Archives: writing

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!

Learning to talk — Facing my fear of public speaking

 

I remember my first oral book report. It was that traumatic. I was in 3rd grade and I’d picked out a super-simple picture book to make it easy on myself. I think it was about frogs. With churning gut and clammy hands, I got up before all those faces and stood frozen while my heart galloped off in flight and my tongue turned to glue. The words I’d practiced in front of the mirror eventually tumbled out of my mouth, possibly in the wrong order, and everything shook — hands, legs, voice. Then it was over.

About all that can be said of my performance is that I didn’t throw up.

I’m sure my teacher took pity on me. Stage fright is cute when you’re nine years old. But I’m going to be 58 later this month, and my phobia isn’t so endearing now. Shouldn’t a woman who has spent her entire adult life working with words be able to speak in front of people?

Thankfully I didn’t have to do too much of that as a newspaper reporter or, later, as a public-relations professional. Most of my interactions were one-on-one. I’m perfectly comfortable asking nosy questions of strangers. But put me in front of an audience, and my lizard brain takes over. Complex thinking goes out the window.

Think I’m being too hard on myself? Consider my experience as part of a panel at a professional conference in the 1990s. I was one of three education reporters addressing a room full of public-relations people representing colleges and universities. We were supposed to give them insights on how they could get more press for their institutions. I was nervous and ill-prepared. My mistake. In introducing myself, I confessed that I received an inordinate amount of PR mail, most of which ended up in recycling.

I felt the air shift. The panelist next to me jumped in and turned on her southern story-telling charm, rolling out anecdote after anecdote, filling my  time, determined not to let me open my mouth again. Then the third panelist took his turn, and they had a fun back and forth, while I sat there pretty much ignored. They continued to ignore me even after the session ended and I tried to be friendly.

Public speaking leads to private shaming. Is it any wonder I prefer to hide inside my turtle shell and let others do the talking?

The irony is, now that I’m home alone trying to write books, I can’t hide any longer. Writing is the art of introverts, it’s true, but at some point, you have to get out there and promote your book if you want anyone outside of your immediate family to read it. Following my novel’s release, I hope to give readings at a couple of Puget Sound-area book stores, including the one two blocks from my house. Such events are de rigueur for authors, but my stomach twists at thought. Flashback to third grade and that disastrous panel discussion.

That’s why I’ve decided, at long last, to get help.  I’ve turned to an organization I first heard about from my 83-year-old mother. Toastmasters began in 1905 as a YMCA club to teach men (women weren’t allowed until 1973) “how to speak, conduct meetings, plan programs and work on committees,” according to their website.

Toastmasters International, as it’s now known, currently has more than 345,000 members and 15,900 clubs in 142 countries. Looking up clubs within a five-mile radius of my north Seattle home, I found 50, including two within easy walking distance. Obviously, a whole lot of people want to become “more effective communicators and leaders.”

I don’t know about the leadership part, but I’d like to be able to read from my book without shaking.

So last week, I went to my first meeting. The website for the Notable Northgaters Club spoke to me:

“We know that many people are afraid of public speaking. You might be afraid to visit. We promise we don’t bite, and we also promise that you will not have to give a speech when you visit! . . . We are truly friendly and want to make sure you are comfortable when you come to visit.”

The club meets Wednesday evenings in the basement of a church. I walked in and was immediately greeted by a gentleman (the Toastmaster/host), who asked me if I’d ever been to a meeting. When I said “no,” he seated me next to a woman who introduced herself as Linda and told me what to expect, including my role as a first-time guest, i.e., I could choose to participate or not, and I could come to as many free meetings as I wanted. Super low pressure.

She told me she’d joined Toastmasters because she was applying for work and wanted to be more confident in job interviews. Poised and personable, she seemed to have more than met her goal. I would have hired her on the spot.

