Archives: novel

I got a (paying) job!

I can’t wear slippers to my new job.

 

Six years ago I did what they tell you never to do. I quit my day job to pursue a dream.

The recession was in full swing. I had the barest beginnings of a novel, with no great vision other than that I wanted to write one. Ending a decades-long career in journalism and public-relations to try my hand at fiction required a crazy leap of faith. And it was the right decision.

I never would have finished The Leaving Year without that singular focus. Some writers can tap out their debut novels in stolen hours here and there. Karen Thompson Walker, a former book editor at Simon & Schuster, wrote The Age of Miracles in the mornings and during subway rides to work. That’s not me.

While I was able to write short stories around my day job, I couldn’t seem to make any headway on my first novel — maybe because I had no idea how to write a novel. I didn’t know about outlining or story structure or character arcs or what writing process would serve me best. Writing a novel was a vast undiscovered land, and exploring it required long, uninterrupted stretches of time. I’m talking years, not hours.

Thank you, Mark Funk, my hard-working, self-employed husband, for giving me that luxury of time. He paid the bills while I spent five years writing, researching, editing, rewriting, getting help, querying, building a platform, getting more help . . . and basically trial-and-erroring myself through the single hardest thing I’ve ever done.

Now that book is in the publishing pipeline (stay tuned), and I’ve started another, this time with some insight into what’s involved, insight that will hopefully make me more efficient.

(I look back on all the time wasted writing and rewriting my first paragraph and shudder. Truth be told, you lose respect for time when you have seemingly unlimited amounts of it. You lose respect, but you also feel guilty, particularly when someone else is picking up the tab.)

Mark was and continues to be supportive, but after five years, even he was growing weary of being the sole breadwinner. And I hated asking him for money every month to cover my credit-card bill (even though it was mostly for groceries). I wanted to help our household’s bottom line and contribute to the cost of my book.

Plus, I was craving more social stimulation. My life had started to feel too insular, which is great if you’re writing about hermits or castaways, not so great if you’re writing about humans in all their quirky complexities.

The time had come to get an outside, paying job, something part-time and not too awfully stressful that would allow me to continue to focus on my writing.

I admit I was more than a little afraid to get back out there. My fear of job interviews is second only to my fear of public speaking (read my last post), but I must have been feeling brave that day I asked about a “We’re Hiring!” sign I saw while shopping at my neighborhood drug store.

I happen to love this store, so the idea of working for the company appealed to me. I got home and immediately filled out the online application to be a cashier/clerk. Literally seconds after I clicked “submit” I got a call to come in for an interview. (For the record, I got through the interview just fine.)

I didn’t expect my new job to be that challenging even though my retail experience was more than 30 years old. I’d worked at the University of Washington Book Store while a student.

Hello! My first day of training — on-the-job with real live customers — left me three pounds lighter and brain-drained by all the stuff I had to process, including:

  • Routine cash, credit and debit sales
  • Personal checks
  • Coupons and sales
  • Gift card purchases
  • IDs for cigarettes and alcohol
  • Store codes
  • Photo orders
  • Answering the phone
  • Greeting customers

Once I started at my assigned store, I also had to learn how to stock and “face” shelves, which is more complicated than it sounds. Any there’s many more tasks that they haven’t had me do just yet.

Suffice to say, my head’s been too full to get much writing done, but I hope that will change once I get over the learning curve.  I like my bosses and co-workers. And the customers have been great, by and large. Some have already given me material for future stories.

My favorite so far is the young man, complaining of a birthday hangover, who bought a bottle of milk and a pain-reliever, opened both at my counter, asked me what dose to take, and then proceeded to wash the pills down with his drink. He left, leaving the box the pills came in as well as his receipt and 3 cents in change.

Yep, no shortage of inspiration here.

What about you? Have you ever quit your day job? Or re-entered the workforce after an absence? Please comment below. I’d love to hear from you!

Hip Hip Hooray! To new body parts and moving forward

Running to the Seattle Mariners game in the 1980s.

Mark Funk # 63

For 45 years, my husband’s left hip did its job without complaint. It allowed him to play multiple sports in high school and survive four years as the smallest guard on the Oak Harbor football team. It helped him chase stories for three newspapers, play co-rec soccer into his thirties, run countless 10K races and complete one marathon. It even tried to swivel through a Latin dance class (my idea).

After we adopted the first of our two sons from Korea, that hip served as a baby bouncer and child seat. It was during a nature hike with two-year-old Casey riding on his shoulders that Mark felt the first twinge of what would become 17 years of pain.

He didn’t think much of it at the time, but the pain didn’t go away. It got worse, radiating down his left leg at predictable points that made us all suspect his back and a pinched sciatic nerve. He went to the doctor, who ordered an MRI of his lower spine. It showed nothing out of the ordinary.

Meanwhile, the pain bounced around from hip to knee to shin to ankle like a trickster. A cortisone shot in his knee brought only temporary relief. He tried physical therapy and acupuncture. I got him to try yoga. Nothing seemed to help, and some things made it worse.

Eventually the pain became chronic and debilitating, disrupting his sleep . . . and mine.  The man who used to love to run now balked at taking a walk. No wonder. When he did, his limp made me wince.

“How’s your leg?” I’d ask him.

“It hurts.”

“You’ve got to do something about this, force the doctors to get to the bottom of it,” I said. “This is a quality-of-life issue.”

