A Whirlwind Weekend at WOTRC

Write on the Red Cedar 2016

During the past week of blog silence I have been preparing for, participating in, and recovering from Write on the Red Cedar. It was a great conference, starting Friday afternoon with a four-hour workshop led by Bob Mayer, a quick bite at the State Room bar, and a fun mixer that evening.

Much of my time Saturday was taken up with manuscript reviews. I had read portions of eight manuscripts during the past week and made revision suggestions, then met with each writer at the conference to discuss what I thought was working and what I would work on next to bring it to the next level. Those meetings seemed to go very well, and the hope the writers who took advantage of that conference extra found it worth their while.

I also gave a workshop talk on taking your writing to the next level as part of CCWA’s Finish the Damn Book track. The room was packed and I managed to get through a lot of material in an hour (though that particular talk should really be at least 90 minutes, I think).

At the end of the day I ran an author/agent panel, had an intimate little dinner at the State Room with other presenters and volunteers, and then a swanky VIP party with wine, fancy hors d’oeuvres, and a six-foot wide gas fireplace flickering. And all throughout I ran to and fro chatting with conference goers, ecstatically greeting those I had invited from far-flung Michigan cities that I hadn’t known were really coming until I’d stuffed conference folders Thursday night and saw their names, and trying  to be helpful in general.

All of the talking, shaking hands, rushing around, and very little sleep for two nights in a row meant that by Sunday morning I was definitely coming down with something. Sunday afternoon I napped on and off for a few hours in front of a roaring fire at home, had dinner, watched Downton Abbey, went to sleep promptly at 10:30, and didn’t get up until 9 AM this morning, feeling a bit better, but not 100% just yet.

And so now it’s another week. The last week of January. I have a few little things left to finish up in the renovation of the Heritage Room at church, an article to write for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association, and some editing to do. Come February 1, though, it should all be finished and that, my friends, will be my New Year’s Day.

When it feels like the end, that’s only the beginning

Counting down the days until Write on the Red Cedar 2016, which starts this Friday in East Lansing. This will be my third year attending (it’s only three years old) and second year presenting. Earlier this month I was on the WOTRC blog answering some questions about success, failure, the books I’ve read the most, and more. Click here to read it.

Beyond WOTRC, I have articles to work on for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association before the month is up, and I’m still finishing up the renovations in our chapel at church. Just have window treatments and a little touch-up painting to go. When I looked ahead to January back at the end of last year and saw the commitments I had already made, I decided that February 1st was going to be my new year, my fresh start. That’s the month I plan to bring back some good habits I’ve had in the past, namely getting up earlier and using the quiet morning time alone to read, write, pray, and journal.

On the bedtime story front, the boy and I are smack dab in the middle of Watership Down and things are looking bleak. Holly’s team has just come back from Efrafa with many injuries but no does, and Hazel’s been shot after the raid at Nuthanger Farm. As I closed the book Saturday night, Calvin’s voice wavered as he wondered what would happen now. “Don’t worry,” I said. “This is just the beginning of the most exciting part of the story.” It’s a cliché that things are always darkest before the dawn, but that is often how the story goes, isn’t it?

Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the US. Race relations have taken a serious hit in the past five years. Or perhaps the wider culture is just now noticing how bad things still are despite the work of Dr. King and countless other people who devoted their lives to seeking justice and equality in this country. The national mood must seem a lot like it did fifty or sixty years ago. Indeed, things look strikingly similar. Racial unrest, a long military conflict overseas from which we cannot seem to extricate ourselves, prominent political figures calling for the profiling and restriction of those with differing beliefs. I find it difficult to be optimistic.

Yet, what can make us rise to the occasion like opposition?

The rabbits of Watership Down will have to use all of their courage and cunning to save their warren. They cannot give way to fear, or they’re through. There’s only one way forward, and it’s down the most treacherous road. There are no guarantees of success. But to not go down the road at all means certain failure.

Don’t those make the best stories? When there is no choice but to walk through the fire?

There is nothing like a hard winter to make the spring all the more glorious.

There’s alone…and there’s alone.

I’m alone a lot. This is not a problem for me. Usually. I like being alone to work. I must have some measure of alone time to read and write. But there is such a thing as too much alone.

When I was a child I planned to live alone when I grew up. Well, not alone exactly. I would live with animals—a horse or two, dogs of many breeds (all of which I had already named), perhaps a mountain lion . . .

I’d live in Montana where I would enjoy a vast view of mountains and forests and fields stretching off in every direction, a wisp of chimney smoke on a dim, far hillside the only indication of habitation in sight. I would heat my small cabin with a woodstove and read by candlelight.

No humans ever factored into my plans, not even my own family, not even as visitors. No means of supporting myself did either. Though I knew with certainty that I’d be running what would amount to a modest animal sanctuary, I never considered that I might need to buy dog food or pay a veterinarian or use a phone or flush a toilet.

One of the special qualities of childhood—one that I miss—is the unabashed embrace of total impracticality. No need to bother oneself about such petty concerns as money when there was fun to be had outdoors.