After the Toastmaster made formal introductions, a young man, who happened to be the outgoing club president, gave a spirited speech on hip hop. As I understand it, members work their way through manuals, achieving certain milestones or awards by delivering different types of speeches. This particular presentation was to show the speaker’s use of visual and/or audio aids.

Every speech is critiqued by an evaluator who takes notes and a grammarian and “um counter” who listens for grammatical errors and filler words. There’s also a member who keeps track of time, switching on lights (green, yellow, red) to tell the speaker if he or she is about to run over.

It sounds intimidating, but the meeting I attended was buoyantly positive, with frequent laughter and regular applause. (Clapping not only shows appreciation, it also wakes people up, the Toastmaster explained to me.)

At the end of the meeting, I felt so good I actually took the Toastmaster up on his invitation to comment.

“I have a hard time imagining any of you as beginners,” I said, getting proud smiles and a few chuckles. “I’m in awe. You’ve given me something to aspire to. I found this very enjoyable.”

I’d said less than 30 words, yet everyone clapped as if I’d given a speech.

Hm, that was actually kind of fun, I thought as I walked to my car.  I think I’ll be back.

Note to readers: I know I’ve been erratic of late with my  blog. My book journey is picking up steam, and life is about to get much busier. That’s a good thing, but it means less frequent posts for the near future (monthly vs. twice a month). I hope you’re enjoying my ramblings. Please keep those comments coming because I LOVE to hear from you!

Photo credit: Pete

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

Camp NaNoWriMo is my kind of roughing it

 

 

I participated in my first National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) last November and . . . not sure “loved” is the right word . . . Let’s just say I got caught up in the crazy, can-do spirit of it all and learned I can crank out the words if you give me a goal, encouragement, nifty progress charts and coffee — lots and lots of coffee.

This month, I’m doing Camp NaNoWriMo with the aim of whipping my first novel, The Leaving Year, into shape for a final (I really mean it this time) round of submissions. I’m about 100 pages into a tune-up of my protagonist’s character arc, which, according to one agent, slipped around too much.

So far so good. I’m enjoying the Camp, which organizers bill as “an idyllic writers retreat smack-dab in the middle of your crazy life.”

It’s more flexible and less intense than NaNoWriMo:  The November main event gives you one goal — a 50,000-word novel – while the camp allows you to set any bar (words, hours, pages, even lines) on any writing project.

And, just like NaNoWriMo, you get a lot of on-line goodies, including:

  • nifty progress charts
  • virtual write-ins
  • writing advice
  • writing forums
  • prompts and exercises
  • pep talks from published authors

The Camp theme is fun. Participants join virtual cabins with 19 like-minded others. Mine is a “mixed” cabin of writers working on drafting and revision. With project names like “Night of the Sasquatch,” “Ghosts” and “Becoming Dawn,” I know I’m in creative company. And best of all, nobody snores!

I should add that everything NaNo is FREE, but you are asked to contribute to the cause. Here’s a bit more about their mission and programs from the website:

National Novel Writing Month . . . believes your story matters. We know that writing makes the world a more creative, vibrant place. Through NaNoWriMo, Camp NaNoWriMo, and the Young Writers Program, we work hard to empower and encourage that vibrant creativity. And, we can’t do it without writers like you.

If you want to try Camp NaNo, but missed out this month, you can sign up for the second camp in July. By then, the sun and mosquitoes will be out, and you can make believe you’re doing the real thing.

So what’s your project or dream project? I’d love to hear from you in the comment section below.

Staying the creative course with a little help from my friends

 

I thought my novel, The Leaving Year, was done when I started my “final” round of queries to agents and publishers a year ago.

Now that I’ve been turned down by everyone who had expressed interest, I’m going through yet another major edit of a book that has already taken six years of my life. In the words of that Dolly Parton song, 9 to 5, “It’s enough to drive you crazy if you let it.”

