Calico Avengers have arrived!

Calico Avengers (blog)I’m excited to announce that Captain Bull and the Calico Avengers is finally out in the world!

Captain Pit Bull is the terror of the seven seas, plundering ships traveling to Catland with his team of scurvy sea dogs. Two young kittens, Patrick and Nathaniel, are galley slaves, chained to the oars below deck. With the help of the brave cabin pup Rifky, the kittens escape. Patrick swears to return and defeat Captain Bull, but can he do it before the pirate captain realizes Rifky’s mutiny?

This is a shorter chapter book, for ages 8 to 10 in reading level.  The cover is illustrated by Leo DeBruyn but the inside art is my own. I’m a bit nervous about that… while I’ve had one piece of my cat and dog art in a traveling art show in college, this is the first time it’s been published in a book. I don’t generally consider myself an illustrator, but at various points in my life people have insisted my cat and dog drawings out to be out there. When my family heard I was publishing this story, every single one of them insisted I should illustrate it. So, there you have it.

Calico Avengers is actually one of my earliest novel ideas. I remember coming up with it clearly, lying under on the floor listening to my father play music. The original idea was a Redwall fanfiction, involving mice heroes and rat villains. Eventually the heroes discovered their father was the warrior of Redwall and Salamandastrom featured somewhere along the line with all the usually suspects. Despite rationally knowing fanfiction couldn’t go anywhere (there were pretty much no outlets for that in the 1990s, really) the story took a hold of me with a fierceness that got me through writing down about half of it.

It wasn’t long afterwards that I started writing more seriously, on reason I think fanfiction is great, it often helps young writers gain the confidence to write their own stories. Realizing the idea could never be published though in its current form, I tried to find a new way to use the characters and the story. Naturally my thoughts went to my favorite game that I used to play with my best friend in grade school.

We used to play complex stories involving cats and dogs. We found humans frankly rather dull, so with all our stuffed animals as the kittens and puppies, we became the adult animals and made up an elaborate alternate world with Catland and Dogland, two nations that vacillated constantly between peace and war. The Cat and Dog war kept being revived, much to the inconvenience of those cats or dogs who had in peacetime moved to the opposite nation for business or other reasons. Most of our stories were set around a parallel time to World War II where cats were taken into internment camps when the Cat and Dog war started again, while other kindly dogs kid their neighbors in the basement. We spent hours in the basement playing versions of this and escaping the dog version of the Gestapo.

It wasn’t a far stretch from there to reworking the story as an earlier period of the Cat and Dog war… in a Victorian Era. However, after rewriting the first couple of chapters, I got distracted with ideas involving humans. As a teenager, I was finding humans more and more interesting and reading more complex literature, and my interest didn’t carry through. It wasn’t until a few years ago, when I was sharing older Redwall themed writing with one of my writing partners for fun, that I dug it out and showed her the first couple chapters. She found them hilarious and drew the cutest set of dog and cat art. That got me thinking that perhaps there was a place for the story after all. I rewrote it from scratch to better fit a younger audience and turned it into this current short chapter book.

I have currently live Amazon world wide (UK link), Barnes and Noble, and Smashwords. It ought to be up on Kobo and Apple shortly, but hasn’t quite gone through. I had an art glitch on my print proof, so I had to send for a second proof… and it hasn’t arrived, but I expect it any day, and so will post as soon as the print copies are available.

From The Dreaded One’s Desk: Attack of a Supervillain

Dreaded One picThe Dreaded Author stretched out in her favorite writing chair, laptop ready, note cards spread out on the desk in order of planned events. With a fluffy polar fleece and a hot cup of tea, she was ready to spend a long comfortable morning indoors making characters suffer, jotting down evil plots and reveling in writing bliss.

“Bwahahahahaha!” Someone else’s maniacal laugh shattered the peace of the Dreaded Office.

Narrowing her eyes, the Dreaded Author flexed her claws, ready to deal out punishment to the intruder, but startled as a stranger descended from the ceiling. Wearing yellow spandex and flapping his cape, boots landed on top of the plot note cards and his white teeth flashed in a far too bright grin. “I challenge you, Dreaded Author! And you will lose! I am Synopsis Man, and evil knows no bounds!”

“I’m not afraid of something as short as a synopsis,” snarled the Dreaded One. “You’re nothing but a summary with a fancy title to sound more erudite. And I’m busy, writing! Minions!”

