A combination of holiday doldrums, editing stress, and my first cable subscription in years led me to re-new my acquaintance with stories I hadn’t watched in a few years. In between editing and unpacking boxes I plopped down on the couch to revisit old favorites, shows I once stopped everything to watch.
But a funny thing happened while I was away: the stories changed. Characters I loved started behaving in unbelievably strange ways. I expected things to get back to normal after an hour or two, but slowly I realized this was normal now. Strong female characters became emotionally crippled shells; decisive heroes became hesitant. Two shows embraced the same bizarre story-line where a villain raped the hero only to become pregnant and avoid all punishment.
I can imagine how it happened – in some boring conference room writers surrounded a table, fiddling with pens and rapidly cooling coffee. One of them looks up with excitement to exclaim ‘I’ve got it!’ and the world of characters and circumstance I found so watchable becomes a mess, the story so far away from what it had been that I don’t want to take part any more.
How far back would I have to go to fix the problem? How many paragraphs of dialog, how many scenes? I could change something subtle or maybe it needed a drastic push like cutting out a character completely or moving them all to someplace new. Picking a new path isn’t easy. Every decision I don’t like, every plot point that makes me cringe, is someone else’s favorite. From where I sit choices are regrets but to another person they’re a triumph, a story I should love.
It’s hard to know which perspective is right because often the out of control past writer is yourself. Great choices sour in the light of reality, things spiral out of control. You find yourself someplace you never expected to be or suddenly dealing with circumstances you never thought could happen. Don’t waste time lamenting how it should have gone. Move forward, try something new, don’t spend energy on the future that wasn’t. Work to make the story better and make a new ending for yourself.
Sometimes stories go the wrong way. It’s up to us to rewrite them. The story doesn’t have to be about your biggest mistake, it can be about your biggest victory – the way you turned a mistake into the best decision in your life.
I struggled to write this blog post, starting from scratch three times before I came up with an idea worth sharing. In the middle of those attempts a friend-I’ve-never-met dropped me a link about her Prime Minister to distract and inspire me. I didn’t understand all the humor/humour but I realized that moment, that interaction, was what I was struggling to capture.
I’m moving. Again. I swore the last move would be my last. I expected to settle down in my small, historic town and surround myself with friends. But my friends don’t live here. They live in Canada, the Northeast, the Northwest, Florida, and overseas. I’ve developed a collection of like minded, brilliant people who inhabit the globe. There are people I’ve known for years that I’ve never seen in person in New Zealand and Iceland, France and California. I could find someone to go to lunch with in great snowy plains of the Dakotas, the Midwest, or even Seattle but I struggle to do that in my own town.
I grew up with the idea that you make friends through volunteering or your job, but that never quite worked out. The people I volunteered with weren’t interested in getting together after the task was done. The civic groups I served didn’t check on me after my car accident or hospitalization. I couldn’t talk about the things they liked: football, church, or hunting. They didn’t understand the things I liked: running, fantasy novels, and comic book movies.
The people online did. The phone calls and emails, posts on Facebook and message boards provide me a constant sense of support and friendship. A new paradigm is emerging and the people around me don’t quite understand how it works. My relationships with people I’ve never met are more fulfilling than the ones with people I see every day. Dinner with someone I’ve only chatted with online turns into an evening with no pauses in the conversation, no struggling for topics, but the ten minutes before a meeting stretch on as I scramble for something to say. Thank all the gods for the weird weather we’ve been having.
So I’m moving to a city that’s served by three major airports with lots of chances to travel. Being in a small town, trying on that dream of buying a house and settling down was important, but it didn’t fit. I’m terrible at home maintenance, and a menace in the garden. I’ve killed countless seeds and plants learning that all those things I once dreamed about don’t really work for me. I’d rather be back in the city taking belly dance lessons than in a garden struggling to grow a tomato.
