Work is Raunchier than Fiction

Note: Image above used in a real webinar.  Transcript below has been adjusted to better align with the image’s message. 

Ally:  Okay, so there was a question about the potential fueling options in the New York Metro area.  Johanna can you do a quick on-the-fly evaluation?

Johanna:  Sure!  Let me zoom into the region.  Remember earlier we showed an analysis indicating that natural gas has some penetration in this area, so I’ll turn on the natural gas layers.  As you can see, there are three distinct strategic thrust areas:  the areas outlined in blue.  Those shafts indicate where we have a deep penetration of natural gas stations — indicated by the blue dots — along an interstate.

Johanna:  First consider the shaft from Scranton heading east.  There we have an exciting opportunity for double penetration into both New York and New Jersey.  Next while there is only a single station in White Plains, with some attention, that shaft could rise and stimulate the upstate New York market.  Finally the shaft along the Long Island Expressway has so many stations it almost seems to be ready to explode with potential.

Johanna:  This map makes me so excited about the growing opportunities in the New York region.  Transforming these shafts into natural gas corridors isn’t going to be easy — in fact it’s going to be hard, very hard.  In the end, with a little political and technical stroking, I know our strategic thrusts will climax into a robust natural gas fueling infrastructure in this region.

Ally:  Gosh, you’ve got me worked up!  I can’t believe how huge this opportunity is.  That was a stimulating question and a really deep analysis by Johanna.  Thanks!  Are there any other regions folks would like to explore?

Parental Elastic

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Fifth grade.  It’s impossible to watch my daughter grow and not remember myself at her age.  Fifth grade was a turning point.  Fourth grade was rotten.  Third grade was unremarkable.  Second grade was amazing, but little kid amazing.  I remember finally feeling like I was growing into myself in fifth grade.  Watching my daughter start to navigate this school year I am struck that there is something more than a new year and a new teacher going on.  For the first time, I can really see her starting to become the adult she will be someday – not in flashes, but in persistent displays of adult. Grown up.  Not little kid.

The first day of fifth grade, my husband and I walked her up to school, like we had every single day of daycare, preschool, and elementary school.  Then the ultimatum: we could walk her to the gate, but no farther.  Most of the other kids’ parents didn’t drop them off at school, even in third or fourth grade, she explained, so it was time for us to stop too.

Last year this announcement might have stung.  Two years ago, my feelings would have been hurt.  Three years ago, I would have talked her out of her decision.  Now?  It was okay.  I had been feeling the awkwardness myself.  Watched the dwindling parents. Noticed the kids didn’t come and say “Hi Coach Johanna” anymore.  Heck, I wasn’t even sure they remembered I was their second-grade soccer coach.  In some ways it was a relief.  Dropping her off a block from school gave me a chance to get to work on time and avoid the yoga-mom chit-chat after the bell rang.

Two weeks in, a new development.  Her friend approached her about biking to school together.  So, our routine shifted.  My husband or I ride her to her friend’s house, then ride home while Afthead Junior and her buddy head to school.  Now I’m out the door to work before school even starts, with a little bit of exercise under my belt, and the girls ride their bikes home alone every day.

I remember the freedom of walking home from school.  I remember the fear when a new route creeped me out for some reason, and the joy of taking my time during a nice day or when there was a friend to walk with.  I remember watching for mean dogs, like the one in the Ramona Quimby book.  When my daughter comes home five minutes later than normal with a big grin on her face I’m happy for her freedom, for her exploration, for her independence.  Sometimes she tells me why she’s late, and sometimes she doesn’t.  It’s a step toward a more grown up relationship where she shares what she wants, not just because I’m her mom and she’s supposed to.

Heading out for our annual Labor Day camping trip I grabbed my favorite “won’t wash my hair for three days” headband.  I pulled it on and heard the little elastic strings woven into the headband fabric snap.  The band fell down.  In the past year, while I wasn’t paying attention, the elastic had passed on into the land of non-stretchiness.

