A Pregnant Pause

Well. It’s been a hot minute since I’ve written here.

That wasn’t intentional. There was no planned hiatus, no purposeful break. One month just passed into the next, and now here we are, almost a year later.

It’s been a weird year, one that re-highlighted the importance of priorities—and the fact that if you do prioritize, you can get shit done. But by necessity, prioritizing means that other things fall by the wayside.

The big news: we’re expecting a baby boy…well, pretty much any day now. So what did I do this year? “I’ve been pregnant” sums it up. Maybe for other women it’s not this way, but for me, pregnancy has been an all-consuming force. And no, not because I’ve been ooing and aahing over baby clothes and nursery items. Because my body—and its needs—were completely taken over by another being. Because for the first four months, I was nauseous and exhausted all. the. time. Because when you have a firm, looming deadline—baby’s due date—you focus on what you really want to get done.

For me, that came down to three things:

  • Work. When you’re a freelancer, the hustle never stops, and this year was a busy one. Which is great! Although it was also difficult when I was physically feeling my worst.
  • Working out. Some days, even fitting in a 30-minute walk was daunting. But I managed to stay on track, for the most part.
  • Writing. “But wait,” you say. “You just admitted you haven’t written here in almost a year!” Yes, ’tis true. That’s because my writing energy went elsewhere.

In November of last year, I started writing a new book. The manuscript I finished in 2017 has been slowly (sloooowly) making the rounds with agents—a process I find frustrating because it takes a long time and is largely out of my control. So I decided I needed a creative project that was in my control. And I’d had this book idea tumbling around in my head for a while, so….

When I got pregnant, the goal became clear: finish the first draft of this new book before the baby arrived. Considering it took me five years to finish the first draft of my last book, this was a slightly ambitious goal.

But I did it. Last week, I finished the first draft. Is it a hot mess? Oh, most assuredly. But that’s not the point. The roots, the bones of the story are laid out. It’ll get fixed in the second draft. (Whenever that happens.)

How was I able to finish this book so much faster than the last?

  • I prioritized. I didn’t write anything else. I didn’t write here, I didn’t work on short stories. I poured all my writing energy into this project.
  • I followed the approach laid out in The 90-Day Novel, a book with an incredibly cheesy cover that—for me—actually worked. Clearly, it took me longer than 90 days to finish. But one year is a hell of a lot better than five.
  • This time around, I started with an outline (created using the method in The 90-Day Novel). With my last book, I didn’t create an outline until I was halfway through the first draft and utterly, completely stuck. Lesson learned! START WITH AN OUTLINE, FUTURE SELF.

(Hopefully, at some point, I’ll write a more in-depth post about The 90-Day Novel and how it worked for me. But in the meantime, if you’re a writer and struggling to find a good process, I encourage you to check it out.)

It’s funny, when I look back on the year, it feels like I didn’t really do anything. We didn’t travel. There weren’t many adventures. Mostly, I stayed home. But then I look at my ridiculously round stomach or the manuscript sitting on my desktop and think, “Oh right. That’s where the year went.” Some areas of our lives must be quiet in order for others to shine.

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The Year in Writing

In January 2017, I was floundering. My writing schedule was inconsistent; I was producing some work but hadn’t yet finished the second draft of my book and desperately needed to. In the past, I’ve tried a lot of different tracking methods to try and maintain a consistent writing habit (most of them in some sort of digital format), but nothing really stuck.

So I decided to go old school. I printed up some graphic paper, labeled it with letters for months and numbers for days, and gathered up my colored pencils. For every day I wrote, I got to color in a square.

A year later, here’s how that ended up:

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Byron was in my office one day in December and said, “Look at all that color on there! You’ve done so great!”

I looked over at it and said, “I guess you’re right. I tend to notice all the white.”

But when I look back on my writing in 2017, it was, all in all, a good year.

  • I got my first two short stories published (“Home” and “Flight“).
  • I finished the second draft of my book.
  • I wrote a query letter (which WOW is a process in itself) and started querying agents.
  • I wrote two new short stories that I really love. They’re currently searching for their homes.
  • At the very end of the year, I started mulling over a new book. (Because I’m crazy? I dunno. Time will tell.)

Sometimes during this weird slog we call the creative process, it can be hard to see the forest for the trees. You have to show up and put in the work, regardless of the outcome. Even though it doesn’t always seem like it at the time, the color adds up to something.

My Year in Reading

Earlier this year, I wrote this tweet:

 

I think many people felt the same way: reading seemed hard. There was so much crazy flying around in the world; my brain was filled with that. I simply couldn’t focus on one static page—especially if the book was difficult in any way.

