I’m Reading it

Okay, I decided to give in and read my novel.  My daughter left with my mom for her sleepover.  I went for a run, ate my takeout Thai food and decided that I was in a decent enough mindset to give the book a try.  Here’s a blow by blow update:

8:22 – One hour in and I’m on page 40.  It doesn’t suck. It’s actually far from sucking.  There are a couple of plot features I’d completely forgotten about that I think I can tie to later in the story.  I got teary eyed once.  I laughed once.  Good signs!  The kittens like my book too.  They like chewing on the spiral binding.  I’m going to eat a Halloween Oreo, or two, and get back to it.

9:28 – It’s still good, and I’m on page 75.  Two scenes I thought I would cut actually flow well.  Not ideal since I need to cut quite a bit, but there is still plenty of book to go.  One of my favorite scenes feels way too short.  It was drawn out and dramatic in my head, but was over in an instant when I read it.  Another teary scene, another laughing scene and a surprise dinosaur-with-short arms joke.  I’m feeling pretty good!

11:11 – Page 102, and I’m getting sleepy.  Over halfway through and only 90 pages left.  I’ve had a couple of, “that person would never say that” moments, and “this sentence make no sense” thoughts, but overall I’m still happy with it.  The plot moves quickly, which I like.  Unfortunately I went past another major section I thought I would be able to delete and it works.  I’m hoping at the end I’ll be able to see the sections that may flow but don’t add anything.   So far, I’m glad I’m reading it and thinking I need to make time for a second draft.

Johanna Levene, aka Afthead in San Francisco

No More Clark Kent – The Afthead Revealed

Did any of you notice the slip up on my last post?  It was right at the top of the Glimmer Train image.  It was my name, and guess what?  It was no slip up.  Yes, dear readers, the bureaucracy is over and I have a signed piece of paper that says, “Heck yeah, you can have a blog, and write a book, and tie it to your name.  We, the big bosses you work with, don’t care.”  Okay, it doesn’t exactly say that, but that’s the gist of the three pages.  So I finally get to turn the Afthead around and introduce you to the forehead.

I wish I had glasses to whip off and a suit to pull open revealing the AFTHEAD superhero costume underneath.  Alas, I do not.  My superhero powers are limited.

My human name is Johanna Levene, but you can still call me Afthead in the blogsphere.  Watch as the two identities meld. If you type in my name as a URL (http://johannalevene.com) you’ll get redirected to this blog.  In the near future I’ll set up something more slick so that typing in the johannalevene domain will take you to an about page explaining how you ended up on Afthead when you typed my name, but for now I am Afthead and Afthead is me.

Why the change, you ask?  If I still want to be Afthead why would I do something like this?  A couple of reasons:

  1. The Writer’s Market book told me to start a blog and to name it firstnamelastname.com to make it as easy as possible for agents, readers and publishers to find me.  I do not want to mess with making things easy for those people.
  2. Right now If you search Johanna Levene using something like, oh say Google, you don’t find my writing stuff.  You find me the person at my job, me on LinkedIn, or me the Pinterst person.  I need the writer me to start rising to the top of my search results which means I need to start using my name on my blog.  Johanna Levene, Johanna Levene, Johanna Levene.  (I can’t wait to see if that changes search results tomorrow.)

It is so freeing combining two of my personalities into one.  I am Johanna Levene.  I’m a writer who just finished her first novel and submit her first short story to a contest.  It’s really nice to meet you.  I hope you enjoy your time on my blog Afthead.

I am Afthead.  (Remember, read that last line with a Batman voice.)

Glimmer Train Submission

Get it Out There – The Short Story Edition

Back in June I blogged about going to see my BFF Neil Gaiman speak and his message to new writers.  Like many other established authors out there, his suggestion was to finish something, then get it out there.  Since that day I have finished a first draft of a short story and my first novel.  While waiting for my novel age, I have been working on nine tasks to get me ready for the effort of creating a second draft of my novel then finding an agent and publisher.  One of those tasks was to polish my short story, The Fisherman, and get it out there.  Well, I actually said “see how I feel about getting it out there,” but honestly, I feel pretty darn good.  It is out there.  Monday night I corrected my last few inconsistencies, paid my $15 and hit submit. My story is now officially in the Glimmer Train Press “Short-Story Award For New Writers.”  Can I get a hallelujah?!?  I’ll find out by November 1st if I win or not.  Time for more waiting.

