A Pandemic, Distance Learning, Natural Disasters, and Stories

storm bird

 

If you’re a writer and having a hard time focusing on your story, it’s not surprising. As hard as I try to impose order on my daily life, personal plot twists keep popping up to thwart my efforts. But don’t worry—this is not one of those “doom and gloom” posts that no one wants to read. Instead, this is about how stories emerge despite the chaos around us.

Stories want to live, too. Even if our minds are swirling like hurricanes (hopefully not as we’re boarding up our windows), we can’t help creating a narrative. As we go about our normal lives, which now includes teaching to a screen several hours a day, a story begins impose itself over our concerns. A character emerges, braver than us, who faces our same problems but in space. Or in a world of magic. Or sometime long ago before Google Meets.

Soon other characters rise up to aid our main character’s quest to save their world and right its wrongs. Quirky friends that illuminate the main character’s strengths and weaknesses. Maybe even a potential romance, although our hero really doesn’t have time for that right now.

Just like us in the real world, our main character, who now calls herself Raylene, tries lots of different strategies to solve her problems, only to be stopped at every turn. Fortunately, she doesn’t have to deal with lagging internet connections. It’s the antagonist who has shown up, just to make things more difficult. The villain is product of our nightmares, armed with complete knowledge of her fears. We’re not sure how to help our hero because her paralyzing fears belong to us.

We could remain stuck like that forever, but Raylene has her own Samwise Gamgee, reminding her of who she is and why she is risking everything. They go on together, and suddenly a thought pops up that we should call that friend we haven’t hung out with for months because of the pandemic.

When our hero and her sidekick fail, unforeseen help comes their way, and suddenly the battle is back on. At the same time, we, the writers, are in the middle of our own battles, standing in line at the medical center, waiting to get your temperature taken, or grabbing the last bottle of Lysol off the shelf at the grocery store before an old lady with a cane beats you to it.

Finally, the fighting ends, the day settles into night and your mind calms. Raylene limps back down her mountain with her hair all askew and rejoins her friends. We reach the end of our day and realize that despite overwhelming odds, we made some progress. When we lay down on our pillows, we hope the melatonin we took will really help us sleep. Because we need our rest before the battles tomorrow.

When the story comes back.

 

 

After the Fight is Over

Inspiration, Motivation, Life, Inspirational, Outdoors

 

It’s done. I wrote 50,000 words for #NaNoWriMo2019. Funny thing though. I still want to get up at 5:00 a.m. and write. Instead of creating a new book, I’m working on the HOG newsletter and typing this blog. After that, I need to work on revising my other book. At various points during November, I thought I’d run out of words, but my fears were unfounded. Of course, I need to begin revisions on the rough draft I wrote during NaNoWriMo, but that book needs to ferment for at least a month.

Rain beats on my roof, wearing away the rough edges of this difficult year. Too many funerals, not enough weddings. Negativity and violence every time I pick up my phone. Christmas is knocking at my door, and I long to feel its glow.

In an hour, I’ll bundle up, grab my umbrella, and go out into the world. Two and half more weeks of school before vacation. In the midst of the holiday rush, I smile.

I wrote a book in November. Rain can’t wash that away.

Midway Thoughts-NaNoWriMo 2019

People, Adult, Woman, Street, Outdoors, City, Dark, War

 

On the fifteenth of November, I had 25,000 words. Half way through the month, halfway to my NaNoWriMo goal of 50,000. Yeah! (small victory dance)

How do I feel? Exhausted. At the beginning of November, I reread a favorite book, The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield. In the book, he argues that the minute we commit to a major creative project, Resistance rises up to oppose us.

This week, I faced Resistance in the form of work, illness, and mental exhaustion. For years, I’ve done a decent job balancing my teaching job and my home life. However, this November’s been the toughest one I’ve ever faced. Too much to do with impossible deadlines, resulting in additional hours at work that could have been given to my writing. All I want to do when I drag myself home is collapse in a chair and read my Kindle.

