Friday, July 31, 2009

These (Anxiety) Dreams go on when I Close my Eyes

School starts in a little over a week. Even without the date starred on the calendar, I can feel it looming. My psyche is reminding me in its usual twisted way. Every year about this time, my sub-conscious mind starts working out my anxiety in my dreams. Last night was a doosy.

I was sitting on a dais with two of my colleagues and President Obama. One of my colleagues leans over and whispers that the President is expecting me to say a few words. I am thrown into a panic, and reach under the table to pull out a yellow legal pad. Why there were office supplies under the table is a mystery. Once one is having dinner with President Obama, why quibble over the weird details? I begin to write, and the words flow like water over the page. I don't remember what these amazing words were, but at the time I knew what I had written was damn good. I'm feeling confident, and I stride to the podium, smiling at the President and all the people in the audience...which was huge by the way. I lay my yellow sheets of mind-blowing prose on the podium and open my mouth to speak.

Nothing comes out.

I struggle to say hello, to say my name, to say anything, and I am struck completely mute. I look around and everyone is waiting patiently, unaware of of my problem. I can't even speak to tell them something is wrong. In my head, I'm screaming, and I woke sitting straight up and sweating. Hello anxiety dream.

This is a new variation. Usually my anxiety dreams involve school a little more directly. I've dreamed that I have no books or furniture. I've dreamed that I'm supposed to teach a subject about which I know nothing. I've dreamed I have no rosters and 100 kids in my room. I had these dreams in college as well. Before a big test, I would dream that I couldn't find the classroom, and I knew I was going to be late, or I would get to the class and realize I was still in my pajamas.

I know other teachers have these dreams as well. I was at a meeting on Wednesday, and a teacher who has been teaching 20 years told me she still has anxiety dreams. She dreamed she couldn't find an administrator to give her a schedule, and then she missed all of her classes.

At the root of the dreams is anxiety about being prepared. I am going into my 12th year as a teacher. I could do the first week of school with one hand tied behind my back. I have that routine down. What's more, it's my favorite part of the school year. I love the first weeks when the honeymoon is still going strong. My fresh-faced ninth graders are all excited to be in high school, and I get to reinvent myself and my curriculum all over again. I have no reason to be anxious.

Still, becoming mute in the face of an audience indicates a certain level of anxiety. Throwing Obama and writing into the mix makes me wonder what else is on my sub-conscious mind. I'm not going to examine it too closely. I'm going to enjoy the last couple of days of summer break lost in my manuscript, and then next week I'm going to prepare for my darlings with a positive attitude. And I'm going to speak out loud...a lot. :)

Wednesday, July 29, 2009


Have you ever found inspiration in an unlikely place? Rachelle Gardner, a literary agent who represents Christian fiction writes about finding moral truth in an episode of Desperate Housewives. The tone of her piece is almost apologetic, as if she needs to justify watching the show. I don't find it at all strange. I think inspiration is all around us.

My favorite TV shows are talent-based reality shows. Yes, I am an American Idol geek. Right now, I'm into So You Think You Can Dance. Top Chef, Project Runway, The Next Food Network Star...I'm there for all of them. I love to watch people brave enough to live their dream. They take their talent, the thing that brings them joy, and they put it out there for everyone to judge. That takes incredible courage. Sure, some of them are delusional, but even the delusional ones are living. Some folks walk through life every day thinking about their dreams, but never taking a chance. I am inspired by these shows, and I refuse to be apologetic about it.

The trailer for the movie, Julia and Julie looks like something I would enjoy. I like the idea of the girl being inspired by Julia Childs to write her blog. Nothing blows up, so I'll probably have to wait for the DVD to see it, but I'm looking forward to it.

I'm routinely inspired by books. Laurell K. Hamilton made me want to write. I love her books, and her blog posts on her writing process fascinate me. JR Ward, Charlaine Harris, Kim Harrison, and Rachel Vincent inspire me. Their characters and worlds are rich, and I love disappearing into them. Steve Berry and James Rollins inspire me. I learn so much when I read their books. I'm planning a "what I read this summer" post, and Rollins' book was one of my favorites.

Silas House inspires me. His characters' voices are so strong, they leap right off the page. My friend, Lisa, pointed me to Silas' blog. He has a two-part essay there called "A Different Kind of Christian." His writing is powerful, and what he says is great food for thought.

My family inspires me. My dad is a retired business owner. He works with an organization called SCORE to help people start their own businesses. He works primarily with women. So far he has helped 5 women start their own businesses. He told me there are a lot of women out there with talent who aren't being paid what they're worth. He gives them the tools to remedy that. I'm proud of him.

