Monday, October 31, 2011

I must be out of my mind!

NaNoWriMo starts tomorrow, and as I map out a plan, I've decided I must be out of my mind. I've committed to write 50,000 words in one month.

The two novels I actually completed took 8 and 13 months respectively. Granted they were both in the 100,000 word range, but still...

To hit the 50,000 word mark by November 30, I'll have to average 1,667 words a day. That's the equivalent of about 6 1/2 pages. As I step up to the plate, my internal naysayer is chattering away like a Little Leaguer in the outfield.

November is not only football season, it's freaking playoff season! My son's high school team finished their regular season 10-0 and has a strong chance of making it all the way to the state championship game. My husband's college team is 8-0 with two regular season games remaining and expects to make a deep run in the NAIA championship series.

These are not problems. In fact, November looks to be an exciting month for my family. I plan to carry my netbook around like an extra appendage.

I'll still be going to work every day. School is funny like that. They expect teachers to show up every day prepared to teach. And in about a week, I'm starting a novel with two of my classes that I haven't taught since I was a student teacher many moons ago. I've already done a ton of prep work for the unit, but daily lesson planning will still take time.

Honestly, this concerns me less than the football time suck. My NaNo plan already has the work day blocked out as non-writing time, and discussing a great book (To Kill a Mockingbird) with my kids gets the creative juices flowing and puts me in a writing frame of mind.

In spite of my ever-present internal naysayer, I'm excited about the challenge. I've got a rough plot outline I LOVE, characters I want to get to know better, and a world to create. I view NaNo as a kick in the butt to get me back on a regular writing schedule. The final product will be longer than 50,000 words, so I'm not stressed about finishing the whole thing. A solid start will be enough to knock me out of this slump.

My word count meter is over there on the right, so you can follow my progress and cheer me on. So...on your mark....get set...


Thursday, October 27, 2011

Lies of the Beautiful People

I run because it makes me feel strong. It keeps me sane.

As I've increased my distance, I've had to add songs to my running playlist. This isn't something I take lightly. Both the tempo and the tone have to be just right, and the song has to fit with the rest of the playlist. I recently added Sixx:A.M's "Lies of the Beautiful People."

The tempo is perfect. Jazzercise has conditioned me...right foot on the, too fast or too slow, and a song is counterproductive because it drives me crazy. The tone of "Lies" is perfect as well. I need motivation when I run. My songs all have an in-your-face quality to them. The guitar provides that in this song.

I ran to this song for the first time on Tuesday. I put it third on my playlist. By then, I have a comfortable pace going. I'm not tired yet, and my mind is either processing the day or chewing on a writing idea. I'm still breathing easy enough that I can sing, and I do. The song started with that driving guitar, my right foot landed perfectly on the downbeat, and I felt pure synchronicity. I sang because I felt good and because the chorus has a strong enough hook that you almost have to sing along.

I probably should have kept mentally chewing on the writing idea. The words to the song (which I knew, but hadn't thought too much about) pulled me almost completely out of my zone.

Here's the song if you want to take a minute to listen.

If you think real beauty's on the outside,
well that's a far cry from the truth.

I run because it makes me feel strong. It keeps me sane.

Running also keeps me from indulging my frustrations in fried food and chocolate. I'm losing weight. The jeans that thrilled my soul when I bought them last winter because they were a size smaller won't stay in place now without a belt. I'm so close to dropping another size, I can almost taste it.

Maybe all the information you received
You should not believe
There's no proof

My natural hair color is brown. I was a brunette until I was in my mid-twenties. I started dying it then because I wanted to see if blondes really had more fun. (I can only speak for myself, but I've had more fun as a blonde.) I still dye it because it hides the gray strands that would contrast too sharply with brown. And I like being blonde.

Save Yourself
From all the lies of the beautiful people

I'm religious about moisturizing my face, morning and night. I spring for expensive under-eye cream. I'm not ready for baggy eyes and crow's feet.