There are times when books should challenge and expand us—and times when they should comfort us. Times when reading should feel like sinking into an armchair in front of a fire while the storm rages outside.

So this year I re-read a lot of old favorites. The first three Harry Potter books. Wonder BoysLost Cat. It was reassuring to return to something I loved, a known quantity. But the funny thing is, you never read the same book the same way twice. It had been years since I read the early Harry Potter books, and this time around the writer in me was fascinated by the way J.K. Rowling built and revealed her world, how she plotted, how she introduced characters and information. There’s always something new to see in an old book.

Re-reading these favorites allowed me to get back into my reading groove. It still wasn’t a standout reading year—I only read 34 books, as opposed to 46 in 2016—but that’s ok. When I was ready to return to them, books were there for me.

Before I share some new favorites from this year—some stats in the name of reading diversely.

  • 18 of the books I read were written by women, so about 53%.
  • 11 books were written by people of color, or 32%.

That second number keeps going up every year, which is great—and it’s because I’m paying attention. If you want to diversify your reading, following Book Riot is a great place to start.

And now! Without further ado! Of the new books I read in 2017, here are the raves and faves.

My Favorite Thing is Monsters, Vol. 1 by Emil Ferris

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OMFG THIS BOOK! Just go buy it now. After having two people highly recommend it, I got it from the library and wish I had just bought the thing.

First off, this book is BEAUTIFUL. The illustrations are like nothing I’ve seen, created with BIC pens in a beautiful crosshatched style. And then there’s the story…ooooh what a story. So much is woven in here: history, art, myths, family, identity and community. If that sounds like a lot—it is! But somehow Ferris takes it all and makes a cohesive whole, a beast of a story in the best way possible. I’m not going to say anything more about it. Just go buy it now.

The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin

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For better or worse, to appreciate this book, you need to read the whole Broken Earth trilogy, beginning with The Fifth Season. The Stone Sky is not a book that stands on its own. But it is a brilliant, heart-wrenching finale to a brilliant, heart-wrenching series that has won a zillion awards and done a hell a job redefining some fantasy tropes.

It’s also a timely read for our current reality. I mean, check this:

“Some worlds are built on a fault line of pain, held up by nightmares. Don’t lament when those worlds fall. Rage that they were built doomed in the first place.”

Start with book one. Read the whole trilogy back-to-back. Sink in and enjoy the rage.

You’re Weird: A Creative Journal for Misfits, Oddballs, and Anyone Else Who’s Uniquely Awesome by Kate Peterson

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Last year, when I left my steady corporate job, a friend from college reached out. She was full of enthusiasm for my new adventure, full of book recommendations and advice. That friend was Kate, who quit her full-time job in order to create art. You’re Weird is her first book, and I was so pleased (and unsurprised) to discover how delightful it is.

Part journal and part coloring book, You’re Weird basically encourages you to have FUN, which at the end of a long day is a wonderful encouragement. It’s also insightful; some of the writing prompts in here really ask you to dig deep (but in a kindly, non-threatening way). You can plow through it or really spend your time on each exercise—either way, it’s a pleasure.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

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I was late to the party on this one, and honestly? I probably don’t need to tell you much about it. Everyone has heard of this book. It’s won a zillion awards. But I’m here to tell you, it’s worth the hype.

I tried to read Whitehead’s Zone One and couldn’t finish it. The writing style, the pace—nothing about it worked for me. So I was hesitant to pick up The Underground Railroad…but somehow, in this book, everything that didn’t work for me about Zone One clicked here. The Underground Railroad deals with some dark subject matter (I mean, it’s about a slave escaping the South, so you’re probably not surprised to hear that), but it never feels too heavy. It propels you forward with a classic hero and villain—a classic adventure story that never feels stale.

Ten Years in the Tub: A Decade Soaking in Great Books by Nick Hornby

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I can’t remember where I first heard of this book, but it had been on my “to-read” list forever. It’s the first book I picked up in 2017, which turned out to be the perfect choice. Light, funny, celebratory—everything I needed at that time.

This is the collected “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” columns that Hornby wrote for The Believer. The magazine had a firm rule: no negative reviews. This meant that Hornby only read books he liked, and the result is a celebration of books and reading unlike anything else I’ve encountered. It’s for people who think reading is fun and don’t want to feel bad about not reading “important” books. (Although some of those books are fun, too.) I felt like Hornby was a friend talking personally to me, that we were sharing our joy of books together.

Another plus of this collection? It added a lot of books to my “to-read” list. Perhaps I’ll tackle some of them in 2018.

