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?

Rejection Therapy via Twitter

I’ve been dipping my toe into the very scary world of publishing, because writing is a funny thing.  The more I meet other writers, both online and in person, the more I realize we are all different and all motivated by different things.  (Not shocking, since we are all people, who are inherently different and motivated by different things.)  In my heart of hearts, I put words on paper so other people can experience the stories and worlds I create.  It turns out that other writers are happy to write just for the process of writing.  This I find fascinating, even while I’m a little jealous, and a baffled by their opinion.

For the longest time — going on 3 years folks — this blog has served as a way to get my stuff read, but I’ve always known there were other works I wanted to get out there:  the novel and a half I have moldering in my desk drawer; the four short stories in different phases of editing.  I also know that I have a leaning toward traditional publishing.  Even having heard all the horror stories I am a firm believer in the power of collaboration.  In my dreams, I want an experienced team of publishing people behind me and my books.  (Again, guess what?  Not all writers feel this way.  Some are passionate about publishing independently, and I watch their process eagerly, because as I learn I might change my mind.)

Therefore, to achieve my current goals, I need to build a portfolio of published works.  I need to prove to myself and to editors, agents and publishing houses that what I write is worth reading.  Many of these path-forward insights have come though:

  • Reading books (Stephen King’s On Writing is still my favorite);
  • Agent blogs and twitter feeds (I have learned so much from Mary C. Moore’s blog );
  • Author’s sites and twitter feeds (Represented by Mary and Kimberley Cameron & AssociatesRati Mehrotra has a great WordPress blog and her first novel will be out January of 2018.  I’m loving watching her go through the publishing process  I’ve also learned from her, and have mined her past posts for potential places to target my short stories.)

To build my portfolio, I’ve started submitting my short stories to journals, and I’m starting to amass rejections.  (Four so far.)  I found out about my most recent submission site, PodCastle, through Rati’s blog.  In September they were accepting submissions for their Artemis Rising event which celebrates women identified fantasy writers, so I took a deep breath, did some wordsmithing (my story was 1700 words and they wanted at least 2000) and I submit right before the deadline.

Then Twitter provided me with some really amazing facts, because you see, I follow PodCastle and their parent organization Escape Artists Inc.  Here’s what I learned about the Artemis Rising submission process:

Whoa, I’ve got to say, I love this type of information, and appreciate that Escape Artists provided it.  It’s way easier to look at stats like this and accept that your story might be good, but still be rejected.  Then layer on that for PodCastle, which I submit to, there were over 200 submissions for 4 fantasy slots: data also reported on Twitter. My odds abruptly went down to a less than 2% chance of acceptance. Then four days after I submit, my odds went down to 0% with a rejection.

“It’s an interesting story, but it didn’t quite come together for us and we’ve decided to pass on it.”

But that’s a fair rejection.  I dumped 300 new words into what was a lean and mean story to try and make it meet the word-count requirements of Artemis Rising.  In hindsight —  now that it has been rejected — I wish I hadn’t submitted.  I wish I would have waited until PodCastle opened back up for normal submissions, so I could have submitted the shorter version of the story I worked really hard to tune and tone.  But the twitter thread from Artemis Rising continued.

Isn’t that sweet of them.  They made me proud of me, and inspired me.  And you know what? The rejection note continued too:

“We appreciate your interest in our podcast; thanks again for giving us the chance to look at your story.”

That’s when my epiphany happened. Someone read my story. Sure, they read my story and decided that it wasn’t in the top 2%, but they read it. And if you remember way back at the top, I said, “I put words on paper so other people can experience the stories and worlds I create.” Well, someone experienced my story and said it was interesting. Sure, it wasn’t the most interesting, but that’s okay. My first goal is to get a rejection that has some specific direction to how I can improve my work. My next goal is to get an acceptance. But the only way either of those will happen is if I keep letting people read my stories.  Which is great.  Because I want people to read my stories.  So I’ll keep submitting and editing and hoping my work finds a good fit.

(Of course, I’m not a total Pollyanna.  The rejections hurt, and it would be so much better if I got published, because then even MORE people will get to read my stories, but one step at a time.  This writing stuff is a process, and while I #amwriting, I also #amlearning, and that’s fun too.)

#amlearning and #amsharing

The bathtub at Lighthouse Writers Workshop, otherwise known as my favorite place in the world.  I have not yet figured out how to take a bath in this old clawfoot tub, but I did manage to decorate it with a fluffy towel and a bar of Writer’s Block soap.
The past few months have been slow from a writing perspective, but huge from a learning perspective.  I had my eight week apocalyptic fiction class followed by a two week LitFest: both hosted by Lighthouse Writers Workshop where I am a member.  In one of my workshops, my instructor, Rachel Weaver, gave me words to salve my guilt for not writing much lately when she suggested we think of the writing process as seasonal:  imagining, writing, editing, learning, and (someday) publishing.  If all you do is sit down and write, write, write you actually will never publish anything.  There are other seasons.  So here on the solstice of my learning season I wanted to share with you readers some of the most thought provoking lessons of the past 12 weeks.