“They won’t be coming.” Synopsis Man gloated. “This contest in between just you and me.” Synopsis Man pulled out a sheet of paper and waved it. “It’s a contest you can’t refuse, if you want to enter the PNWA novel contest and prove your evil superiority that is!”

“Wait a minute! How did you get into my files? That’s mine!” With a roar, the Dreaded Author jumped to her feet and snatched the piece of paper away from Synopsis Man.

“Only four days left to enter, and look, right here!” Synopsis Man poked a yellow-gloved finger at the paper.

Despite wanting to send him flying across the room, the Dreaded Author couldn’t stop herself looking down and reading, The 28 page limit includes your 1 page double-spaced synopsis and the first 27 pages of your book (beginning with chapter one or prologue). While synopsises (or was that synopsi? The Dreaded Author wasn’t sure) were not part of the evil plan, this contest was. Contests being one way to gain the notice of big name editors. The Dreaded Author snarled in annoyance.

“So, Dreaded One, let our contest begin!” Synopsis Man shouted gleefully.

The Dreaded One shoved Synopsis Man hard in the chest, sending him flying back off the desk. “I already have a synopsis on file for this novel, so there!”

Synopsis Man though flared out his cape, gracefully swooping to the ground. “Ah, but that’s one page single spaced, and you need this one page double spaced! You have to cut half the words in the synopsis.”

With a twinge of trepidation, the Dreaded Author opened the document, and saw to her horror what the supervillian said was true. The synopsis was far too long. “Noooooooooo–”

With evil intent, Synopsis Man closed in, chocking off the Dreaded Author’s cry of horror.

***

Calico Avengers (blog)Enough of this silliness. All paws on deck and prepare for the final launch of The Jolly Growler! I am pleased to announce I have a firm release date for Captain Bull and the Calico Avengers. Next Monday, Feburary 21st! Only a week and a half behind schedule, so pretty good, if I say so myself. I’ve gotten a book page up for it already on this site with the first chapter, if you want to preview it.

Also, Feb is the month for contests… time is running out both for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award and the regional PWNA contest (if you’re in the Pacific Northwest). So, get those entries in.

Willamette Valley: Minto in Snow and Closed-door Schools

Minto 5Snow here in the mid-willamette valley is rare… usually a couple inches once or twice a year, and since we already had that in December for a couple days, I pretty much expected it to be over. When it started snowing on Thursday I certainly didn’t expect a whopping 9 and a half inches across the next three days. I don’t recall ever getting that much snow here before. It was sort of fun watching my back deck fill up with snow, if a bit stressful getting Ben to and from work on Friday.Minto 1

Good thing I’d gone shopping earlier in the week. We were snowed in all weekend. Which while it left plenty of writing time, made me restless, so today after successfully getting my husband to work, I tried going on a walk.

It probably wasn’t the best of ideas, I my feet completely soaked slogging through the snow covered paths, but it was wonderful to be outsides and not really very cold at all.

Minto 6I’ve discovered a path down by the river in exploring the park. Part of it had been flattened by a snow-mobile, which made walking a little easier right along the river. Heading back around the field it was a slow slog. The snow will probably all melt in the next day or so (much of it has already). I’ll probably wait a few days before braving the parking lot and paths again.Minto 2

At least I’ll be having plenty of other new things to be keeping busy. I’ve been considering taking some sort of class for exercise and one thing I’ve never tried before is Tai Chi and it sounded more interesting to me than Yoga (although that was an option too). I found a couple places with it downtown, but neither of them answered their phones. So, finally last week we just walked in after work to see if  we could find anything out that way.

Minto 3Apparently, Tai Chi schools are a bit exclusive… the teacher called it a ‘closed-door’ school, which made me think of samurai schools in Musashi and for a moment made me wonder if I shouldn’t be there, but then he said it means they don’t advertise or post for students, you have to walk through the door yourself. It just so happened we walked in on the advanced teach class… which certainly made Tai Chi look rather complex and difficult, but it also looked just as interesting as I thought it would. So, while my social anxiety went into overtime over the whole experience, on the upside we met the beginning teacher and she invited us to try out a couple classes. So I’ll be attempting my first Tai Chi class tonight.Minto 8

From the Dreaded One’s Desk: The Evils of Illustration

ardythava“Erm,  your dreadfulness?” the Art Minion asked.

