It’s Time to Admit I Have a Problem…

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It’s always humbling to realize you have a problem, a weakness, perhaps even a pathology. When it’s brought to your attention, you might deny it or rail against it. But there it is. Your problem. Not going away.

In cleaning out the attics in our house this week to find stuff to donate to our church rummage sale, I made a remarkable and disconcerting discovery.

I’m a pillow hoarder.

There, I said it.

It’s hard to admit, but I think I have a pillow problem. I found, stuffed into bags and stashed in the attics, no fewer than a dozen throw pillows of various shapes and sizes (most on the large side) that I was saving in case I ever wanted to recover them. You know, because throw pillows can be so prohibitively expensive that once you have them, you really need to hang onto them. Perhaps they will appreciate in value sitting there in your 100 degree attic.

Though I was tempted to keep some of them, I pushed them all into the car and now they are sitting atop long tables awaiting new homes with new owners who will use them (I hope).

Phew! It feels so good to get that off my chest.

Here’s What Has Been on My Nightstand

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So this is what I’ve been reading for the past few months. Except for My Antonia by Willa Cather, I’ve read all of these in the past–most in high school. They’re all books I already had on my shelves at home. And I hope to more than double this stack by the end of the year.

Any guesses as to how they all relate to one another? Or which has been my favorite thus far? What have you read so far this year?

First Short Story Collection: Cover Art Reveal!

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Over a year ago, I secured the services of Heather Brewer, a talented graphic designer I’m lucky to call a colleague and friend, to design a book cover for me. At the time, I thought it would be a novel. At some point I realized that what I really wanted her to design was the cover for my collected short stories.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a year or more, you probably know that in 2013 I challenged myself to write one short story each month. During that year, I made each story available for Kindle users. Now I’m gathering those stories together, adding more material, and preparing to publish the collection as both a printed book and an ebook.

And this, I’m ecstatic to say, is the cover…

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When I saw it, I literally said in a loud and astonished voice (to no one in particular), “Oh my GOSH!” 

It’s breathtaking. And it’s more than just a pretty picture. Not only is it eye-catching, it evokes the kind of emotion that I hope the stories evoke in the reader–a little mystery, a little ache in the soul, an appreciation of beauty alongside an acknowledgement of the broken things. And, importantly, it’s non-gendered. In this collection, there are just as many male protagonists as female, and the themes are more universal than gender-specific, so having a cover that would appeal to both men and women was important to me. What do you think? Have we succeeded?

I’m currently editing the collection and getting the interior ready to go. I don’t have a firm release date just yet, but my hope is that it will hit the “shelves” by late summer or early fall. I’ll keep you posted!

Revising Your Manuscript: Sifting through All That Good Advice

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Back in March after I finished the first draft of my WIP, I talked about getting the most out of your beta readers. But what do you do with all their comments and advice? Most especially, what do you do when one person’s feedback conflicts with another?

So far, I’ve had ten lovely people give me feedback on my manuscript. Three more are reading now. With that much feedback, you’re bound to get some comments more than once (and that’s when you should perk up your ears and seriously consider their advice) and you’re bound to get a few things that don’t mesh.

My WIP is really three stories in one. Three protagonists. Three time periods. Lots of connections between the three. Inevitably when you have an ensemble cast, readers will likely gravitate to one character over another. So I’ve had champions for each of these three characters as well as critics for each of them. One reader thinks the book is really about Character A and rushes through the chapters that don’t include her. Another reader can’t stand Character A and knows that the book is really about Character B. Another adores Character C but can’t connect with Character B. And so on. And most readers have ideas about how you could improve the parts of the book they didn’t like as much.

On a smaller scale, you may have different readers mark the same little bit of prose with an underline and a smiley face, or a double strikethrough and a skull and crossbones. A member of one of my writing groups recently had that very experience with a descriptive dialogue tag and was at a loss about how to edit or if she should change it at all.

So what do you do with this conflicting advice?

First and foremost, consider your true audience. What’s your genre? Who is going to gravitate toward this book and snatch it off the shelves? Is the reader who gave you feedback someone who generally reads in your genre? If not, pause a moment to consider whether their advice on this particular problem is coming from a place of ignorance.

That doesn’t mean there’s no point in having them read and comment. After all, my book is geared toward the women’s book club crowd, but male readers (I’ve had four of them) are essential because there as many male characters as there are female. But if one of my male readers advises me to change a female character’s reaction to a situation because he doesn’t think women act that way or doesn’t understand why women act that way, I’m going to give it some serious thought, pat him on the hand, and say, “Nope, a woman really would do that, even if you don’t understand it. Women readers will understand that completely.”

But if the same male reader advises me to change something a male character says or does because he thinks that no man would act that way, then you had better bet I’m listening close and following his advice. In fact, that often makes for better conflict because the male characters aren’t behaving the way I as a female writer would like them to, and so now my characters have to deal with it.

Sometimes advice doesn’t hinge on audience. Sometimes it’s a matter of clarity versus obscurity. I tend to not like to explain things too much in my writing because I resent being talked down to in any area of life (which is why I hate getting my oil changed). I’m intelligent enough; let me figure it out. And if I can’t, let me struggle with it and discuss it with others. I’m sure this has something to do with being an English major.