Thank heaven for creative friends. I don’t belong to a writing group, but I’m able to call on a small circle of friends who are writers, artists and musicians, as well as a much larger group of online supporters (Thank you, She Writes!). They understand what it’s like to pursue dreams that require us to be both sensitive AND thick-skinned. They understand the pull, elation, grind and the frustration of the creative process. And they understand the disappointment of having work rejected — and the need to keep going in spite of it.

No, we’re not delusional to do this. Yes, our work matters.

That was the take-away from a recent conversation with two creative soulmates. In sharing our disappointments, we found camaraderie and hope.

One has been journaling, writing poetry and making up stories for decades, in addition to painting and doing collage – also with words. Her dream is to write and illustrate a children’s book, but the idea of submitting her work for publication scares her to death.

Despite encouragement from family and friends, she doesn’t think she measures up. “You have to be really, really good to do rhyme. It takes a lot of time and work,” she said, repeating the daunting feedback she got from a published author who had read one of her poems.

“I’m embarrassed to say I don’t believe in myself,” she said. “You have to be courageous (to put your work out there). But I think I’m getting closer.”

My other friend sang professionally for many years so she’s no stranger to rejection. She recently found a passion for painting landscapes and has produced many beautiful renditions of scenes and landmarks from her travels. Recently she was encouraged to apply to have her paintings shown in a gallery. She had high hopes, but the panel of artists evaluating her work turned her down.

“I was confused and hurt initially, especially since I was one of two chosen to present,” she said. “Funny how life will then restore confidence, first through friends and supporters, then by chance.”

She went to the open house at the Asian Art Museum and was inspired anew. “I saw the great force influencing my style,” she said. “I’ve got my mojo back.”

Even though I have no stake in my friends’ projects, I was genuinely relieved to hear that both of them had found a way forward. And I don’t see that bond weakening should one of us break through and achieve success, however we want to define it. I’m relatively sure we would all continue to support each other.

Writing coach and independent publisher Brooke Warner stresses the importance of building community in her guide, Green-light Your Book: How Writers Can Succeed in the New Era of Publishing. She lauds “literary ambassadors,” like author Elizabeth Gilbert, who work to pave the way for other writers.

“Another person’s success does not lessen the chances of your success,” Warner writes. “There’s enough to go around.”

She suggests that aspiring writers ask themselves the following question: “Why am I the person to be writing my book?

Applied more broadly, Why am I the person to be creating this painting/sculpture/piece of music/dance/poem/essay? Because my experiences and inspirations are unique to me. No one else can express them quite like I can.

To quote my singing/painting friend: “For all of us, it’s about answering the creative call and doing what we do. That sharing takes many forms and inspires us to keep going.”

What about you? What keeps your creative flame lit? Where have you found support? While you’re thinking on that, here are some words of wisdom and inspiration from several literary ambassadors who have helped me.

“Do whatever brings you to life . . . . Follow your own fascinations, obsessions, and compulsions. Trust them. Create whatever causes a revolution in your heart.”
― Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear

“Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.” — Stephen King

“Trust in what you love, continue to do it, and it will take you where you need to go.”
― Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within

Don’t look at your feet to see if you are doing it right. Just dance.”
― Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

 

photo credit: simpleinsomnia

Women ‘By the Wayside’ – An interview with author Anne Leigh Parrish

 

Like many writers, my foray into fiction began with short stories. I guess they’re easier to teach in the span of a college night course than novels, but I’m not sure they’re easier to master. The short story leaves no room for error.  They’re little diamonds, perfectly brilliant.

My friend, Anne Leigh Parrish, has mastered the form. Her work shines, and I’ve been fortunate to have her as a friend and writing mentor for 20 years.  We met at a University of Washington Extension course in literary fiction writing — not that she needed it. I remember my awe at learning that she’d already placed a story in the Virginia Quarterly Review.

Since that time, she’s published more than 40 short stories and four books, including one novel, What is Found, What is Lost (She Writes Press, 2014). Her second novel, Women Within, is forthcoming from Black Rose Writing.