“What?” The Most Evil Dreaded Author bared fangs while trying to carefully ink the lines of her picture over the make-shift light table.

“I think the cat’s head is crooked… maybe you should start this one over.”

“And maybe I should boil you in oil,” grumbled the Dreaded One.

The Art Minion shut up.

The Editorial Minion sidled up for a closer look. “I think that arm is the wrong angle, and why does that dress have pointing lace on one side and rounded lace on the other?”

“Lest me show you why.” The Dreaded One flashed fangs and bonked the minion on the nose with the pen.

“Ow. No need to get so prickly,” the Editorial Minion muttered and slunk off.

“I demand silence! The next minion who speaks before I do gets toilet scrubbing duty!” The Dreaded One glared, mollified a little by the minions’ cowering. Trying to ignore her increasing frustration at trying to draw, she could fully recall why she didn’t do it often. Seconds later, the ink pen  lingered over the paper a fraction of a second too long, leaving a blotch of ink.

“Arg! I hate this,” the Dreaded One roared, throwing her pen across the room.

The Production Minion decided this was the moment for a status update. “It’s looking very good, your evilness,” he said, bowing, and ignoring the tantrum. “But you must finish by tonight if you are to make your Dreaded Deadline.”

“I’m the Dreaded Author!” snarled the Dreaded One. “Author. Not Illustrator! What is this nonsense? Get someone else to do it!”

“Your awfulness,” interjected the Budgeting Minion, “We don’t have the funds at this point to hire an artist.”

“Besides,” added the Art Minion, “All your family and friends agreed you were the perfect artist for this project. Your personal evil style is exactly what it needs.”

With a roar the Dreaded Author snatched up the Production Minion and threw him into the others. “I don’t care! I’m an author! Not an illustrator! Out!”

They scurried through the door, while the Dreaded One sat back with a sigh and a grumble. The half-finished cat drawing eyed her back. It had a decidedly smug look on its face.

“No you don’t,” muttered the Dreaded One. “I don’t care about you. Not at all! No!”

The drawn cat smirked. “I’m just too much a challenge for the likes of you,” it whispered, blotchy whiskers and all.

With a snarl, the Dreaded One grabbed a fresh sheet of paper. “Oh, I’ll wipe the smile right off your face! On this next drawing. With you drowning in the ocean. I’ll lock you up in prison next, and then get you skewered with a sword.”

The cat at least looked properly miserable in the next few versions.

“Not bad,” the Dreaded One growled, looking them over. “But I still think I’ll stick to writing next time.”

Sasha behind bars 001

Exploring the Willamette Valley: Minto-Brown Island Park

Minto 3I have neglected walking for the last couple of months. It’s been on my list of things to get better about (along with a cleaner kitchen) and this week I finally dragged myself out first thing Monday morning to explore a new park. Ironically, then the blog post didn’t end up happening until today, but hey, I’m walking again.

I went to explore Minto-Brown Island Park, located in south Salem off of River Road. The park is the largest one I know of in the Salem area, although I haven’t been in years. Despite the name, Minto is not actually an island, something that I’ve always rolled my eyes about. However, upon arriving there, I found a sign patiently explaining it’s called that because it used to be an island, or actually two islands, one named Minto and one named Brown after the people who settled them. Over the years, less rainfall and the shifting river-bed has meant that neither are true islands anymore, although in a large flood they might end up underwater. Originally used for farmland, the land is now  a wild-life refuge.Minto 4

I had vague memories of Minto last time I lived in Salem, but it’d be so long I wasn’t sure what to expect. Apparently this time of year, the park tends to be misty in the mornings. Both Monday and Tuesday had it covered in thick mists that obscured the view across the open fields, but this did nothing to diminish the walk. Instead it felt a bit like entering a fantasy world. The larger size of the park meant I could finally take a walk that really felt I was out in nature, even if it lacked the stunning beauty of the gorge. I had a fabulous time.

Minto 2

Much of the Willamette Valley is rather swampy, and Minto is no exception. With streams, ponds, and rather boggy areas, I quickly found this time of year at least, to stay to the paved paths. Fortunately Minto has plenty of long paved hikes even if there’s more unpaved ones. I only walked a fraction of the paved section. The mist though made for some pretty effects with the light and while popular enough for hiking and running (I saw several people) it isn’t nearly as crowded as Riverfront.

