Me on the Radio

I finally got up the courage to listen to a radio show that I was on back in…oh, was it last year? Yes. Yes it was. I was sure I sounded like kind of an idiot, but as it turns out, I don’t. I shared this interview time with Alyssa Alexander, a Lansing area author and a fellow member of the Capital City Writers Association. Alyssa also does not sound like an idiot (so kudos to the both of us).

So if you want to hear more about me, what I do for a living as a publishing professional, and a bit about why I still read and prefer printed books to ebooks, please give it a listen.

 

The Only Stuff You Can Control

Today I was with my first grade son in line at Jo-Ann’s to buy elastic (part of a TMNT shell modification to hold smoke bombs, of course) when the older gentleman directly ahead of me turned around and asked me if he could speak to my son. I said, “Sure.” The man said, “Young man, do you want to hear a joke?” It went something like this:

“What did one snowman say to the other snowman?”

“What?”

“Do you smell carrots?”

It took a little explanation for my boy to quite get it. But then he thought it was funny. The man took his turn at the register, we took ours, and I’ll probably never see him again.

Why do I tell this story? Mostly because I’ve been thinking a lot about control this week. I have been really up and down creatively and professionally. Few would know it because I generally keep my struggles to myself (that’s the German Protestant side of the family coming out). I don’t broadcast my troubles to the world. Except for my husband and a few very close friends, no one would know the mental and emotional state I’m in is anything but balanced and generally positive. This isn’t because I’m putting on a front or trying to craft a life that seems perfect. It’s because 1.) everyone has enough troubles of their own (many light years worse than my own) and 2.) it’s no one’s business.

What does this have to do with snowmen smelling carrots? (It’s because their noses are carrots, by the way.)

There’s so little in life over which we exercise any real control. Most of the time, we can’t control who talks to us or what they might say. I was so taken aback that this man asked my permission to talk to my son, it shook me out of my standard way of interacting with strangers (which is basically to ignore them unless they engage me, and then, using lightning swift and probably premature judgment based on age, sex, dress, and whether or not I’m hangry, to determine if I will immediately be on the defensive or will give them the benefit of the doubt). This man gave me the option to shut him down before the conversation even started. Of course I didn’t (who would?) and of course after I said he could talk to my son, he might have said any number of inappropriate or terrible things. But he put the control in my hands.

I can’t make my house worth what it was worth when we bought it. I can’t give myself a promotion. I can’t make people take a chance on my writing. I can’t make an overly sensitive person chill out. I can’t raise the temperature outside above freezing (or even raise it one degree). I can’t stop my son from growing. I can’t make my dog’s back legs work better.

But there’s a lot I do have control over. I can keep my house clean and livable. I can do my best work each day. I can keep improving. I can disengage from people that baffle me and go buy a plane ticket to visit a childhood friend I miss terribly. I can put on another pair of socks. I can enjoy this moment in time. I can let my dog lick leftover syrup from the breakfast plates.

Writing this post won’t get me over what’s bothering me right now. I wish it would. Time, prayer, and likely the changing of the seasons in a month or so will help. But in the meantime, I’m trying to focus on what I can control and leave the rest up to Providence.

Capturing Inspiration

On Friday it was only five degrees colder at the North Pole than is was in some parts of Michigan (-39 in Roscommon, which is about 2 hours north of Lansing). It was cold here too. School was cancelled because of wind chill temps in the -20 range and dangers of frostbite on exposed skin within 30 minutes.

However, it was a warm day in my brain. It was like the spring thaw up there, with great ideas for three writing projects — one big backstory/plot change for my WIP I Hold the Wind, one idea for a completely new novel, and both a new plot idea and a new POV idea for a story I haven’t worked on in over a year called Life in a Minor Key. I love days like that!

The first idea came from a little news clip I heard on NPR when I was in the shower. It will help me fix an issue that has been nagging and nagging me as I’ve drafted I Hold the Wind. I captured the idea on the waterproof notepad in my shower that Zach bought for me at Christmas. The second came from a New York Times article my husband shared on Facebook. I quickly printed the article and made some notes on it at my desk. The third came as I was listening to Billy Strings and Don Julin, a fantastic folk guitar and mandolin duo I heard at the Ann Arbor Folk Festival last month. I popped in one of their CDs as I brought my son to karate Friday evening and was actually happy for the stop-and-go traffic through East Lansing so I had time to write it all down on one of the notepads I always keep in my purse.

Yesterday the ideas kept coming. On the drive home from Grand Rapids last night I had another fun idea for Life in a Minor Key. Since it was dark I didn’t want to go digging in my purse and possibly run off the road, and I didn’t want to ask my husband to write it down for me because I was hoping he was asleep after a completely sleepless night the evening before. So I repeated a key word in my head until we got home, then wrote it down while I was still in the car on the driveway. Then as I was settling into sleep myself, a great reversal for the very end of The Bone Garden popped into my mind. Again, not wanting to wake my finally sleeping husband, I carefully reached over in the dark and snagged a little notebook from the nightstand. I wrote slowly in the pitch black and was happy to see this morning that it was indeed legible.

