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.

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

#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.

True Happiness

When I am truly happy it’s a warmth that starts in my pelvis and spreads up through my sternum, but never reaches my heart.  My heart does not burst with cliche happiness.  It’s a much more primal emotion, and feels like someone has spread Bengay on my insides and slightly inflated me, but imagine the best possible feeling that could describe, not the torture version of inflated insides coated in Bengay.  Sometimes the happiness builds enough pressure that it seeps out my eyes.  I can describe this emotion today, because I am sitting here feeling it.

Why am I happy?  My life is filled with extraordinary people right now, and those people have caused a confluence of extraordinary experiences over the past two days.

Yesterday I planned a team outing for the amazing people I work with.  We were going out for a late lunch, partially to remember one of our colleagues who died a few years ago, and partially because we just needed to enjoy a good meal together away from the oppressive angst and uncertainty that currently permeates our workplace.  We also needed to celebrate.  An app 18 months in the making was finally approved by legal and went live on the Google Play store.  Funding that I have been fighting to get in the door for almost a year had arrived, and was enough to pay for two of us for a year.  If the looming budget cuts come, that money will save jobs.

Then my team turned the tables on me, morphing the lunch into a celebration of me, complete with a card, gifts, and a heartfelt gratitude for all I do for the team.  I was emotionally wrought and working off of four hours of sleep, so the fact that I did not break out in tears was a remarkable accomplishment.  Compounding the emotion was that because of Tuesday, I finally understood an additional facet of what I provide to the team.

Tuesday was my last Apocalyptic Fiction writing class, and while I never did accomplish my goal of being able to spell apocalyptic without the aid of spell check, I learned so much more.

  • I saw my own struggle in other’s writings, and through reviewing their work learned how I can improve.
  • I learned that I am terrible at identifying if a title is an apocalyptic novel or a death metal band.
  • While reading a book I despise I learned what I value as a reader and a writer
  • I learned that “bestseller” doesn’t mean “everyone likes this book.”  Related, I learned that I respect and value the opinion of people who like books I hate and people who hate books I like.
  • The utter terror I had sharing my work was replaced by the wonder of having people I trust not just enjoy my work, but provide thoughtful criticism on how to make that work better.  I also learned the value of giving and receiving feedback to and from other writers.
  • I learned that my love of maps can enhance my writing capabilities.  Sigh.  I love maps.
  • Through reading my classmates’ work I now understand why tension is important, what it means to have backstory delivered at the right time, how to convey information by both showing and telling, how to see the structure of a story though the mess of a draft, and why a story that has soul can pull readers in even in the early stages.

All of this was made possible, because our instructor Alexander Lumans built a supportive and encouraging environment where risks and experimentation were encouraged.  Couple that with a group of respectful, creative, engaged students and literal magic happened in our classroom for eight weeks.  Time stopped.  Worlds were built and dreams were formulated.  When there wasn’t magic, there was just great conversation.  We debated about the quality of the books we read and learned from our disagreements.  Beverage was not spewed out noses, but there was enough laughter to make that risk very real.

When the last class was over we spilled out of our couch and chair filled stuffy classroom into the real world and discovered that we liked each other as people too, not just writers.  The conversation flowed through writing, reading, television, videos, circuses, clowns, the cat in the hat, jobs, careers, and life’s injustices until the wee hours of the morning.

Walking to my car with one of my classmates I said, “I’m really glad that by the end Lumans became more than just our teacher.”  Those words came back to me at lunch on Wednesday.  I am wickedly horrible at self understanding, but a keen observer.  Often I have to see something in others before I can recognize it in myself.  Sitting at lunch I could understand how my team felt about me, and I could see ways I could make my work relationships richer through implementing what I appreciated from Lumans leadership in our class.

New friends?  A better understanding of how to improve my work relationships?  True excitement about my writing projects?  Hope of my new friends creating a writing group?  What an absolute gift the universe has given me this week in the form of two spectacular groups of people willing to open up and appreciate each other.  I’m filled with joy, trust and hope.  If that isn’t true happiness, I’m not sure what is.

I am an unconventional prepper

Ah, this writing class I’m taking…  It’s a treasure trove of reading and writing enlightenment.  The homework for our last class was titled Funhouse Mirror and again was from The 3 a.m. Epiphany:  write a caricature of some aspect of yourself.  Blow it up.  Take it to the extreme.