My husband inspires me with his dedication to his players that goes way beyond the field. My kids inspire me with their questions about books, and friends, and girls, and life. They remind me what it was like to be young when everything seemed so much more urgent.

Inspiration is everywhere. You simply have to be open enough to see it.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Those who can, Teach

Fair warning: This blog post is a major rant.

I am a writer. I'm proud of that, and I'm working hard to hone my craft. Right now, I'm still in the aspiring author category. Writing feeds my soul, but it does not pay my bills. Teaching pays my bills.

I am a teacher, and I am VERY proud of that label. I just read a blog post by a published writer whose work I admire. He repeated a maxim that we teachers hear often. "Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach." Normally, I chalk that statement up to ignorance and the speaker's own need to boost their self-importance by belittling someone else. I'm usually able to let it roll off my back and move on, but to hear those words from a writer makes me ill.

That statement contains two erroneous premises, one explicit and one implied. The explicit premise is that teachers are teaching because they are incapable of doing the thing they teach. This premise is inherently stupid. If I couldn't write, how in the hell could I teach someone else to write? Writing isn't some theoretical pursuit that happens in the abstract. Every writer out there, including the misguided author who made the statement, knows this. I wonder if this writer has ever offered to critique a colleague's work? How would he be able to offer any guidance at all if he could not write himself? Every time I sit down with a student, I'm essentially critiquing their writing.

The implied premise is what really crawls all over me. Essentially, it says that teaching is a fall-back position that anyone with even the most rudimentary knowledge of a given content area can do. Saying that those "who can't, teach" fails to acknowledge that teaching requires an entirely different skill set from the subject being taught. My best friend is a math teacher in the army reserves where she is a drill Sargent. She tells me about some of her fellow drill Sargents who scream in a private's face for doing a task wrong, but don't teach them how to do it right. She can see they don't know how to break the task down and explain it to someone else. She often goes quietly behind them and teaches the poor kid how to correctly perform the task. She is a teacher. She owns that skill set.

As an English teacher, I have to assess each student's proficiency level as a reader or writer, determine what steps should be taken to move that student forward, implement those steps, and then assess the degree to which those steps succeeded. That student comes to me for an hour each day in a class of 30 other students who require the same attention. I'm a tremendous reader and a good writer, but those skills are only half of what I need to do my job. This is why one in three teachers leave the profession within five years of entering it. The better maxim might be "those who can't stand the heat get the hell out of the kitchen."

I expect the self-important, entitled, ignorant assholes of the world not to understand the satisfaction gained from improving their communities through service. I'm just floored to hear this statement from someone who so obviously benefited from good teachers on the way to his success. Writing is an act of creation that requires sweat and hard work, but reaching the end of a story, novel, research paper successfully can produce a unrivaled natural high. Teaching is also an act of creation. Providing the opportunity and guidance for a student to acquire a skill that will enrich the rest of their lives is an incredible act of creation. It happens incrementally and usually quietly, but the ripples are infinite.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A Question of Genre

The house is quiet. Bruce is at work, the kids are off doing their own thing, and the only sound is the steady rain on the windows and my fingers tapping the keyboard. This is the best time to write.

I made some progress on Crimson Crimes today, and I'm always pleased to be moving forward. I'm struck though by how much slower this is going than Sapphire Sins. I read a beautifully written blog by romance novelist Teresa Medeiros about the genre, and in a tangential way, her post gave me a theory on why writing this book is harder than the first.

The romance genre encompasses a wide range of characters and stories, but the basic structure is always the same. Girl meets boy, obstacles block their happiness, obstacles are overcome, happy ending. Sapphire Sins follows the rule. Now don't get me wrong. Rule-following does not translate to boring. I love my characters, and I think I did something different within the paranormal subgenre of romance. But because I followed the basic romance rule, I always knew the ending.

Crimson Crimes is a sequel. I really did love my characters in Sapphire Sins, and while they found their happily ever after, the future was uncertain. This book is my attempt to see what happens after happily ever after. I've stirred the pot in my couple's relationship, added new villains, a mystery, and girlfriend issues. Extending a love story is not a new or revolutionary idea. Some of my favorite authors keep the same characters searching for happily ever after in book after book. An example that comes immediately to mind is Rachel Vincent. Her characters, Faythe and Marc, have been fighting for happiness through four books. Pride and Prey, her third and fourth books, have gut-wrenching endings, but left me absolutely begging for more when I hit the end.