By the Wayside (Unsolicited Press, 2017) is her third collection, and it’s another fine one.  With heart and honesty, she pulls you into the lives of women who are trying to move forward and find their true selves in spite of past hurts and those who would dismiss or deny their strengths.

As the title implies, they might start out sidelined by guilt, emotional-scaring and self-doubt, but by the end of the story, either manage to break free (in sometimes dramatic fashion) or arrive at a new understanding about themselves.

Parrish’s writing is spare, but she manages to convey the rich complexity of her characters and their lives with well-chosen details and spot-on dialogue.

In my favorite story, An Act of Concealment, the main character, Anna, is called upon to save her neighbor’s holiday dinner. It’s a seemingly innocent scene, but it reinforces the story’s theme of behind-the-scenes women who protect their family’s (read male) reputations even at the expense of their own.

Smoke begins with the observation that, when it comes to forest fires, “a healthy, living tree was harder to ignite.” It’s the perfect metaphor for a young woman so filled with hate and self-loathing that she can’t give or receive love.

I would describe Parrish as a feminist writer, but her message never feels heavy-handed. She tackles her most political subjects – racism and abortion – in short allegories with some humor.

Magic realism is also used to highlight how blind to the truth people can be. A genie pops out of an engaged couple’s spare-tire compartment (Trial by Luck) to grant them one wish, except these two can’t agree on anything.  In “How She was Found,” a young woman, Fiona, who has been living according to her father’s wishes, discovers an ancient skeleton while on an archaeological dig with a group of men. The men see the discovery in win/gain terms, but Fiona is so captivated by the possible life behind the skeleton that she hears it speak to her.

I could go on siting more stories I enjoyed, but I want to give Anne a chance to answer some questions.  So here we go:

First of all, congratulations on your third collection! What a productive year you’ve had. Is there a secret to your productivity or do you just superglue your butt to the chair and write until the bond wears off? (I’m kidding, sort of.)

Writing gets easier with time. It used to be an awful struggle. I think back to a story I wrote in 2003, “When Every Part of You Breaks.” This was a 5,000-word story that took me almost six months to nail down. I can’t imagine anything taking that long now. Also, my children are in their twenties, and that has meant a world of freedom for me. Having two books come out this year was something of a surprise. I was lucky enough to find two different publishers, one for the collection and one for the novel. I need to keep writing. If I’m not writing or pulling something apart and putting it back together, I just don’t feel right. With the recent launch of By The Wayside, having just finished the first exhaustive round of edits for the publisher of Women Within, and querying agents for my just completed novel, The Amendment, I‘ve got plenty to do in terms of tasks and marketing, but it’s not creative in the way that only writing can be. I can’t stay away too long.

Many of your stories are told from the point of view of girls or women struggling to overcome or escape oppression that is either self-inflicted (in the case of the adults) or inflicted upon them. Why is that?

I put this down to my emerging feminism. I’m obsessed with the boundaries and limitations imposed on women, both from within and without. Women sometimes can be their own worst enemies if they feel they have to live up to an unexamined ideal, one that really doesn’t work for them. They’ll always run into trouble that way, and I’m fascinated by the cognitive disconnect that can occur. Reproductive rights and issues are moving to the top of my list of manias, though the word “mania” implies a pejorative connotation I perhaps don’t intend.

I’m impressed by the range of situations and settings you present so convincingly in these stories. There’s the immigrant newlywed in Huron, North Dakota circa 1920 (An Act of Concealment); the anthropology major on an archaeological dig (How She Was Found); the woman researching mystics to better understand her troubled sister (The Keeper of the Truth); and girls growing up in poverty (The Lillian Girl) and privilege (Letters of Love and Hate). Where do you get your ideas and how much research are you doing to make them come alive?