I’m really, really glad I submit The Fisherman before tackling the editing process on my novel.  My story was SHORT (1241 words) and my novel is LONG (98,942 words).  Editing my short story was a gut wrenching crabby weekend of work.  If I edit my novel at the same rate I’m going to be crabby for 80 days!  (At one point this weekend I remembered another message from Neil Gaiman where he said people think that writing is ethereal but really it’s wandering around grouchy in a bathrobe.  Yep, he was talking second drafts, I’m sure.)  However, I learned some great stuff that I think will make editing the novel easier now that this effort is under my belt:

  1. I need a reader who believes in me, loves my work, and will remind me why I’m doing this when the bathrobe lady takes over and wants to hide in the basement burning my novel.  I’m lucky enough to have two of those readers.  One of them is my mom who also happens to be my ideal reader and my first editor.  The other one is a dear friend who makes time to encourage me even while she’s living her own crazy life.  Having that really honest joyful reassurance is so important.  Find that person. Buy them presents.  Nurture them because you are going to need them.
  2. I need a reader who is pragmatic and good at the rules of grammar.  My husband had to read my story twice this weekend.  The first time he agreed with my mom, “Yeah, you’ve got a lot of ‘ands’ in this story” and the second time he found two inconsistencies that were nit-picky but the difference between a kind-of-final draft and a final draft. Having someone who will know if your prepositions don’t match is awesome.  He never gushed about my story, but that’s okay.  Other people handled the gushing.
  3. I need a plan.  If the story doesn’t make Glimmer Train, that’s okay.  The deadline for the Writer’s Digest Short Short Story competition is November 16th.  That’s where The Fisherman is going next if it doesn’t find a home at Glimmer Train.
  4. I need a deadline. Once I found my competition and realized it was due 8/31 I got motivated.  I couldn’t hang out in the bathrobe too long.  I’m hoping that I can make deadlines for my novel that mean something to me and keep me motivated.  Otherwise I might have to find some weird novel competition.  (Hopefully this means I’ll be good with deadlines if and when someone else ever cares about my stuff getting published.)

Those things are all great, but I also learned one really big writing lesson.  A game changer of a lesson.  I am chickenshit.  Once my mom and Mr. Afthead pointed out all the “ands” in my story I realized what I was doing.  I was making the reader do the work.  Description after description read,

“When the sun is low and the puffy cloud-filled sky is painted pink, purple and orange, and the shadows are deep enough to hide details of faces and bodies, the door will open and he will slip out to join the families on the banks of the river with his rod and reel.”  – 4 “ands” in one sentence

I had 69 ands in my first draft. Let’s pause and consider 69 of 1241 words were AND: almost 6%.  Ugh.  I cut that down to 31 through updates like,

“The sun must be low in a sky filled with orange puffy clouds.  The shadows must be deep enough to hide the details of face and body.  When the conditions are right he will slip out to join the families on the banks of the river with his fishing rod.” – 1 “and” in 3 sentences

What’s the difference between the first and second versions.  Lots of stuff, but in my mind the difference is that in the first version I am paranoid that the reader won’t see what I want them to see.  So I paint a very detailed picture in a very complex sentence.  I give them a magnifying glass and some paint of their own – in case they don’t like what they see – and a guided tour of the picture complete with one of those narration phones you get at a museum.  In the second version I am brave.  I assume the reader has their imagination on and can paint their own picture in their mind and we can move on together.  Are their orange puffy clouds the same as mine?  Do they really understand the conditions?  That is scary, but my favorite part of the story is the magic, but through over-describing (The child is excited and terrified.  The dad is teary-eyed and proud.) I was losing the magic.