At first I thought I’d take some part of Johanna which is exceptionally vulnerable and see how I felt when I pushed that to the extreme: no one likes me;  I am not actually good at anything I think I am good at; I am selfish.  But those ideas sucked and made me want to cry, so I went another direction.  Below, I present to you, the first – perhaps of many – meet Afthead in the funhouse mirror posts.  Enjoy!


Johanna is a prepper, but her version of the apocalypse appears to differ from those typically found in literature.  In her end-of-the-world scenario the killer bug, aliens, nuclear fallout, or zombies will only be thwarted by soft colorful hand-knit items.  Heads of her family and friends will be covered in zombie proof alpaca toques.  No body part of her child will be exposed to epic flus; instead they will be covered with garments knit from hand-painted yarn produced via sustainable practices high in the Andes, which have known germicide properties.  Aliens will be repelled by the soft glow of angora halos radiating from shawls wrapped around her shoulders.  Pile on enough woolens and radiation has no chance of reaching human flesh.

Anticipating the end of the world, Johanna knows that saving humanity will invariably be hampered by a lack of crafting resources.  Scarcity is common in apocalyptic scenarios.  She knows yarn must be hoarded and protected.  Today she is building best practices by keeping her yarn stash safe from invading caterpillars – well known to eat through woolens.  Her basement stash is displayed in a glass front cabinet for protection and ease in project planning.  However, while glass protects against moths, it is vulnerable to a quick alien smash and grab, so in nooks and crannies of her basement lurk larger stashes of more securely organized knitting raw materials.


High in the dark corner of a closet is the sweater yarn protected by five gallon Ziploc bags.  In these giants of the sandwich bag world lurk yarn quantities large enough to cover an adult torso in stitches.  There are two, or three, okay maybe five such bags on the top shelf.  On the bottom shelf?  An opaque Rubbermaid container of blanket yarn: quantities similar to sweater yarn, but with more color variation.

Most preppers would stop there.  Yarn stored in three discreet locations with the big quantities hidden away for protection, but not Johanna.  No.  Hidden in the storage shelving under the stairs lurks two more large Rubbermaid containers.  These hold the auction yarn.  Yarn that was purchased for a tenth of its value, and while it might have limited use as yarn today – certainly it won’t smell like cigarette smoke anymore someday – everyone knows that aliens hate nicotine, so when the invasion comes she’ll be ready with jewel toned garments which will repel even the biggest eyed anal probe wielding creatures from another planet.  One can never be too prepared.

2012 Sweaters
All set for the end of the world.

TSA Ate my Laptop – the Analysis

img_2991

So now, let’s see which version of my character study was better.  For those just joining, I left my laptop at TSA and on it was a writing assignment due the same day.  Being an exemplary student, I quickly rewrote my homework before going to class, thus giving me an opportunity to compare my careful writing process and my quick rewrite process: something I would never do if the circumstances didn’t require it.  Check out my posts about the slapdash version 2 and the original version 1 if you want to make your own judgement.

I think both versions have merit, but the hastily written version 2 is better.  Why?  Well at a high level, I have realized that I lose my voice when I edit.  It’s something that I’ve been peripherally aware of for awhile, but this proves my process of making sure I vary sentence structure, use correct verb tense, and nitpick punctuation sucks the soul out of my writing.  Now I wish that meant that I could just stop doing all that, but unfortunately that would leave behind basic issues making me look like a hack.  So instead, I think I’m going to have to add a final round of editing to my work to reinsert the soul.  Mayday, mayday!  Soul reinsertion, stat!  No idea how I’m going to pull that off, but this experiment gives me hope that such a process will work, because remember, I wrote the better draft second.

I’m going to start with what I like more about version 2, and then highlight what I liked better from version 1.  If I was going to use this for something I’d make a mashup of the two and create perfection, but since it’s just an exercise I’ll probably skip that step.  I mean, I got assigned new homework this week that I’ve got to get started on!

Why is version 2 better?

The guy has a voice.  He is “missunderstood and undervalued.”  His mom says he lacks “get up and go.”  He got fired for “lack of initiative.”  He asked the heart attack victim, “What do you want me to do?”  He was told, “You saved this guys’s life, you are a hero.”  (Shockingly that last quote is exactly the same in both versions.)  The simple addition of real words convey the essence of him: showing not telling, right?  I tried to do that in the first version by giving the guy a name, but he didn’t really need a name.  He needed a soul.