Inspiration can come from anywhere — and everywhere! — so be ready for it. Never be without a writing utensil and something on which to write or I promise you even the best idea will vaporize.

 

The Work We Accomplish and the Work We’ve Yet to Do

GunLakeFireplaceI’ve just returned from a weekend excursion with my husband to Gun Lake where we sat (and slept) by a roaring fire for three days of writing with no responsibilities, interruptions, or internet. The house at which we stayed isn’t remote or lonesome–Gun Lake is fully developed. But there’s something about driving an SUV through a foot of unplowed snow on a long driveway that approximates the feeling of remoteness.

Temperatures were in the single digits and wind was fierce, making the frozen lake look and feel like the arctic tundra. Glancing ahead to the extended forecast, I see that the remainder of February will be very cold. No brief thaw for us this time around. Which is all well and good, I guess, as it inevitably leads to misguided feelings of euphoria that spring is just around the corner. We know better.

And anyway, who needs spring? Our indoor projects are not yet accomplished. As I type this, I hear the sounds of hammering below me as my husband puts the trim along the bottom edge of some new shelves in the family room. Today’s big project will be going through our son’s toys with him, weeding out the unused stuff, and making the basement family room into Toy Central, thus ridding the living room of constant six-year-old related clutter (I hope).

Sometime this week or next I’d like to get back to my rabbit mosaic and add the background tiles. The workroom and laundry room in the basement need serious reorganization and cleaning (so much sawdust!). There’s an embarrassing amount of piled-up fabric in my sewing area. And I’d really like to finish the prep work for a quilt I’ve been making for my son for the past three years (during which I’ve been periodically cutting out and hand-basting the edges of nearly 3,000 little hexagons) so I can get the top sewn together (again, by hand) and then quilted (by machine!) before he graduates from college (again, he’s six).

And somewhere in there I’d love to get the first draft of I Hold the Wind completed. I had had hopes of doing that this past weekend at the lake, but here I am home again with an incomplete draft. I’m happy that I made some more progress on it, but I left the lake with a nagging dissatisfaction with my work. It wasn’t bad, just…inadequate.

This morning I opened up a file on my computer titled Big Questions. It’s a list of, well, big questions that I want to consider and perhaps answer in this story. They are the themes and issues I wanted to explore. They’re what made this story idea so appealing to me in the first place. But somewhere in the middle and toward the end there, I got so focused on getting the plot down that I stopped thinking about these big questions. It happens. You may have to get through Lamott’s shitty first draft before you can make a story all that you believe it can be. Still–it’s painful to write stuff that’s not up to one’s own standards.

What I accomplished at the lake was forward motion. What’s needed now is depth. And depth can be achieved by slowing down, digging back in, focusing on character, and shining light on the little details that create poignancy and permanence in a reader’s mind.

And what better way to spend a long string of cold February mornings?

An Incredible Weekend with Literary Agent Donald Maass

Phew! What a week and what a weekend. By the grace of God, the prayers of many, and the workings of modern medicine, I was able to function on Friday and Saturday for Write on the Red Cedar. I also managed to get quite caught up today at work, despite almost a week of painful delirium where I think I may have answered a dozen emails, all with a mere sentence if possible. And now I am almost at 100% again.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne of the highlights of my weekend was driving Donald Maass from the airport to the Kellogg Hotel and Conference Center, chatting about my writing. Don gave a fantastic, uplifting keynote address Saturday morning before launching into two hours of instruction on Writing 21st Century Fiction. As insightful and winsome as he is in writing, he is even more so in person. I was lucky enough to sit by him at lunch while our table shared stories of family, publishing, MSU shenanigans, and Michigan’s natural beauty.

After lunch, Zach and I answered questions about traditional publishing at a “roundtable” discussion, which I think was helpful and enlightening for the participants. Then I presented a workshop I’ve done at the Breathe Christian Writers Conference called Finding Your Writing Rhythm. I felt a little rushed with only 45 minutes, but I got some good feedback from attendees and, best of all, my voice held out.

Next I attended a great workshop on character led by author Kristina Riggle. She had some wonderful insights about how to create characters that walk off the page and feel like real people.

After a quick agent/author panel, I tried my first real solid food in nearly a week and managed not to choke (huzzah). Then I settled in for four hours of Writing the Break-Out Novel with Donald Maass. Wow. Writers, if you ever, ever have a chance to sit under this man’s teaching, you need to do it. Don is engaging and funny and challenges you–commands you, even, but in the nicest of ways–to think differently about your writing, to forego the easy solution for the creative solution, to raise every aspect of your craft to the next level, to take control of your fiction and thereby take control of your reader’s emotions in order to create fiction that moves and sticks with people.

I have a notebook full of ideas that Don drew out from me through his probing questions and exercises. I’m excited to get back into my first draft of I Hold the Wind and to get The Bone Garden back out to make even more improvements.

But I think the most important thing that Don said, for me at least, was this (I’m paraphrasing): You have the time. No novel is so timely that it can’t wait a few more months or a year or more for the author to make it better, to make it as good as it can possibly be. Don’t be in such a hurry. I’m going to try to take that to heart this year and truly enjoy every minute of the process of writing rather that always wishing for the next step to be here.

There is time. There is always time.