Wednesday, June 29, 2005

I love my readers

They are just such a great bunch of people. Their critiques run the gamut from necessary nitpicks to pointing out near-fatal flaws in my fiction. They're making the novel a stronger work, and me a stronger writer. Recently, two of them bore this out in a way I never would have expected.

It started with one reader's concern that two characters, a police officer and his teacher wife, were overreacting to behavior by one of the wife's special ed students. They (I) called it stalking, but my reader rightly pointed out that I hadn't provided enough information about the girl to warrant this.

My husband taught special ed for four years, and I worked as a substitute aide for three weeks in place of an aide who had left early for college. I knew enough about the various disorders that I could fill in the blanks about the girl with enough research, and it wasn't long before I came up with a name for her problem: attachment disorder.

My reader liked the way I reconstructed the conversation around this disorder, and better yet, it led to a new scene between the two characters, one that highlighted their fundamental conflict. A new problem, however, surfaced, but it wasn't with the novel. Owing to my research, I started reading way too much into my toddler's fickle behavior with me: for instance, the way he doesn't react when I leave the house or spend a lot of time enjoying my return home.

It wasn't that I didn't recognize his behavior is perfectly normal for a toddler. It was thinking about the difficulty I've had learning how to parent him: how angry and distanced from him I felt when he had reflux and cried all the time between the ages of 6 weeks and 4 months, and how interacting with him still doesn't come easily. Before he could crawl I put him in his playdome while I worked. I cannot for the life of me figure out how to play with him for extended periods of time. He's a bit too young for Pretend, and I don't know of any construction zones nearby. I was also remembering my most recent conflicts with work and child care, which I still think hurt him.

In short, it was unadulterated guilt. And that's where the second reader comes in. She prefers to do her critiques on hardcopy and send me a couple of chapters at a time. Yesterday's package included (along with some much-needed dark chocolate) a new book: How She Really Does It, by Wendy Sachs.

Sure, I thought, glancing at the jacket, this is about Stay-at-Work moms. How does this relate to me? But I don't do enough reading, so I decided to read it anyway. Before long, I found that 1) the guilt I feel is just the same as other moms who feel compelled to work, even if they enjoy the office environment. That 2) the compulsion is normal. And 3) Sachs herself had been through the anger and resentment problem when her son experienced colic. Suddenly, I felt the return of my confidence in my career choices and in my son's resilience (something I feel should never be depended upon, but which does deserve plenty of credence).

I love my readers. Friends aren't a phenomenon I've known well in my lifetime, but my experience with this novel is quickly changing that. I am so blessed.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Any feminists out there?

It could be that I'm missing the point. All in good fun, right? I've been accused of a lack of sense of humor before. And of being too rigid. After all, reading (much less writing) isn't everyone's idea of fun. Not to mention that I, unlike many other American women, refuse to watch what a friend called "Angry Housewives" (heeheehee), engage in shopping (beyond necessary) and hair salon gossip sessions, or read chick lit. (Yes, I do subscribe to blogs maintained by chick lit writers, but only to learn about publishing and marketing. The genre itself is just not interesting to me.)

Anyway, I just can't help wondering whether women couldn't have found a better activity. I've read that modern feminism only means we have more and better choices. We don't have to be or do anything we don't want.

So I guess this means we're confident that men will be able to judge us on our merits alone, that our sons will respect our authority no matter what we choose for fun. Or could it be that the estrogenized version of BattleBots means women no longer care what men (or anyone else) think?

All except the au pair and the bathrobe

Harley Jane Kozak wrote over on The Lipstick Chronicles about her writing life, which had me laughing and nodding and ultimately so happy to see other writer parents (plural includes at least one of her comments) blog about working around family. Although I try to wear real clothes instead of PJs and bathrobes while I work, and The Grandmas' visits are not nearly as frequent (or as distraction-free) as an au pair's would be, I could pretty much relate to everything else Harley talked about. Including hiding in a bathroom to write. (I was trying to escape my husband's boisterous relatives and their obnoxious political arguments that no one ever wins, hard as they try.)