With my hair askew and my useless headband around my neck it hit me.  There are no apron strings between parent and child.  At least not in my situation.  There is an elastic band holding us together.  In the beginning it was tight tight tight.  It held her inside me as she grew into a baby.  It held her to me when she was an infant and couldn’t walk.  The first snappings happened as she toddled away screaming “I can do it.”  She needed more space.  The band got less and less restrictive as she went off to preschool, kindergarten, elementary school.  It was strong enough so that when her friends were mean, her coach yelled, or she failed at school the energy in the elastic always pulled her to me: back to safety and momma.

But now I can feel the elastic slipping.  There are less stretchy bits left than non-stretchy bits.  What will happen when all the elastic is gone?  Will we toss it like a cheap pair of underwear?  Like a swimsuit gone see-through and obscene?  Will I store it away in some box where it will sit next to baby teeth going to dust, pulling it out occasionally to caress the rotting fabric and reminisce of days when our relationship was simultaneously simpler and more complicated.  When I always stood between her and the dangers of the world.  Will I brandish it at her when she doesn’t call or doesn’t come home for the holidays demanding she remember what I did for her?  Or, will we keep it and use it when we need it?  When her boyfriend (or girlfriend) dumps her, will she pull it out and wrap it around us?  When her own baby is born will she stretch it around me and her own new elastic band providing an extra layer of support to a new precious life?  When I’m infirm and heading to the rat-infested nursing home will she give it to me, so I can clutch desperately to the fragile ties between us?  Whatever happens, these long-term connections are a choice, not a given as they were when she was tiny and wee.

Apron strings can be knotted, ripped open, re-typed, or left dangling at will.  Our bond has more of an air of inevitability about it.  Someday it will not be needed, but I hope it will be wanted.  I hope there will always be days when she chooses to ask my advice, spend time with me, or just snuggle up next to me because she finds me a comfort.  And I hope I’m brave enough and wise enough to give her the space she needs, letting the elastic continue to stretch to fit our ever-changing relationship.

Last week an early morning rush to band left her frazzled.  The week of soccer, running, homework, early mornings, and late nights caught up with her.  We’d barely seen each other between our non-coincident commitments.  She gathered her trumpet and her backpack and then asked, just outside of school in view of any other early arrival, “Mom, can I have a hug?”  I got out and held her while she cried.  Then I opened the car door and told her, “Get in.  You can practice trumpet at home.”  We sat together in the basement, annoying her sleeping dad, while she played for me and pretended to be her band teacher: giving herself corrections and praise.  An hour later I dropped her off at school and she ran in with her normal quick hug and “Love you mom.”  I watched her turn the corner then drove off to start my own day.

Aspirations

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Photo by Pete Johnson on Pexels.com

Someday….

Someday I will be a morning person.  I will jump out of bed before the sun even rises, lace up my running shoes, greet the day with the chirpy birds, and let the pink glow of the sun warm my soul as it lights the sky.  Upon arriving home, I will feed the chickens and barn cat — respectively thanking them for my eggs and for killing the rats.  Then I will feed the house cats and take a moment to appreciate the happiness they bring to my life.  Exercise, gratitude, and chores complete, I will shower, shave, and be ready to greet my waking family with well-groomed joy knowing my day has begun with no sleeping-in or running-late guilt.

Someday my body will be a temple.  I will feed it nothing but wholesome food.  All the fruits and veggies it can take.  Eggs from my beloved chickens.  Cheese from cows lovingly hand milked in pastures where they eat nothing but all organic free range vegetation.  I will cook my own meals, and when I can’t, I will only eat at restaurants that also consider my body a temple worthy of local low-carbon-emission produce.  Occasionally I will allow myself a treat of a single square of bitter dark chocolate, so I can savor both the sweet of the dessert and the bitterness off mistreating my temple.  The only beverage I will ever drink is pure clean water from glass containers.  I will exercise everyday, but vary my routine from running to yoga to Pilates to ensure my cardiovascular health, flexibility, and strength.