I complained more about his pain than he did. I wanted some semblance of our active life back, but our needs kept getting swept aside by the more immediate needs of our children and our aging parents – the classic sandwich.

Then came not one, but two, big wake-up calls: Mark’s blood pressure was dangerously high, according to the machine at our local Bartell Drug Store. I urged him to go in for a physical, which confirmed the hypertension and revealed signs of something else: prostate cancer.

Prostate cancer is common in men of a certain age, and usually treatable. It also happens to run in Mark’s family, but his relatives beat it, so I was optimistic that his treatment would be similarly successful.

Still, I had an eerie feeling watching my husband’s skeleton appear on a monitor while he got a full-body scan to check for cancer outside the prostate. As the machine worked its way down to his groin, his left hip emerged as a cloudy white blob. I immediately thought, oh my God, the cancer has spread to his hip, but the technician set me straight: not cancer, inflammation.

Fast forward a year. With his blood-pressure under control and a so-far successful treatment for prostate cancer, we both agreed it was past time to revisit the leg-pain issue. X-rays and another MRI, this time of the inflamed left hip, showed bone-on-bone arthritis. On a scale of one to 10, with 10 being the worst he’s ever scene, the orthopedic surgeon said Mark’s hip was a seven or eight.

A complete replacement was in order.

Mark had the surgery June 7. We spent a day in the hospital. A shout-out to the fabulous folks at Swedish Medical Center-Issaquah: Thank you for making our stay as pleasant as possible.  Former reporter that he is, Mark got to know each and every nurse, attendant and therapist and their family backgrounds. Our diverse crew of caregivers hailed from Korea, Kenya, the Ukraine and India.

Given that his new friends were kinder and gentler than our sons were likely to be, Mark wanted to stay in the hospital an extra day. But his physical therapist –a buff and jocular Korean man — told him insurance wouldn’t cover avoiding teenagers. Mark had already demonstrated the he could walk with the aid of a walker, go up and down a small set of mock stairs, and get in and out of a mock car. He was good to go.

In the week we’ve been home, he’s gotten progressively more mobile, graduating from walker to cane and striding less and less like Frankenstein’s monster. On Monday, we took the three-block walk to Roosevelt High school and back, no problem. He’s still on morphine, so we can’t be sure that the hip replacement completely fixed his leg pain, but we’re hopeful.

Getting back to a new normal will take time. We’ll never return to playing soccer and running 10ks. Those days are gone for both of us. But I definitely see some bike rides in our future.

Speaking of moving forward, I have my own news. I can’t spill the details yet because I don’t know them myself, but I think I’ve found a publisher for my novel. Stay tuned for updates.

In the meantime, if you have a hip- or knee-replacement story — and it seems that most everyone does — please feel free to share it below. I’d love to hear from you!

Race photo credit: W. McNeely
Football photo credit: Wallie Funk

 

 

 

World-building for dummies

 

 

No, this isn’t a post about the POTUS. It’s a request. I’m the world-building dummy in need of tutoring from writers (and avid readers) of sci-fi, dystopian and post-apocalyptic novels.

How do I create a believable world for a novel set in a climate-changed US that’s told from the point of view of three crows and one human? (The human has a supporting role.)

Yes, I’ve given myself a ridiculous challenge for my second book. What on earth was I thinking?

For my first book — a coming-of-age, young-adult novel tentatively titled The Leaving Year — I stayed close to home, setting my story in the Pacific Northwest where I live during a time period (the late 1960s) that I remember.

I still had to do a ton of research on commercial fishing, Southeast Alaska, Native Alaskans, Tlingit myths, fish processing, Filipino cannery workers and Sixties slang. (I refused to use the word “groovy,” even though I know it was used then. Groovy sounds like it belongs in a Sixties parody, and that wasn’t my goal.)

Suffice to say, it was a challenge trying to get it all right, and I still don’t know if I succeeded, but Book 1 was a black-and-white Kansas compared to the Technicolor Oz I will need to inhabit for Book 2.

Put myself in the minds of three crafty birds, each with distinctly different personalities, all fighting for survival? Sure, no problem. Have them flee a virus that also threatens humans? Bring it on.

Did I bite off more than I my little beak can hold? No duh.

I’m such a world-building neophyte that I didn’t know until recently there’s a name for the kind of book I want to write. It’s called “eco-fiction,” shorthand for ecologically oriented fiction. I had no idea, probably because I’ve never been all that into fantasy and sci-fi, although I loved all the Star Trek spinoffs and read the Harry Potter series to my sons.

Up until now, my writing has been grounded in reality, a holdover from my years as a newspaper reporter. Every piece of fiction I’ve attempted has been an exercise in letting go of that just-the-facts hardwiring.

I got the idea for what I call “the crow novel” well over a year ago. I read up on crows and climate change and pandemics, quickly becoming overwhelmed by the enormity of what I’d set out to do. The more I learned, the more a realized I didn’t know.

Then came National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Trying to write 50,000 words in 30 days forced me to free my imagination and let it romp. I ended up with 47,000 words about a small family of crows torn apart by an advancing virus and wrathful humans, who think the birds are to blame.

I’ve since met the 50,000-word target (late, but oh well), which gives me about three-fourths of a child’s draft. It has potential, which is to say it’s not completely dreadful.