Here's the thing. Rachel's books aren't shelved in the romance section of the bookstore. They are considered fantasy, or more accurately, urban fantasy. I'm beginning to suspect I've inadvertently switched genres mid-stream. Without the built-in structure of romance, I'm floundering a little. I'm not sure how the thing ends, and so as I build to the climax, I feel blind. I know how the mystery ends, and I know the fate of my villains. It's the relationship stuff that has me flummoxed. How open do I leave the end? Is there another story after this one? I'm pretty sure there is, but everything I write in this series is predicated on selling Sapphire Sins. If I don't sell Sapphire Sins, should I rewrite this to stand alone? Should I just move on to a different idea? Should I quit worrying about what's going to sell and write what's in my heart?

I think the answer to the last question is yes. I fantasize about seeing my books on the shelf at Barnes & Noble, but ultimately, I'm going to write even if I never see them there. I'll keep plodding along with my characters and hoping for a happy ending. I'm a romantic at heart. I always have been. Regardless of the evidence I've seen to the contrary, I believe in happily ever after. Sometimes you have to slog through a lot of crap to get there, but it's the crap that makes the happily ever after so sweet.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Air and light and time and space

I ran across this poem on Janet Reid's blog. It blew me away.

Air and light and time and space
By Charles Bukowski

“-you know, I’ve either had a family, a job, something
has always been in the
but now
I’ve sold my house, I’ve found this
place, a large studio, you should see the space and
the light.
For the first time in my life I’m going to have a place and the time to

No baby, if you’re going to create
you’re going to create whether you work
16 hours a day in a coal mine
you’re going to create in a small room with 3 children
while you’re on
you’re going to create with part of your mind and your
body blown
you’re going to create blind
you’re going to create with a cat crawling up your
back while
the whole city trembles in earthquake, bombardment,
flood and fire.

Baby, air and light and time and space
have nothing to do with it
and don’t create anything
except maybe a longer life to find
new excuses

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Chicken Run

Have you ever wondered where your grilled chicken sandwich comes from? Me neither, but I found out last weekend. My stepmom's family has a fairly large chicken operation on their farm. They have a contract with Perdue and supply them with 160,000+ chickens every nine to ten weeks. After a day at the swimming lake, my stepmom's sister thought the boys might enjoy seeing the chickens.

To say I was uneasy would be an understatement. I'm not a vegetarian...never have been, never will be. At the same time, my attitude is that a little ignorance about the origin of your barbecue can be a good thing. I'm not sure what I expected, maybe thousands of chickens crammed into tiny cages. I remember the brouhaha between Pam Anderson and KFC, and I really didn't want to see something awful. I did not bring the subject of Pam Anderson up to my stepmom's family. To compare a life of bouncing one's boobs on the beach to the hard work of eeking out a living on a small independent farm seemed disrespectful to the nth degree, but the thought did cross my mind. What I actually saw was fascinating, not at all horrible.

The chickens come to the farm a day or two after they hatch. Jackie told us sometimes the shell is still attached. The chickens we saw had been there about four weeks, and apparently this is their ugliest stage. They had just lost their chick down, but hadn't filled in all of their feathers yet. Imagine a naked vulture head on a skinny white body, and you'll have the idea. Each of the giant buildings on the farm contains between 20,000 and 24,000 chickens. The chickens are not in cages. They roam freely about the floor of the building, and they were all around us as Jackie showed us his automated feeding and watering system.

The building was dark. Dim lights lined the low ceilings, but after coming out of the bright sunshine it was tomblike. Turns out the chickens like it that way. Bright lights freak them out. Jackie shined a pen light on a group of them and they all hit the deck, flattening themselves against the ground and going completely still. I guess they thought they were hiding from us. My younger son was reminded of the movie Chicken Run.

I've been told that nothing stinks like a chicken farm, but I have to say I've smelled worse. Large fans at either end of the football field sized building kept the air circulating, and Jackie told us the sawdust on the floor does something to minimize the smell. They clean the buildings between each flock and sell the fertilized sawdust mixture to other farms. Those farmers spread it on their fields. How's that for environmentally friendly? Now, lest I mislead you, the place did not smell like a rose garden, but it was tolerable.

The creepiest part of the experience was the sound. The air circulators were loud, but not loud enough to cover the chicken noises. Imagine 24,000 chickens making a low warbling sound. Now add the clicking of their beaks against the bottom of the feeder trays. Warbling and clicking, punctuated by the occasional flap of feathers, as a sea of ugly white birds circled us in the dark. A good start for a story I think.