I’m ready to go back to the good and the bad, the crime, traffic, and high prices. I expect I’ll complain about them soon enough, but for now they seem like a small price to pay for the opportunity to go to Drag brunch or spend my Sunday at a museum. I’m going back to DC, purging all the things I acquired to fill my suburban home. You’ll find me at the Smithsonian Folk life festival, the Scottish games, the Romance Writers of America meetings, and every dance class I can fit in. And sometimes, you won’t find me at all, because I’ll be flying to meet those friends I haven’t ever seen. I know we’ll have a great time together.
Many people will tell you how to win at National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). They’ll quote best practices and articles, talking about support networks and plotting. All of that is very good advice. But I’m here to tell you that even if you don’t follow any of it, you can still ‘win’ at NaNoWriMo. And by winning I mean end up with a book contract.
The end of 2013 was a hard time for me. My father died, my mother had serious health issues, I was hospitalized, and my heater broke in the middle of a snowstorm. The NaNoWriMo deadline had long since passed, but I realized if I didn’t challenge myself to get writing my creativity would drown under all the stress. I needed a challenge, even though the next NaNoWriMo was months away.
Anti-Rule #1: NaNoWriMo happens when you make it.
If November is a bad time for you, start your novel today or any day. If you like the discussion boards and support of a writing team NaNoWriMo Camp starts in June and August. It brings the same support and fun as NaNoWriMo in November with none of the holiday obligations pressing down on you. A lot of the teachers in my life prefer NaNoWriMo Camp in June when school is out for the summer. I planned to start my personal NaNoWriMo challenge on 2/1/2014, but got excited and started writing on January 27.
Anti-Rule #2: You can start with something you’ve already worked on
After my life stabilized and the heat came back on, I realized I hadn’t written, really written, in months. Starting a new story felt too overwhelming so I grabbed a six-thousand word opening inspired by this image:
The story of a teenage mermaid fighting with her mother while tracking down a serial killer took off in my imagination. I saw the piece not just as a YA mystery, but as a platform for talking about feminine power. I repeatedly watched the mermaid scenes from Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides:
The mermaids there were exactly what I wanted – desirable, otherworldly, and deadly. Young women are often admonished against expressing their sexuality and told “good girls don’t do that sort of thing”. I wanted a character who struggled with her own powerful sexuality, who wanted to fit in but was constantly swayed by strong emotions the world didn’t expect her to have.
Her name is Danika. Her friends called her Danny, and for my private NaNoWriMo I thought about her every day. I challenged myself to two thousand words a day for each of February’s twenty-eight days.
Anti-rule #3 Finish your novel when it’s done.
I kept writing through March and into the first weeks of April. (Danny first appeared on the blog in April.) It turned out that I wanted to write more than the NaNoWriMo prescribed 50K words. I wrote about Key West disguised as Danny’s beach-side town Playa Linda. My Aunt’s house on Stock Island became Danny’s house. My favorite high school books became her favorites. I filled that manuscript with a thousand sunny details of life in a tropical town while the cold winter months passed away.
Anti-rule #4 Edit whenever you want!
NaNoWriMo focuses on getting the words on the page, so the rules tell you not to edit as you go. That means leaving something in place that doesn’t work and trying to write around that mistake. For me, it became too confusing to write chapter 10 based on what I wanted chapter 8 to be instead of what it was. I’d rather go back and rename a character than keep a list of things to correct when I’m done. I enjoy re-reading my work on Sunday night, planning out what scenes I’ll write for the week and making little changes. I don’t want to give up that ritual.
Anti-rule #5 Don’t stop when the manuscript is finished
People joke that NaNoWriMo should be followed by National Novel Editing Month, and I agree. When I finished the Mermaid manuscript I let it rest for a month before doing a first edit. Then it was sent it for a beta read. That caused another round of edits, which were followed by two rounds of paid edits, one with a college student for YA voice and one with the amazing editors at Quail School Media. Finally it felt polished enough to send out to editors.
Bonus Conflicting Anti-rules –
Don’t leave your manuscript in a box.