With stories, an idea usually comes from an image, around which I build the narrative. In “An Act of Concealment,” the final scene was that image. In “How She Was Found,” it was the protagonist holding the skull, looking into its empty eye sockets, and so on. I had to do some research for that particular story, so I could name human bones correctly. As to “The Keeper of The Truth,” I looked up Tarot cards, and the various meanings they held. With “The Lillian Girl,” obviously I had to acquaint myself with the films of Lillian Gish; and for “Letters of Love and Hate,” there really wasn’t any research per se.

You’ve written many more short stories than you have novels. What keeps you coming back to the short form?  

The short form is a break from novel writing and all the marketing and promoting I have to do around my two titles releasing in 2017. Lately, I’ve gotten into flash, variously defined as a story under 1,500 words, or under 1,000 words. These are GREAT fun, and fairly easy to place, so there’s also the element of relatively quick gratification. I learned about writing from writing stories, so I think I’ll always write them, always come back to them. They just feel like home, if that makes sense.

 If you could share one major lesson you’ve learned from your years of writing and publishing, what would that be?

What really matters is whether you’ve written your story to your own satisfaction. There’s no point in being baffled by how someone interprets your work because people will experience it according to their own private paradigm and world-view, and you have no control over what they bring to it.

Can you give us the teaser for your forthcoming novel, Women Within?

For the curious reader, I can say that if feminism—or the female experience—is your thing, something you feel strongly about, you will want to read this book. I show women as caregivers, rape victims, mothers, daughters, failing in love, succeeding in life, struggling with accepted norms about how they should look and act, there’s even one character who poses as someone’s mother when she’s in truth something else (won’t spoil that moment for you).

What else can we expect from you?

The Amendment. This is my third novel, and a sequel to my linked short story collection from 2013, Our Love Could Light The World, where I introduced readers to the Dugan family. The protagonist, Lavinia, is a wry, cynical, feisty soul who suffers a sudden life change. She takes herself on a cross-country road trip and has several weird, sometimes hilarious encounters with strangers.

Thanks, Anne!

The writer’s life and why I need my sweat sisters

After last year's Iron Girl

After last year’s Iron Girl

 

We are thinking, social animals, happiest when we have a sense of purpose and belonging. Families, when they’re functional, provide this. So do our best workplaces, churches and schools, not to mention the Army.

Writing alone in a messy kitchen? Not so much.

We undiscovered, self-employed writers tell ourselves our work is important and has a purpose, but the truth is, no one really cares if we finish that story, novel or poem. And while we may belong to writers’ groups and organizations, mostly we’re writing for ourselves by ourselves. It can get damn lonely.

Which is why I’m about to do another triathlon.

You see, there’s a group involved, a wonderful group of supportive, like-minded women who love the challenge and camaraderie of training and competing in three sports — four, if you count the transitions between swimming, cycling and running.

The Black Diamond Sprint Triathlon this Saturday near Enumclaw will mark the end of my sixth (or is it seventh?) season training with my marvelous coach, Denise Geroux. Our group is in constant flux. Members come and go as life dictates, but several of us can’t imagine a summer without “tri-ing” or at least dropping in on a workout or two or three.

For the last couple of years, our group has included cancer survivors from Team Survivor Northwest, including a woman who has done more than 50 triathlons and now regularly wins her 70-and-older age division. A few other members placed in their age groups this year, but most of us are content just to finish our races without pain . . . and maybe, just maybe, shave a few seconds off last year’s time.

With triathlons, there’s always an element of danger. We sign waivers making sure we understand that participation involves risks, including “serious bodily injury, sickness and disease, permanent disability, paralysis and loss of life.”

I have a little experience with these dangers, having done a somersault over my handlebars in a training tri three years ago. It left me with a scarred shoulder and the nickname “Pambo.” (I was determined to finish the race until Denise talked me into a trip to the ER.)

It’s that risk, always in the background, that makes conquering this sport so sweet. Sharing that accomplishment with others is even sweeter.