Jackie was honest and said I wouldn't enjoy touring Perdue's processing plant. I believe him and intend to remain happily ignorant on that part of the chicken's journey. All in all, it was interesting. My boys surprised me by asking a lot of questions, and none of us were turned off by the visit. To prove the point, we returned to my dad's house and enjoyed a delicious meal of barbecue chicken, baked beans, and potato salad.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Swimming with the fishes

I visited my dad and stepmom in the town where I grew up this past weekend. I hesitate to call it my hometown anymore because I haven't lived there since I graduated from high school, and that was a long time ago. Early in my post-college years, we moved around some. I lived in Cincinnati for a while. We did a brief stint in Pittsburgh, but Georgetown feels more like my hometown than anywhere else. I went to college here. My kids are growing up here. I'm entrenched in this community.

I still enjoy visiting my childhood hometown, though, and some visits are more nostalgic than others. My stepmom's family has a farm, and so we spent this visit in the country. I actually grew up on a farm, but Bruce tells me on a regular basis he feels somehow cheated. I kill everything I try to grow, and I have no desire to ever live more than five minutes from groceries. The thought of my 17 year old driving back country roads the way I did when I was 17 makes me cringe.

But I digress. My stepmom's family has created a swimming lake on their farm. An old wooden dock floating on giant drums sits midway across the water. You can swim out or cross the walkway. The walkway lists to the right, so if you have poor balance, you might end up swimming anyway. They've dug a section deep enough for a high dive. A rope is tied to the platform so you can pull yourself up the muddy bank when you want to take the plunge.

Suffice it to say this was an entirely new experience for the city boys I call my children. Except for the occasional trip to the ocean, their swimming experiences have been confined to heavily-chlorinated bodies of water enclosed in concrete. I wasn't sure if they would even get in the water, but they are after all boys, and it was a hot afternoon. All was well until they realized they shared the lake with fish. When one curious bluegill nipped at my younger son's leg, I thought he was going to walk on water in his hurry to regain dry land. The other boys followed, and for a while all they did was throw bread in the water to get the fish to surface. Eventually they found a fishing rod, and my older son's friend caught a small fish from the high dive.

The fish kept them out of the water for an hour or so, but like I said, they are boys, and eventually they dared each other back into the water. My merciless teasing probably had something to do with it as well. (Yes, I know...mother of the year.) After swimming for a while and not being eaten, my older son had a moment of brilliance. "Let's catch a fish while we're IN the water." I laughed at them...a lot, but my son is nothing if not inventive. Armed with only hotdog buns and a net, they laid their trap. They got vewwy, vewwy quiet, placed the net under a mass of soggy, floating buns, and waited. They ignored the adults' amused commentary from the bank. Three of them circled on rafts while my son, the mastermind, stayed in the water with his prey. They waited until the adults lost interest in teasing them, and then they waited some more.

Can you guess what happened? Yep. My son made like the crocodile hunter and caught a fish in that net while he was treading water next to it. I'll never laugh at his harebrained ideas again. Okay, maybe I will, but I was pretty darn impressed. That pride lasted as long as it took him to launch the poor fish halfway across the lake as part of his catch and release plan.

My boys won't trade the city life for country living anytime soon (neither will I), but it was a fun weekend. Everyone should swim with the fishes once in a while.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Hard Work Pays Off

I had one of those wonderful breakthrough moments today. After being monumentally blocked on my WIP, I wrote 2,000 words today. That translates to roughly 10 pages. Letting it sit for six weeks helped. Rereading from the beginning helped. The devil is in the details, and I picked up on several forgotten details in the reread, especially where my villain is concerned. The accomplishment felt extremely satisfying because I stared at p.254 for weeks having no clue how to get to p. 255. I'm there and then some. Woo Hoo!

Achievements based on the sweat of your brow always feel better. My youngest son came home from New Hampshire last weekend. He visited his grandparents and went to football camp at Dartmouth. This was his second football camp of the summer. The first was here at Georgetown College where Bruce is a coach. He loved the Dartmouth camp because after doing well enough on the first day to practice the rest of the week with the varsity (He's a rising freshman), he felt like he totally owned the accomplishment. He wasn't Coach Owens' kid. He was just another kid in camp, the one from Kentucky with the funny accent. His hard work all summer (albeit with his dad and his dad's college players) paid off.

I'm still a little giddy from the day's work. I may go back and delete half of it later, but I'm moving again. I'm gonna make like Dear Abby and dispense some advice. If you have a task looming over you, keep plugging away. It feels so good when you finally push through and get it done.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Avoidance, or I'll get right on that...tomorrow

My summer break is half over. I've rewritten the first three chapters of Sapphire Sins and given it yet another thorough edit. I've rewritten my query letter, synthesizing the massive amount of info out here in blog-land. I'm now in waiting mode.