Another childhood tendency I miss is utter ignorance of the law of non-contradiction. At the same time I envisioned a solitary life of riding across foothills with an eclectic pack of happy dogs at my steed’s heels, I imagined I would be also be a noted explorer and photographer for National Geographic, a bestselling author, a chart-topping singer, and once, after watching Elvis Stojko doing backflips and landing quadruple toe loops (often while wearing tight leather pants), an Olympic gold medal figure skater, despite the fact I’d never ice skated in my life.

Whatever I did, I was confident of enjoying simultaneous worldwide fame and complete anonymity and solitude. Perhaps I thought my many admirers would write me letters that I would pick up once a month at a distant post office in a town with one blinking red traffic light.

I don’t think I have to tell you that none of this came to be. I have never owned a horse or a mountain lion. I have had one dog of mixed breed that already had a name. My small back yard looks into the back windows of a TV news station on a corner serenaded by the constant din of traffic on the four lane highway to the north and the expressway to the east.

I’ve never even visited Montana.

Except for the couple months leading up to my wedding, I’ve never lived alone.

Not long after Elvis Stojko captured the silver medal in Lillehammer (damn you, Alexei Urmanov), I met a funny, self-assured, dark-eyed young man during the auditions for Arsenic and Old Lace at my high school and thoughts of living alone vaporized. Five years later we were married, he was in seminary, and I was finishing a delightfully impractical undergraduate degree in English. Soon after that, we started having mice as pets. Eight years later, he was a pastor, I was working from my home office, and we had a baby, a cat, and a dog.

Our cat had to move due to our son’s allergies. Our dog died last month. Our son is in school.

And during the day, I am alone. Alone in a way I had not imagined as a child. Because in those childhood plans, there were always animals present.

I recall now why I wanted to get a dog in the first place. When we moved in 2005, I began working from home. Alone. Yes, I had the cat, but cats aren’t dogs. They don’t smile at you. They don’t initiate interaction until it’s really inconvenient for you (somehow they know). If I talked to our cat and got any sort of look in response it certainly wasn’t one that invited further discussion. Yes, she was amusing at times, in the same way an out-of-control friend might be—she made you laugh now and then, but mostly you were just waiting for her to destroy something dear to you.

I’m not sure about our son, because he doesn’t talk about it much, but I know my husband and I are feeling the loss of our old dog more than we expected we would. When I come home from my weekly visit to the office, I expect someone there to be happy to see me. But no one is. When I come downstairs in the morning I still expect there will be someone down there waiting for me, someone to say good morning to. But there isn’t. When something falls on the floor at the dinner table, we have to stop ourselves from calling out Sasha’s name so she can earn her keep. There’s no one to lick melted ice cream out of our bowls or syrup from a breakfast plate.

As I work in my home office my normal rhythm of breaks to let the dog out and in has been broken. I find myself standing up and walking into the dining room where our dog spent so much of her time in the past couple years and then kind of wandering around a moment. Why did I get up again?

I was going to run my own private animal sanctuary. Now the only life in this house during the day other than me is a rosemary plant I’m trying to overwinter inside and three freshwater puffer fish up in my son’s aquarium. But they aren’t much for conversation.

We’re still giving it time before we make any decisions…but our hearts seem to be inclining toward a new pet. Maybe sooner rather than later.

Once in a Great City

Click below for a lovely little interview with David Maraniss about his book, Once in a Great City. It touches on several of the themes (and even a couple events) found in my novel, The Bone Garden, which will be going out on submission later this month. Though it’s not my hometown, I love Detroit. It’s my parents’ hometown, my extended family’s hometown, a city that looms large in my imagination and to which I feel an intrinsic connection. I can’t wait to read Maraniss’s book.

NPR

http://www.npr.org/player/embed/463010089/463010090

Winter Has Arrived

Yesterday afternoon I took a solo walk at Fenner Nature Center. There had been a lot of puns and Christopher Walken impressions and general noisiness in the morning, so after lunch I geared up for the colder weather, grabbed my camera, and headed south. As I stood by my car getting my camera over my neck, made extra puffy with scarf and goose down, a man started shouting in another language at his kids. I looked up to see seven or eight whitetail deer bounding by in a line, the sound of a far-off dog an indication of what may have disturbed them. I turned back to the man and shared one of those smiles you only get to share with a stranger when you’ve both witnessed something wonderful. He gathered his kids and piled them into the car. I set off into the grassland.

Fenner Nature Center, January 2016

Fenner Nature Center, January 2016

Fenner Nature Center, January 2016

Fenner Nature Center, January 2016

Fenner Nature Center, January 2016

I saw a very occasional person, heard a dog bark once or twice. But the principal sound I heard was the wind whistling through the bare treetops and the shuff, shuff sound of my own walking.

I never use a trail map when I’m there, which may explain why I made two new discoveries yesterday. I took a couple smaller side trails I’d not noticed or simply not taken in the past. One led me to an observation blind built of plywood. The other led me past this…

Totem Pole, Fenner Nature Center

I have no idea what the story is behind this totem pole, but it has lots of wonderful carvings of people and animals, including these guys…

Totems

A look at the map later shows that both of my discoveries are clearly marked. I guess that’s one reason to use a map.