The first three paragraphs are all better in the second version because of the good mix of showing and telling.  Also, the character displays better internal conflict.

They wanted me to take some vague idea and magically turn it into something they wanted.  If they weren’t so lazy I would be more effective, but I learned that people don’t want that kind of feedback.

is way better than

What they wanted was some person who was willing to go off and waste time solving vague problems because my bosses were too lazy to define what they really wanted, but I probably shouldn’t have told them that.

Let me tell you, that bottom one is totally me the writer deciding, “Oh, it is time for a long complex sentence now.”  Ugh.  It’s terrible.  I also love the “magically” reference in the top version.  It convey’s this guy’s frustration.  He does not know how to take squishy ideas and turn them into reality, so it must be magic.

The hackathon paragraphs are where version 1 is better, until you get the the old guy’s collapse, then comes the sentence that makes version 2 the total winner.  It’s the point that out-loud laughs occurred, which is better than gold for any writer.

Crouching next to him I asked, “What do you want me to do?” but he didn’t answer.

I mean, the guy clutched his chest and collapsed and this dingbat is so incapable of self motivation that he asks an unconscious body what to do.  So much better than,

Crouching down next to the guy I asked what he needed, but he wasn’t able to answer.

Showing versus telling again.  I bet version 1 wouldn’t have made people laugh.  It doesn’t have the same impact.

For the character study, I think the version 2 ending is better, because it’s an actual ending.  However, if I was going to use this for something else, version 1 leaves the story with somewhere to go.

Why is version 1 better?

In the first version I liked a few things better.  I liked my consistent use of “clarity” and think that “total clarity” is more representative of what the character is looking for than “perfect clarity.”  Also, I was inconsistent in my use of “clarity” in version 2.  This is the most important value to my character so I like the cleaner presentation.

A few lines stood out as better in version 1 than version 2.

Life is made up of vague requests and other people spend their energy chasing after the right problem.

Is better than

People waste a great deal of time chasing after elusive requests.  It’s more efficient to spend time really understanding what someone wants before you go into action.

Another line I really liked from the first version was:

But the best part of being a hacker was that it made me a hero.

This same idea in the second version is a disaster.

I won the first prize once – $5000 – but the best thing happened as a result of hacking was that they made me a hero.

Ugh.  My eyes are bleeding reading that.  Obviously a quickly composed sentence-like thing that didn’t get proofread.  So. Much. Badness.

The last thing I liked better in version 1 was the character’s personal recognition of what he accomplished:

I saved a guy’s life doing exactly what I was told.

There was no creativity in his heroics.  No thinking outside the box.  He followed directions and the old guy didn’t die.  That’s a win for his strengths.  He should personally acknowledge it.

What was the point?

The whole point behind this exercise from 3 AM Ephipany is that “Writers who identify completely with their central character’s POV lack all sense of irony or detachment…A good story allows us to both like and dislike a character even if we are deep inside that character’s POV.”  (POV is point of view.)

So my goal was to take a character trait I do not have – I despise being told what to do – and see if I could turn it into a believable study.  I spent last weekend at a hackathon in the big thinker role – yes it’s a real thing – and there is definitely a “type” of participant that wants to figure out the right answer more then they want to jump in and start coding.  For that particular situation it isn’t a bad strategy, although I found it frustrating since I was supposed to be helping everyone and the question askers monopolized my time.  After my first day at the event, I contemplated why the question-askers were the way they were.  I hoped to make my character annoying, but then convey that his lack of “get up and go” had it’s purposes.  I hope I succeeded.

I thought version 2 was best because I was able to both like and dislike my character more.  He seemed more real to me.

Now I’m off to go read all the comments everyone provided to see if you all agree with me.  Thanks for going on this writing journey with me, and the big take away here is “do not leave your laptop at the TSA checkpoint, because it will cost you $50.”  Also, “it takes more than double 600 words to critique a 600 word character study.”  If you’ve made it this far, dear reader, I thank you.

TSA Ate my laptop – version 1

Quick recap of what’s going on here.  I left my laptop at TSA in Austin last Tuesday and on it was my homework for my writing class.  Disaster!  So, in order to maintain my good-student standing I quickly recreated my 600 word character study from memory and presented it in class, also on Tuesday.  (The details of the assignment and the AACCKKK! version of my story were detailed earlier.)  Today at 10:00 the FedEx man delivered my lost laptop to me, and I did not hug him, but I wanted to.  I ripped off the bubble wrap and hugged my laptop.  It didn’t mind.  It missed me too.