It's definitely time to move on to my WIP (tentatively titled Crimson Crimes). My second summer goal was to finish the first draft. Unless the muse sits down in this chair with me and starts whispering in my ear, I'm beginning to have doubts about goal #2. Every time I start to open the file, I find something else to do. I was so blocked when I stopped working on it back in the spring that I'm dreading going back. And if there is one thing in this world in which I'm VERY proficient, it's avoidance.

I know I have a good working premise. I read widely in my genre, and I haven't seen anything similar. So points to me for originality. The problem, of course, is I can't figure out how to get from where I am to where I want to go. I despise convenient plot twists that aren't plausible, the ole deus ex machina, and all my attempts at transitioning so far have fallen into that category. I need a bridge that makes sense. I suspect I'm going to have to backtrack and do a lot of deleting and rewriting.

I'm approximately 60,000 words in which translates to just under 2/3 complete. My plan is to start by rereading what I've written and resist the urge to edit as I go. Editing at this stage of the game is just another form of avoidance. Trust me. When a writer chooses editing over first draft writing, there is some serious avoidance going on. I haven't read my draft in six weeks. (I know...six weeks???!!?? Tell me that's not some serious avoidance.) I'm hoping enough time has passed that I'll have some perspective and I'll be able to see where I went wrong and how I can move forward.

I'm finishing this blog entry so that I can start that reread...right after I go get something to eat.

Friday, July 3, 2009

How Much is Too Much?

I just finished Charlaine Harris' most recent Sookie Stackhouse novel, Dead and Gone. These are the novels on which the HBO series, TrueBlood, is based. My friend, Amanda, is a huge fan of the series, but I have to admit I haven't seen it. I've been a fan of the Sookie books for several years, though. I borrowed Amanda's copy of the book, and when she dropped it off, she told me she didn't like this one as much as some of the previous books. I actually liked the book a lot, but I was bothered a little by the end, and that's my topic for today.

How much graphic violence is too much? When is it not enough?

This book contained some intense violence, and I've been thinking about Harris' approach to those scenes since I finished it. She chose to avoid explicit details of what was happening in favor of more broad impressions. The books are told from Sookie's point of view, and Sookie is a good southern girl. She believes in manners and tries very hard to be a lady and "a good Christian" even though she is pragmatic when she has to be. From that perspective, I can see why Sookie wouldn't be explicit in describing the violence. (I'm trying very hard to avoid spoilers.) In one particularly awful scene, she tells us her mind didn't disconnect even though she wanted it to, but her description of what is happening is extremely disconnected, so disconnected in fact, I felt removed from the scene as a reader.

I'm not a fan of extremely graphic violence. Nothing makes me turn off a movie faster than intense, in-your-face violence. I'm not talking about the cartoonish stuff of most action movies. The scale of that kind of violence is so large that it's hard to feel personally connected to it. Usually it's the up close and personal violence that I abhor. Strangely, that's what was lacking in Dead and Gone.

In a first person POV book, I don't want to be disconnected from what the protagonist is feeling. The last several chapters were action-packed, and Harris kills off some recurring characters and puts several very important characters in mortal danger. One of the anchor characters in the series comes within a hair's breadth of death. I actually had an "Oh crap" moment. She convinced me she was gonna kill him off, and yet Sookie seemed like she was having an out-of-body experience.

Maybe I was supposed to feel disconnected because Sookie did, but Sookie explicitly said she couldn't disconnect from the pain and the horror. Maybe Sookie couldn't be trusted as a narrator because of the traumatic nature of what she was experiencing. I know Harris can write those scenes. Several books back in the series, there is an explosion in which a building blows up and lots of people die. Sookie's horror was palpable in that book.

I really did like the book as a whole. I love Sookie's voice. When she talked about her friend's husband having a limited capacity for entertaining conversation, I cracked up. Southern folks are so good at saying something completely insulting in a polite way. I also like the way Sookie's relationship with Eric is progressing. I've always found him more attractive than Bill, so it should be interesting to see where Harris takes it.

I've been mulling over the violence question because in my writing I tend to be more explicit in the action, probably because I enjoy being completely pulled into the world of the book. I know inferred violence can be very effective, and to be fair there is a scene in Dead and Gone in which the inferred violence is horrifyingly appropriate. The werepanthers take care of a murderer, and we hear the action without seeing it. Very creepy. Charlaine Harris is a great writer, so I respect her decision to let us infer the violence. I would have made a different choice, but then she is the published writer, and I'm still a wannabe.