It's time to run
From all the lies of the beautiful people

I write romance. My heroines are strong, independent women, and while I don't focus too much on their physical appearance, it's easy to infer they are attractive. In my head they are anyway. My Raphael in Sapphire Sins was from the Italian Renaissance, and so I described him as the living incarnation of something Michelangelo would have sculpted.

And if you think real beauty's on the outside,
well that's a far cry from the truth.

I can rationalize. I'm rather good at it actually. Romance is about selling fantasy. You want to touch real life enough to sell it, but not close enough that the story is mundane. We're all pretty in our fantasies, right? Men are strong alpha males who respect our independence, defeat evil, and rock our worlds all at the same time. And they're not ugly.

Besides...the men I find sexy in real life aren't the living incarnation of something Michelangelo would have sculpted. Sexiness starts with intelligence. You can see it in a person's eyes, hear it in their wit. Sexiness lives in confidence. A man who knows who he is, even if strange or different, is sexy.

But we've got these ugly scars
On our infected hearts
Maybe it's time for a change

So yeah, I am working to be thinner. I will remain blonde for the foreseeable future and wrinkle-free for as long as possible. Saying anything else would be a lie. But I'm working on the inside too. The inside is where those years I'm hiding in my hair and on my face really live.

I have used those years to build relationships. I struggle daily to be a good mother to my boys. I never stop trying to improve as a teacher. I've taken on challenges that scare me, both as a teacher and a writer.

The driving guitar stops abruptly. Eminem shakes me out of my mental self-flagellation, admonishing me to keep running "Till I Collapse."

And I run because it makes me feel strong. And it keeps me sane.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Straight, but not Narrow

Happy Sunday! As content on the blog!

So what have I been doing with all this time I haven't been writing? Lounging on the couch eating bon-bons and watching soap operas? I'm not even sure what a bon-bon is, and I think all the old soaps my mom used to watch have been cancelled, so no, but I've found there are tons of things to do when you're avoiding something, and some of them are even worthwhile.

Our high school offers a wide variety of clubs...Youth Impact, Rocket Club, Spanish, German, French, and Japanese Clubs, Drama, Key Club, Young Democrats, Young Republicans, Chess Club, Art Explorers, Psychology Club, and the alphabet soup clubs, FFA, FCA, FCCLA, BETA, DECA, FBLA, FEA. There are more, but I honestly can't remember them all. Our school is even more accommodating in that we provide time during the school day once a month for these clubs to meet. Participation isn't limited to those who can stay after school and get a ride home.

The club list keeps growing because students are continually thinking of new ones to add, and as long as they can find a teacher to be the club sponsor, they're good to go. This year we added a Hantis club. (Yeah, I didn't know what Hantis was either until the club produced a promotional video. Imagine ping-pong on steroids.) A group of kids discovered it, rounded up a teacher-sponsor, and now play Hantis on club day.

Another group of kids wanted to form a club at the end of last year, but they had a more difficult time getting it off the ground. They wanted to create a local GSA, or Gay-Straight Alliance. The group was small at first. Pop culture messages notwithstanding, it's hard to be gay or even a vocal supporter of gay rights in high school.

The administration told them the same thing they tell every group of students who want to form a school-sanctioned club. Find a teacher willing to be your sponsor, and this is where they ran into trouble. Many teachers supported the idea, but for various and sundry reasons said no.

Some were simply too busy. Club sponsorship is one more demand on a teacher's time.

Some were too new. Regardless of how you feel about tenure, it does provide a measure of protection. Without it, a teacher can be dismissed without cause. I like to believe in the better angels of human nature and in the people I know to be of good character in our administration, but yeah, it's easier to believe in those things because I have tenure.

The group was unsuccessful in finding a willing teacher before school ended, but they were undaunted. Over the summer, they grew in number. They elected officers and determined to meet in the evenings at the public library if they couldn't find a sponsor. The leaders of the group are honors students taking AP classes and involved in a variety of other activities including band, chorus, drama, and sports. They even contacted the local newspaper.