Now, after doing all the work things that were waiting for me on the recovered laptop, I can present to you the first version of my assignment.  The one I was thoughtful about, edited, and worked hard on.  Then the fun part.  Let’s compare which story was better!

As a reminder the assignment was to “imagine a person with an idiosyncratic way of seeing the world…Have this character witness a traumatic event” using first person point of view and 600 words.  (Check out the 3 AM Epiphany for this writing assignment and a host of others.)

I’m not one of those go getters.  My comfort zone isn’t being the lead, or making the strategy, or finding a new path.  Really, I like being told what to do, and I think that’s an overlooked and important role.  As much as my mother complains about my lack of initiative even she sees the benefit.  When she asks me to do the laundry or make dinner, I do it right, every time – provided she gives me the right level of detail in her instructions.

Life is made up of vague requests and other people spend their energy chasing after the right problem.  Not me.  In college, I’d utilize office hours to make sure I really understood assignments.  Exactly what did my professor want the program to do and how should I code it?  The bonus was that sometimes he would even start the assignment for me, because it was the best way for him to provide me with total clarity.  That’s what I’m always striving for.  Total clarity.

My desire to do what I’m told doesn’t mean I’m a follower, far from it.  As soon as it was legal I changed my given name from Charlie to Charlemagne, because it better represented the persona I want to present to the world.  There is a misconception that people who want to please can’t be unique individuals.

Unfortunately, it’s been hard to find my way after college.  I’ve been let go from three jobs because they said I lacked initiative.  What they wanted was some person who was willing to go off and waste time solving vague problems because my bosses were too lazy to define what they really wanted, but I probably shouldn’t have told them that.

I’ve found a niche for myself, though.  Hackathons: events where a bunch of coders, entrepreneurs and big thinkers get together to solve a problem over a weekend.  The big thinkers get up and pitch ideas and the coders, like me, have to create a prototype.  In no time I learned how to pinpoint the big thinkers who needed me: the ones who knew exactly what they wanted done and needed someone to do it.

I won a couple of hackathons with my strategy:  even a big one worth $5,000.  But the best part of being a hacker was that it made me a hero.  One night I was getting some last details from this executive guy.  Everyone else had left, and he was going on about how market share, or something.  Suddenly, he stopped talking and grabbed his chest.  He dropped to the floor.

What was I supposed to do?  Crouching down next to the guy I asked what he needed, but he wasn’t able to answer.  When I called out for help no one came.  I sat next to him for a bit, but after he didn’t wake up I decided to leave.  I made it as far as the hallway, then clarity.  There was one of those AED things on the wall.  I ripped it open, and it started talking to me.  The machine told me exactly what to do, and I did it.  When the machine told me to call 911 I did that too.  Then the dispatcher told me exactly what to do.  When the paramedics arrived they checked the guy out and said, “You saved this guy’s life.  You are a hero.”  I saved a guy’s life doing exactly what I was told.  I’m really hoping he makes a full recovery and then gives me a job.  My clarity saved his life.

Oh.  Some things are better, but some things are worse.  What do you think readers?  I’ll provide my own self-evaluation next!

TSA Ate my Laptop – version 2

I’m taking a class at Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop on Writing Apocalyptic Fiction.  With everything going on in my world I felt like the best way to counteract my fears of climate change, economic disaster, and governmental collapse was to immerse myself in the apocalypse for 8 weeks.  Layer a writing class on top of anxiety on top of a crazy work schedule -including weekend travel- and one of my carefully balanced life pieces was bound to come crashing down.   Cue leaving my laptop at TSA security in Austin and not realizing my mistake until I was midair and halfway home.

At the moment I realized what had happened the first thought to hit me was, “but my homework was on my laptop!”  I intentionally timed my trip to ensure I’d be home right before my writing class.  I’d done the homework and now I was faced with going to class with the lamest excuse.  So, being a total goody-two-shoes I got home and rewrote my 600 word assignment from memory.  Arriving in class I told everyone my story only to discover I was the only person who did the homework, and I did it twice.  (See earlier goody-two-shoes comment.)  Thus I got the honor and privileged of reading aloud my hastily thrown together homework to everyone.  It wasn’t bad.  I got a few snickers at the funny parts, and no snickers at the not funny parts.