Oh, but there's one other thing I don't relate to: three pages a day. Nope, it sounds terrible, but I don't even keep track. I pretty much work until I feel sated. Sometimes I go to bed hungry (read: got at most a paragraph for the day) but at least at this stage of my career, all I want is to finish a really good story. Until I figure out a process, per-day page goals would probably hurt me. But then, it took Harley eight years to finish her first novel, too. I guess I'm in good company.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

But the house was so quiet...

About ten minutes after the husband and son left the house on Saturday, I sat at my desk with pen in hand (I rewrite in pen, then add in changes) wondering why the words were still not coming.

The house was too quiet.

I just can't win. I need my family around in order to tap into that energy, the little day-to-day conflicts that remind me what my characters face. Too many little conflicts (and too much PBS children's TV - ever tried to concentrate with squeaky little voices and obnoxious music in the background? Or when you are trying to drown out said distractions with headphones and music, only to have your music turn into a distraction?) means work comes as tough as it does in absolute quiet. Much as I love the idea of a week spent in an island cabin or a writers' commune, I know it would kill the creativity.

When I find the solution, I'll be sure to post it. Meantime, that's what readers are for: finding the breaks in fictional logic that indicate obnoxious music was heard here.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

He did it!

My husband took the boy out of the house.

And not just any outside playtime, either.

He took him on a trip.

Where? Who cares? I might have to stop complaining about the fact that everything in Maine is at least half an hour away and often more like one hour. That means a two-hour travel time, not counting the time they spend wherever they're going.

Oh frabjous day!

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Some things are worse

I'm making a resolution. I am going to work much harder at not whining so much about having no time or space or quiet in which to work. I'm doing this for two reasons:

1. Tamara Jones' #9 on her list of Don'ts. (I asked her to talk more about how she accomplishes this. Giving up features was only part of the solution.)

2. Gastroenteritis.

Without going into too much detail, I was absolutely flattened yesterday. My mother didn't see the worst. I can't figure out if it was a bad taco (in which case my husband should have been affected as well) or a swimming pool with a low pH (HOAs are overrated). By lunchtime I was on the phone to my husband, begging him to come home early. Not only was I totally uninterested in writing, but the idea of feeding our boy (and the body aches, and the chills, and the desire to do nothing but sleep) left me curled up on the couch with my eyes shut tight.

During the hour I waited (it's finals week, so he couldn't leave right away), I managed to get the boy a Pop-Tart. They don't smell, after all, even when a toddler who recognizes that Mommy hasn't eaten all day tries to get her to eat some. But God bless the kid. I was so afraid he'd take advantage of my situation and get himself or my manuscript hurt. He totally didn't. He came up on the couch and snuggled with me. He showed me the pictures in his books. He didn't climb on a single piece of furniture other than the couch. Later on, at bedtime, when his insecurity about my health got the better of him, we snuggled in front of a baseball game together.

Before I got sick, I was going to write an entry about how I had proof that the past week's schedule was messing me up: my readers are seeing problems in Chapter 7 that I knew were there but couldn't pinpoint enough to fix. I was going to write about the irony in how the same life event that had given my fiction a soul - having a child - was now muddying my vision of that soul. In short, more whining.

I've now been reminded of how temporary so many things are. Stomach bugs and writer's block and families too. I don't want to say I was forced not to write for a day, because I don't feel that I was. Rather, as Tamara said, we're all in it together. My boy showed me that when he did his very best to help his Mommy feel better, and when he asked me to return his gestures later that evening.

I'd like to think we can help each other over the writing humps, too.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

I just want to write

... is that so wrong?

Bow to Jon Lovitz and Harvey Fierstein aside, what I'm actually doing this morning is meeting the desires of 76.22% of Carter Nipper's survey respondents, who believe it's "Very Important" for a blogging writer to be candid and honest. (Want the rest of the very interesting results? Click here.)