Someday I will be on time to everything.  After my blissful morning and my temple-worthy breakfast I will drop my child off at school exactly seven minutes early.  Time for her to play a bit, and visit with her friends.  Then when the bell rings I will walk my perfectly dressed self — in a size six, a slim nonjudgmental size — to my car and drive to work, arriving exactly at 8:30.  People will depend on me, knowing if they schedule an 8:30 meeting I will be there nonplussed and ready to face whatever challenge they need faced.  After working an 8 hour day — not including the 0.5 hours spent enjoying the wholesome lunch I packed, then walking around the park to clear my mind — I will be waiting for my daughter at 3:00, just as the bell rings, to walk her home from school.  Hand in hand, we’ll talk about her day and my day as we much on fresh vegetables from our garden.  She will have friends, I will be successful at work, she will be successful at school, and we will be so proud of each other.  Then I’ll drive her, and all her friends, in my electric vehicle — powered by solar panels installed on our home’s roof — to whatever practice she has that day:  carpooling to ensure our position in the social hierarchy while minimizing our carbon footprint.

Someday I will make good use of all the time available to me.  While my daughter practices I’ll be using that time to write my novel, do grad school homework, catch up with beloved friends and family, or knit scarves for the poor.  However, I will willingly pause to talk with other sports parents where I will be modest about my child and supportive of their children and their worries about traffic.  I won’t squander time dinking on my phone, talking to parents who make me want to stab my eyes out, or half-listen to eye-stabby parents while dinking on my phone.  I will be present and understanding.

Someday my evenings will run like clockwork.  After practice, I’ll enjoy a wholesome meal with my family.  We will all eat exactly the same thing, correctly proportioned to our body mass index.  Dishes will be cleared, washed, and the kitchen will be cleaned in harmony, then everyone will sit down to homework.  (Well, everyone but my husband who will enjoy a well deserved hour of rest watching some sporting event, but he will not be too loud or too emotionally attached to the event.)  Homework done, my daughter will bathe, and I will read aloud to her for 20 minutes.  Then she will make her lunch, brush her teeth, brush her hair, put on pajamas, and deposit her dirty clothes into her hamper.  She will go to sleep by herself in her own room in her own bed after reading to herself for exactly 10 minutes.

Someday my late nights will be all my own time.  Having accomplished everything I needed to do while in the office, I will spend 45 minutes catching up with my husband.  2.5 times per week we will have age-appropriate sex.  Sated or not, I will then spend a few hours editing my novel, writing a blog post, or drafting a new short story.  Sometimes, I will work a bit on a knitted gift for a friend, or hand-write a few thank you notes.  Occasionally I will document my day’s accomplishments in a perfect Instagram shot or Tweet.  Before bed, I will do a quick clean up of the house – filling the dishwasher, folding laundry, picking up clutter, sweeping, and wiping down counters and other surfaces – before reading for 30 minutes and then drifting off for an uninterrupted eight hours of sleep.

Someday….

Banana Slug Factoids

The banana slug is an amazing creature found in northern California.

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Preferring damp areas with heavy vegetation, the banana slug can be found snacking on ferns, vines and other plants along the coast.

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The juvenile banana slug is a light greenish yellow, the adult a yellow with brown spots, and the elderly a hard to find dark brown.

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The slug does not just resemble it’s namesake fruit visually, but also has a pleasing fruity taste when licked, and a sweet odor. Historically, the slime was used by natives of this area as a topical analgesic due to it’s numbing qualities.   It is cool, damp, and slimy to the touch.

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Growing to over ten inches, the huge slugs are easy to spot once you identify their habitat and coloring.

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Using their gelatinous muscled bodies, banana slugs can almost defy gravity as they move from leaf to leaf.  Occasionally the laws of physics get the better of  them, and a distinctive plop and shriek can be heard when they fall off leaves onto a human head.

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Ah nature.  Glorious.  Unusual.  Slimy.  Thankfully travel allows me to experience such wonders, so different than the common brown slugs found in my garden at home.


Note:  no sources are provided for this article, because everything above is either hearsay or made up.   All picture credits my own and were taken at Patrick’s Point California State Park, just North of Eureka.    