However, now find myself faced with a fun personal writing experiment.  My laptop is due to be delivered by FedEx any moment, and I can compare my homework I spent time on – checking grammar and editing – with my 30 minute word dump.  Often I’ve wanted to just trash something I wrote and start over, but I always wonder if the new version will really be any better.  Now I’m going to see, and I’m going to let you see too!  Here is my hastily slapped together homework.  The assignment?  To “imagine a person with an idiosyncratic way of seeing the world…Have this character witness a traumatic event.”  The assignment was to be in first person point of view and 600 words.  (Check out the 3 AM Epiphany for this writing assignment and a host of others.)

Here is the slapdash version for your entertainment:

I am not one of those go getters. In fact, I’ve always liked being told what to do, which is a misunderstood and undervalued skill. People waste a great deal of effort chasing after elusive requests. It’s more efficient to spend time really understanding what someone wants before you go into action. Even my mother – who has always complained about my lack of “get up and go” – admits there are times she appreciates my approach. If she asks me to do the laundry or make dinner she gets exactly what she wants: provided she gives clear direction.
My technique really shined in college. I utilized professors’ office hours to ensure that I really understood their assignments. What programming language did they want me to use? How should the end product look? An unexpected advantage was that often they’d start my project for me to ensure I had perfect clarity. Always my goal is perfect clarity.
Since graduation I’ve been in and out of jobs. Every interview I’ve very up front about my approach, and the three companies that hired me seemed excited by my process. But something always changed; each time I got let go for “lack of initiative”. Lack initiative? The problem was that my managers and mentors never deeply explained what they wanted me to do. They wanted me to take some vague idea and magically turn it into something they wanted. If they weren’t so lazy I would be more effective, but I learned that people don’t want that kind of feedback.
To make ends meet I spend weekends at hackathons. Hackathons are events where programmers, entrepreneurs and big thinkers come together and prototype innovative ideas. My strategy is to listen for the guys who have a really detailed idea. Those are the ones who need my help. I seek them out and we spend all weekend creating their vision. I won first place once – $5000 – but the best thing that happened as a result of hacking was that they made me a hero.
At my last event there was this really old guy who knew exactly what he wanted. He went way over time talking about his idea and encouraged questions while he was being shut down by the event organizers. He and I were a great team. Late at night we were nailing down some final details when he grabbed his chest and collapsed. I didn’t know what to do. Crouching next to him I asked, “What do you want me to do?” but he didn’t answer. I yelled for help, but everyone else had left. After a bit I decided to leave. What else could I do? Then I found total clarity when I walked past one of those AED things on the wall.
I ripped it down and the thing started talking to me. It gave me very specific instructions, and I followed them perfectly. When it told me to call 911, I did, and the dispatcher gave me very specific instructions, which I followed perfectly. Then the paramedics showed up. After I did what they told me, one of them turned to me and said, “You saved this guy’s life. You are a hero.”
They rushed him to the hospital and he made a full recovery. His company had this big event when he went back to work and they presented me with a medal. My mom even got to come. It was great, but I was really hoping for a job. I mean, my clarity saved that guy’s life. We made a great team.

Oh, ding dong!  My laptop is here!  The original version of my assignment coming next!

Editor’s Block

I got past my reader’s block in July and quickly moved into the next phase: editor’s block.  In this phase I stared at my 99,000 word manuscript and tried to figure out how to eat the editing elephant.  I would scribble word changes and deletions because I didn’t know what else to do.  I paid good money to learn how to write a query letter and sent my first 10 pages to an agent.  (This was through Writer’s Digest and I thought it provided great insight into the publishing process.  If you are almost done with editing and want to try conventional publishing this is a great resource.)  My assigned agent, Mary C. Moore, gave me some good tactical advice:  vary my sentence structure; keep prose active; don’t over explain smaller actions of characters; be aware of slow pace; and, most importantly, “Keep going with this, you are on the right track!”