Sadly, when writers also have small children at home, the type of schedule outlined in this article Just Doesn't Work. Witness this morning. Normally I try to write between 6-ish and 8-ish before the boy gets up for the day, then again between 11-ish and 2-ish when he naps. (Not that he naps for three hours. I admit to milking his willingness to entertain himself in his crib for the hour to hour-and-a-half-ish that he isn't sleeping.) The morning time is used for fiction. The afternoon time is used for paid work, or fiction if I have a really good groove going from the morning.

The last week blew all that out of the water. It felt like early August, with temps in the high 80's and 99% humidity. The upstairs is stifling. No a/c except downstairs where the computer is. Needless to say, the boy wouldn't sleep. He was waking up early and not napping at all. And his father had after-school duty all week long. I did more child care in one week than, when I was younger, I had ever been scared of.

This morning: The Thunderstorm. At 5:30. 5:30. Who gets a thunderstorm at 5:30? Well, we did. Our son, the Lightest Sleeper on the Planet, jumped right up. I tried to bring him into bed with me. Instead he played the Face Game. "Mommy's ears... Mommy's nose... Mommy's chin..." So I brought him downstairs. Rather than write peacefully, I soon found myself trying to pull together a pretend amusement park game with his Little People set. It was too hot for my normal morning tea, so no caffeine. I got about as far as putting the Little People into the rides when my son decided my mumblings were just no fun at all. He was off pulling all his other toys out of his bin.

At breakfast I did get the Pickiest Eater on the Planet to eat some cantaloupe for the first time ever. He also ate some cereal, which he first accidentally spilled, then dropped on purpose right after I'd finished cleaning the spill. Then I thought I could get away with letting him use pens while I did some rewriting. He wanted to get down instead, so he could squish a tiny spider crawling on the floor. Boys.

And - get this - it was only 7:30.

I would love to see how "Peter D." would revise his writing schedule under these conditions. Meantime, I am faced with my husband's impending 10-week vacation. No more alarm to wake me up at 6 to write for those two precious hours. More triple-H days of no napping (even if we did get an a/c, you see, the boy would be too distracted by the so-called "white noise," which is what happened right before the window fan broke). And I just know my husband, despite his claims to let me focus on my novel, will have plenty of his own projects to take care of over the next 10 weeks.

To be candid and honest, writing with a toddler at home? Is pure insanity. But then, so is writing for a living. I guess there's a compatibility in there somewhere. Meantime, my son did allow me to finish up this entry uninterrupted for the most part. There is hope.

Monday, June 13, 2005

The 5 best mistakes I ever made

Holly asked this question over a week ago, and I've been thinking about it ever since. In a more or less even flow of time:

1) Blowing off ROTC fitness requirements.

I was so focused on the end - the law enforcement career in the Air Force Office of Special Investigations - that I just assumed fitting in the means would be easy. Largely because I was a pretty fit kid, biking and swimming, I thought running would come as naturally as the other sports I enjoyed. I didn't start training until after I was already in ROTC, not before, as many other cadets had done. Reality soon caught up. The more fitness tests I failed, the harder I trained to catch up. The training resulted in shinsplints (and later on, knee problems) that wouldn't heal, and I was discharged. (At least it was honorable.)

Had things worked out the way I thought they would, or if I'd started earlier, sure I might have that career. And I'd probably be miserable. I wouldn't have my husband or my son, and I probably wouldn't be writing. Instead I'd be forced into the Team Player paradigm:

2) Not trying harder to be a Team Player.

I can't ever think of a time when I made even an adequate Team Player. I couldn't even get peer pressure right, let alone gym class. By high school, even though I was a Junior ROTC and police cadet, I was still pretty much doing my own thing. I just didn't realize it until the Darwinian environment of college ROTC showed me just how much of a Not!Team Player I was. Even then, I was convinced it was only the military. I then got a job in computer services. I think I figured that field was sure to be populated with other antisocial geeks like me. I found a few, but they hated office politics as much as I did. It was then that I realized: despite what virtually everyone else had told me over the years, sometimes you just can't try harder. Sometimes you just are who you are.