The land seemed to alternate between fields and trees planted in rows, but whatever environmental restoration they’ve been working on, it seems to be working. I saw several hawks and even a bald eagle. Hopefully I will continue to see interesting  wildlife as I continue, although I hope not too interesting (there was a cougar sighting warning sign on the entrance bulletin board, but that’s normal for just about everywhere in rural Oregon). It was wonderful to be out in nature properly without having to drive very far.Minto 5

On thing that amused me though, was the mist and my unfamiliarity with the park meant I misread the sign on Monday and got a bi t lost as the trails are rather long and cross each other multiple times without clear signage, but  I didn’t mind since I knew I could always turn around, and managed to find my way around a loop to the parking lot with only a small amount of backtracking. I’ve had better success reading the sign the last two days, and I’m looking forward to trying some of the other loops. The park has so many different loops and it will be a long time before I’ve exhausted all the trails.Minto 6

Five Thoughts on Critiques

stockvault-notebook-and-pen136687Once my aunt asked me with novel writing if there’s some hard and fast objective way to tell if you as a writer are “good” or have “reached a professional level” before submitting to publishers. I had to answer that honestly I didn’t think there was, because writing, as an artform, is one of those nebulous things where what is “good” writing and what is “bad” is always going to be debated, even among professionals. It doesn’t mean there isn’t that line somewhere between brilliant and utter garbage, it’s just everyone’s going to have a different opinion about where various books lie along it.

She was a bit dismayed when I was trying to explain that the main way most writers improve and judge their writing is through peer critiques (sometimes professional paid critiques, but there are no standards for becoming one so I feel they often come out the same). Basically you’re asking someone else’s subjective opinion on your writing. No matter how many degrees they have or books they’ve published, ultimately they could still be wrong and completely miss the genius of your idea. Yet, on the other hand, if you completely ignore everyone’s advice you’ll never improve as an author. You’ll be ignoring important suggestions that can actually improve your writing. As the author, sometimes you’re just too close to your work to see your own flaws.

I’ve found five rules for myself to help me balance keeping my vision for my writing with accepting and using critiques.

1) Ask for a wide range of feedback 

There’s a lot of readers out there, and a broad range overall opinions about a story in revision can be extremely valuable. Perhaps most of the feedback won’t actually be helpful, but it will highlight the range of reactions the final book will get. Try to get some target readers who are into the genre that the book fits into as well. For me, that means children, since I write children’s fiction. While these readers won’t be able to offer me line edits or detailed feedback, knowing when they get confused or bored while reading is invaluable. I also need feedback from parents and teachers, since those are the people who buy the book ultimately. Pretty much, I’ve found a reader reaction from anyone, even if I don’t use any of their suggestions, is valuable, because it gives me a greater perspective on my work.

2) Always give a positive thank you, even if the crit is pretty much useless

This person took the time to read your writing. It’s a gift and the professional thing is to say thank you. If the person offered something you found helpful, list what it was specifically and the thank you will mean more to them. What if the crit was rude or demeaning or the person was lazy and only read a couple of paragraphs before telling you how horrible they thought they were? Well, there’s no need to be enthusiastic I suppose in that case, but I still think a thank you is in order, even if it’s a one sentence email that says: Thank you for taking the time to read part of my story.

First, why sink to their level. Take the moral high ground and thank everyone. Secondly, it’ll effect your reputation and professionalism as an author if you get into arguments with people who read your work. You don’t have to ever ask that person again to read your writing, you can just move on. Obviously if a crit makes you too furious to say thank you, it’s better to say nothing than get in a fight, but in general it’s best to manage at least a polite sentence. It’s also better not to mention if you ultimately decide to disregard the person’s advice entirely. You’re going to ignore a lot of advice that’s not right for you and your story, but there’s no reason to rub it in people’s faces. It’s ultimately your work and the critiquer ought to know that, but no reason to stir things up unless you’re genuinely asking them to further explain their suggestions.

Furthermore, I believe in thanking paid editors as well. Yes, I’ve hired them for a service, but editing means putting a lot of thought and soul into making suggestions and these people work very hard for us. Even in that case while I might debate an issue with a paid editor to try to explain what I’m doing better so the person can fit their suggestions to it, a big thank you for their hard work is the right thing to do along with paying the bill. If a paid editor really doesn’t see the vision of a story correctly, then you thank them (and of course pay them) for their time anyway and find a different editor for the story, but there’s no reason you can’t be professional about it.