Fenner Map

The woods were quiet and filled with the subtle colors of winter — white, grays, and browns — but without the leaves to distract and cast shadows on the tree trunks, their underlying yellows, reds, oranges, and greens were easier to discern.

Fenner Nature Center, January 2016

All in all a lovely, cold, windy day. It snowed overnight as well and now the trees are blanketed in white and the grass is finally buried and the windchill is near zero degrees Fahrenheit. Winter has finally come. And I couldn’t be happier.

Fenner Nature Center, January 2016

A New Rug for the Dining Room

The old one was the favored spot for both our cat and our dog when it came to vomiting (which is something each did with disturbing regularity, especially as they got older).

New Dining Room Rug

This is a little more orange in person, which matches the accent wall in the kitchen and fits nicely into the very earth-toned main floor. It’s just the quick and easy face lift the dining room needed.

The Gut Check Guide to Publishing: What Works, What Doesn’t, and Why to Do It Your Way

I always enjoy sharing publishing news, whether it’s mine or someone else’s, and especially when it’s my husband’s. You may have read in this space about Zachary‘s traditionally published books, Playing Saint and The Last Con. You may have read here about his Indie projects through his micro press, Gut Check Press. You might even be a regular listener to the always amusing Gut Check Podcast. (If you’re not, you probably should be.)

Over the years, Zach and his collaborator Ted Kluck have published between them, oh, I’d say thirty books or so. Which is why if you have any publishing aspirations, you’re going to want to get a hold of their latest Gut Check project:

Gut-Check-Guide-to-Publishing-662x1024

 

The Gut Check Guide to Publishing answers most of the questions young or aspiring writers have about which way of publishing is best for them, what to be wary of, how to talk with (and how not to talk to) publishing types, and more. Here’s the marketing copy (written by yours truly) to tell you more…

 

It’s easy to publish a book these days.
It’s also easy to do it really, really badly.

Sure you can go for broke and just learn from your mistakes. But wouldn’t you rather learn from someone else’s? Ted Kluck and Zach Bartels have seen it all. They’ve published with Traditional publishers large and small, started their own Indie micro press, had great success, and watched projects crash and burn. With the wisdom of grizzled old sages and the snark of jaded Gen Xers, they cut through the BS and show you how to

• navigate the world of publishing gatekeepers

• choose when to go Traditional or Indie

• work well with editors, cover designers, and PR wonks

• position your books for success

• learn from failure and rejection

• and much more

Witty, honest, and practical, The Gut Check Guide to Publishing isn’t your ticket to instant fame and fortune. It’s the reality check you have to have before you decide to take the trip at all. It’s what’s going to keep you from looking like an amateur out there. It’s your white knight.

Because if you think writing is hard work, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

 

So basically you get real, practical, been-there-done-that information that can help you make smart decisions about your publishing future, and at the same time it’s actually fun to read. Even the (very helpful) glossary is funny. But personally, my favorite part is the back cover itself:

PubGuideBack

Yep, that’s what writing and trying to make a living out of it is really like. It’s not a vintage typewriter on a pristine desk overlooking an inspiring view. It’s a laptop on its last legs, it’s pizza crust, it’s messy — and sometimes, it’s a cinder block wall.

But it’s still worth it.

New Year, Same Me (and That’s Okay)

A thin blanket of silent snow has freshened my world. The last gift of what has been a busy and (mostly) joyful few weeks of holiday celebrations. December, that hasty month, is over, and I sit in the sunroom in the early morning dark, heater buzzing, sipping dark roast coffee, and contemplating the year to come.

This post might seem to be a few days late by worldly reckoning; all of the New Year’s posts have already been rapturously read and promptly forgotten, after all. But who has time for deep thought when the kid is home from school and the house is still in shambles? And anyway, my holidays don’t end until my anniversary (Dec. 30th) and my birthday (Jan. 2nd) have come and gone.

I’ve felt no burning desire to make resolutions, but I do intend to do a few things this year nonetheless. One of those is paint a self portrait. Another is to learn to play bar chords. Another is to get up early five mornings a week to read and write. I’d like to learn how to do one or two interesting hairstyles with my ever-lengthening locks. I’d like to spend less time on Facebook, more time reading articles that feed me as a writer.

But I haven’t any hard and fast goals — write 1000 words each day, lose fifty pounds, quit this, start that — beyond these vague ideas. The whole idea behind letting some commitments go was to invite more white space into my life, not to then fill that extra time with obligations of my own making. So on those early mornings, my only agenda is to get out of bed and enjoy the quiet time to read, journal, write, edit, blog, and the like. Maybe watch an interview with a writer on YouTube. Something that enhances my life. Something that makes me content.

I’m excited by the possibilities this new year brings, aware of potential disappointments. There’s no “brand new you” I’m working on. Just another year being me, another 365 days to love my family, do my art, and reflect my Creator.