Start something else!
While the editors were reading The Mermaid and the Murders (the current working title) I started another manuscript. More than a year after my personal NaNoWriMo finished, the Mermaid and the Murders was out on submission and I did my best to forget about it.
Months passed and I never managed to put the story out of my mind. So this November, I threw in my hat for the real NaNoWriMo focusing on a a cozy mystery about a group of quilters who dabble in magic spells on the side. As my story reached 10,000 words, I got news that meant I would need to bend those NaNoWriMo rules again.
My mermaid book, that rule-breaking not-really- NaNoWriMo manuscript got a contract. Right in the middle of the real NaNoWriMo I recieved my editorial letter. I’m excited to dive back into the world of mermaids and I’m happy that my (personal, not at the right time) NaNoWriMo was a success. If you’re participating right now, I hope you succeed. If you’re not participating, remember that any month can be NaNoWriMo or, if you don’t write, any month can be the one you accomplish your goal.
Happy Pagan New Year! Among Wiccans and Pagans the year ends at Harvest (Samhain) and enters a period of rest and restoration. The dark winter months are for sleeping, getting stronger, and boosting the ties between family and friends.
I’m not completely Pagan. I grew up mixed. Dad told stories from every Pagan God he knew, while Mom dutifully took us to an Irish Catholic Church each Sunday. Neither religion stuck very hard, but Halloween-time always feels like a giant end-of-the-year bash. That’s why my blog gets a new look each November – the New Year means a new format, new colors. And, of course, I make a few resolutions:
Edit less, write more
Last year I published my first novel. I never expected there to be so much editing. Rounds and rounds of edits, each perfecting the story just a tiny bit more. Editing is largely a process of subtracting for me, taking away overused words (apparently I’m addicted to ‘just’) and removing stray ideas that don’t really contribute to the plot. I tend to think of editing as the opposite of writing, an act of ‘uncreating’. It makes my work better so I would never want to stop editing all together, but once you start looking for things to get rid of you find more and more of them. Last year was the first year since I began writing in 2006 that I didn’t complete a new manuscript. I edited several. This year I’m looking to balance my editing with creating.
My blog schedule evolved from ‘when I think of things’ to ‘worry about it twice a month, get it done whenever’ to the lovely 1st and 15th schedule I put in place in 2014. I don’t always hit the exact date (spoiler alert: I’m writing this on the 2nd), but having a fixed time on the calendar helps me plan for better posts. I toyed with the idea of going to a 1st, 10th, and 20th schedule, but I don’t want to fix something that isn’t broken. Instead, I’m going to add a third blog post around the 20th of the month.
Share what I read
That new monthly blog post will be about books. I read three books a week, but I tend to keep it to myself. Selfishly, I hope sharing what I read will bring me more recommendations and help me find new authors to love. Authors are warned never to give a bad review and be cautious about saying anything about anyone in the industry, so you’ll only hear about the books I like.
Play with new ideas more
Like the Queen of Wonderland sometimes I believe six impossible things before breakfast. A jumble of characters, scenes, and ideas rattles around my head but I stop them from getting out by worrying about the details. Will the story be interesting enough? What is the heroine going to do with her time? Where’s the bad guy? I’ve long lamented the 20,000 word mark, where good stories seem to die. All those 20,000 word pieces feel like a thing left unfinished, a black mark on my to-do list that can never be crossed off. This year I want to look at those pieces differently. I want to see them as an exploration, one that doesn’t have to result in 90,000 polished, published words. I write in two lengths: 600 word blog posts and 100,000 word novels. (The first draft of the sequel to Under a Blood Moon came in at 150,000 words.) I don’t know when writing became a one-or-the-other thing for me, and I don’t like it. I’m giving myself permission to write shorter, write weirder, write sweeter, etc. etc. etc. Play with the ideas and see where they go, instead of locking them away because they might not work.