Thank goodness by nature I’m a taker-outter and not a putter-inner, so the edits weren’t hard once I knew what they were.  I honestly believe that every reader has “better things to do” than read a book.  They have bills to pay and mother’s to call and a house to clean and kids to bathe and endless ands to stick into their writing.  If I make them work too hard they will leave.  If I tell them exactly what they need to know, and maybe a little less, they will keep reading because they can’t stop.  They will paint their picture in their head and want to know how it turns out.  I want my stories to beg to be read, but if they are tedious because I am scared they won’t get read.  So watch out novel!  I’m coming to you and I am brave and ready to chop you down to size.  I’m bringing my cheerleader readers and my nitpicker with me too.  We are a fierce team and taking on new members if you want to join us.

Only 59 days until I find out if I won the competition or not. 23 days until I can read my novel. Tick Tick.

“The End” Part 1 – Novel Statistics

In a past blog post I told you about how my BFF Neil Gaiman told me (and several hundred other people) that as a writer I needed to finish something and get it out there.  He also told me that I had to call myself a writer.  Well as of this last Sunday this writer finished the first draft of her first novel.  Yes, dear readers, my first book is done!  I literally typed “The End” at the end because, holy crap, THE END!

So, because I am who I am, I can now start analyzing the books stats!  Are you excited?  I am!  See, I keep a spreadsheet documenting how much I write each day.  (Totally normal.  Everyone does this, I’m sure.)  Ready to discover book stats with me?

Book start date: July 15, 2013

Book end date: August 2, 2015

Book duration:  748 days

Book length (pages): 171

Book length (words): 98,942 words

The novel took me 2 years and 18 days to finish.  On average I wrote 132 words per day.  Let’s marvel over that tiny number.  132 words per day can get you a long novel in just over 2 years.  Of course that number is misleading.

Actual writing days: 88

Max words in a day: 6630

Min words in a day: 23

Average words per writing day: 1124

I only wrote 11% of the days I had available, or about 1.5 days out of every two weeks.  That seems like a paltry pace, even for a fulltime working mom.  Digging deeper I find that from October 21, 2013 to January 7, 2015 (443 days, or 1 year 78 days) I only managed to write on 7 days producing 8,018 words.  Yep, those were the Afthead family depression days when my emotional and mental energy was needed for something more personal than my novel.  Interesting though that I still averaged 1145 words per writing day during that stretch; I am consistent.  If I take out those 443 days as an anomaly I find that my book took 305 days (let’s say 10 months) and on average I wrote 29% of the days, or 4 days every two weeks.  That seems about right with my sense of how the composition went and also seems pretty reasonable.  If I start now and keep up my average writing pace, I could have book number two done in under a year.  That’s cool!  I know, I’m ignoring the second draft of book one in this number and assuming good fortune in the Afthead world.  Still, I feel proud of what I accomplished and, with caveats, confident about what I could accomplish going forward at this reasonable writing rate.

One last set of numbers for those of you still with me.

Max week = 12262 words

Days writing in max week = 3

Average words per writing day in max week = 4,087

This of course was the last week of the novel.  The end was coming and I could feel it.  At this pace, we’ll call it the QMJ (Quit My Job) pace, I could write a second book in 24 weeks.  Whoa!  That gives me some perspective about how real writers manage to produce a book a year.

That’s Part 1 of the book finishing adventure.  Next we’ll move onto part 2, the emotional part.

The End.  (Those two words.  Bliss I tell you!)

A Quiet Frustrated Rant

Open any news site today and you’ll see reports on two different theater shootings.  The Holmes trial is in the sentencing phase, just miles from where I live.  The Houser shooting happened less than a week ago.  These two events have me ranting in a quiet anguished way.  Three factors make these events personal to me: proximity, gun control, and mental health.


July 19, 2012 I flew home from a work trip.  It was late.  I drove home, and from the highway I could see the Aurora movie theater where less than three hours later James Holmes would open fire during The Dark Knight Rises.  I was right there.  Holmes could have passed me on the road as he made his way to start killing.