3) Keep the heart of your story in mind while looking at critiques

The biggest danger of taking advice from others is that sometimes your unique intention for a story can get buried. So, before looking at critiques I find it best to either list or at the very least make clear in my mind what’s most important about the story to me. What am I saying ultimately? What are my major themes? What is my character arc? What aspects of my world are non-negotiable to me? What is my voice/tone for the story?  This helps me to recognize which advice might strengthen those aspects and which while perfectly fine for someone else’s story, doesn’t fit mine.

Sometimes hard critique comments create quite a big inner debate. When half my readers found my main character unlikable in one of my books, I really had to take a long difficult look at what aspects of my main character’s personality were important to me. Was what was making her unlikable so important to me that I had  to keep it? I ended up keeping some of her personality traits but changing others in order to create a character more people could relate to, but still one who kept my central vision of her internal journey across the book.

4) Lean on a few people who really understand the vision/heart of the story

Once I have a wide range of feedback, I often turn to just a few people who gave me the advice that felt best for further critiques on the novel. A story will naturally resonate with some people over others and when I can see a critiquer really understood my story, that leads me to turn to them again with revisions, if they’re interested. Once I’ve gotten a wide view of opinions, I find no more than 3-5 beta readers is usually best for honing late stages of revision. Too many opinions later on tends to muddy both my focus and that of the book. I know some people use that same group of people and only that same group for all their novels, but I’ve found each book finds its own group of core people who love it in particular and that’s not always the same people.

5) Critique other people and give the sort of critiques you want to receive

I feel like giving critiques has been as important to me as receiving them. For one thing, this is the best and biggest thank you that you can give other writers when they critique your work–returning the favor. Second, you have more distance from other people’s work. By articulating what works and doesn’t work for you in someone else’s work helps you later recognize what works and doesn’t work in your own. I’ve learned a great deal about revision through critiquing other people’s work. It also helps you learn to be diplomatic when explaining what you feel doesn’t work in a way that’s helpful and constructive, so you can better understand how to take criticism when you receive it.

I feel as a published author now, critiques are just as important to me as when I was first starting. Perhaps writing isn’t a peer reviewed, bar exam sort of profession, but I do feel critiques ground and clarify my work and allow me to reach my full potential as an author.

The Dreaded New Year

I’m excited for 2014 and brand new goals and resolutions, but I have so much I want to accomplish, there is a bit of dread involved as well. Still, why not be ambitious and shoot large, right?  Reading about goal-making, I’ve read over and over again to be specific in my goals and to give them a deadline/date, so I’ve decided to stagger my resolutions with dates throughout the year, roughly in the order of when they should be accomplished by. Here’s hoping I can make all of  these come true on time!

Submit to Amazon’s contest (if they have it) or find a different one if they don’t:

I’ve submitted to the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award for the past 3 years and I’m hoping to take another shot at it this year. I’ve enjoyed the excitement, the reviews from top reviewers, and one year a scathing Publishers Weekly review that taught me to stand up to the critics. It’s got a great creative energy and I’m hoping they’ll hold the contest again. Usually the deadline is in January, but there’s still no word, so I’ll wait and see.

My thought is contests force me to make deadlines, to experiment with things I normally wouldn’t, and potentially get me exposure and reviews as an author, so I’d like to enter at least one contest this year. If for some reason the ABNA doesn’t happen (which would be sad, it’s a great contest) I’m going to try to find another one to try.

Calico Avengers (blog)Publish Captain Pit Bull and the Calico Avengers  on Feb 14th:

What goes better with Valentine’s Day than dog pirates and avenging former cat slaves? Honestly! No mushy-mush stuff for me. I want swashbuckling excitement and lovable animal characters. I’m hoping to finish the art and get the book formatted in time for furry fans everywhere to enjoy it.

I originally planned to publish this short chapter book last year, but time restrictions and other projects, as well as that blank page, conspired to make me unable to finish the art in time. But I really want to get it out soon this year, so full speed ahead!

Attends a couple of local writer’s conferences this spring/summer and pitch to agents and editors in person:

While I love indie-publishing I’d like to both improve my public speaking skills and be in the running for some literary awards for Children’s Literature someday. I want to make a significant contribution to the field with my novels, to really inspire children and adults and tackle important issues while telling awesome stories. Winning an award in my mind would tell me that I’m well on the way to doing just that. So, to accomplish that sort of goal, I’ll need a major publisher for those works.