My favorite flower

I’d like to introduce you to my favorite flower.  Don’t misunderstand.  Tulips are not my favorite type of flower: that’s an iris.  This specific tulip is my favorite flower.   My husband and I have owned our house for almost 18 years.  I believe this flower came with the house, or at least I don’t remember planting it, and I don’t remember a spring when it didn’t bloom.  It’s a big tulip, the flower probably four inches tall, and it can’t decide if it wants to be pink, orange, salmon or all of them at once.  In a garden filled with blossoms it commands attention.

The spring before my daughter was born I remember checking on my favorite flower each morning wondering if my baby or flower would arrive first.  The flower bloomed a month before my due date, and my visions of enjoying it’s beauty with my baby evaporated when it’s petals fell and I was still pregnant.  Seasons, flowers and babies have their own timelines.

Now every spring I remember the anticipation, anxiety, and excitement of those last weeks of pregnancy.  With my favorite flower’s arrival comes reflection on my decade of motherhood.  I tell the story of the flower to my daughter, and we remember our springs together.  My favorite flower makes me pause to remember and appreciate the wonder filled life I’ve been given.

Don’t stop by, anytime.

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My house on an average day. Playing with cats is more important than putting laundry away.

I hate unexpected visitors.  I don’t want you to stop by if you are in the neighborhood.  If you are going to be driving by, feel free to text or call to see if I’m available, but if I don’t respond just keep driving.  Sure it might be fine to stop, but it might not.  I’m too polite to tell you to “go away” at my door, but I will quietly seethe your entire visit if you aren’t welcome.

See, I might be naked, fighting with my husband, or naked fighting with my husband.  Those things don’t happen all the time, but they do happen.  I might be in my introverted shell and while you’ll think I’m lonely, I am not.  I enjoy being alone.  It’s an infrequent pleasure in my life.

If I’m in the front yard, feel free to wave or honk or slow down for a quick chat, but unless I invite you in, please stay in your car.

I realize this is weird. My extroverted best friends with people skills tell me, “I was in your neighborhood yesterday and I didn’t stop.”  I think I’m supposed to feel guilty, but instead I reply, “Thank you.”  I know they are trying to illuminate the fun times I am missing, but I am not missing anything.

My house will be a mess if you stop by.  I am not a housekeeper.  If I don’t know you are coming there will be shoes and backpacks tripping you just inside the front door.  The dishes from breakfast, lunch, and maybe dinner the night before will still be on the table – worst case – or in the sink – best case.  The cat-box will be dirty and the house may stink.  My slovenly ways mean you will judge me and find me wanting.  I’ll feel terrible and you’ll feel superior, but I’m sure you can find ways to feel good about yourself without me being involved.

Please, if you are invited, come on over.  It’s not that I hate people, or parties, or visitors.  But I am descended from, or reincarnated from, peoples who had barriers to keep away invading hordes.  The drawbridge must be lowered, the moat monster put away, and the dungeons cleared before honored guests arrive.  If guests are expected, I know I won’t need backpacks to alert me of intruders, convenient food left in case I must suddenly flee, or cat poop to fling at invaders from warring tribes.  Be confident that if I asked you to come, you are welcome.  My house will be clean, my clothes will be on, and the familial fighting will be negligible.

I beg you, don’t stop by.  Give me a call if you are in the neighborhood.  We’ll meet at the coffee shop.  I’d love to see you there.

“Check it out”

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The perfect family stood in line waiting to select their bagels.  Two parents — the expected mom and dad — and three adult children out for Sunday breakfast.  The attractive eldest stretched to at least 6’4″ if you measured to the tip of his glossy black hairstyle:  spiked enough to be stylish, but not so much as to be inappropriate for one closer to 30 than 20.  The daughter’s lithe body, draped in a dark red lace shawl, clicked past me on sensible-heeled above-the-knee boots on her way to the restroom.  Her face was beautifully sculpted, framed by the sleek black hair, but she kept her eyes lowered as she excused herself  while slipping past me.

“Check this out,” the oldest held out a smart phone and bent over his smaller brother.  Glasses slightly askew the third child moved with less grace than his siblings, or others in line.  His face, his glasses, and his demeanor conveyed an extra chromosome or perhaps an abnormality in one.  The third child belatedly smiled at the phone and the mother beamed as her eldest protected her most vulnerable.