This February my family and I stopped at a great restaurant in Lafayette, GA while driving from New Orleans to Houston on Mardi Gras Day.  I made the mistake of ordering barbecued shrimp, forgetting that they come with the heads still intact.  After beheading my lunch I enjoyed my meal just blocks from where John Houser opened fire in a movie theater and killed two women and himself on July 23, 2015.

There is something about proximity that makes horror real.  I was there.  I can picture both of these places.  I have swam in meets at Arapahoe High School and have friends who went to Columbine.  It makes me wonder, are each of us one step away from knowing a victim or knowing a shooter?

Gun Control:

I want there to be an easy solution to this problem.  I want some politician to stand up and say, “That’s it!  No more guns in this country, at all, ever.”  Except I don’t.  I am solidly torn on gun control.  I grew up with guns in my house.  I learned how to shoot, I learned to respect guns, and I fondly remember the hours I spent watching my dad and grandpa reload after target practice.  I enjoyed target practice.  If I walked into a gun shop today the smell of it would bring back happy memories.

My dad hunted.  As a child hunting put meat on his family’s table.  I don’t hunt and never have, but I can tell you that nothing will teach you to respect a weapon like watching your uncle and dad gut and skin a deer they have killed.  I have never questioned what a gun can do to a living creature.  I don’t like play guns.  We weren’t allowed to watch violent movies or play violent video games as kids.  We were taught to respect guns to the point that I still feel a little weird pointing a Nerf water gun at my daughter and spraying her.

There are people who believe they need guns for personal protection.  There are so many guns out there already that we can’t make them go away.  I can’t round up every kid in the country and teach them the power of a gun, install new morals, and make them respect weapons.  The problem seems insurmountable especially when there seems to be no middle ground.

Mental Illness:

The other thing Holmes and Houser had in common was a history of mental illness.  So there should be an easy solution there.  We just need to take care of the mentally ill in this country and we won’t have anymore mass shootings.  Well, let me tell that it is not an easy problem to solve either.  I’ve got close personal experience with mental illness in my family: depression and bipolar disorder have wreaked havoc on the Aftheads and extended Aftheads.  I can tell you that even when mentally ill people want help it can be next to impossible for them to get it, or for their families to get it for them.  There aren’t enough doctors, there is horrible stigma, the meds are expensive and can make people worse instead of better.

I’m obsessed with the news filtering in about Houser because it is all so true.  I’m not surprised by the loophole in the law that allowed him to buy a gun.  The rights of mentally ill people are slippery.  Even if someone is a danger to themselves and others, there is a limit to what you can do to get them help.  In the end, they are people and you can’t just go around limiting people’s rights, even if the people who love them are begging for help.  I’m not surprised by his brother’s comments that the shooting wasn’t a surprise, and his words resonate with a truth that only some unlucky families get to experience.  The kind of sick his brother was will rip apart families for a lifetime.  I’ve seen it happen.  Eventually you have to pick between your own life, your own family, your own safety and caring for the guy who just might end up being a shooter.  With little to no help, no support, and no power what is a family to do?  The problem is so big it seems hopeless.

The Solution:

This is a hard problem, and you do not make hard problems go away by ignoring them or doing nothing.  I know that.  We all know that.  So, we have to start a conversation that’s going to make everyone uncomfortable.  We are going to have to talk about guns killing people and we might slip up and talk about crazy people and we might end up with a solution that limits some rights.  This will all piss people off, but isn’t it okay to piss people off to make sure that there is never again a room of dead first graders?  (I’ll admit, as the mom of a daughter who just graduated first grade Sandy Hook is a horror story has a closer proximity than I can even comprehend.)

My favorite article about this topic is from one of my favorite authors, Stephen King.  It’s called Guns, and it’s worth the $0.99 to read it on your Kindle or $2.99 to listen to on Audible.  I have both versions.  Know that if you buy it you are supporting the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.  You might not be into such a charity, or Stephen King, so I’ll highlight his three measures to curb gun violence:

“Comprehensive and universal background checks.