I have a lot of great plans for the next year. I’ve started a new contract with Wild Rose Press (more on that when it’s official) and there’s a long list of fun writing projects that need attention. A second not-much-shorter list of life projects needs attention too. As we say goodbye to the bright autumn sunlight and prepare for the long, dark days of winter I’m excited about the things ahead. I hope you are too. From my hearth to yours, best wishes and bright blessings for the New Year.
The Jefferson Hotel opened on Halloween night in 1895. With towering marble columns decorated with intricate fruit and a alligator pond by reception, the posh hotel was anything but typical. From the gentleman’s lounge and smoking room, to the soaring ceilings and stained glass every detail of the property spoke of Victorian splendor. I was lucky enough to spend a romantic weekend at the recently restored Jefferson, a weekend that quickly became a research road trip.
If you ask the front desk staff or the concierge they’ll tell you there are no ghosts at the Jefferson. Oddly they all use the same phrase “Isn’t it a shame? Ghosts would be fun.” The repetition seemed forced and when I caught a younger employee on break I learned why. Employees are strictly prohibited from speaking about the ghosts, which can cause a problem for guests.
Six years after the hotel opened bad wiring lead to a fire that nearly consumed the building. While the press reported no fatalities, ghost stories from the sixth floor seem to indicate otherwise. Or perhaps the ghosts come from the March 1944 fire which claimed six lives? In either case, guests report footsteps running up and down the halls, the sound of childish laughter, and televisions that turn themselves on and off in the middle of the night. The staff member I talked to experienced all of these things, each accompanied by the acrid smell of smoke.
The Grand Ballroom hosted hundreds of parties and cotillions. It remains a popular wedding location in the modern era. Apparently one party guest refuses to leave. A security guard described the specter as a tall, thin woman wearing her hair up and a dress with a full skirt. The uninvited guest appears in the early morning hours. She can be seen clearly in the mirrors on the far side of the room, but disappears when the guard walks to where she would be standing.
There was one ghost story that the employee I spoke to refused to support. A famous comedienne recently claimed to see the ghost of a female slave in one of the hotels guest rooms. The employee pointed out that the hotel was built long after the end of the civil war, so clearly that ghost isn’t real. I’d love to agree, but it seems equally likely that a modern woman wouldn’t know the difference between the dress of a slave and the clothes worn by a African American woman at the turn of the century.
With its hand carved fire places, fine leather furniture, and gold leaf accents the splendor of another era remains at the Jefferson. It’s hard to say for certain what else has remained. As an author I can see a thousand ways to turn the Jefferson into a new version of the Overlook (the hotel from Stephen King’s The Shining). In fact, I outlined that story before my romantic weekend even ended.
As I type these words a gentle rain falls softly on the world outside my window, unlike the rain last night, that one tip-tapped on the roof until the middle of the morning. We haven’t had a good soaking rain yet, one fierce enough to get this Florida girl to open an umbrella, but there’s a hurricane on the way, so it’s coming. The anticipation is hard for me, the anxiety, the questions no one answer, and the powerful reminder that human beings are not as powerful as we imagine.
I’ve lost track of how many hurricanes I’ve survived. I remember the bad ones. Frances hit just before DragonCon, causing the most surreal sixteen hour drive of my life. Andrew ripped away houses leaving brown scars you could see from the highway no matter how fast you went. Charley chewed through roofs and every other house wore a blue tarp for months. Erin arrived the day a surgeon removed my wisdom teeth. With limited water and no electric, I developed an infection and passed the storm hallucinating with fever.
Despite the hardships, I’ve always appreciated the raw power of the storm, the beauty of it. My father and I would head to the beach after the all clear, searching for treasure churned up by the waves, watching the wind rip the foam off the surf. One our way home we’d stop and help people. One year I helped my favorite pizza joint take down the heavy plywood that kept their windows safe. Before the storm came we helped neighbors batten down the hatches (literally) and put away possible projectiles like lawn furniture and ornaments. After it hit, folks with generators run extensions cords to refrigerators down the block, and people smart enough to have a gas water heater offer hot showers. Communities can come together in a magical way after a hurricane.