The father, had he been straight, would have neared the height of his son.  Stooped as he was, the top of his head reached the same height as the mother.  Trying to make sure her family didn’t cause an inconvenience, the mother directed her sons to the menu ensuring their orders would be ready the moment they reached the front of the line.  She was a strong looking woman, not lithe like her daughter, but fit and powerful: the backbone of her perfect family.

“Let’s check it out,” the older brother motioned to the menu and his brother’s gaze slowly followed.

The daughter breezed back from urinating, or fixing her hair, or her pre-breakfast bulimic purge.  Upon arriving back she closely conferred with her mother, who left for her own bathroom ritual.  Catching me watching her family she smiled an eye crinkling smile at me, which I returned.  Her joy at having her family together was genuine.

His wife gone, the father took on the shepherding of his family.  They stood closer together than a normal family of adults might, always keeping the third child toward the center as if protecting him from outsiders.  The daughter’s shawl provided a physical barrier to her brother as she placed her hand on his rounded shoulders.  The moment it was time to order they efficiently stepped up one by one and succinctly selected their bagels.  Returning, the mother walked directly to the cashier confident her order would be accurately conveyed by her daughter.  While waiting to pay, the mother surveyed the tables for one that would seat her family of five.

The only mishap was when the youngest son and father approached the drink cooler.  Apparently drinks had not been accounted for during their in-line planning, so they had to backtrack.  I stepped back to give them access to the cooler.  The son reached for a bottle of orange juice and mistakenly grabbed orange mango instead.  “That’s orange mango,” the father corrected, “or do you want to try something new?”

“I’ll check it out,” replied the third child echoing the sentiments of his majestic older brother.  His speech was deliberate.

The father paused reaching toward the traditional orange juice, but changed his mind at the last minute veering toward orange mango.  “I’ll check it out too.”  He nodded my direction in acknowledgement of the minor inconvenience he and his son had caused during their drink selection.

My order placed, paid for, and received, I walked to the soda dispenser.  The family had settled at a high top table with four seats nearby, father opting to stand rather than take a seat from another table.  They were not a family to take more than the appropriate allotment of chairs.  As I turned to go, I heard one of the family’s men utter, “…check it out,” and I wondered at what point did that repetitive phrase break the sister’s or mother’s perfect facade.  I knew I would break, but their life was not mine.  Perhaps the phrase was their own security blanket.  One that conveyed their belief in open-mindedness, curiosity, and willingness to make the best of what life had to offer.


Photo by The Creative Exchange on Unsplash

Chicken Eating Pear Noises

I have resigned myself.  I will never be a writer.  A writer must create beautiful grammatically accurate sentences with all the words spelled correctly, on purpose.  They care passionately about prepositions at the ends of sentences, starting sentences with “so”, pronoun agreements, and gerunds (which I spelled gerands before the spell-check wiggly-line alerted me to my error: I am hopeless.)  So I have resigned myself to becoming a story-teller, because no one cares if a story-teller screws up the language a bit.  Sometimes it even makes the story better.  Case in point, the Afthead household had a bag of pears going bad, so my husband and I were removing the moldy bits so we could feed the brown and mushy bits to the chickens.  (Chickens turn rotting food into eggs, which is magic I’ve come to appreciate in our months of ownership.)

Three chickens evaluating pears prior to eating them

I scooped the pears into a bowl and said, with delight, “Now I get to hear my favorite chicken eating pear noise.”

My husband looked at me with that you are a doofus look he reserves just for his beloved wife and said, “I think you mean pear eating chicken noises.”

I was horrified.  Pear eating chicken noises sounded like the noises giant pears would make as they ripped my poor unsuspecting chickens to bloody shreds.  “No,” I insisted, “that’s backwards.”

Leave it to my mom, the retired English teacher, to show me the error of my ways.  “Think of it like a hyphenated phrase,” she said, “Pear-eating chicken noises is what you love.  Chicken-eating pear noises are the terrifying ones.”

Once again my grammar savant engineering husband and English degreed mother found the errors in my word choices.  If I wasn’t so stubborn I’d stop disagreeing with them and just accept my ignorance.  There is a reason I make them read everything I write.  They are good at this English language stuff.