 

img_0274

Armed with things to do, I made a goal to finish editing by Christmas.  I only needed to edit 3 pages a day.  Time passed and I didn’t edit so the goal became 5 pages per day.  Time passed and I realized I had no idea what I was doing.  It was like I had a plan to swim the
English Channel.  All I needed to do was swim an additional 100 meters every day but I didn’t know any strokes, didn’t have a swimsuit, and couldn’t identify water.  Despondent about my book progress and a host of other things I turned to my family therapist.  She told me to do two things: come out of my writing closet and find a writing group.  I’ve talked with other bloggers about writing groups, and while not enthused about the idea, I felt like I needed to find some experienced writing peeps to help me.  Minutes into my Google search I found Lighthouse Writers, a local “community for writers and readers.”  I joined, and then on a whim physically visited their space.  This wonderful woman stopped what she was doing, and joyfully took me on a tour of the amazing historic mansion that houses their program.  Lucky me, a four week session was just starting, and in it was a class called The Big Edit which promised to “turn the amorphous process of cleaning up your draft into a manageable practice.”  Gasp!  Of course it was full, so I got on the wait list.

Providence does not put all these magical pieces in place just to snatch them away, so four days before the start of class a space opened. Eleanor Brown, the author of the New  York Times bestseller The Weird Sisters is the teacher and in the first fifteen minutes she laid out a process that made total sense.  She explained how we would edit in at least four passes.  We’d start with the Big Picture, move to Characters, then to Pacing and end with Copy and Line Editing.  (This means that I don’t have to worry about commas until the very last editing pass.  Hip hip hooray!)  This process isn’t quick, but I am okay with that.  I’ve spent years on this book.  I can invest another year so long as I’m moving forward.

bigedit

Not only has she given me a process to follow that makes total sense, but she’s also promised to help us discover our strengths and weaknesses as writers.  Through the class we’ll understand if we are good at theme, story, character, or pacing.   She’ll give us tips for adding editing passes for things like dialogue, humor, flashbacks or description that will help address weaknesses.  We will make a plan which allows us to stay focused and organized while developing a feeling of progress the same way we felt progress when writing.   We even have homework!  (I’m excited by this even though anyone who experienced my school days knows I hate homework!)  Here’s a picture of my first completed assignment: developing a theme card that I can hang above my writing space to remind me what my book is about.

In 2015 I came up with a list of nine things I needed to do to get my book published.  I’m still on step 2, having vastly underestimated the scope of the editing step.  But I have a plan now and cannot tell you how amazing that feels.  I have book hope for the first time in ages.  There is work to do, and I know what that work is.  I finally agree with Ms. Moore’s statement, “Keep going with this, you are on the right track!”  Time to get to it.  I’ve still got more homework.

Reader’s Block

A long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away I wrote a novel.  Well, I wrote the novel right hear on planet Earth, not far way, but it was finished over fifteen months ago, which is a long time ago.  As a novel writing novice, I thought the step from first draft to publication was a small one.  Following the advice provided by Stephen King’s On Writing, I sat down to read my whole book in one sitting after giving myself a nice break.  I had my pen ready, and prepared to make a few brief notes as I fell into my book.

I’m a great reader.  I love novels.  Short novels, long novels, well written, good plot, and why-the-hell-don’t-I-stop-reading-this-drivel novels:  Twilight series, I’m looking at you.  I love them all.  No iota of my mind was worried about this step, the reading of my book.  Oh, silly me.  Reading MY book was nothing like reading A book.  I would sit down to read and become stuck in the land of commas, verb tense, and sentence structure.  Hours would pass and I would have “read” a few measly pages.  This scenario happened over and over.  I couldn’t read my own book.

Finally in July inspiration hit.  You can email files to your Kindle and read them on your device.  I have known this since I got my first Kindle and used to send technical reports to it when I wanted to do a last cut for readability.  (If you want to try this for yourself, check out the Send to Kindle page.)  The solution worked.  Unwilling to mark up my Kindle screen with annotations I was able to read my book.  I also did this while I was on vacation so my access to paper and writing implements was limited.  Gloriously, many of the pacing issues I thought I had disappeared when I wasn’t distracted by note taking.  At times my book was good, and once or twice it was really good.  I did come up with a few big picture things I wanted to fix, which I think is the point of the first big read.

Hooray!  Problem solved.  Now all I had to do was edit, which in On Writing takes two measly pages.  You look for big plot holes, awkward character motivation, and ask big questions while you edit.  After two drafts you bestow your book on your ideal reader.  Easy peasy.  Folks, let me tell you that I have been struggling with how to execute those two pages for five months now.  I have begun to understand that King’s book was called On Writing and not On Editing for a reason.

I needed help, because I’d moved past Reader’s Block into Editor’s Block.  Have you ever found yourself in either place?  If so, I’d love to hear your solutions.  Keep reading and I’ll share how I am clearing out the blockages.


My first of a series on reader’s and editor’s block.