Hurricane preparations always make me rearrange my priorities. Mentally packing my ‘go box’, a five gallon plastic bin I’d grab in the event of evacuation, makes me realize what matters. None of my clothes are important enough, nothing from the kitchen except food. The electronics only matter because of the things on them – family photos, manuscripts, scanned copies of documents we’d need to file insurance claims. The jewelry maybe, especially the few things I’ve inherited, but if it meant getting out in time or being trapped I’d leave it behind. I’d pack my quilts if there was room but even my prized 1938 sewing machine could be replaced. Hurricanes remind us what matters most.
Someday I’d like to write a story about a hurricane, stealing pieces from my childhood like the way we went outside to play as the calm eye of the storm passed over us or the chemical smell of rainwater purified with exactly eight drops of bleach in each gallon. At age four I struggled to count the drops exactly, at fourteen I poured the much more dangerous lamp oil with confidence. Now I’m the one searching for batteries and picking out canned food, closely watching the forecast to see where it will land. It’s hard, but not impossible. Once you’ve lived through a storm, it becomes a part of you, especially the bad ones. You realize you have it in you to survive, to help others when the sky is falling, and move forward when the storm passes.
How important is preserving the past? And which version of the past do we keep?
When the paperback copies of Under a Blood Moon arrived I quickly snapped a photo of one on top of the original draft. Printed in March 2007 that draft only roughly matches the story in the finished novel. I intended to shred it the next day, not out of anger or malice, but because I didn’t need it any more. I mused about leaving the past to the past, and focusing on the future. But then I hesitated.
A story will change with the telling, altered as people apply their own point of view. It changes more when the author writes a sequel or explains things in other works. One of my favorite series began with the heroine being saved from a pair of attackers by the (eventual) hero. In the first book she was alone and desperate. Later in the series we learn another person was watching the shadows. By the end of the series some seven people were there and only the hero moved to help. Critics were quick to point out the inconsistency, but does it really matter?
I’m editing the second Mallory novel now. The third is ‘proofing’ and my mind is chewing on what will happen in the fourth. I’m tempted to re-read every word I’ve written, from beginning to end, before I start on that fourth story. It would give me a more consistent, more ‘correct’ version of the story but I want to write what’s in my mind now rather than trying to recapture what I felt then.
One of my first readers of Under a Blood Moon is a friend who I met at my day job. After reading the book she asked me an interesting question – would it bother me if Mallory was Black? There’s nothing in the text that specifically makes her White, and a reader might imagine her as a Black. I told her it wouldn’t almost instantly, but the more I thought about it the more I realized I want readers to imagine Mallory as Black, Latina, Asian, or whatever she looks like inside their mind. I want them to read my story and make my characters real.
Which is why I finally shredded those first manuscripts. A story isn’t just words on a page, but an evolving idea. I don’t want to look back at what I might have meant but instead move forward toward what my stories can become. I want that more than I want to remember what the story once was. Holding on to the past leaves your hands too full to reach for the good things to come.
The odd thing about writing is that it spreads to take over your life. You find yourself in meetings thinking about characters or editing for other people when you should be talking. In my case, writing is oozing into my two hobbies, running and quilting. My running is getting the same treatment as Under A Blood Moon, where I’m adding quality words, or runs, to make the overall product better. My quilting suffers from the opposite problem – I’m cutting out yards of fabric as if they were wordy paragraphs of purple prose.
I’m willing to bet that most of you aren’t quilters, and you probably aren’t familiar with the concept of a stash. It’s exactly like hoarding fabric, except that no quilter admits that. T-shirts proclaim “whoever dies with the most fabric wins.” There are “Fabric Acquisition Road Trips” cleverly called FARTs and fabric swaps. The goal is always to have more fabric. One of my quilting friends has proudly filled an eight ft. by ten ft. shed. Since quilting fabric is meant to last for a hundred years, the amount of a quilter’s “stash” can easily grow to surpass a thousand yards.