Besides work, my husband’s chronic illness, suddenly after ten years, flares up. Should we change his treatment? What if he has to give up Harley riding, one of the loves of his life? What if I need to take over some of his responsibilities at home? Am I being selfish by writing at my computer when I could be spending time encouraging him? Most of these nights I don’t remember if I fall asleep before hitting the pillow.

This is war, so I’ve fought back by turning off my alarm at 5:15 a.m. and getting up to write before work. Sometimes it’s been hard to type, let alone come up with words. Maybe you think I’m crazy to get up that early, but it has its advantages. Writing still partially in a dream state generates fresh ideas unencumbered by critical thought. Before I start piling up the day’s baggage in my brain, I can find room for my story.

I’ll admit—it’s challenging to write 1700 words a day. My husband helps a lot. We talk about my character’s adventures over a glass of wine, and run through scenarios of what might happen next. (I did start with an outline for this book, but it soon grew too big to fit into it.) Another benefit of committing to NaNoWriMo is that you live in your story every day. Usually it takes me at least a year to complete the rough draft of a novel. Under a 30-day deadline, I get to know my characters well.

How am I doing? It’s not over yet. Every day is another chance to give up. Or to meet Resistance’s challenge. All I can say is that this morning I got up and wrote.

Are you a #NaNoWriMo2019 crazy person? Keep writing. It’s a war out there. Resistance wants to prevent the next best-selling novel from being written. Even if you don’t make your 50,000 word count, there’s got to be a story in it. Soldier on.

NaNoWriMo Check In-the pregnant pause

Girl, Sadness, Loneliness, Sad, Depression, Alone

 

The first three days of NaNoWriMo have been hard on my diet. My scale reflects my lack of exercise while sitting at my computer. My jeans are tight, I feel grumpy. Reminds me of when I was pregnant. Uncomfortable, moody, my priorities shifting… Yet here I sit waiting as a new book is in the process of creation. Day by day, page by page. When I was pregnant, I had to keep in mind the goal—a blessing, a child, a family. I had to be patient even through painful long days. Now with this writing, I need to remember the goal—a new book, a chance to share my story with an audience.

When it emerges complete with future revisions, it will be worth it. I will hold it in my hands with pride for it was born through sacrifice.

Write on, my friends, for your creation desires to be born.

Twas the Night Before NaNoWriMo

Death ValleyJodi

 

I have to admit I’m a little nervous about participating in NaNoWriMo this year. If that sounds like gibberish to you, it’s the National Novel Writing Month. It’s a website and a bunch of people who want to break through barriers to write as much as they can in one month. Specifically, 50,000 words.

You may think that’s crazy, and you’re not wrong. But there’s great energy in joining with writers in your community and far, far, away to create new stories. My last book, Beach Witches, was birthed through NaNoWriMo. Granted, I generated 50,000 words, but it also took me two years of revisions to wrap up the book. Now it’s out on submissions, waiting for its place in the publishing world.

So tomorrow I start writing. It’s a new project titled The Overnighter, a YA fantasy novel about a girl who goes on a Harley Owners Group overnighter riding behind her mother. Here I go. About 2100 words a day if I want to take off Sundays and Thanksgiving.

Wish me luck.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

How three writing workshops and NaNoWriMo saved me from a two month writing drought

Me beach

Sitting down with my hot eggnog, Christmas music playing in the background, I noticed on my webpage that this is the first blog I’ve written since the beginning of September. How did that happen?

After writing every day and producing a nine episode novella during the summer, I started the school year knowing that teaching would drain my creative time, but remained undaunted as I signed up for three writing workshops at the end of September. When I opened my front door every day after school, my brain was mush and I had nothing to write. My husband and I were even too busy to catch many HOG chapter Harley rides, so I did not even have any Harley ride tales to share. I was certain that hearing about successful writing would motivate me to press on.

The Inland Empire California Writers Club held their Fall Retreat in Idyllwild, a tiny mountain community, the perfect place to get away and write. One of the workshops focused on marketing. I didn’t realize that I needed to work on a press kit before my book was published. After the retreat, I had time to write in my cabin in front of the fireplace. It was fun to entertain fresh ideas and characters after spending years on College of the Crones. After writing, polishing, and submitting that three-year project, I needed to turn my attention elsewhere. Waiting for the next query rejection is a dismal way to spend your time.