Meanwhile, a couple of teachers who had declined sponsorship quietly sent the students in my direction. "Mrs. Owens has tenure and would probably be supportive of your cause." They came to see me the day the newspaper printed the article about their plight.

I didn't say yes immediately. I knew the club was a good thing. I knew the student leaders were exceptional kids. I also knew I was busy. I meet myself coming and going on a regular basis, but if I'm being honest, busy wasn't the reason I hesitated. I wasn't afraid for myself. I knew I might take some heat, but I'm a big girl. I have a good reputation as a teacher, support from administration, and yes, tenure. I can take the heat. I hesitated for 24 hours because my youngest son is still in high school. I wondered if he would have to take heat for my decision, if he could handle it, and if it was even fair for him to have to handle it.

In the end, I decided I wasn't doing my son or anyone else a favor by saying no when my conscience knew the only answer was yes. Studies vary on the suicide rate among gay teens, but most indicate that it is higher among gay teens than their straight peers. I don't need the statistics.

Darren Hall is not a statistic. He was my friend. We both played trumpet in our high school band, and we battled every year for first chair. He always won, and even with my psychotically competitive nature, I was okay with that. He was flat out better than me. He never rubbed it in though. In fact, he gave me helpful hints on how to improve.

We were in school plays together. He played my dad in our senior production of "The Rainmaker." He had to shake his finger at me, and it took everything both of us had to stay in character. Neither of us could take that pretend relationship seriously.

At 17, he totalled his Honda. I was sitting right next to him, straddling the gearshift because we had way too many people in that tiny car. His car was trashed, but his only concern was whether I was okay.

Our senior year, we went to prom together. We had a ball...way more fun than I had with the guy I was actually dating my sophomore and junior years. Darren and I were best friends.

We mostly ran with a whole pack of friends, but we went on "dates" sometimes too. The one kiss we shared ended with both of us laughing hysterically. It was so obviously wrong. We never used the word "gay." It was 1983, and coming out of the closet in our Kentucky town just wasn't done. I took a lot of heat off of him our senior year. Most people thought we were dating. I was fine with that. He was good-looking, smart, hilarious, and easy to be with. Heck, I wanted him to be straight. He would have been the perfect boyfriend.

His parents wanted him to be straight too. They were evangelical Christians. They viewed homosexuality as a burn-in-hell sin. Our last year in high school, I took the heat off with them. They loved me because they thought I had "fixed" Darren. I will never forgive them for believing that Darren needed to be fixed. He was one of the best people I have ever known, and I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that he did not choose to be gay.

Before we went off to different colleges, Darren and I made a pact. If we were both still single at 30, we'd get married. He was nervous about leaving. I had been a safety net in high school, and I think he imagined me being a safety net for the rest of his life. I wasn't, and our pact was never realized. I wasn't single when I reached 30, and Darren was dead. He put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger long before he reached that milestone.

Darren's upbringing and his own parents taught him that his very existence was an abomination. The love of his friends wasn't enough to overcome that message. Writing this many years later, I still feel the weight of that guilt.

I feel guilty that it took me 24 hours to say yes to the awesome kids in our school's GSA. I did say yes, though. We currently have almost 80 members and we're still growing. My kids have created a support network for their peers who are feeling alone and lost. They are planning an "It gets Better" video and a "Straight, but not Narrow" video. They have big plans for "Day of Silence" in the spring. And on top of all of that, they are giving back to the community. They are collecting cans for our school's big Thanksgiving food drive and have a Toys for Tots plan in the works.

I am proud of my kids, especially the brave few that stepped out on a limb and made this club happen by sheer force of will. I can't change the past. I can't bring Darren back. I can honor his memory by doing everything in my power to make kids see their value as human beings. If someone has a problem with that, I have three words.

Bring it on.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Evolution of an Idea and NaNoWriMo

Change has been on my mind a lot lately. Personal struggles in my life have dictated changes. You either change or you keep struggling. In the past six months, I've been a fan of change. Then, last week I discovered I was losing my boss to another school.