Ban the sale of clips and magazines containing more than ten rounds.

Ban the sale of assault weapons.”

These seem so reasonable to me, and such a good start. Yes, people can still die if you have a gun that has a clip that holds ten rounds, but Holmes couldn’t have done what he did without assault weapons.  Sure, people can still steal guns or buy guns for their family members, but Houser couldn’t have bought a gun with stricter background checks.  King doesn’t provide a road-map for solving the mental health issues in this country, but he does ensure that when someone has a history of going to dark places they can’t buy weapons.  That’s a start and we need a start.  If there is a chance that someone is going to use a gun to kill another human being, isn’t it worth it to limit that freedom to make sure that we don’t end up being a country where every single person either knows a shooter or a victim?  Can we start taking some steps to solve the  hard problem before the next tragedy?

In gratitude, Afthead style.

Thanks to Kathy for pointing out my forehead faux pas in my gratitude post.  Let’s try gratitude again, afthead style.

Thank you for bravery.

Thank you for this lake.

Thank you for these friends.

Thank you for adventures.

Thank you for this family.

Thank you for this life.

Only one forehead in the bunch of afthead memories from our vacation at my happy place this year.

Thank you for readers and for this blog. My heart is full.

Yummies and Yuckies

When my daughter was little our pediatrician encouraged us to start doing “yummies and yuckies” as part of our bedtime routine.  Each night we’d all share the best things (yummies) and worst things (yuckies) of our day.  Sadly this little tradition has gone by the wayside – I think it had something to do with my daughter’s behavior being a yucky one too many times – but I’m going to bring it back here to catch you up on the life of the Aftheads recently.

Yummy/Yucky #1

  • Yucky – my daughter got lice.  It finally happened.  I’ve been dreading this day and threatening to abandon her at the fire station if it ever happened.  (I’m convinced that “safe haven” thing extends to seven year olds, but only if there are lice involved).  I didn’t leave her though.  I’m mommed up, dumped insecticide on her head, and combed through her long hair for two hours and 45 minutes removing lice, nymphs and eggs.  Then for a week after I spent an hour going through her hair and my hair with a literal fine toothed comb – man I really get the imagery behind that phrase now- to ensure we were done with the infestation.  She had a really mild case.  It wasn’t that bad.  I won’t get PTSD, unless those crawly things end up in my hair!
  • Yummy  – The lice killing chemicals had detailed step by step instructions for dealing with head lice, and vague references to “pubic lice”.  I am thankful that I didn’t have to decipher those.

Yummy/Yucky #2

  • Yummy – we had an amazing trip to Washington D.C. to kick off our summer.  We took my daughter when she was four, and she really didn’t have any context for why our nation’s capital is a cool place.  This year she got it.  She knows the president lives in the White House.  She stood on the step where MLK gave his “I have a dream” speech and recited the first few lines.  Making it even more special was that we got to go with her best friend. I’ve got an adorable picture of the two of them, head to head, wind whipping their hair in front of the Washington Monument.
  • Yucky – the best friend had lice when we were in D.C. but no one knew it yet.  If you zoom in on the Washington Monument picture you can see those little burgers leaping off the friend’s hair into my daughter’s hair riding the currents of the wind to a new fertile land.

Yummy/Yucky #3

  • Yummy – Marriage equality happened!  I have friends and co-workers whose lives are changed because of this, and I’m so thrilled.  I didn’t find out the way I’d imagined, but I got to find out with my daughter and we had a great conversation about what the supreme court ruling meant.  It went like this,

Me – “Kiddo, this means people can marry whoever they want.  If a boy loves a girl they can get married.  If a boy loves a boy they can get married.  If a girl loves a girl they can get married.”

Kiddo – “I don’t want to get married.  Why do kids have to get married now?”

Me – “No I meant a man can marry a man and a woman can marry a woman now.”

Kiddo – “Oh.  I don’t ever want to get married.”

Me – “That’s still okay.”