Next came a one-day workshop up in Hesperia called “The 90 Day Novel” with Alan Watt, from the L.A. Writers Lab. Alan became my characters’ psychologist, as he helped each of us to draw out the backstories and motivations that would make my story ring true. Although it was an intense day with a small group of writers, I came home with a greater sense of who my characters were and how they would react in different situations.

The last writing conference, held the first Saturday in October, was The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Meet the Editors Day at Cal State Fullerton. Editors and agents talked about the publishing industry. I had the opportunity to have lunch with one of our speakers, a writer from Redlands. We talked about the importance of revisions, critique groups, and a finding an editor.

After all that input, you might think that I would rush back to my laptop and start writing. I certainly thought that on the way home. Unfortunately, school and Harley riding and my social life conspired to eat up October until I found myself with no word count, or blog at Halloween. Scary, right?

So what does a girl do? Join NaNoWriMo of course! That stands for the National Novel Writing Month. On their website, you pledge to write 50,000 words during the month of November. I took my story ideas from Idyllwild, my characters and scene outline from the Alan Watt workshop, and my dreams about publishing from the Meet the Editors Day and plunged into the deep end of my new novel. The first chapters flowed, and when I posted my daily word counts, my numbers matched the trajectory on the graph I needed to get to my goal.

Then came the three day Harley ride with my husband and our HOG chapter up to San Simeon over Veterans Day weekend. No room for my laptop on the bike. And don’t forget Thanksgiving, which stole away a few more days of writing.  I found myself in the last week of November with 15,000 more words to write.

Hard words, too. After my initial flurry through my outline, I reached the end of my story, but still too brief to be classified a real novel. I rewrote my outline, based on what I had actually written, and looked for places that needed more structural support.  Should Star go on two dates with Frank before breaking up with him instead of one? Would her friends call a meeting to confront her about hanging out with their evil magician friend?

Bit by bit I gained on my word count, 1800 to 3000 words a day. The last day of November, I still had 1500 words left. Bleary-eyed, I shooed away my husband and my Pomeranian, and pounded away on the keys.

At 9:38 p.m., I made it! A brand new rough draft of a novel, done in thirty days. Redemption for my wasted autumn.

Of course, the book, titled The Spellwriters Book Club, is not finished. Months of revisions, critique groups, and editing stretch before me.

But my writing drought is over, thanks to three writing workshops and NaNoWriMo.

Finding Gold in My Story

snow

 

 

A weekend in the mountains sounds restful, but for the twenty five writers that attended the Southern California Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Spring Retreat in Idyllwild, it turned out to be three days of hard work. The focus was on middle grade and young adult works in progress, which placed me in the company of my genre peers, rather than in the mixed company of most critique groups I had attended.

For me it was the last effort I was willing to extend toward a project I had been writing for three years. A book that I had thought I had finished, but had been quietly rejected by agents for the past two years. The College of the Crones had sat unloved in my document files, while my creative nonfiction articles were getting snapped up by travel journals. The first time I’d thought the book was finished, I spent worthwhile money on professional editing. I had even pitched my book to an agent at a writing conference, and took her advice to heart, getting rid of one of my main characters. But I was tired of working without result. The title of the retreat was “Finding Gold,” but I wasn’t sure that my book had anything valuable left.

The dream team of masterminds behind the weekend included Heather Buchta, who organized a group of writers who mostly had never met each other into focused critique groups. A few weeks before I headed up the mountain, Heather emailed our group with a request to share our photo and synopsis of the work we were planning to share. This proved to be brilliant, as we knew who to look for when we arrived. Also we didn’t have to spend a lot of time getting our group up to speed on our stories.

Although I had attended previous writing conferences, this one proved to be the most productive. We had four sessions of critiques with our small group of six and our leader. In addition, an agent, editor, or published author would also sit in with us. Each writer had fifteen minutes during each session to use as they wished, timed by our leader. Some writers read different chapters each session, while others took the feedback and revised the same passage, printing out copies for the group on the printers that some of the leaders brought with them.