Imagining life as a crow in a warming world was fun when I didn’t have to nail down the picky little details, like setting.  In fact, I’ve yet to settle on a setting. My crows start off in a place based on my home-town of Seattle and end up traversing lakes and deserts, farms and suburbs, inner cities and mountain ranges. They’re literally and figuratively all over the place.

That’s fine for a first draft . . . which I’ve yet to complete. So maybe I’m jumping the gun here. My first order of business should be to finish, just shut-down my inner critic and barrel forward – accuracy and consistency be damned — until THE END.

Then I can go back to figure out and fill in all those pesky parts. Which brings me to ask the more experienced world-builders out there: Am I on the right track? What world-building hacks and strategies have worked for you?

If you’re a sci-fi/fantasy/dystopian reader (as opposed to writer), what books would you recommend for their awesomely awful worlds? Some favorites of mine:

Please share your thoughts below.

Photo credit: Torley Olmstead

My novel is longlisted!

I have news! My young-adult novel, The Leaving Year, was longlisted in MsLexia’s 2016 Children’s Novel Competition.

That means that it was among the 100 “most compelling and accomplished manuscripts submitted.” The annual contest, for unpublished women novelists, drew about 1,000 entries in all.

Mslexia, based in England, is “committed to helping women writers progress and succeed, through (its) quarterly magazine, writer’s diary and annual writing competitions.”

 

Photo credit: muse1nspired

Novel # 2 – Where do I begin?

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If you’re a writer who has a devil of a time starting things, you’re probably familiar with what I call the “begin it now” quote:

“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man [or woman] could have dreamed would have come his [or her] way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.” (Brackets mine)

This passage – a combined quote by Scottish mountaineer William Hutchison Murray and Goethe translator John Anster – used to be taped to my office wall as a reminder not to dawdle.

I tend to procrastinate when it comes to writing, particularly if I’m starting something new or big, like a novel. I procrastinate because I know there’s a steep learning curve ahead, and I’m a perfectionist. I’m a perfectionist because of a deep-seated fear of failure.

I think it goes back to second grade. I had to repeat it.

In the ’60s, repeating a grade wasn’t couched it in gentle, ego-protecting language. They didn’t explain that children develop at different rates and that maybe I needed more time to catch up because of my late summer birthday. No, they used F words – “flunk” and “fail” – and that shame stayed with me for years.

Sorry, I didn’t mean to go off on that. I’m over it. Really I am. My second-grade redo isn’t the reason I’m having trouble starting my second novel.

My procrastination this time around probably has more to do with family stuff and the barrage of disheartening national and world news we’ve seen this summer. (For more insight on the relationship between bad news and writer’s block, read Marisa Goudy’s blog post, “The 5 Traps that Silence Writers In Troubled Times (And How to Escape Them).”

Plus, there’s no denying that beginnings are really hard for me, much harder than endings or even murky middles. I don’t know where in the story to begin, and the journey ahead looks impossibly long and dark, with obstacles and steep climbs and dead-ends.

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naked mole rat

Writing is a process, and I know I should embrace it like a happy naked mole rat, but I hate tunneling blind.

Okay, I’m not totally blind. I do have what I think is a pretty good idea for Novel 2. I even have a vague plot line. What I don’t have is a starting point, and I’m not the kind of writer who can write out of order. I just can’t.

So I’ve been doing research – another way to procrastinate! – except I really do need to get inside my subject – crows — for this story to be at all convincing. I’ve already spent hours online and read two very detailed books on corvids, including the excellent “In the Company of Crows and Ravens” by John M. Marzluff and Tony Angell. But I still have so many questions, so many decisions to make.

About the story: Do I have a narrator? What will be the point of view, first-person or third? One protagonist or three? What do my characters want? What stands in their way? Where should my book be set? In what time period?

About the process: Should I write with an outline? Or bump along by the seat of my pants like last time?

You see, I’m still learning how to write novels. My first took me five years, give or take. I was horribly inefficient with my time and effort. With my second, I’m determined to make things easier on myself. That’s why I spent a half day trying to learn the Scrivener writing software, and another afternoon exploring something called FreeMind.

I wasn’t procrastinating. I’d like to think I was committing myself, just like the quote says.  Maybe beginnings are a process, too.

What about you? What’s your biggest writing challenge and how do you overcome it? Please comment below!

Photo credit (curve): Kervin
Photo credit (mole rat): brxO

A love letter of sorts

 

Dear Mark,

This may be putting the cart before the horse as I don’t have a publishing deal or even an agent to represent me, but I’ve decided on my book dedication and, well, I’m afraid you’ll have to share it.

It’s true. There’s another love in my life, another wellspring of support that made my novel possible. I’m referring of course to Guemes.

Can you dedicate a book to an island? I say, why the hell not?

As you know, I got the idea for my novel during a trip to Guemes eight years ago. Like a good masseuse, it worked away my doubts and plot knots to release a flow of words and sentences and sometimes entire chapters. Guemes actually kept my dream alive.

Anything seems possible when you’re looking out on a waterfront view “that never changes and always changes,” as you like to say.

When I tell you I need a “Guemes fix,” you know I have a particularly thorny writing issue to work through, and you’re always generous enough to let me come out here for a few days. Alone.

You do it because you know I’ll come back happy and recharged. Guemes may be only a 90-minute drive and five-minute ferry ride from our home in Seattle, but it’s a world away from the multi-tasking, soul-sapping clamor of city life, a true throwback to a simpler time.