But I am good at the creativity stuff, so I hauled out the fancy markers, grabbed Afthead Junior and said, “Let’s draw pictures of chicken-eating pears!”

My daughter, having witnessed the pear-eating/chicken-eating argument, asked for clarification, “You mean scary pear drawings?”

“Yes.”

Behold, the chicken-eating pears.  They are terrifying.  They are chicken-eating.  They are bloody.  Keep your chickens locked up safe, folks.  You don’t want to see these monsters in your coop.  Nom nom nom,

Afthead’s chicken eating pear.  (Don’t know where he got the roasted drumstick.)
Afthead Junior’s chicken eating pear.  (Look in its mouth!  A head!  So scary!)

Yes.  Thanks.  I know.  It goes without saying.  I am a story-teller, not a writer.  And I am DEFINITELY NOT an artist.  No need to point that out.  It’s just rude.

Now off to go create the world of the chicken eating pears and how they wreck havoc on unsuspecting small farmers and backyard chicken enthusiasts.  Beware the pear!


Just in case you are wondering, the video below shows Rosie making the pear-eating chicken noises that I adore.  Listen close — it’s a subtle sound.

Reading Debut Novels – 2017

As someone who would like to have a debut novel someday, I read the first book of several authors this year, and tried to read them as a writer.  What was it about these books that first grabbed an agent’s attention, then a publisher’s attention?  Was it possible I could do what they did someday?  My last reading post for the old year highlights debut novels.

Dissension, by Stacey Berg

Stacey is an author I’ve followed for some time on Twitter:  @slbscifi.  (She followed me back, so I’m not a total stalker.)  Berg is not only an author of speculative fiction YA books, but is also a medical researcher.  As a chemical engineer who dabbles in speculative fiction, I look to her as a role model for how one might balance a left brain career and a right brain writing avocation.

I love YA fiction, so enjoyed diving into Dissension.  It’s set in a post apocalyptic world where “the church” has taken over directing the survival of humanity.  The main character, Echo, is responsible for protecting the church and the populous.  Berg has created an engaging innovative world and Echo vacillates between being a heroine and an anti-heroine as the story unfolds.  The story was engaging, so I also read Berg’s second book, Regeneration.

From Berg I’ve learned that if you are a science person, you do not have to write fiction in your non-writer area of expertise.  Yes, there are medical aspects of Berg’s books that are important, but that is not what her story is about.  However, her books have a scientific quality that I enjoy:  they are organized and logical.  Understanding that my background can influence my writing but doesn’t need to limit my writing is a valuable lesson from Berg’s works.

I found Berg through Mary C. Moore, an agent I paid to review the first 10 pages of my novel, because I’m not just stalking authors through this little experiment of mine, I’m also looking for an agent who represents books similar to mine.

Mrs. Kimbel, by Jennifer Haigh

Ah, this Jennifer Haigh lady.  She taught me so much last year!  She taught me to find my keystone works for my own books – books that write the way I want my story told.  Then she taught me how she wrote her first book in a way she would never write a book again.  Mrs. Kimbel is a story is of three women, all married to the same man.  It was written as three discreet longish short stories that Haigh had to cram together into a novel: not a process she recommends.  It’s an interesting book, but outside of my normal preferred genre and style.  If you are a lover of interpersonal stories, I highly recommend it.  If you normally read crazy sci fi, epic fantasy, and apocalyptic fiction, maybe skip it.

Because Haigh was so negative about her process creating this first book, I wasn’t sure what I would learn from it.  But books never fail to inspire.  Haigh is a single woman with no kids and no career other than writing.  In her class I learned that she has eschewed a “traditional” life in favor of being a writer.  Writing is her priority.  So, I was surprised that her book about relationships and motherhood felt true.  Whenever an author believably writes about an experience they have not had I feel permission to write prose outside of my own life experiences.

Agent to the Stars, by John Scalzi

I adore John Scalzi.  I follow his blog.  I read his tweets.  I reply to his tweets.  (He replied back once, again proving to me that I’m not a total online stalker.)  I also love his books.  They feel like stories that actually happen.