I was in turn, angry, sad, and a little scared. Anyone who's ever worked for an incompetent leader knows the value of a good one. My principal was a good one. I don't know who his replacement is yet. I can only hope it's another good one, but yeah, I'm a little scared.

His departure got me thinking. Maybe something's wrong with me. I've stayed in the same place and the same job for 13 years.

I don't feel stagnant. I have a different set of kids every year, and while I've essentially taught the same pieces of literature, I've changed it up with new approaches. And every single year, without fail, a kid has said something in class that makes me step back, blink, and think, "Damn, I've never thought about it that way."

Those moments make me realize that yes, some changes are necessary, but others would not only be counterproductive, but just plain wrong. I'm a teacher. It's not merely a label describing how I make my living. It's who I am as a human being, an unalterable link in the chain of my DNA.

So change, or the lack thereof, has been on my mind. I sat down Thursday thinking I wanted to write a short story about change. Broad, I know, and honestly, isn't EVERY story about change? So maybe my story was going to be about resisting necessary know, the kind that addresses those personal struggles I mentioned earlier.

You don't hook readers with a theme. You hook them with a good story. I needed characters. I needed conflict. I needed a story.

One of my favorite places to go for ideas is a list of famous quotations. You can search by theme or topic. I searched "change." This jumped off the page.

He who rejects change is the architect of decay. The only human institution which rejects change is the cemetery. ~Harold Wilson

Yes! My story would be set in a cemetery.

One of the changes I've made recently in response to my personal struggles is running. Ironic really, since an utter distaste for running in high school threatened my PE grade and subsequently, my GPA. In middle age, I've found solace, mental health, and the confidence to handle a myriad of problems in running. Some evenings, I literally run until the day's frustration is gone.

My protagonist is running in a cemetery. She does this regularly. At night.

Who runs in a graveyard at night? I needed to write to discover the answer to that question, so I opened a new Word document. My pulse always speeds up when I have the seed of an idea and a blank page. New and exciting...anything is possible.

This is what I wrote:

The hair stood up on the back of Heather's neck as she jogged through a pocket of cold air. Running through the cemetery made her feel like a horror movie bimbo. All she needed was high heels and a poorly-timed ankle twist, and the zombies would descend on her for a midnight snack of brains and girl flesh.

Right on cue, a melodious voice broke the silence of the dead.

"High heels would be a nice change of pace. I've grown bored with your
Nikes and t-shirt du jour."

Heather maintained a steady rhythm. "Zombies would be a nice change of

"You've never met a real zombie. They're an unruly lot."


I wrote three more pages without stopping. I finally did stop because while I had a fun scene going, I needed to think about what happened next. I discover my characters by actually writing them, but I don't plot well that way. I end up following dead ends. I have a folder full of unfinished manuscripts as a testament to that approach.

As I sketched out a plot, I realized I wasn't planning a short story. It was going to be longer than that. Okay...

My mind wandered back to the aforementioned folder of unfinished manuscripts, some of them 15,000 words or more. I have not finished a manuscript since my agent went out of the agent business and said, "You have a good book. Sorry I couldn't place it with the right publisher."

That was the precipitating event, but I'm not blaming him. I'm the one who slumped.

It's time to get unslumped. I'm going to run with my new idea as part of NaNoWriMo in November. Honestly, I'm starting now, and I don't expect to be finished by the end of November. I have work and family responsibilities that preclude the daily word count necessary to do that. HOWEVER, I am using NaNo to hold me responsible for sitting down and getting words on the page.

As part of holding my writer self accountable, I'm also getting regular content back up on the blog. Nowhere is my slump more evident than in the long gaps between posts. I pledge to you faithful blog reader who cared enough to read this far, I will post a minimum of once a week. I hope to do more than that, but I have to start with an achievable goal.

This is the NaNoWriMo badge that I will be posting to the blog, along with a word count widget.

I'm taking a big, deep breath. A journey of 1000 miles starts with the first step.