Kill Your Darlings

Earlier this year, I finalized a short story that I really adored. Quite often the process of drafting a story can be painful, but this one was a joy from beginning to end. I hand-wrote the first draft, and it had a lyrical quality to it. I loved the main character. I felt passionate about the themes explored. The story had a deliberately slow pace, an unfolding and unveiling. It was a quiet story with a good emotional payoff.

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Unfortunately, this all meant it was looooong. Which, in itself—not a problem! If the reader is willing to go with you on that journey, awesome. But from a practical standpoint, a long word count can be a challenge. Most literary magazines have a word-count range they’ll accept. For a lot of them, the max is 6,000. Your options for submission dwindle as the word count rises.

But there are options, and I loved this story, so off it went on its submission rounds.

And then, a few weeks ago, I ran out of places that would accept that many words. I had to make a choice: retire the story, or hack off over 2,000 words.

2,000 may not sound like a lot. But that’s anywhere from a third to one half of most short stories. The task seemed impossible—or if not impossible, unpalatable. Taking away that much would ruin the deliberate pace I had set. It would alter the methodical voice. It wouldn’t be the same story.

In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert writes about a short story she wrote that was accepted by a major magazine. It was a story she loved, one she’d polished and tightened to perfection, and she was ecstatic it was going to be published. Then, prior to publication, she got a phone call. There wasn’t as much space in the magazine as originally planned. She had two options: drop the story from that month’s issue and hope it got picked up for a future one, or edit it down.

Gilbert chose to edit. She wasn’t sure how she was going to do it, but she started hacking away until it was done. And to her surprise, the story was ultimately better for it—and yes, it was published.

So I printed up my story and grabbed my red pen and I started editing. It took about a week (and a final edit from Byron) but I was able to cut out close to 3,000 words.

And it is a different story. It has a totally different pace. It leaves you with a different feeling. I had to kill so many darlings, sentences and entire sections that I loved and desperately wanted to keep. But the heart of it is still there, still beating.

While it’s true that stories are art, that writers have a vision and they should stay true to it, there’s never anything so precious that it can’t be revised. My story now starts its second round of submissions—a different story, yes, but one I’m still proud of. It wouldn’t have had that chance if I decided it was perfect as it was.

Jesus Is My Driver

While cleaning out files on the computer the other day, I stumbled across an image that made me laugh and laugh.

Background: I attended Catholic school for seven years. The thing about attending Catholic schools is you get assigned some pretty weird projects. In 8th grade, I had to make a “Love Book”: a fancy scrapbook filled with pictures, inspirational quotes, and letters from people I loved (and presumably loved me back). We were required to include a section on God. To spruce up those pages, I went to the card-making program on my parents’ home computer and printed up all the pictures that came up when you entered “God” in the search field.

My sister attended the same Catholic high school, four years behind me, so I assumed I would know all the projects she was expected to complete. She would have to find a poem that had a good message about love (I used “The Owl and the Pussy Cat”); she would have to write a song based on a Bible passage; she would have to interview a Mormon.

There was one project, though, that I hadn’t encountered. Ms. Gripp—the new Ecclesiology teacher whose name clearly told me her previous employment had been as Villainess in a children’s chapter book—told the class to make a timeline of the Church’s history as their final project. Points, Ms. Gripp said, would be awarded for creativity.

Apparently, my sister wasn’t feeling particularly inspired by the project. She turned to my mom and me for input. I suggested she make a mobile; Carrie informed me that Ms. Gripp specified the project must be in poster form.

“Draw a map of the world and pinpoint where major events happened,” I said one afternoon, as deadline time for my sister quickly approached.

“It has to be linear.”

Apparently creativity has its limits in Catholic school.

“Why don’t you draw a road as your line,” Mom suggested.

“Yeah…yeah!” I said. “And along the way can be pitstops in the Church’s history. Like Rome, and Constantinople…it can be Jesus’s road trip! And up near the title you can have a picture of Jesus driving! I’ll even make the picture for you.”

Carrie didn’t seem to entirely trust me with this undertaking, but after some cajoling, she conceded that I could create the picture of Jesus’s road-trip vehicle.

This was the result:

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To my credit, I spent a good deal of time on this. Photoshop did not exist in the universe of my parents’ home computer—all my work had to be done using Microsoft Paint. I spent a long time ensuring Jesus’s elbow rested just-so on the windowsill of his Volkswagen van, that he was accurately positioned behind the driving wheel and windshield wiper. I wanted it to look like he really was driving this bright orange savior-mobile, meandering along the path of Church history, opening the back doors at rest stops to let it hitchhikers and like-minded travelers.

I presented the finished copy to my sister along with a proposed title for the project: “Jesus Is My Driver.” She rejected both picture and title, saying she preferred not to be expelled during finals week.