Finding Scriptures

Jennifer Haigh taught me to find my writing scriptures.  These are works that address one of the challenges you, as a writer, have with a particular work.  Maybe you’ve never written in first person before and your story is in first person.  Find a book that reflects your desired point of view and really break it down to understand how the author accomplished what you want to do.  Learn from them and let their accomplishment teach you how you can do the same.  You aren’t copying, they are your guideposts.  That said, don’t use paralyzing books as scriptures – you know, the ones that are so good that you want to quit writing and go read under a bridge.

Wowing Agents

The Nelson Agency sat for an hour and showed a room of writers how agents read the slush pile.  Each attendee was invited to bring 1-2 pages from a work and the agents would evaluate manuscripts live.  The two agents, Joanna MacKenzie and Kristen Nelson, were brutally honest in their evaluations.  In the twenty five(ish) manuscripts they reviewed only one would have even received a second look.  Was it mine, you ask?  No.  Because I learned a hard lesson this day.  I only provided one copy of my manuscript, while the instructions distinctly said two copies.  Only one copy equals no evaluation.  As writers we are told again and again to follow submission instructions to a tee, and I’m normally very careful, but this day I was in a rush so I messed up.  Next time, when it really counts, I’ll do better.  However I learned from other’s works as well:

  • For your first novel you really only have 1-2 paragraphs to grab the agent’s attention so do not:
    • Spend the whole opening in narrative or telling
    • Jump into backstory
    • Change point of view
    • Create unnecessary confusion with the reader
    • Tell the reader how they should be feeling
    • Have the character not do anything
  • Do:
    • Create an emotional response
    • Create something interesting
    • Create tension
    • Make the readers want to learn more
    • Have a strong voice
    • Anchor your character in place and time
    • Put your reader with the characters.  Remove the distance.

For those of you who despise the idea of writing to a “formula” for an agent, Rachel Weaver put things into perspective.  She said that you only have two paragraphs to get your first agent, so do everything you can to make your debut novel as readable as possible.  Then have faith in yourself that once you have an established readership you’ll be able to be more creative.

Random other tidbits

  • Sometimes you don’t need to edit.  You need to rewrite.  That involves putting your manuscript aside and actually retyping from scratch the scenes you wrote the first time, or making a new scene, or combining several scenes into one.  Not everything can be fixed by moving words around on a screen  – Vicki Lidner
  • You have to earn emotional scenes in your work, otherwise you risk sounding sappy, trite, or melodramatic, which will make a reader put down an otherwise amazing work.  Make sure the reader is invested in the character before you create scenes of happiness, love, nostalgia, or sentimentality.  Never forget that tension, even in these sentimental scenes, adds power so layer happiness and sadness together.  – Alexander Lumans
  • When editing, there is an arc where your writing becomes better, then just different, then worse.  Stop when you are in the different stage.  – Rachel Weaver
  • If you write something and it just sucks, don’t stop.  Call that section a “placeholder” and go back and fix it later.   Also know that early dialogue is always a placeholder. –  Rachel Weaver
  • Introduce your characters the way you would introduce yourself.  Don’t provide pages of backstory and details the first time you write a character or risk him/her being the person no one wants to talk to or read about.  – Rachel Weaver
  • What is the difference between showing and telling?  Envision this.  You are standing outside of a house where an amazing party is going on.  A man approaches and says, “Wow, there is a great party inside.  There is a world renowned DJ and all these famous people are joyously dancing to his mixes.  The food is the best thing anyone has ever eaten and it is paired with delicious drinks.  Everyone there is having the best time of their lives.”  That is telling.  Showing happens when you get to go to the party.  Let your readers go to the party.  – Rachel Weaver

Now, with all that newfound knowledge I #amwriting and I #amediting, and I’m doing both in a way that feels more productive and inspired.  The seasons are changing in Afthead-land.

Writing away the soul raisin


Have you read the book Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel?  It is one of my absolute favorites.  I’ve read it, listened to the audio-book, and am now experiencing the joy of studying it in my apocalyptic fiction class.  If you read it, be warned it won’t wow you out of the gate.  It’s a long slow dance of a book, and you won’t even recognize there is music until you are a hundred pages in and the true melody isn’t apparent until over 200 pages in.  But I think the symphony she creates is worth listening to on repeat.

I’m talking about those people who’ve ended up in one life instead of another and they are just so disappointed.  Do you know what I mean?  They’ve done what’s expected of them.  They want to do something different, but it’s impossible now, there’s a mortgage, kids, whatever, they are trapped….