Agent to the Stars, Scalzi’s first novel, is a funny little book about a Hollywood agent who represents an alien.  The book allows the reader to experience human first contact with a non-threatening new life-form.  True to Scalzi’s other works, it’s funny and unexpected.  The audiobook is a joy to listen to, read by Will Wheaton: one of my favorite readers.

From Scalzi’s first book, I learned about voice.  People have told me that my writing has “a good voice.”  I’ve read that agents are looking for works that are more than just technically accurate: they need a voice.  But voice is one of those nebulous things like love or faith or parenthood that you have to experience to understand.  Because I’ve read so much Scalzi has written I was able to sense his voice even in this first novel, and I think I understand the concept better now.  All Scalzi’s works are irreverent, unexpected, and highlight details other authors might gloss over.  Those details make his stories real, which I love.  From his first novel, Scalzi had voice, and maybe now I understand mine a bit better.

I learned so many different things from my first-book experiment, so am continuing it in 2018.  I just finished Point of Direction, a book by Rachel Weaver who is an instructor at Lighthouse Writers Workshop where I am a member.  I wanted to read Weaver’s book because she’s someone I can take writing classes from, and even ask annoying questions in person: an invaluable resource for the aspiring novelist.

My second planned first-book for 2018 is Markswoman by Rati Mehrotra.  (She’s a WordPress blogger too.)  I also found Mehrotra through Mary C. Moore, who recommended Mehrotra’s author website as one of her favorites.  Expecting some whiz-bang super-designed wonder, I was happy to see that Mehrotra’s site was well organized and easy to read, but not unobtainable.  I also found her site to be a wonderful resource for potential publication journals and she’s taught me what it looks like to be a more grown-up writer than myself.  Again, I follow Mehrotra on Twitter @Rati_Mehrotra – yes, she follows back – and have loved virtually celebrating the publication Markswoman.  (It just came out this past Tuesday, but it’s been so exciting to watch the pre-publication build up.)  I can’t wait to see what I’ll learn from this read.

That’s it.  All my reading analysis for 2017: the good, the bad, and the debut.  For 2018 I’m already 7 books in, and after Markswoman I’m going to dive into an Ursla K Le Guin story or two.  Shockingly, as a lover of speculative fiction, I’ve never read anything by her, and her death this week revealed what an inspiration she was to authors I love.  My bookstack is full, as always, with new stories to love and learn from.  Let me know if there’s anything you’ve read that I should add to the stack.

 

Books that Inspired my Writing – 2017

I am coming up on six years of being a writer.  On February 20, 2012 I put words to paper for my first – still incomplete – novel.  Since then I have not yet published anything (except this lovely blog) but I have finished writing two short stories; finished a second novel;  started three other short stories; and have four rejections to my name.  While my publishing may have been limited, 2017 was a big learning year for me, and from that learning, I am hoping to get two pieces polished in 2018 and start circulating them through the journals I’ve identified as good fits for my work.

One evolutionary writing step happened this year, when mid-book I would switch into reading-as-a-writer mode. As I read, I’d start thinking about what the author was doing, and learn from that new perspective.  Below are 3 works that helped me grow as a writer in 2017.

Slade House, by David Mitchell

I didn’t know reading-as-a-writer was a real thing, until I saw a talk by Jennifer Haigh.  Part of her process is to find keystone works.  Not books she wants to copy, but books that do something well that is relevant to her work, and new to her, such as using the first person point-of-view or being set in the same time period.  Her recommendation was to find this keystone book, dissect it, take notes, and learn how a published author accomplished the task you are attempting.

As an avid reader, this process makes sense to me.  While most writing books stress that you have to read to be a writer – a writing skill I’ve always been good at, the not-writing one – they don’t tell you what to do with all that reading.  But now I know there is a catalog of works in my head that I can refer to as a writer when I’m trying to do something new.  That said, sometimes fate and the muses smile and the right book falls in your lap at the right time.