Between critique sessions, Kate Sullivan, senior editor at Delacorte Press, and Erin Young, agent at Dystel, Goderich and Bourret, gave brief, useful presentations on theme, query letters, and pitches. Estelle Laure and Steve Bramucci, published authors, told their tales about being in the trenches as writers. These session drew laughs as well as tears, and plenty of “ah-ha!” moments.

But I will always treasure Kate and Estelle contributing to my critique group. They set a high bar for courtesy and professionalism. And I will never forget the passion and meticulous attention they showed toward my manuscript. Priceless.

Hikes and writing time were built into our schedule, which provided additional time to share with other writers. Wine and appetizers in front of a roaring fire at a nearby restaurant made us feel like we were in a story. The weather became a main character over the weekend, as we changed from sunny spring weather on Friday to a Sunday morning blanket of snow.

All weekend long, I cherished each stolen moment to revise a few more chapters. With the help of one of the leaders, I reprinted two chapters that I reworked after the first two critique sessions. I worked with a feverish zeal that reminded me of my rough draft days. It was hard to put my computer away.

Suddenly, it was Sunday morning and time for awards. If we chose, we could have submitted our first ten pages for a contest a month before the retreat. A team of published writers and editors judged the manuscripts in a blind contest. The two categories of middle grade and young adult were judged separately, with first place and honorable mention in each. As the leaders announced the young adult winners, I hoped that someone from my critique group would win since the quality of the work shared had been excellent. What I wasn’t prepared for was when they called my name for honorable mention.

As I stood up to receive my certificate in a daze, I realized that my book, almost abandoned for the immediate gratification of shorter articles, deserved to live. The College of the Crones would be finished, but with new direction and inspiration.

After lunch, I headed down the mountain through a snowstorm, eager to get home and continue revisions on my book. Instead of rocks, I had found the gold hidden in my story. If you ever have the opportunity to attend a writing retreat for works in progress, don’t hesitate to sign up. It turned out to be a weekend I will always treasure.

 

 

 

The Dragon Rider- Part Two

dragon 2

 

“You’re selling your dragon?” Worley interrupted, as he caught up to Emeri and Anzel who were deep in serious conversation. His dusty grey hair hung over his widened eyes, his usual happy face darkened.

“That’s no way to address a royal, even though she may be the youngest,” his brother snapped as he cuffed the back of Worley’s head. He wanted to do more, but his other hand was full of saddle and tack.

“Sorry, Lady Emeri,” the younger brother said as he rubbed his head with one hand. The other hand held a dark brown leather saddle with a strap wound around it.

“You’re excused,” Emeri said, crinkling her tiny nose. “I never liked all that formal stuff anyway. When we’re riding, I’m just Emeri, dragon rider. I don’t have to think about all the duties that I’ll be immersed in when I return.” She sighed and looked toward the dragon stables they were headed toward. “The First Mistress wants me to sell Petal after the Silverpoint ride.”

“But we’re going to come up with a plan so she won’t have to do that,” Anzel added.

“But you’re a princess, Emeri,” Worley protested. “You can do whatever you want to!”

“Actually, it means I have practically no control over my life,” Emeri said. “First Mistress is determined to marry me off like my sisters. It seems that there’s no shortage of trade agreements that need to be cemented with a “joyful union.” I would have thought that Evelon’s marriage to the Baron of Duns and Ellenia’s with the Prince of Overland would have been enough. The suffering needs to be complete with taking away my freedom as well.” She shifted the weight of her saddle to the other shoulder, as if the weight of her words was adding to her burden.

“That too heavy for you. Let me take it,” Anzel pleaded with her. “Why do you always insist on carrying your own saddle?”

“It makes me feel like a real dragon rider,” Emeri replied. “Just let me do it. No one will see.”

“Why can’t you be a dragon rider anymore?” Worley wondered.

Emeri sighed, and the crunch of their steps filled the silence. The path led them through a speckled glade of white trees that separated the castle from the animal enclosures. It was a perfect sunny day for the capricious days of planting season. Finally she said, “First Mistress says that I must be married. It is her royal opinion that a prince would not want to marry a dragon rider. I need to settle down and take on more responsibilities.”