“Flight”: A Short Story

July’s always been a magical month–the high days of summer, berries galore, twilights that last until 10pm–and this year it’s kicking off with a pretty great start: a short story of mine published in Bards and Sages Quarterly.

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This is my first piece in print, which is pretty exciting. It’s about a little girl and her little brother and some troublesome powers he’s developing. Here’s a short excerpt:

The bell on the corner store door rang as we walked in, holding hands. I am always supposed to hold Mateo’s hand when we go to the corner store and can’t let go until we are inside. Mrs. Oberlin smiled at us and Mateo let go and ran up to her counter.

“How are we today?” Mrs. Oberlin said. She stood up slowly from her stool and reached to the shelves above where the caramel sits. Mateo stuck out his hand, his other arm clutching Pepita.

“No, Mateo,” I said. “No caramel today.” If he had a caramel Lucia would smell it on his breath, feel it on his sticky fingers, and she would know we had left without permission.

Mrs. Oberlin smiled at Mateo. “Another time then.”

Mateo didn’t say anything but didn’t put his hand down either.

“You’d better listen to your sister, young man,” Mrs. Oberlin said, putting the jar back on the shelf.

Mateo kept his hand out.

“Mateo, no,” I said.

He lowered his hand but I could tell something was wrong. The pout on his face turned to a frown. I watched to see if his chest was rising and falling but it wasn’t. His cheeks turned red as he held his breath.

I grabbed his hand.

“Mateo, let’s go.”

“No comic books today then?” Mrs. Oberlin said.

I didn’t answer because I was pulling at Mateo, trying to get him to move. “Mateo, come on.”

Mateo ripped his hand away and stomped on the floor. As his foot came down, the jar of caramels came whizzing off the shelf, just past Mrs. Oberlin’s head. She cried out, which frightened Mateo. He cried, too, and five more jars came flying off the shelves and crashed on the floor.

Mrs. Oberlin was screaming now. I wanted to tell her it was alright, to please be quiet, but I heard a rattling noise and looked up and saw all the jars shaking on their shelves. Mrs. Oberlin was pointing at Mateo and clutching her chest. I grabbed his hand and we ran out the door. Behind us, the rumbling stopped.

I usually have a terrible time writing endings, but for this story, the ending came first. I saw a picture of the last scene in my mind’s eye and developed the rest of the story around it. (What is that scene? Sorry, you’ll have to read the story to find out.)

It must be said—my writing group was absolutely instrumental in shaping this piece. It’s a much better story for their edits and advice. Folks, don’t write in a vacuum. Go find some like-minded people and share your work.

“Flight” is featured in the July 2017 issue of Bards and Sages Quarterly. The print version is available on Amazon, and you can get the digital version (in multiple formats) at Smashwords.

The Chair

I’ve been working from home lately, which basically translates to writing brilliant copy while wearing sweatpants.

We’ve always had a dedicated office space—in theory for both of us, but in reality for my own use. We’ve finally gotten it to the point where I’m pretty happy with the setup: organized bookshelves, art on the walls, a comfy chair for reading, a beautiful teak desk inherited from Byron’s aunt. All in all, it feels like a “real” office space. Official, intelligent. Important Work Done Here.

The only problem: the chair. We’ve always used a dining-room chair at whatever desk we’ve currently had. It’s moderately comfortable, it fits the space, and—it’s biggest perk!—it’s free. For the most part, it works fine.

That is, it works fine until you find yourself actually sitting in it for eight hours a day, and your body slowly but steadily develops a curved shape from slouching in it.

But still—mostly fine. It served its purpose. Do you know how much office chairs are? It seemed extravagant, and honestly not necessary. I don’t know how long I’ll be working from home; why invest in something that may not get much use? The dining chair worked. It was worth the discomfort to save that money.

(Never mind the fact that a new chair WOULD get use. For writing. Never mind that fact.)

Finally one day I was trying to rub a knot out of my shoulders and thought, “Ok. Enough is enough. I need to buy a damn chair.”

So Byron and I braved IKEA and bought a damn office chair.

And ooooooh. You guys. THE DIFFERENCE IS INCREDIBLE. The moment I sank down into that cushioned, lumbar-supported bliss, I kicked myself for not buying it sooner. This isn’t even a fancy chair. It’s an IKEA office chair. But an IKEA office chair beats a crappy not-an-office chair any day.

Look, whatever makes-your-life-better item you’ve been holding out on, for whatever reason—just go buy it. Order it off Amazon, go to a store. Just do it, now. This is my gift to you. Permission to buy Your Chair, whatever that may be.