I know that sounds hackneyed and sentimental.  I’m not exactly roughing it in the Funk family’s Wi-Fi-equipped beach house. But it’s not a stretch to say that time seems to slow down the second you drive off that ferry onto the island.

You can’t help by sigh as you pass the Anderson store and cow pastures, a sign advertising “compost tea” and a little stand selling garden-grown produce on the honor system. There’s the community center where islanders gather for craft sales and the annual Woodchopper’s Ball. Young, old or in-between, it doesn’t matter. Everyone dances.

At the intersection of Guemes Island and Edens roads is the playground that used to be a school site. Now it’s where our youngest son, Charlie, likes to play basketball, and I like to channel my inner child on the swing set.

It’s also the start/finish of the annual Dog Island Run, a 10K loop we used to jog religiously when we still had good knees.

Remember the dogs we used to pick up along the way? There’d be our Terrier-mix, Tom, and Magic the Rottweiler; Thurber, who must have been a Great Dane-mix because he was HUGE, and Mr. B, a cheerful Golden Retriever, all ambling along like some touring kennel show. But only Magic and Tom went the whole 6-plus miles with us.

They’ve all gone now to Dog Heaven, which must look a lot like Guemes. No wonder they call this Dog Island.

Following the road to North Beach, I’m greeted by that first gust of salty air. If the tide’s out, I might see a dozen blue herons out past the tide flats fishing. We used to dig for butter clams at low tide. Now we just slip on our aqua shoes and slog through the eel grass, looking for crabs and bullheads on our way to the rocks to check for sea stars. They’re coming back!

An eagle flies over. We know where they nest in the tall trees. Someday someone’s going to discover the bones from all those turkey legs the neighbor fed them.

I’m a bit of a bird watcher as you know, and Guemes has so many. Remember how we used to be awakened by the cries of seagulls and the plunk plunk of the clams they dropped on the roof?

That was the roof that got ripped off in that winter storm. The new roof is stronger and covers a larger house. I like the remodel/addition, but I kind of miss that plunking of shells. Oddly enough, you can still hear the rain. There’s nothing like being lulled to sleep by the rain.

It wasn’t the rain but fresh island goat’s milk that helped your brother, Carl. A colicky baby, he slept through the night — for the first time – on Guemes. Your parents were renting a cabin down the way, and that blessedly peaceful stay convinced them to buy property here. The Guemes house was built in 1959, my birth year. Coincidence?

So I really have Wallie and Mary Ann Funk to thank. Did they foresee the how much their investment would be cherished by the extended family, including Carl’s wife, Mara, our boys, Casey and Charlie, and a continuous stream of friends?

We love this place rain or shine, but that windstorm last November was one for the books. The waves hit the windows and sloshed over the house. I feared we might get swept out to sea. Maybe someday, when global warming meets a storm roaring out of the Fraser River, we will.

For now, though, I think I’ll sit in front of this never/ever-changing view and try to get some writing done.

With love,

Pam

What about you? Do you have a special place that taps your creative juices? Please comment below.

My brain on hope

jump bellyMy heart is pounding right now. A third agent has asked to see more of my novel, and I’m trying really hard not to get too excited.

At the same time, I’m worried that I completely blew it because I misspelled the abbreviation for “manuscript”, using two S’s instead of one, in the subject line of my email back to him.

You see, I’m so used to getting rejected, so used to hearing crickets, so used to reading that publishing is so ridiculously competitive that a little error like that is anything but. At least I didn’t commit the ultimate sin of misspelling his name: Peter.

I just gobbled two thirds of a big bar of dark chocolate even though I really need to calm down. Maybe, because I’m so keyed up, the stimulant will have the opposite effect?

I should have a cup of (decaf) tea or adjust my high idle by going for a jog, except my persistent hot flashes make those activities seem less than appealing. Speaking of heat, I should be worried about real things like global warming and Donald Trump, not an extra S.

I’m being way too neurotic and self-absorbed here. Sorry. But this is my brain on hope.

For those of you who’ve never tried to get a book published, let me try to put this into perspective.

A fiction query to an agent typically includes a brief plot summary and the first five pages to three chapters of your novel. If an agent likes what she sees, she’ll ask to see more. Of the six agents I’ve queried, two have asked to see the full manuscript, and one has asked to see the first 50 pages (a “partial”). A fourth agent rejected it, but nicely. She said she could see how much I’d invested in this book and sent me her good wishes.

I’ve received so many form-letter NOs over the years that this nice rejection was cause for a happy dance.

So to get a favorable response from three out of six agents is really encouraging, to be sure, but it’s many what ifs away from a book deal.

What if all three agents decide my book doesn’t hold up to the first pages they read?

What if they like it, but decide they can’t sell it?

What if an agent thinks it will sell, but he/she can’t convince a publisher of that?

What if I’ve just jinxed myself by writing this blog?

Even if I do get an agent who manages to get me a book deal, that doesn’t mean automatic success in the way most people think of success. Most first-time novelists usually don’t end up hitting it big. They keep their day jobs and write in the evenings and on weekends.  Maybe by book three or four, they’ve built a modest fan base, but most can’t live off their words alone.

I’m one mile into an ultra-marathon. Still, you have to start somewhere.  Color me guardedly optimistic. The champagne can wait, but I might have a beer and savor the moment.

Have you ever wanted something so bad you dared not imagine it? Please chime in below. Oh, and if you’re not a subscriber, but would like to be, head on over to my contact page and sign up. The “subscribe” button should actually be working now.