We cheer and clap as each sweaty sister crosses the finish line. The looks on our faces in those post-race group photos is a mixture of relief, fatigue and euphoria.10393693_10204684516537532_8021776958556605575_n

I’m not exaggerating. Exercise triggers a release of hormones, including dopamine (think controlled substances), that fight depression, relieve stress, numb pain and boost focus and confidence. It’s one big happy pill.

For me, tri-ing with friends is the perfect antidote to the solitary brain drain of my chosen profession. I get out. I move. I sweat. I breathe. I belong. And when I come home, I’m relaxed, righteously sore, and that lonely laptop in my messy kitchen doesn’t look so daunting. I might even have the juice to write a few words.

What about you? How do you find purpose and belonging? What’s your natural happy pill? Please share your thoughts below.

Happy Birthday, Blog! 5 things you’ve taught me

 

My blog and website turned a year old on July 12. Since I forgot to celebrate, here’s a belated happy birthday to www.pamjmcgaffin.com!

I started blogging as a way to build that all-important author platform, which to me sounds very brick and mortar-ish but has more to do with growing an email list and letting people know that you do, in fact, exist. Obviously, I still have a lot to learn, but here are five insights I’ve gained so far.

  1. Hiring professionals can save you a lot of time and frustration if you don’t know what you’re doing. I know it’s technically possible to build your own website, but I’m not technically inclined. I knew nothing of WordPress or MailChimp. I didn’t know how to choose a good host or that I’d need to track my website traffic and protect against spam. I just recently learned what SEO stands for (still not completely sure how it works). I would rather clean scum from my refrigerator than work on computer issues, so I’m glad that Writing Coach Brooke Warner of She Writes Press and Kenny McNett of Fitted Web Design saved me the trouble with their “Sites on Summer” webinar last year. You made the process almost painless. Thank you!
  2. If you build it they will come – NOT. I don’t know what I was expecting. People didn’t flock to my site the second it went live. When I Googled my name (a self-indulgent habit), I didn’t get a thousand new hits. A website without promotion is like that tree falling in the forest. No one will know or care unless you tell them, and keep telling them, over and over again, any way you can — via social media, during dinner, while jogging, at other friend’s book signings . . . Really, you must lose all sense of shame.
  3. Blogging can be fun and give you a sorely needed feeling of accomplishment. Novels take a long time to write, but I can knock out a blog post in less than a day, two days if I’m being really fussy. My twice-monthly blog gives me the satisfaction of actually finishing something! That people like! To understand why that’s such a big deal, you need know a little about writing and submitting and how humbling it all is. In the last two weeks, I failed to win a contest (didn’t even get an honorable mention) and was turned down by a literary agency that had requested the first 50 pages of my novel. So keep those “likes” and comments coming. I will soak them up like a Bounty Quicker Picker Upper.
  4. Good content will keep them coming back, but it’s okay to mix things up. Over the last year, I’ve blogged about myself, my likes and dislikes, friends and family, the writing process, what’s inspired and helped me, and my efforts to get my first novel published. I don’t have an identifiable theme or format, and that’s okay for now, because I’m still learning, still discovering what resonates and what doesn’t. Different subjects pull in different readers (particularly if I’m linking to other sites). Every post is an opportunity to attract fans from near and far. I kid you not. According to Google Analytics, “sessions” on my site have come from 84 countries, including a couple I’ve never heard of. While I’d love to find a way to snare a reader in Mongolia or Iceland, I realize the first reader I have to engage is myself. If I like what I’m writing, if I’m being real and entertaining and occasionally practical, someone else will find value in it, too.
  5. Building an audience takes time, effort and gall. Confession time. After a year of blogging, I have a grand total of 23 subscribers, and six of them are family, including yours truly. (I practically had to bribe my sons to sign up, and they can’t be bothered to read my blog, even the posts about them!) I get it. People are bombarded with messages, and there are only so many hours in the day to dink around online. I, too, am guilty of reading an interesting post and ignoring the “subscribe” box that pops up like a conscience bubble. We don’t need or want any more emails, thank you, which is why I’m not above asking someone to subscribe to his or her face and handing over my business card. I know it sounds so 1980s, but it works. Note: If you’re not already one of my 17 non-family fans, feel free to prove me wrong by going to my contact page and signing up. It’s easy, and I promise not to inundate you with emails. Plus, you will get ABSOLUTELY FREE my “12 Tips to Saner, More Successful Writing… From My Three Decades of Trial and Error”. See what I mean about shameless?