I love the story because it’s an apocalyptic mystery punctuated by eye opening life lessons.  One chapter, in particular, speaks to me in such a way it is literally life changing.  Literally, literally, not like Gwen Stefani in The Voice literally.  (Gwen, your head has never exploded.  Just stop.)

…because I think people like him think work is supposed to be drudgery punctuated by very occasional moments of happiness, but when I say happiness, I mean distraction.  You know what I mean?

Section 4. The Starship.  Chapter 26.  Page 160.  No spoiler alert here, other than the life changing kind of spoiling.  Clark is heading in to do his job.  He conducts assessments of executives who need to improve and then makes a plan for their improvement. In this chapter he’s interviewing someone who works for the unnamed executive.  Her words cut through my soul.

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I have moments when I love my real job.  Moments when I feel important and valued and when I honestly believe I am making the world change for the better.  I love my team and the people I work with completely.  But… but… we work in renewable energy.  We are largely federally funded.  The bottom is falling out of everything.  Our leadership team changed and no longer values managers, like me, but values self-managing PhD’s and I have nothing but a bachelors of science.  I have indirectly been told that I am not qualified and not worthy.  The bureaucracy becomes oppressive and there are days, weeks, months when I can feel my soul shriveling to a tiny soul raisin in my gut.  There is enough good at work to keep the soul raisin from drying up completely, but I don’t want to live with a soul raisin.  I dream of a soul grape or, can you imagine, a big plump soul watermelon that fills my entire body cavity.

…they are like sleepwalkers…and nothing every jolts them awake.

So last week I made a change.  A scary brave change.  I dropped to 32 hours a week.  I gave myself a gift of Thursday, so that I can write.  So I can try to publish that short story that is almost perfect.  So I can write the second draft of that book that calls to me on my 45 minute commute to and from work.  So I can finish that second novel that just recently developed a muse who will not shut up.  She’s throwing books in my way that inspire me.  She’s providing workshop comments from my class that make me want to sob with the joy that somehow my story is pouring out my fingers, onto a page, and translated through reader’s eyes to something even better than I imagined.  Stephen King wasn’t kidding.  It’s magic.

So here I am.  I’m doing it.  I told my boss.  I told my boss’s boss.  I told my team.  I told them I am taking time off to pursue a masters degree – which I will get to – and to write.  (The masters degree makes the whole thing more legitimate to the engineers, and will be relevant to book three.)  I told them there was a novel that needed to be edited and another to finish writing.   And like most big announcements it had grown so much bigger inside me than it actually was outside of me.  People were kind.  They were interested.  They said they were jealous of my passion.

…he had been sleepwalking, Clark realized, moving half-asleep through the motions of his life for awhile now, years; not specifically unhappy, but when had he last found real joy in his work?  What was the last time he’d been truly moved by anything?  When had he last felt awe or inspiration?

So here we go.  I’m promising myself a year.  A year to finish what I have started.  A year to write, edit, submit, get rejected, network, and see where this journey takes me.  And even if at the end I don’t end up with a book anyone else will publish then I will do it myself, and I will do it having grown a grapefruit of a soul.  Because I want to live all of my life and I want it to be filled with awe, joy, and inspiration with a tiny contrast of drudgery.  The drudgery is still important, because if all you know is joy and a watermelon soul you can’t possibly appreciate it, right?

Now, time to write.


Credit for all quotes go to Emily St. John Mandel and her glorious Station Eleven.  Thank you for the amazing book, and for providing words to convey my unhappiness,  which motivated my change.

Octothorp NewFavoriteWord

Prepare yourself readers, for your new favorite word.  It will change your modern day existence.  The word is octothorp.  Now, before you go rushing to Google or your dictionary, be honest.  Do you know this word?  I did not.  In fact, it’s even missing from my Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary: nothing between octosyllable and ocul-.  Now that I know this word, I love it.


What is an octothorp?  It’s a pound sign.  A #.  A symbol that has taken on such an important role.  Imagine with me, if you will, calling into any automated phone system.  Maybe you are refilling a prescription, joining a conference call, or calling your bank.  Inevitably you are requested to:

enter in your something followed by the pound sign

I bet reading that you can hear the computer’s voice in your head, and feel the anxiousness.  Was that the right number?  Should I have pressed the 2 menu instead of the 4 menu?  Now just replace that computerized request for a pound sign with the word octothorp.  It’s still accurate, but what would people do if such a request was made?  Imagine the chaos.

Octothorp confused.  Octothorp hatemybank.

Right?  People would race to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and write about their bad customer experience using the newest, most succinct way to convey emotion, sarcasm and cynicism.  The hashtag, which are denoted by the preceding octothorp.

Do it now, go to your favorite social media site and just enjoy reading all those octothorps.  My Twitter feed has Octothorp persist.  Octothorp champs.  Octothorp amwriting.

Oh yeah.   I’m writing.  About Octothorps.

Octothorp awesome.

#NewFavoriteWord #Octothorp