Then we picked up one of her friends and headed to camp.  The two seven year olds had another great conversation about the ruling:

My kiddo – “Hey my mom said that anyone can marry who they want now.  It’s a big deal.”

Friend – “Yeah, people can kiss whoever they want.  I hate kissing.”

My kiddo – “I’m not getting married to anybody.”

Friend – “Me either.”

Thus the nation changed to be more tolerant, more accepting and more equal, but you still don’t have to kiss anyone or get married if you don’t want to.

  • Yucky – I kind of forgot that everyone wasn’t anxiously awaiting this ruling.  Its made some people I really love and care about pretty angry.  While that doesn’t change my feelings it does remind me that change is hard and this ruling doesn’t mean that every individual has become more tolerant and more accepting.

Two more days of lice hunting and we can claim the infestation over.  Maybe then my head will quit itching and I’ll have time to write again.

Gay curious, but not in the urban dictionary way

I’m finding the blogosphere to be an interesting place for book research. As my character’s lives are moving forward they are developing their own personalities. The son of my protagonist is only five, but already I know something about him that even his dad doesn’t.  He’s gay.  This leads me to writing about something I know little to nothing about. I’m not gay. I have friends who are gay, colleagues that are gay, a massage therapist that is gay, but no one I really feel comfortable asking awkward questions about gay love and gay courtship and gay feelings. I’m pretty sure human resources would get involved if I scheduled a meeting to ask my two gay teammates about the first time they fell in love.

Bloggers choose what they are open about though, and through the words of my cohorts I can learn. I’ve been fretting about the coming adulthood of my character and worried about how to handle his early relationships and his dad’s reaction. Then I came across this post on The Gay Soap Box and I was elated.  Here it was.  The story of a girl realizing that she liked other girls, and it was a great bit of writing.  I felt her awareness, her awkwardness, her bargaining, and her curiosity.  It was like I was in that bus with her sitting in her skin.

In some ways her emotions were foreign, but in many ways they reflected my own feelings in early love:  the uncertainty and the awakening.  (I’ll never forget my first lust.  That dumb Jason guy talking about how he only liked girls who gave blow jobs, and at 13 I had no idea what that was.  I did know that I would do anything for him if he would just pay attention to me. Thank goodness he never did.)  In some ways I was even jealous of her story.  At least she knew what undergarments Jen likely had on.  If you have relationships with the opposite sex everything below the top layer is a mystery early on.

Energized by this blog post I started searching WordPress for other enlightening stories using tags like “Gay Love”.  Uh mistake.  Apparently WordPress is not just about words, but about images too.  Thankfully I was on my home computer by myself.  I already knew that I wasn’t a heterosexual voyeur, and now I know I’m not a homosexual voyeur either.  Give me your racy novels, but keep your videos and images to yourself, thanks.  I am a visual prude.

Undaunted I started looking again, but more cautiously.   Nothing yet has spoken to me the way The Gay Soap Box did, but as I’ve been searching I have also been thinking.  Maybe there isn’t a formula for awakening sexual love: gay or straight.  My worries and fears and biases are different from yours regardless of your orientation.  (For example, you might like pictures.)  Maybe love is a thing without rules and without trends.  Am I arrogant to think that I can now write about gay male love because I read a post about gay female love and I have some experience in straight love?  Can I use my own experiences as proxy for homosexual, or even other heterosexual, relationships?  Was being shunned by a boyfriend’s Jewish parents because I didn’t share their son’s faith similar to a man being shunned by his parents or his lover’s parents because he is gay?  I had a crush on a black guy in college and I never acted on it because I didn’t know if he liked girls “like me.”  Can I now empathize with a gay woman approaching another woman of unknown orientation?  I don’t know, but what I do know is that I am thankful for The Gay Soap Box author for her post, because she was brave, and her risky post made me wiling to write mine.  My apologies if I sound naïve, callous or unenlightened in this space.  My missteps weren’t made out of malice or intolerance but out of simple curiosity; I’d like to begin this conversation.