Anzel grinned. “Like producing royal heirs?” He was the oldest of the trio, nearly sixteen, and thought he was very worldly.

Flipping back her hair, Emeri retorted, “That’s not the only responsibility I’ll have. I will entertain leaders from all over Tessar. I’ll have to study what foods they prefer and how to greet them properly.”

“Doesn’t sound as fun as dragon riding,” Worley concluded.

The three friends arrived at the tall stone building that had a large chimney coming out of the center of the tiled roof. Smoke was curling out of it, but it wasn’t from a fire in the hearth.

A rumble of excitement greeted them as they walked in. “Petal,” Emeri cried, “I’ve missed you. Are you ready for a short trip around the queendom?” Her shimmering pale grey dragon shook its head, sending puffs of smoke up toward the high ceiling. The dragon stalls were huge, as was needed for keeping dragons, and built of special wood that was naturally fire resistant. Petal’s head hung over the six foot gate, and eagerly sniffed her mistress. At the familiar sound, three dragon grooms emerged from the tack room to saddle up their mounts.

Anzel and Worley greeted their dragons with apples they had brought from the main house. The older brother’s dragon, Blade, was dark green, with curly feathers that made a ring around the base of its long neck. Mist was Worley’s dragon, a smaller dark grey dragon with a shorter neck and a tail that had a hard bone shaped like a hammer at its end. The smaller dragons gobbled up the treats, turning their juices into steam as they crunched.

The grooms led the dragons outside and carried over the ladders to help the riders climb up onto the large creatures. Emeri scooted up her ladder with practiced ease and strapped in around her waist and legs. Petal watched her with a large purple reptilian eye, smoking curling out of her nostrils, waiting for her command.

When they were all ready, Emeri shouted in an unprincess-like voice, “Let’s ride!” and a loud whoosh of wings signaled their departure.

As they rose through the clouds, she felt a weight lift from her shoulders. Rushing wind whispered promises of freedom, and crisp fresh air filled her lungs with renewed energy. Dragon riding was her escape from a world she had no control over. To her right flew Anzel and Blade, who was wearing a huge grin. A glance to the left showed Worley holding his reins in one hand, his other on Mist’s neck.

The clouds below them thinned, and she could see the multicolored patchwork of fields surrounding Thorington Castle. For generations the Thorington line had controlled vast holdings of fertile farmland, which ensured their place as the bread basket of Tessar. Far to the south rose the wrinkled mountains of the Bearded Ones, the source of strange tales. To the west the deep blue ocean caressed the beaches of Ingest, while behind her stood the icy tips of the Crystal Mountains. All lovely lands of deep forests and tinkling streams. Only the eastern deserts were barren. From up here, all existed in harmony with no political turmoil or peasant squabbles.

The pulsing rhythm of Petal’s muscled wings reminded her of a pendulum clock, one that was counting her moments until she would have to give up dragon riding. What could she do? She knew that she could enlist the help of her dragon riding club, but to do what? Could she hide Petal somewhere with another rider’s help, and sneak away to ride as much as she could?

She knew in her heart it wouldn’t be fair to her spirited dragon to keep her secreted away. And she wasn’t sure how much sneaking away she’d be able to do once she was a royal wife. But she knew one thing — there was no way she was going to sell her dragon. If she couldn’t find a way to keep her, there was only one thing left to do.

Emeri would ride her back to the land of her dragon’s hatching in the Crystal Mountains and set her free.

 

 

 

 

 

 

On being published, and how it changed my life

i-am-a-writer

Two years ago, I got sick and tired of my pathetic longing to publish my novel. My book project was only one year into the revised drafts, and I felt like time was running out. Let’s face it –I’m not getting any younger, and if I want to be a best-selling author I need to get my first one on the New York Times bestseller list. So I sent out an army of queries to any agent that represented my genre. My submission spreadsheet grew into several pages with polite rejection notes. The agent I met at a very expensive writer’s conference never responded to my query. I was desperate for a new approach.