My Dark Lord Academy series was rejected originally because it’s satire and for a niche market rather than one that agents felt could be wide-spread. I can still reach that niche market with indie publishing, but I’d still like to prove my literary chops with a serious work, and so learning to pitch in public will help me learn that. That means madly working on a novel to pitch, joining some great local agencies, like the local SCBWI chapter, and going to conferences! I’m scared and excited. The novel I’ve picked for this is a high fantasy YA novel: Dragon Boy.

ch3_goblingatekeepers_webPublish Much Ado About Villains on May 15th:

All those who have been pining away for a sequel, take heart! I’m working on it madly. A May deadline might be too tight for me, but I’m really hoping I will make this the release date for the dreaded sequel. I’m deep in revisions now, with the book up in my critique group (Critique Circle) and I’m hoping to iron out all the problems I’m having with especially the beginning, and get it off to an editor in March.

Launch a Dark Lord Academy website by Oct. 31st:

I’d really like my series to have a snazzy website where fans can get series info, character sketches, and other fun things. I’m not sure what all it should have, and I have no experience whatsoever in designing a webpage (my friend Wulfie from my critique group did this one) but I think I’m up to the challenge. It’ll be learning something completely new and I at least have relatives in web-design who can help guide me in the right direction with this. As my first book was originally a Halloween release, it seems a great idea to shoot for the website by next Halloween, leaving me free for Nanowrimo. I have no idea what I’ll write next Nano, but hey, I can decide that when I get there.  I think I’ve put enough on my plate for now.

I want to wish everyone else success in your own New Years goals, and feel free to link me in a comment to your own post if you’re doing one! We can cheer each other on.

 

 

The Blank Page

Calico PatrickI recall sometime in grade school, the local children’s author Eloise McGraw came to our school for a reading. To encourage reading, the librarian put all the library’s full collection of her books on a month-long display. Interested by the presentation, I tried not her award winning Egypt book, but a different one that caught my eye “Master Cornhill.” It was a rather involved English historical fiction novel about an orphan finding his place in society in the framework of one of the great London fires. An unlikely read for a girl of ten or eleven, but I enjoyed in none-the-less.

An unlikely image from late in the book has stayed with me my whole life. The boy finds an unlikely friend and master in a Dutch mapmaker, who at one point the book hands the MC a paintbrush and pot of blue pain and points to the map he’s about to start and suggests the MC makes the first stroke. Faced with the beautiful blank page, the MC is suddenly terrified. What if his stroke is wrong? What if he ruins the either piece of precious (and expensive paper)? And yet, there is the master, watching, waiting, and he also dares not disobey and so conquers his fear and makes lone long blue stroke across the page.

Good, the master tells him, I did not know until this moment if you had in you what it takes to become an artist. It takes making that first stroke. And if I had ruined the page, asks the boy. Then you would have ruined it, but that’s a risk that has to be taken, because if the page remains blank, you will never be artist… so something like that.

I don’t own the book, shockingly. I have only my memory, the quiet English room on the bridge of London, the white-haired Dutch master, the blond haired young boy, the white of the paper, and that one lone blue stroke. As if I was standing there myself. I suppose considering the vividness of the image I don’t really need McGraw’s book after all, do I?

It’s easy to forget now that I’m a published author that I started out as a visual artist as a child. I’ve long overcome the fear of the word processor page, dingier than a piece of art paper as my laptop screen is smudged and dusty, only hastily wiped off as I focus on churning out the words. It’s easy to forget that just because I have conquered this page does not mean that piece of paper waiting for me will easy to face.

For the past three months I’ve officially been planning to illustrate one of my own books. But the blank page has been winning. I haven’t drawn in I don’t know how long and somewhere in those years, the terror has returned. And so, when I sit down to write and think of the illustration project yet again, I take a deep breath and call to mind that English room, the London bridge, the white-haired map maker.

“Here,” he says, offering me a pencil, freshly sharpened. “You make the first line.”

The infinite white page spreads out and my small hands shake, the world spins, but then rights itself as I reach out and draw a long confident line across the page. This time I will not forget—I am an artist.