My own meager stash reads like a history of my life. I found quilting when I was 17. Here was a room full of caring, open women, the wise Aunts and Great-Aunts I never had. They talked about everything, helpfully corrected my mistakes, and were genuinely interested in sharing their craft with me. My mother and I were never close. I had no girlfriends. The camaraderie of women was a new and wonderful discovery. All of my fabric from those years is feminine – tiny calico prints, big flowers, pastel pinks, and purples.
Fast-forward a decade, and I was working in Washington DC, one of a million drones for the federal government. My greatest fear was that I would wake up forty years later, having wasted my life in the same building, at the same job. My fabric: skulls, screaming ghosts, bats, and spiders; a not-so-subtle expression of rebellion sewn into traditional patterns.
And now? Now I’m buying batiks, saturated color that doesn’t have a wrong side. Some quilters frown on bold colors, saying they take over a quilt. That’s what I love. I like creating a pattern of lines and geometric shapes, creating order with color. Modern style quilts, with their hard lines and 1960s feel have become my new favorite.
Back to the editing: I’m getting rid of fabric. That’s a shocking confession for a quilter, but there are things I’m ready to let go. Editing my writing has taught me that less is more and it that applies to my fabric. When I got rid of 22 yards this week I realized that every yard felt like a burden. I felt a pressure to use that fabric as soon as I could, and guilt over the way I carried it with me over various moves and over the years. Getting rid of it took an item off my to-do list and freed me up to take on other things.
I don’t know what those other things are. Right now, writing is the focus of my life, quilting doesn’t seem as important. I’m pretty happy about that, and I’m excited about the future. But while I’m looking forward to road tripping to Bouchercon (a conference for mystery writers) this fall, I still might stop at fabric store along the way.
Somewhere, right now, an athlete warms up, stretches, and mentally reviews his form, preparing for the big game. Americans everywhere do the same, following their rituals for things like icing beer or making onion dip from soup mix. The Superbowl begins in hours and it’s got football on my mind.
My high school’s team ranked number one in the state for five years, earning the boys a 1.2 million dollar stadium. I walked past it on my way to English and Latin, classes held in permanently parked trailers euphemistically called ‘portables’. In Florida football is not a pastime but a religion. I have been greeted at 7am, in my bathrobe standing over a newspaper, by the shouts of a never-met neighbor who needed to know right away who won in overtime last night.
I couldn’t tell him. Despite efforts by every member of my family I don’t care about the Giants or the Gators. Somewhere around age 13 they decided I didn’t like football because I didn’t understand it, and weekly lessons began. I sat on the couch absorbing knowledge of first downs, flags, and offensive lines wishing I could go read a book. It came as no surprise when I picked a college without a football team. My family gave up, sure that I hated the game.
I agreed with them long enough that I made Mallory, the main character in my novel, a football fan. I didn’t want anyone to think she was a Mary Sue, a main character that is a stand in for the author, so I made a list of traits we wouldn’t share. She drinks Dr. Pepper, I drink Coke. She loves the heat, I loath it. So when it came to football, of course, she had special game day plates and favorite snacks.The sport was part of her life, something she shared with friends, and it brought her great joy.
Oddly, the more I wrote about her and her team (the New Orleans Saints) the less I hated the sport. Mallory’s love of football was wrapped around her love for her father, who had been out of her life for years. Wearing his jersey, routing for his team, and watching the plays he’d taught kept her close to him. Somewhere along the way, researching those players and picking those traditions changed my own views about the sport.
I still don’t have a favorite team. You won’t find me at a sports bar and I’ve never been to a Superbowl party, but I won’t joke about rabid fans, or belittle them for being excited. While I may not be interested in the sport, I’ve come to respect the relationships it creates and the happiness it brings. I won’t be watching today’s game for the plays, but I do want to see if Derrick Coleman invites those two little girls to the game again.