Photo credit: Mark Funk

The Waiting Game

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I’ve written and rewritten my book.

I’ve given it to beta readers.

I’ve read it out loud to my family. 1

I’ve worked with three professional editors. 2

I’ve laid the foundation for my author platform.

I’ve researched publishing options, pitched agents and entered one fiction contest. 3

And now . . . I wait.

I don’t like to wait.

My lack of patience may have something to do with turning 57 and spending five years on my first book. I want to get it out there in the hands of readers — readers I don’t necessarily know.

But these things take time. Agents and small publishers are buried in queries from aspiring authors like me. I can expect to wait at least a month for a response, if I get any at all. If no one bites and I don’t win that contest (both likely), then I’ll send to another batch of agents/publishers/contests, and keep repeating the process until I hit gold or give up.

Securing an agent or even a publisher doesn’t guarantee success, of course. An agent has to be able to sell my book to a publisher, and a publisher has to be able to sell it to readers. (Actually, I will have to do much of my own book promotion, or hire a pro.)

That’s traditional publishing. I’m giving it two seasons. If I can’t interest anyone in my book by, say, Thanksgiving, I’ll likely pursue a hybrid option that’s a cross between self-publishing and traditional.

Given how hard it is to wait – I know I’m not alone in this – I thought it might be helpful to make a list of things to keep me busy while I do the equivalent of drum my fingers on the table. Those of you out there who have just “finished” a major, life-consuming project might find this list helpful as well.

To do:

  1. Get reacquainted with my husband, two sons and our dog. It’s not that I’ve been absent. I just haven’t been wholly present.
  2. Tidy up. The house has pockets of clutter that need clearing out, and I have hair that needs cutting or shaving. After a winter of editing, I look like a cavewoman.
  3. Read books that have absolutely nothing to do with the novel I just finished, starting with The Can’t-idates: Running For President When Nobody Knows Your Name, by my old college friend, Craig Tomashoff.
  4. Write short stuff. A short story or essay will feel like a sprint after the marathon of the novel.
  5. Train for another triathlon season. I’m one creaky, out-of-shape (and possibly typical) writer body right now.
  6. Eat less sugar. Some writers hit the bottle. I reach for the sweets. Dark chocolate is my favorite, but I’ve been known to eat stale Halloween candy in a pinch.
  7. Drink more water. Water is life.
  8. Step away from the computer and email. I. Must. Resist.
  9. Revamp my website and beef up my social-media presence to prepare for the eventual public launch of my novel. (This may make it hard to do No. 8.)
  10. Give back. I’ve been so fortunate to have the time and support to write my book. Now it’s time to pay it forward.
  11. Move on. The first book is done. It’s off to college, never to return, like my oldest son. . . . Oh, who am I kidding? It, like Casey, will be back with loads of dirty laundry and requests for cash. Even with a publishing deal, I’ll have to do more editing, spend more money, and promote, promote, promote. (I’ve heard that writing the book is the easy part.)
  12. Finish what Anne Lamott calls the child’s draft of NOVEL NUMBER TWO. Telling myself it can be horrendously bad will hopefully silence my inner critic, who has no business poking her nose into my creative process.

What about you? How do you play the waiting game?

 

Photo credit: woodleywonderworks

Notes:

  1. Yes, I did finish reading my book to my kids and husband, and the experience was invaluable both for the weaknesses it highlighted and the confidence it gave me (They liked it!).
  2. The three editors I hired were Lish McBride, for developmental editing, Martha Brockenbrough, for story synopsis/query help, and Emily Russin for copy editing.  Lish and Martha are both at Nothing to Novel. It was all money well-spent.
  3. My platform, so far, consists of an author website, this blog and pages on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. I’ve researched traditional and indie publishing options, queried maybe 20 agents so far and have entered the Leapfrog Press Fiction Contest.
  • / Comments Off on In praise of journalism, the profession I loved and left

In praise of journalism, the profession I loved and left

Members of my journalism class at the University of Washington visit a newspaper in the early 80s (note the gigantic computer). I’m second from the left. To my right is my roommate at the time, Helen Grieve, and standing far right is Author Charles R. Cross. Our professor was the late great William “BJ” Johnston.

Members of my journalism class at the University of Washington visit a newspaper in the early 80s (note the gigantic computer). I’m second from the left. To my right is my roommate at the time, Helen Grieve, and standing far right is Author Charles R. Cross. Our professor was the late great William “BJ” Johnston.

 

After the election, windstorm, scandal, flood, walkout, outbreak, shooting, standoff, explosion or landslide . . . after news breaks, my thoughts inevitably turn to the people whose job it is to deliver it.

I’m thankful — thankful for the work they do and the risks they take covering wars and disasters and Trump rallies. I’m thankful for the news outlets that still exist and the journalists who still have jobs. And I’m thankful — and a little ashamed — that I’m no longer one of them.

I didn’t get laid off like so many of my colleagues. After more than 15 years as a local newspaper reporter, I quit. My husband, Mark Funk (another ex-reporter), and I had just adopted our second child, and I didn’t want to go back to a job that was less than satisfying and hard on families.

So I didn’t. That was 16 years ago, yet I still get that tug in my gut every time a major story breaks. I still have anxiety dreams about being on deadline and looking for a working typewriter (yes, I’m that old). I still have immense respect for the profession at its best (though I’ve yet to see Spotlight).