The Writing Life: What Nine Years of Nano has Taught Me

2013-WinnerOkay, so I didn’t mean to disappear on the blog for a month, but as many of you know, I do Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month) every November. The challenge, for any of you who have yet to hear about Nanowrimo, is to write 50,000 words in 30 days.  Some people worry that it produces a lot of bad, haphazard writing, which I can’t deny, but it’s also produced a lot of brilliant writing as well. The best part is the camaraderie and meeting up with people during the month for word sprints, parties, and generally having lots of people to discuss the joys and frustrations of writing with. I always enjoy ending off the year with Nanowrimo. My first year I’d never finished a book before. I wanted to find the courage and willpower to write a complete finished novel. I found all that and more. However, writing my ninth Nanowrimo was vastly different than writing my first. I’ve learned a lot these nine years, and I keep learning new things. Here’s a few of them:

I really can do it.

I was unsure of myself the first couple of years, afraid I wouldn’t make it. After nine years it’s pretty obvious I can write 50k in a month. It’s even pretty obvious I can write 100k in a month as I did two novels some years. 150k however was a fail. I think my best has been 120k. Knowing I can make it, that when I’m really motivated I can crank out words, means that now I focus on what kind of writing I want to get. Do I want a solid first draft of something? Do I want to have a bunch of fun writing a silly or personal project? Do I want to freewrite my way through exploring and fleshing out a new idea for development? My third nano novel sold after only minor revisions, while my sixth was a completely mess of fragmented scenes that kept contradicting each other as I tried to figure out where the story was headed. Self doubts plague me when submitting a novel places that it isn’t ready or as good as I believe it is, but drafting a novel isn’t about the doubts. It’s about sitting down and doing the hard work of writing.

Resistance has meaning.

This little saying was something I first read in “Writing on Both Sides of the Brain” and Nano has taught me it’s very true. Every year is different in how “easy” or “hard” Nanowrimo is. There doesn’t seem to be any way to tell ahead of time which books will practically write themselves and which will be like pulling teeth. Sometimes I breeze through it. Sometimes every word is written in blood. Sometimes a few scenes flow and others are awful. Sometimes it’s so bad I have to give up and switch projects. The first couple times the novel turned out hard I got angry and tried to force it out. I almost no prewriting on my second Nano book and the idea was only a month old, and yet it wrote itself rather quickly (never mind I thought it was awful by the time I got through it). So why weren’t these other ideas moving?

Fighting resistance never worked though. I had to learn to read it. Sometimes it meant the event I was trying to make happen wasn’t right, or that something earlier in the book needed restructuring. Sometimes it meant I was too stressed about real life, and needed to solve other problems before I could clear up my mind to be creative. Sometimes it meant I needed to delve deeper into world building or characterization that needed further development. And yes, sometimes it meant I was writing the wrong project entirely and needed to switch. Each novel has to be taken where its at when it comes to a screeching halt and the question asked, why? What’s stopping me from writing the next scene? Once I find the answer to that, things will flow again.

Distance provides perspective.

When writing slowly it’s tempting to keep agonizing over each bit of a story and worry about how good or bad it is. During Nano, when every word is needed for that word count there’s nothing to do but keep onward. Or if I rewrite a scene, I keep both versions in the document rather than take the hit to my word count. Every year about the fourth week of Nano, like clockwork, I detest the project. I decide it’s truly awful and nothing I’ve written is worth anything, but force myself to get quota anyway. Then as soon as I win, I drop it and swear I’m never looking at that piece of garbage again.

Later when I reread it, a month or two or even a year after Nano, I’m surprised to discover each time I was overly harsh. That while its not perfect, there’s some good stuff in there. Because of Nano I’ve written several books I was convinced were horrible, books I might have otherwise left unfinished or unwritten. My second Nano book which I think I hated the most is the book my critique partners tend to mention the most as their favorite of my books. I’ve learned to be fond of it and certainly would never call it awful now, even if I still do think its a bit sentimental of a story.

Interacting with other writers is important to me.

Writing is often a very solitary pursuit.  I had a couple small critique groups online before I tried Nanowrimo (that’s where I heard about it) but I’d never had the pleasure of meeting other writers in person. I was the only person I knew at that time in my regular life who was trying to be a writer.  My first time at a Nano gathering, I met a whole room full of writers. We talk about our ideas, our love of writing, and I was totally hooked. Meeting other writers is fantastic. I didn’t keep in touch with any of them, but I have gone to Nano meet-ups ever since and enjoyed them fully. I’ve also expanded how I interact with other writers online, and now most of the year writing is a community activity for me. I race with writing partners almost daily, while I have other critique partners that I exchange books with several times a year. Many of my real life friends I made through writing and we get together to either brainstorm plot trade work. There’s a real synergy that happens when working with other people that brings everyone’s projects, no matter what stage they’re in, to a higher level. I can’t imagine to going back to writing and editing alone.