That’s what happened with Slade House.  I’d just finished reading it when I saw Haigh’s talk.  Instantly I realized that I’d just read a keystone book for my in-progress novel.  Slade House is set in five vignettes spaced exactly nine years apart.  Each section is told in the same setting and has common characters, which is exactly what my book does, but in annual increments.  I was struggling with how to size each mini-story, and keep the pace moving, which Slade House does incredibly well.  There were mini-climax moments in each time period, but the overall plot of the book escalated up to the final climax in the last year.  Again, this is exactly how I want my book paced.  Based on Haigh’s suggestion I got out my note-cards and spreadsheets and analyzed how Mitchell created his story.   I now have a guide for how to move my story along, avoid repetition in my world building, and write something that might work for publication.  Oh, and that elusive comparable title I’ll need for querying agents?  Done.

The Water Knife, by Paolo Bacigalupi

This book could have gone on my list of most hated books for 2017.  Bacigalupi wrote a novel about climate change, a topic about which I am both passionate and have close to expert knowledge, and I hated it.  Best of all, I read this for my beloved Apocalyptic Fiction class, so I got to publicly explain my loathing, which is why magic happened.

It’s easy to hate a book.  It’s easy to dismiss the author, say they suck, and quit reading.  It’s hard to sit in a class for three weeks and tease out the exact moments that turned you off, then dissect those moments, then hear other’s contrasting opinions, then have an epiphany, then explain to the other writers in class  your epiphany: real characters and believable interaction are more important to me than plot or world building or theme or language or anything.

The moment when Bacigalupi’s tortured heroine springs from the chair she’s been strapped to and starts cleaning out her rescuer’s bullet wound made me want to throw my Kindle across the room.  People do not act that way.  People do not jump up when they have been physically tortured to care for some person they might have a crush on.  Women do not dismiss off their oozing wounds, throw a shirt on over their naked torso and become ad hoc medical professionals.  I do not want to write unbelievable scenes like that.  I want humanity.  I want you to feel the desperation of torture, experience the burgeoning attraction between the heroine and her rescuer, understand the agony of pulling a shirt on over shredded skin, and realize, with the heroine, that her survival requires that her rescuer doesn’t die.  That is how I wanted the story told, and I am so grateful for Bacigalupi doing it in the completely wrong way, so I can understand my values as a writer and how I want my story told.

I will never read that book again.  If I had a paper copy I would  have composted it to save others from having to read it, but I am a much better writer for having struggled through the reading and understanding.

A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeline L’Engle

Do you ever doubt yourself as a writer?  Do you ever want to quit and do something sensible?  When this happens, go find Madeline L’Engle’s 1963 Newbery Medal Acceptance speech.  Unfortunately, it’s been removed from her website, but it is published in the back of the 50th anniversary paperback edition of A Wrinkle in Time.  It’s worth a trip to your local library to find it, but don’t read it in the stacks or you might find yourself crying next to children looking for the dinosaur book section.

The section that matters to me begins with a quote that is now hung up next to my writing desk, “Most of what is best in writing isn’t done deliberately.”  L’Engle goes on to talk about her writing of A Wrinkle in Time and says, “I can’t possibly tell you how I came to write it.  It was simply a book I had to write.  I had no choice.”  I read these words – the words of an author I have loved since I was a child, the words of the first author I ever met in person – when I was ready to give up on my stories.  I found the process of editing too hard.  I was never going to be any good at grammar.  I had totally screwed up and published the first draft of my best short story on my blog and no one was ever going to publish it.  I was just wasting my time.  Again, the muses smiled on me when I decided to read one of my favorite childhood books and then thumb past the reader’s guide to find inspiration when I needed it most.

I write like Madeline L’Engle writes.  I write because I have a story I have to tell.  Maybe no one but me and my mom will ever read my stories – and she won’t even read the dentist one – but a Newbery Medal winner feels about writing the same way I do.  Reading her speech kept 2017 from being the year I quit writing.

In 2017 I found a book to show me how to architect my novel.  I found I book where I learned how not to write.  And I found a book that inspired me to keep writing.  What did you read this year that changed you?

A book, too, can be a star, “explosive material, capable of stirring up fresh life endlessly,” a living fire to lighten the darkness, leading out into the expanding universe.

– Madeline L’Engle, 1963 Newbury Medal Award Speech