It was another movie, All the President’s Men, that fueled my interest in journalism in the mid-1970s. When I watched the film and read the book detailing how two young Washington Post reporters unraveled the scandal that brought down then-President Richard Nixon, I was in awe. I wanted to do that.

Full of high-minded idealism about the power of the press, I majored in communications-journalism at the University of Washington and went on to work for a series of small to midsize newspapers, where I covered community news, including fires and traffic accidents and many boring government meetings in which I was one of the few in attendance. I worked a schedule that included nights, weekends and holidays.

And for a long time, I loved it. Here was a license to be nosey — I could ask questions ‘til the cows came home — and learn stuff I never knew I was curious about, like how sewer systems work.

I had stories that landed on the front page many times, even won a few awards, but looking back, I consider myself an only mediocre journalist. I wasn’t fast or fearless or skeptical enough. I didn’t relish confrontation, and I was too concerned with craft (sentence flow, word choice, etc.) to effectively churn out one story after another. I respected deadlines, but I hated them.

Now I’m writing books (actually only one so far), which comes with its own set of challenges, but the hours are mine, I can work in my sweats and slippers, and I get to make stuff up.

Maybe that’s why I feel guilty when I see or read coverage of a major news event. Those reporters and editors have just pulled off another daily miracle — gathering, analyzing, packaging, illustrating, delivering — and I’m sitting here in my sweats eating toast.

The shame I feel is rooted in regret – regret that I didn’t make more of my reporting career or take more risks, regret that I didn’t ask the toughest questions or pursue the most difficult (read investigative) stories.

This I can say: I cared — about fairness, accuracy and getting it right. I was the opposite of the stereotypical hard-boiled, predatory reporter, and so were my colleagues. We all tended to be earnest kind of nerdy word people, motivated more by ideals than our own egos.

I can also say I’m glad to have had the experience. It has given me:

  • An ear for the way people really talk;
  • A willingness to put my characters through hell;
  • A writing style that’s easy to read;
  • A gallows (also known as newsroom) sense of humor;
  • An ability to work through chaos;
  • And a dogged determination to get the story.

That last one is golden.

Experiment in reading aloud

Audio waves

Audio waves

In my last blog post, I said I was considering reading my draft young adult novel to my teenage sons – and paying them for their feedback.

I promised I’d report back on how this experiment was going.

Well, it’s going. And that alone is huge.

As I explained in my last post, my boys no longer enjoy being read to. They’re teenagers. They’d rather be doing almost anything — sleeping, playing video games, getting their teeth cleaned — than listen to me read.

So I offered to pay them, quite a lot, I might add. (No money has changed hands, yet. More on that later).

The experiment started about a month ago. To drum up interest where there was none, I created a poster announcing nightly readings of The Leaving Year, my coming-of-age novel about a teenage girl who searches for the truth about her lost fisherman father. I was sure to mention that refreshments (cookies and tea) would be served.

I put copies of the poster in places where the boys were sure to see them, including the refrigerator door and the wall behind the toilet.

Charlie, my 16-year-old, had questions: Where would this reading be? (In our living room); Who was coming? (Hopefully, you, Dad, Casey and the dog, if he chooses); What kind of cookies? (Chocolate and ginger).

At the appointed time, I set out the all-important refreshments, played soothing music that evoked the sea (There’s No Place Like Ohm) and lit candles.

It didn’t occur to me that all this relaxation might put them to sleep. In retrospect, I think it was a brilliant way to test the power of my words.

I read the first chapter. They listened and munched on cookies. They didn’t fall asleep, though my husband, Mark, couldn’t stop yawning. He’d had a rough day.

When I was done, they gave me conflicting advice. Charlie thought there was too much information about time and place – world-building — though he didn’t use the term. Casey disagreed. He liked it.

Mark thought I needed more details, including the call letters of a radio station he remembered from his youth. (My novel is set in the late 1960s in a fishing/lumber town based on Anacortes, where he grew up.)

I took Charlie’s advice and cut some superfluous detail as well as some repetition I had noticed. All in all, it was an hour well spent.

The second chapter went well, too. Based in part on their feedback, I fixed a confusing scene and pared down areas where I sensed my audience was drifting.

For the record: reading aloud is the best technique I know for finding awkward sentences, over-used words and stilted dialogue. If your tongue stumbles over something, that’s a good sign it needs to be reworded. It can also mean the reader is distracted by the dog trying to eat the cookies off the table.

Anyway . . . fast forward. I’ve read seven chapters so far. The boys like some better than others, but the good news is, they’re not bored. They want me to keep going, so long as I continue to supply baked goods.

Now about the money. Yes, I will deliver on that promise, though I did tell Casey I’d rather call it a birthday present than a bribe. He just turned 18. The younger one wants money too, of course, but he has to show his value as a listener first.

Speaking of which, I know I’d get more detailed and sophisticated feedback from a writers’ group. But I’m not writing this novel for other writers. I’m writing it for young adults between the ages of 12 and 18. Casey and Charlie aren’t enthusiastic readers, but I’m guessing they’re pretty typical, so their reactions are valid.

Sure, I’m getting some silly suggestions (Charlie wants me to work in an alien abduction). I’m getting grunts and nods in place of actual words, or the all-purpose “it sucks” (Charlie trying to get a rise out of me).

