful ladies who are also striving to both find women in writing and create their own content.  We talked about the point at which we first realized the divide between male and female authors, who our favorite women writers are, and the history of feminist publishing.  I loved my little group and our whole discussion was fantastic.

The Writers Panel with Ben Blacker was up next.  I made more new friends as we filled up a ballroom and waited for the interview to begin.  The interviewee?  John Green.2016-10-14-16-24-04

I will admit to quietly flailing in my seat and taking far too many pictures as John came out and introduced himself.  But as their conversation began, I found myself simply needing to listen.  I was so grateful that John was so generous in sharing his writing experiences of the past and present, and that he was willing to delve into mental health and personal balance as well.  One part in particular hit me in a visceral way, because he used a similar word choice to what I tell myself when I talk about my depression.  The interview closed with questions from the audience, which John answered thoughtfully.  (I will update this post with a link to the podcast when it is released.)

My first day at NerdCon: Stories closed with an invitation to dinner with one of my favorite bloggers from SnarkSquad!  Mari and I had connected over Twitter when I realized we would both be at the convention, and she was nice enough to include me in a dinner with a few other internet friends.  After dinner, I went back to my room, watched the end of the second Harry Potter movie on TV, and went to bed (a real bed, having switched rooms earlier in the day!).


Read about my travels to NerdCon: Stories here!  And read about my adventures on the second day of the convention here!

Adventures on the Peninsula

Since she was leaving for college in a few weeks (though Mom, Dad, and I were largely still in denial about it), I decided to take Bird with me to visit the Engineer’s family on the peninsula.  She’d never seen it before, and she wanted to meet his dog, so we went up for a few days.

Salt Creek

The first evening, we went down to Salt Creek, one of my favorite places in the world.  As we walked along the beach where the river ran down to the ocean, we noticed an…odor.  The Engineer commented that it smelled like low tide, then added, “Oh.  Or it’s that.”

That was a dead sea lion.  It had been washed up long enough that its ribs and vertebrae were starting to show and the fur was beginning to slough off its skin (I’d forgotten that sea lions had fur, actually).  As we edged around it, Bird, future veterinarian that she is, said, “Aw, it’s cute!”  The Engineer and I did not exactly agree, but at least Bird’s curiosity didn’t let the dead animal ruin the evening.

We walked along (now suspicious of every pile of kelp lest it contain another dead animal), climbed some rocks, and watched the sun set over the water.

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Bird got a cute silhouette shot of the Engineer and me

Hurricane Ridge

After some car troubles, we made it up to Olympic National Park.  The road up to Hurricane Ridge involves a lot of winding turns and a few tunnels hugging the side of the mountain.  At the visitor center, we saw a few marmots in a meadow and an utterly complacent deer sauntering through the parking lot.  Not wanting to stay too long since we had borrowed the Engineer’s mom’s car, we headed up one of the short trails, a 1.5 mile loop that promised “spectacular views.”

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On our way up the trail

As we climbed, we saw a doe grazing on the hillside below us – then noticed her two adorable fawns!  Farther on, a brown shape scurried across the trail, eliciting a yelp of, “Marmot!” from Bird.

“That’s a grouse,” the Engineer said.  I noticed movement at the foot of a nearby bush.  The grouse had a chick with her, a fluffy, energetic chick that seemed to ignore all of its mother’s cackles that probably meant, “Get over here this second or I swear I will feed you to those humans myself.”  Kids, right?

At the top of the trail…well, the view did not disappoint.

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Marymere Falls

Since we seem to make this hike nearly every time I visit the Engineer’s family, we had to visit Marymere Falls before we left.  The trail winds through the forest to find the creek, where you can wade straight into the water from a wide gravel shore.

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20160803_140030Bird pointed to a natural, miniature harbor and said, “That’s where Ratty ties up his boat, and he and Mole can get up to their house through that tunnel in the bank, there.”  We discussed the logistics of hiding the canoe from humans, and where Badger’s house might be (further up in the woods, we decided), baffling the Engineer, who had never read The Wind in the Willows.  (Though he’s quite used to me pointing to little holes in tree trunks and insisting that fairies and elves must live there, so we probably didn’t sound too absurd.)