But not all of my readers will have been English majors. Not everyone is on the lookout for obscure symbolism–or even overt symbolism! So when a beta reader completely misses an important plot point because I was worried about making it too obvious, it’s time to reread from the point of view of someone who hasn’t been thinking about the plot of this book for over a year. Come at it with fresh eyes. The best way to accomplish this is temporal distance–spend time away from your manuscript. Put it away for a month, then reread the notes from your beta readers, then reread your manuscript through the lens of a first-timer.

The side benefit of spending that time away is that any anger or anxiety you felt when reading over the notes that your beta readers sent to you will have dissipated. Items that seemed like a crisis at the time will suddenly seem very doable. Things you bristled at when you first read them will now seem quite sensible. And the task of revision will be at least partially divorced from the task of creation. You’ll accept that this novel you wrote is, in fact, not perfect. And that that’s okay. That it’s all part of a longer process by which you will slowly, slowly chip away the things that are not your story so that you can uncover the thing that is your story.

Above all, when you are considering conflicting advice–or any advice at all for that matter–there is a balance to be struck between being true to yourself and your vision and being faithful to your potential readers. If you’re writing to be published and read, you do need to consider your audience. But remember that you cannot, no matter how hard you try, please everyone. When you change Character A so that Reader A will like them more, Reader B will be furious.

So how do you like Character A? Does she serve the story? Does she evoke some kind of emotion in the reader? Does she struggle and change and mess up? If you’re uncomfortable with Character A, change her. If not, don’t.

Stories that get passed around and talked about are not necessarily the ones where everyone has the same opinion on every element. After all, if everyone thinks the same way on something, there’s really nothing to talk about, is there? So leave us a little complexity, a little controversy, a little mystery. We might be frustrated sometimes as readers, but it’s a sweet frustration indeed.

 

Roses, Roses Everywhere

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My roses are mostly pink…

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…but why miss an opportunity to share some lovely Robert Burns with you?

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O my Luve is like a red, red rose
   That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve is like the melody
   That’s sweetly played in tune.

 

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So fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
   So deep in luve am I;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
   Till a’ the seas gang dry.

 

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Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
   And the rocks melt wi’ the sun;
I will love thee still, my dear,
   While the sands o’ life shall run.

 

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And fare thee weel, my only luve!
   And fare thee weel awhile!
And I will come again, my luve,
   Though it were ten thousand mile.

 

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Coming Up for Air

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For the past couple weeks, I have been mired in some rather tedious work that I won’t bore you with. Suffice to say, it may be a few more days before I can get my brain or camera back into working order. I will say that my weekends have been beautiful and tragic and backbreaking and relaxing, practically all at once. Two Friday evenings ago, I started ripping out sad tufts of grass from the very back of our backyard, moved about fifty large blocks out to expand the shade gardens, dug a long trench, and repositioned the blocks. It was hot, sweaty, mosquito-infested work.

Saturday morning I meant to go to church to plant some ornamental grasses and help mow the lawn, but as I was closing the lift gate on my Explorer, I accidentally ripped the thing off, which, as you can imagine, was fairly surprising. I caught the 50 pounds of window, etc. and stood there wondering what to do with it. I couldn’t put it down because it was still attached by a bunch of wires for the electric and one of the shocks. I ended up wrenching it from the other shock, maneuvering it into the back of the hatch, and fashioning a tarp cover for the gaping hole so as not to let the rain in that was expected the next day. Since no body shop in our entire city is apparently open on Saturday, I went back to the garden and worked six hours, digging up/dividing/transplanting what became 99 plants (I counted), and again got sweaty and buggy and dirty.

But Sunday–ah, Sunday!–was bliss. Gorgeous weather (after some helpful morning rain) and it was church, baseball game with friends, cookout, cigars, and great conversation into the evening. Fantastically relaxing.

Then after another mind-numbing week working on (and finally finishing!) copy for a few hundred books I’ve never read, my mother and I went to visit my almost-97-year-old great aunt who is closing her house and looking for homes for most of her treasures. I came home with a quilt that her mother (my great great grandmother) made from her and my grandma’s old childhood dresses, some teacups her mother bought on trips, some beautiful linens her mother had embroidered, a couple antique cameras, vintage aprons, and more. I also purchased her dining room set and was then faced with the problem of getting it halfway across the state.

Did you know that U-Haul will not rent trailers to you if you’re going to hitch them to an Explorer? True story. But an old friend on the west side of the state came through with his own trailer (which he pulls behind an Explorer) and on Friday we managed to get table, six chairs, corner china cabinet, and sideboard to my house in one piece. Some Old English and some Pledge and the set looks very happy in my home. So now Great Great Grandma Koch’s lovely linens can continue their useful lives on the very table they’ve graced for the past 68 years.

Saturday and Sunday were days of perfect weather, time with my boys celebrating one of the best dads I think there has ever been, and the prospect of returning to work this week with that gargantuan one-time (until the next time?) task checked off my list. I’m very happy with my lovely redesigned and expanded garden, the ability to keep some special things in the family, and a lot more storage space in the dining room. I’ve got my work cut out for me in the garden still this week. Every weed will be pulled in anticipation of 10 yards of mulch being delivered soon.

And then I guess I’ll be shoveling and spreading mulch for the rest of the month. :P

What are you doing with your summer days?

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