It’s all good. At least they’re coming to the table. Okay, they’re coming to the table when they’re not:

  • Too busy with friends;
  • Too tired;
  • Too crabby
  • Too (pick an excuse)

Turns out my plan for nightly readings didn’t take into account how difficult it can be for a family to sit down together for an hour or less. That said, Mark thinks these sessions have been good for family bonding. We’re in the same room, interacting, not split off and staring into our screens.

It’s been good for me as a writer, too. Seeing my sons’ engagement and hearing my words out loud has been tremendously validating. The novel is sounding better than I thought it would. And I get the sense that my boys are pleasantly surprised. After all those months and years of unpaid toil and their demands that I “get a real job,” they’re possibly realizing that I was in fact working, not just playing online Solitaire and word games behind my closed office door.

Chapter 8 is tonight. Will it be the lemon cookies or the macadamia nut/white chocolate?

Photo by: Iwan Gabovitch

What really happened when I hired an editor

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When you’ve edited and re-edited ad nauseam and you’re too close to your novel to see it objectively, it’s time to take a break or call in a professional. This summer I did both.

Sick to death of my book and discouraged by the prolonged silence that greeted me when I sent it out to agents, publishers and even some test readers, I was wallowing in self-doubt. My novel sucked. I’d just wasted four years. I would have nothing to show for my writing life. Boohoo, woe is me.

Honestly, I don’t know how my family put up with me during those dark days.

Fortunately, it being summer, my days weren’t literally dark. I was getting out regularly to run, bike and swim with my triathlon-training group. I lived for those workouts. They cleared my head, cheered me up, and gave me a feeling of accomplishment. If nothing else, I could say I swam out to the buoy and back.

The teammates who knew I was working on a novel asked me about it. I told them I’d finished it, bracketing the word finished with finger quotes. I said I’d sent some queries out to agents and small presses, but hadn’t heard back from any of them.

This didn’t surprise me, and I said as much. Agents and publishers can take months to respond, if they respond at all. Most don’t bother.

Meanwhile, a short story based on my first two chapters was getting turned down by literary journals – not an encouraging sign. As time wore on, I began to think less about agents and publishers and more about editors. Maybe I needed to pay someone to do a content edit of my book and tell me what was wrong with it. At the very least, I knew this person would have to get back to me.

“Why don’t you call Lish?” suggested my coach, the awesome Denise Geroux.

Turns out Denise’s sister-in-law is Lish McBride, the author of four young-adult urban fantasy horror novels: Hold Me Closer, Necromancer; Necromancing the Stone; Firebug and Pyromantic (forthcoming 2016). She is also one of three professionals behind Nothing to Novel, which provides individualized support for aspiring novelists.

With her books, her teaching experience and an MFA in fiction from the University of New Orleans, Lish had the credentials I was looking for. She was also local, well versed in the YA genre and remarkably affordable at $525 for a full-manuscript consultation. Some of the bids I received were well into the four figures. (Editing is expensive, but a good editor is worth every penny.)

Lish wanted to see my first 10 pages. This initial consultation would show me the kind of work she did and help us both determine if she was the right fit.

I have to admit, I was a wee bit nervous sending the beginning of my book to TeamDamnation, Lish’s email address.

She writes horror, after all. Would she be bored to death by my realistic and relatively quiet story?

Any doubts I had were put to rest by the detailed line-edit I got back. Far from being bored, she told me that a lot was happening in my first 10 pages. Too much. I needed to slow way down, expand some summary into scenes, add sensory and time/place details, and show more of my protagonist’s thoughts and feelings. She also thought I could use a better title than The Leaving Year.

While I was disappointed she didn’t like my title, I was thrilled with her suggestions. I knew I’d have my work cut out for me, but this was the kind of feedback I needed.

I sent her the entire manuscript, and waited none too patiently for her “notes” to come back.

Less than a month later, they showed up in my inbox along with my marked-up novel. I swallowed hard and opened the first attachment, her letter to me.

Lish didn’t start off by saying that she loved or even liked my book, and I had to remind myself that I wasn’t paying her to do that. If I wanted praise, I could go back to my mother.

No, she started off by advising me how to take editing, not just hers, but edits in general. As a former newspaper reporter, I was no stranger to editing, even harsh editing. Still, I appreciated her sensitivity.

“It can be overwhelming and disheartening (to receive an edit),” she wrote. “Any time that happens, take a deep breath and remember that you finished a draft of a novel and anything that needs to be fixed, you can handle. For some perspective I usually do about eight drafts of a novel, not counting copy edits. Some authors do more, some less. I’m finishing up my fourth book and I still get overwhelmed and discouraged every time I read my editing notes for the first time.”

With that introduction, I expected her to break it to me gently that my novel sucked, but she didn’t. Her advice was constructive and her comments kind, but not overly so. She noted what she liked as well as what needed more clarity or fleshing out. Her edits were heavier at the beginning because she didn’t want to keep repeating herself on some common problems. Also, she thought I hit my stride as the plot progressed.

She had many more observations, pretty much all of them spot-on. At no point, did she suggest I burn it and start over.

Once I’d digested her margin notes, we met for coffee, and she spent two hours answering my questions and, truth be told, reassuring me.

She’d been there, done that: the despair, the self-doubt, the painful cutting of much precious prose and even an entire villain. It’s a process, she added, so no effort spent working on your book is wasted.

Until, of course, you reach absolute burn-out blindness with your words and can’t tell up from down.

Now that I’ve had this months-long hiatus and Lish’s edit, I’m ready to tackle Round, um, whatever. I’ve lost count. But my faith is restored, and I will see this novel through. Mark my words.