So, as Nanowrimo has drawn to a close, with yet another year, I’ve locked up my “awful” attempt at something new and creative to incubate, plan my party with the great group of writers I’ve met this month in Salem, and lay out my list of project for the new year with renewed vigor. I think editing last year’s nano (Much Ado About Villains) moves to the top of the list. After all, there’s a lot of good stuff in here.

From the Dreaded One’s Desk: Conquering the Evil Cold

Dreaded OneDeep in the Slough of Despair the Dreaded Author had succumbed to some evil symptoms.  A sore throat and stuffy nose.  She moaned, rolling over in her Nest of Doom.  “I have too much to do to be sick! I have sentences to cut. Characters to torture! Evil scenes to rewrite! Nanowrimo to plan for! It’s starting tomorrow. Nooooo!”

The silence was overwhelming, and the Dreaded One felt distinctly sorry for herself, abandoned by even the minions among piles of junk she was now to sick to do anything about.

“I have a suggestion,” a soft whispering voice said.

“Who are you?” The Dreaded Author said, whirling around, an action she quickly regretted and clamped a Kleenex to her runny nose.

“Let’s call me the Natural Health Minion.”  The little goblin-like creature, bald-headed and bearded, like a miniture evil Dr. Weil poked its head up over the edge of the couch. “Natural Health can make you better faster. Get you back on track.”

“Okay, fine.” The Dreaded One was too desperate to question it really. And what harm could it? Everything was already terrible.

“First, a day of rest! No mental activity. Period. No writing. No potting those plants you just bought. No puzzles. And NO majong solitare on the Dreaded Husband’s computer while he’s at work!”

“But I can’t just stare into space! And I things to do!” The Dreaded One couldn’t think of a more awful suggestion.

“No work!”

“What about reading? Reading isn’t work.”

“Is so. You should sleep.”

The Dreaded One growled. “I can’t nap to save my life, and you know it. Reading in bed as as mental free as I can manage. Or possibly internet videos.”

“Internet Videos are better than reading.”

The Dreaded One privately wondered if the minion was actually interested in rotting out her brain, but wasn’t going to argue. “Fine.”

“Next! No eating. Fasting helps you get better faster.”

“What?!” roared the Dreaded One. “I hate fasting! I feel awful when I fast.”

“You already feel awful.”

The Dreaded One was stymied for an answer.

“Finally, gargle salt water. Then heat a pot of water, put a towel over your head and lean over the pot and breathe steam for ten minutes.”

That at least was finally sounding sensible. Muttering darkly the Dreaded Author got up and went do that, and felt considerable better. Not eating bothered her, but for the sake of getting well, well, it was work a try. So the she settled down in a pile of trash for reading some books and watching some stupid videos. Hours later the Dreaded One paused to realize she had a splitting headache and was starving. “For get this! I feel terrible and I’m starving!” Ignoring the protests of the lone Natural Health Minion, the Dreaded One stormed off to the store, bought a decongestant, and ate lunch.

Within minutes she was crippled by nausea. “How can I be hungry and nauseated at the same time?” moaned the Dreaded One flopping back on the couch with a Kleenex box clutched tightly in her claws. Suddenly staring at the ceiling doing nothing but not throwing up sounded like a great idea.

“Told you so.” The Natural Health minion sniggered.

The Dreaded One threw a used Kleenex at it and it scurried away. And everything blurred into a sick haze of miserableness…

Three days later the Dreaded One woke feeling reasonably well.  Glancing around the dirty Kleenex-strewn Slough of Despair, she felt a sudden urge to pick things up, take a shower, and go torture some characters and get that word count up. But first, after a nice big meal. “You know, maybe this Natural Medicine thing wasn’t so bad,” she muttered, getting up, even able to breathe through her nose.

The Natural Health Minion poked its head up from behind the garbage can, just out of reach of the couch. “Which is why you need to rest another few days!”

“Bah! Forget that! I’m having lunch, and you are it!” With a snarl the Dreaded One pounced.

The Natural Health Minion ran from the slough screaming.

Grinning evilly the Dreaded One headed to the fridge. “I declair myself well! Nano here I come!”