That was when I turned to freelancing. Sometimes I catch myself wishing I'd taken creative writing or even journalism courses, but the truth is, you have to be a Team Player to succeed there too.

3) Being stubborn about staying with my ex-boyfriend.

My mother thinks I was rebelling against her. In truth, I just wanted to make something work. I got with my ex just after getting kicked out of ROTC, I had no friends, wasn't writing, and was desperately lonely. Not only was someone else paying attention to me, but it was a guy. And he was cute! And not married or perverted! Even after his parents, evangelical Christians of the fascist persuasion, sounded the death knell for our relationship, I was determined to make it work. My own parents were in an interfaith marriage; why not me too?

I was so determined to make this happen, so convinced I'd never find anyone else again, that I failed to see what I was becoming until very shortly before we broke up: a bitch, a nag, a control freak. My dark side was in full force. I had just about decided to break up with the guy (because it was all his fault, of course) when he broke up with me. How dare he? I deserved the breakup power! Me! He stole it!

Yeah, if I'd split with him early on, I never would've seen what I was capable of. I'm much more even-tempered now. Except when sources don't want to talk to me.

4) Listening to those who said writing would never work as a career.

If I hadn't listened, if I'd started submitting novels and short stories at the age of 12, knowing who I was then, I would've been crushed by rejection and never written a word again. If I hadn't listened, I'd have missed out on all the Real World experiences that groomed my ambition to make writing work. Thanks to everyone who said I couldn't do it. I've done it.

5) Cutting back on paid work.

I'm making this mistake right now. What am I thinking? I'd love to finish our basement, have a beautiful yard, actually be able to put something into our retirement accounts and the boy's college fund.

I'm thinking the paying stuff is burning me out, I've been working on this novel for over 10 years, and if I don't finish it then I'll never get to my other fiction. I'm thinking much of my energy is being channeled toward other people, and doing this work for myself is the only way I'll be able to replenish my resources for them. I'm thinking I turned 30 this year and I don't want to be washed up in 20 years wondering whatever happened to those dreams.

Thanks for the question, Holly!

Monday, June 06, 2005

Pure fluff

In honor of the fact that over the last month, I've been avoiding anything that even remotely looks like responsibility (including regular blog entries), I'm posting a "fluff" entry as a way back to the blog.

I made a soundtrack for my novel.

This is a project that actually started about five years ago, when I was driving. A song came on the radio, and I was struck by how closely the lyrics fit the novel I'd been trying to get going for the five years previously. The song was "Where Did You Sleep Last Night," Nirvana's unplugged version of Leadbelly's classic. I even used a phrase from the song - "where the cold wind blows" - as the novel's working title, before deciding it was too generic.

From there, other songs surfaced over the years that seemed to fit. These included Metallica's "The Unforgiven" and a triple whammy from Tom Waits: "Georgia Lee," "Murder in the Red Barn," and most recently, "Don't Go into that Barn." Finally noticing The Smithereens' lyrics for "Blood and Roses" was what made me decide to make the soundtrack, and I was off and running for other songs that fit.

In order of where they fit in the novel:

Where Did You Sleep Last Night - Nirvana
The Unforgiven II - Metallica
The Ties that Bind - Bruce Springsteen
#1 Crush - Garbage
Jeremy - Pearl Jam
Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own - U2
Georgia Lee - Tom Waits
Fear - Sarah McLachlan
I Walk Alone - Los Lobos
Wish You Were Here - Pink Floyd
The Unforgiven - Metallica
Don't Go into that Barn - Tom Waits
Murder in the Red Barn - Tom Waits
Blood and Roses - The Smithereens

I'm planning on listening to it as I complete this last edit before submission. Inspiration, and all.

Anyone else make soundtracks for their fiction?