Photo credit: Laura Ritchie

The things they left behind

 

 

The teenage protagonist in my novel begins her search for the truth by going through her mother’s closet. Ida hopes to find out something about her missing father, but instead turns up a box of baby things, including a memory book and a fancy blue dress her mother sewed for her.

Seeing these special things again gives her a little thrill. She’s grieving and takes comfort in the familiar. Yet the scene is probably more revealing of the mother, Christine’s character. What she chose to keep, after a massive purging of the house, is evidence of her love.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the things we save and why. Off and on for the last two weeks, I’ve been cleaning out my own mother’s house following her move to a retirement home.

Having long outlived her parents, sister and two brothers, my mother inherited the house and all its contents, including more than three generations’ worth of letters, photos, documents, memorabilia, bric-a-brac and just plain junk.

Now that she’s moved out, the final clean-out falls to me, her only child, and my husband, Mark, who generously volunteered to help.

Every day of going through drawers and cabinets, garment bags and boxes has turned up a new find, another oddity, though nothing as dramatic as the family secret Ida eventually uncovers. (You’ll have to read the book.)

Sorting through the things my relatives left behind brings their stories and personalities into better focus. Some of the weirder items they chose to keep had me running to my mother with questions. She’s more than eager to tell me what she knows, but even she can’t explain the pretty Avon gift box with the single bullet rattling around inside.

She suspects it may have belonged to her brother, Tommy. I never met my Uncle Tommy, but here’s what I found out about him:

He liked to tease the family’s pet ducks, Donald and Dolly, but he was always sweet to my mother, his kid sister.

He loved all things military and collected WWII memorabilia, including pins, insignias and, yes, bullets. I tried but couldn’t find a large shell I remember from my childhood. It was at least five inches long and an inch thick, and heavy. My mom thinks it may have been inside a chest of drawers she sold.

Ironically, it was a bullet that killed my uncle. Mom doesn’t want me spilling the details, but it wasn’t war related.

Though violent and untimely, Tommy’s death wasn’t as obviously tragic as Donny’s. My mother’s younger brother never made it into adulthood. He was only six when a friend dared him to walk out on thin ice.

The blurry photo of him that my mother kept on her mantle shows a wild-haired, grinning boy in motion (hence the blur).

“He was the sweetest kid,” she says.

Of the four children, Mom’s older sister, Jean, seemed the most blessed. She was smart (according to the school report cards my grandmother stashed away) and such a talented artist and seamstress that she might have been a successful clothing designer. But she went to work for Boeing, along with her husband, and poured her creative energies into lavish holiday get-togethers.

Upstairs, in a box of old Christmas stuff, I found what I believe to be her handiwork: a brandy snifter made into a Santa Claus candy dish. The lid is a Styrofoam head with cotton beard and red felt hat dangling a jingle bell. It looks a little worse for wear, but I’m saving it to remember what Christmas used to be like.

When my aunt died at age 49 from cancer, I think she took my childhood love of the holiday with her.

My grandmother could be as sour and reclusive as my aunt was sunny and sociable. Losing your husband (at 50 to pneumonia) and three of your four children will do that to a person.

The woman I called “Nana” helped raise me after my mom divorced my dad. She was often angry — not at me, but at the world of money-hungry men, particularly in the Church and what she called “the medical establishment”.

My husband found a typed, four-page letter addressed simply to “Gentlemen” that blames the nation’s ills on Catholic leaders, “the legislature”, the AMA (American Medical Association) and anyone who would oppose birth control and death with dignity. She describes the latter as “putting (people with no quality of life) mercifully to sleep.”

“Who wrote this?” Mark asked. “It’s like an early feminist manifesto.”

That would be my nana. All the relatives knew not to mention religion or doctors around her. Today, as I scan her letter (I couldn’t read it all), I’m reminded of how incredibly strong, smart and somewhat exhausting she could be.

She did have a tender side, though, as evidenced by all the letters and cards from others that she tucked away. Boxes and boxes of them. Photographs, too. Today’s over-sharing, social-media generation has nothing on my grandmother.

Among the snapshots she kept is one of a familiar-looking girl, skinny and knob-kneed – “delicate” someone once called my mother — yet she’s the only one to make it into old age. At 80, the survivor’s guilt weighs on her still.

I pick up an early photo of her with a group of friends. They appear not to have a care in the world. Could this be the same woman who saved more than four decades’ worth of bank statements?

After years of living alone, battling depression and anxiety, my mother’s finally in a place where her social, playful side can come out again. She says she sometimes feels like she’s on vacation.

I’m happy she’s happier. Her house was in the process of falling down around her, yet she was loath to leave it — not resistant, just scared. Change has never been easy for her, and this was a BIG change.

Truth be told, the process of moving my mother and cleaning out her house hasn’t been that bad . . . well, except for all those glass jars filled with dead spiders in the basement. . . Why my grandmother saved those, I’ll never know.

I need to give my mother credit for getting rid of a lot of stuff before I had to. What she could have purged but didn’t were my (bad) arts and crafts projects, early newspaper articles, prom dress, graduation gown, and multiple photos of me being bathed in the kitchen sink. I was bald. My ears stuck out. I looked like Bert Lahr, who played the Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz movie (see my first blog post), but I was loved . . . am loved.

What do the things you’ve kept say about you? Please comment below!