 

After crossing two bridges over the creek and its tributary, the trail turns steep.  We led Bird up to the higher vantage point first, then followed the loop down to where you can look up at the full height of the falls.  The Engineer and I slipped past the railing and climbed down to the pool at the base of the waterfall.

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Once we’d made it back down the trail, we decided to go for ice cream at Granny’s Cafe, where we met a 12-toed cat!

 

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He looks like he has mittens on!

So there you have it, dear readers: proof that Bird and I do, occasionally, go outside and enjoy ourselves.

Convention

a meeting or formal assembly, as of representatives or delegates, for discussion of and action on particular matters of common concern

a rule, method, or practice established by usage

“So L. told me you do creative writing?” my coworker said/asked.  I looked up from my lunch in the workplace kitchen, slightly startled.  This coworker had always scared me a little.  But I’m always happy to nerd out a little about creative writing.

“Yeah, I want to be an author of long-form fantasy novels.  And maybe some historical fiction.”

She nodded, “That’s awesome,” and suddenly I found myself answering a lot of questions.  What was my writing schedule?  What podcasts did I listen to?  Who were my workshoppers?  What was my plan for getting an agent?  What was my timeline for finishing my novel?  What conferences had I been to?

“Actually, I’m going to a conference next weekend,” I said, and described it.  She waved a hand dismissively.

“Too many academics there.  You want to network at WorldCon or something like that instead,” she said.  “That’s where L. and I met Professor T. and A. B. – you know who that is, right?”  I could only shake my head as she barreled onward, completely overwhelming me with instructions as to how to make writing my career.  By the time she was done, I felt utterly hopeless.  How on earth was I going to educate myself on all these aspects of the publishing world?  And how had I ever thought I could be a writer when I was so ignorant?  I needed to catch up!

Then last weekend I went to that conference I told my coworker about.  My coworker probably wouldn’t have thought much of it.  I didn’t get any business cards, and I didn’t pitch a book idea to any agents or editors.  I had lunch and sat through panels with friends I had made the year before.  I chose seminars based on where I am in the writing process (very, very early stages).  I asked questions about things that interested me.  I nerded out about Anne Boleyn with a historical fiction writer.  Perhaps it didn’t do anything to greatly benefit my fledgling career, but the conference definitely benefited me.

Since announcing my intention to stay in our Small College Town and work on my writing while the Engineer finishes his degree, I’ve received a lot of advice about how to network (a terrifyingly vague term that still makes me cringe) and “start a career” despite my remote location.  But that’s never been what writing is about for me.  Yes, I’d love to write a bestselling novel, because it would mean other people wanted to read the same kinds of stories I’m interested in writing.  Taking time to write every day is more about seeing what I can do than about building any type of career.  I want a network of fellow writers and readers more than I want to memorize a roster of Who’s Who in Writing.

I do understand and appreciate the intentions of the people who ask me about my networking plans.  In many industries, connections are vital, and the earlier you make them, the better.  I realize it must seem like I’m approaching things a bit sideways.  This isn’t how convention says progress is made.  But I’m starting to value progress in my own head over progress on a society-based timeline.  At that conference, for example, one panelist said that his own shift in perspective came when he started calling himself a writer, even though he still had another full time job.  “Writer” was who he was, not just what he did.  That makes sense to me.  That is a step that feels concrete and real to me, even if my coworker might give me a pitying smile and say that until I can put it on my resume, I’m not really a writer.

I know that I am.  And that knowledge will give me the energy to keep working so the world can know it too.

So today I bought my ticket for NerdCon: Stories in October.  I’m going to meet up with the Commodore and talk about stories – written, filmed, recorded, sung, pantomimed, or any other kind of story – for a weekend.  And I’m extremely excited.  Maybe I’ll meet a future employer.  Maybe I’ll just have a really good time.  But I’m okay with either outcome as long as I can come home and write about it.