Do you have a blog or plans to start one? Share the best thing you’ve learned or ask me a question. I’d love to hear from you!

 

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.

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.

Writing when SAD

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I’m more than two-thirds through an edit that I hope will make my young adult novel ready for the final round of submissions to agents and publishers. It’s been a hard, slow slog, but I like the changes I’ve made. The world I’ve created feels more tangible, the plot more plausible, and the troubled mother-daughter relationship at the center of my story rings truer.

So why do I feel so depressed?

Some days I can’t even bring myself to open the 87,000-word document titled “Leaving Year 4.” Instead, I’ll play an on-line Scrabble game, read emails and my Facebook news feed, do the dishes and the laundry, walk the dog, talk to my mother on the phone, fix dinner, ask the boys about their day and whether they have any homework, remind them to brush their teeth — all the while telling myself “I’ll get to it when ___, but when never comes, and I go to bed hating myself for wasting another day.

Is it laziness? Yes, in part. I’m so overwhelmed by all the work I’ve yet to do that I don’t do any at all. Or, I come to a summary paragraph that needs to be a scene, but I can’t face the need to drill down and tap into my deepest self so I can make my characters live and breathe. So I leave my computer to do something else, like load the dishwasher or grab a snack. And I never get back to the chair.

Even when the words flow, I doubt myself. “It’s too easy. It must be bad,” says the evil critic in my head.

Elizabeth Gilbert, in her best-selling book, Big Magic, blames fear for stifling creativity. (I’ve been waiting weeks to read a library copy because I’m too cheap to buy the hardback.) I’m sure that once I finally get to read it, I’ll recognize myself in her words. I am, after all, a perfectionist procrastinator extraordinaire.

It’s easier to keep that illusion of perfection in my head than to struggle with it on the screen. So I stop working or put it off. And end up hating myself. Who was it that said, “Writing is hard, but not writing is harder?”

I know I feel better about myself after I’ve written, even if it’s just a few paragraphs. So why has it been such a struggle lately to get my head in the game? I’m not sick, but my mood feels like it has the flu.

While taking a walk the other day, it dawned on me: It’s that time of year.

The hubbub of the holidays has passed, but the days are still short, the weather’s still stormy and spring feels like a remote promise. On this particular day, we’d just endured four straight days of rain and I’d been cooped up in the house with a restless dog, two non-communicative teenagers and a husband dealing with his own issues.

I’m depressed, I realized, because I’m depressed — as in clinically. I take medication for it. And most of the time it keeps my head above water, but during the bleak mid-winter, the water table rises too high and I’m sunk. My energy ebbs, my anxiety grows, I consume way too much sugar, caffeine and chocolate, and generally feel like s—t.

(By the way, I know some experts don’t put much stock in SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) as a legitimate diagnosis, but it’s real to me.)

So here I am a writer living in Seattle. Ah, the irony. I have to laugh.

On that walk, as I stepped around puddles and looked to the thin silver light of the sky, I realized I also have to forgive. Myself. Self-flagellation on my bad days won’t make them better or more productive, quite the opposite.

Now is the time for a little self-kindness. I need to get outside and walk, breathe the rain-freshened air and soak up all the lux I can. If that means stepping away from the page to walk the dog or going for a run instead of tackling a rewrite, so be it. Because here’s what I know. The days are getting longer, and I will finish editing my book.

 

Photo credit: Maelick

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