My critique group was supportive and gave great feedback, but they were not professionals in the writing industry. I wasn’t going to improve my writing without higher standards. Should I go back to school? Seeking to improve my craft, I enrolled in a local university’s online creative writing program. What I expected was that my writing would be pulled apart, equipped with upgrades, and become the shiny sports car I needed to catch a literary agent’s eye. What I experienced was a barrage of articles about writing that I could have Google searched myself. The students provided feedback on each other’s assignments, although most were not qualified or bold enough to give more than vague compliments. Curiously absent were concrete suggestions from the teacher. Although it was great to have structure and deadlines for creating short pieces, I didn’t really learn anything new.

However I did enjoy discussing the art of writing with other people interested in pursuing a writer’s life. There had to be other writers out there like me that wanted to be taken seriously. So I searched the internet and found the California Writers Club. It was a state club with local branches, so I checked out the Inland Empire Branch. What an exciting moment when I walked into a room with thirty other writers, most full time professional ones, and listened to a presentation about marketing books on social media. These people were living the life I dreamed about! I joined the group, and the members have become some of my dearest encouragers.

One of the club’s suggestions was to set smaller goals along the way to my big goal of publishing my novel. For my WordPress blog, I include articles about riding with my husband in the HOGs (Harley Owners Group). I found a database called Duotrope where you can find submission information for all varieties of print and online magazines and contests. A new submission spreadsheet was begun, and within two months one of my articles, “Backroads to Pioneertown” was accepted into an international travel journal called Coldnoon Travel Diaries. There was no money award, but my work was validated. Buoyed with my success, I continued to submit articles and last month “The Almost Grand Canyon Trip” was published in the literary journal The Courtship of Winds.

            My blog caught the attention of our HOG chapter and I was asked to become the editor of their newsletter The Handlebar Star. My responsibilities include collecting and editing articles written by the club officers and adding my own touches.

Success with my nonfiction writing sparked my creativity toward my novel project. Instead of giving up, I asked for help from my social media audience. One of my Twitter followers agreed to become a beta reader for me, and sent me seven pages of notes and revision suggestions. I was surprised to discover that the roots of my story were still alive, and I am weeding out unneeded sentences and watering my characters. I am learning to persevere in editing, long past the point where I’m in love with any of my sentences.

What began two years ago as a desperate search for help has shown some small victories. I’m not giving up on writing courses yet, although I will do more research on the best programs. Joining a professional writers group has given me a supportive family that helped me discover opportunities I never would have found on my own. And becoming an editor has reinforced the basics that I need to practice.

And so I start this year as a published writer. Did it change my life as I thought it would? Absolutely. Criticism and encouragement have sharpened my writing sensibility and I’m ready to do the work necessary to perfect my writing style. Today I’m even more dedicated to improving my writing and finding new ways to get my stories out to readers.

Why aren’t there any happy endings anymore?

Reading into the wee hours by Kindle light, I finally reach the end, and close the book, unsatisfied.

As writers strive in the most graphic fashion to portray the sadistic underbelly of our society, I find it difficult to keep reading to the last page. Any chance of any character enjoying a lasting relationship is tossed over the railing and dashed on the concrete below. On more than one occasion, I have stopped a few chapters into a book and deleted it from my Kindle because the author has failed to provide me any thread of empathy for their tortured, misguided characters. I simply don’t care whether the main character finds the revenge or closure that he seeks, knowing that he will undoubtably implode before he learns anything about life.

In the tales I favor evil abounds, but it follows rules that allow the amateur hero to navigate through his quest, wounded but wiser for his experiences. Happy endings are earned by the pure of heart. There is peace after the conflict. Although some may call me romantic, I often find that this is the true rhythm of life. “To everything there is a season…”

Real life can be bleak enough. We cut flowers to sit in vases in our homes, bringing the riotous color of nature into our beige kitchens. For me, it is the same with novels. Even if my path is not colorful and fragrant, the book I cuddle up with in my bed should at least satisfy me with characters that set the world right and live to toast it with their comrades.

I long for a happy ending.